Richard Honeck (1879-1976), an American murderer, served what was most likely, at the time, the longest gaol sentence ever to terminate in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.
My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky’s incomparable The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune - the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour’s work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of a modern tabloid – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.
Honeck, a telegraph operator and son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 22 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899).
Koeller, who was later found by the police sitting in a chair stabbed in the back, had testified for the prosecution some years earlier when Honeck and Hundhausen were charged with setting a number of fires in their home town, Hermann, Missouri (New York Times, 5 September 1899). According to a confession made by Hundhausen, the two men had sworn revenge and had planned Koeller’s murder in considerable detail. Honeck, Hundhausen said, had stabbed the dead man with the eight inch bowie knife (Ibid and Chicago Tribune, 5 September, 22+25 October, 5 November 1899).
It was left to a latter-day Associated Press reporter, the memorably-named Bob Poos, to shine a spotlight on Honeck’s case in 1963 after seeing a reference to it in the Menard prison newspaper. Poos noted that after his initial article was published in the papers, the aged murderer received a mailbag of 2,000 letters, including a proposal of marriage from a woman in Germany, offers of employment, and gifts of money in sums ranging from $5 down to 25 cents. Honeck, who was permitted under prison rules to answer one letter per week, observed: “It’ll take a long time to deal with these.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August and 27 October 1963)
Honeck spent the first years of his sentence in Joliet Prison, where in 1912 he stabbed the assistant warden with a hand-crafted knife. He served 28 days in solitary confinement for that infraction, but had a clean record after moving to Menard, where he worked for 35 years in the prison bakery. “I guess I’d have to be pretty careful if I got paroled,” the old lag concluded when interviewed by Poos. “There must be an awful lot of traffic now, and people, compared with what I remember.” (Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1963).
[Updates (July 2010 and August 2010)]: My thanks to a reader who points out that Honeck’s death was reported by the St Petersburg Times for 30 December 1976. He had gone to live in Oregon with a niece, Mrs Clara Orth, after his release, and spent the last five years of his long life in a nursing home in that fair state.
Further articles concerning the Honeck case have been appearing online since I first wrote; the pair of mugshots above, showing Honeck at the start and the end of his incredible sentence, come from a clipping published in the Park City Daily News, 20 December 1963. In this clipping, Bob Poos follows up his original reports on the case and describes the 84-year-old, just-released murderer as “sprightly” and – in passages that perhaps smell slightly of reporters’ prose – delighting in the marvels of the modern world. “The old man,” Poos wrote, “was visibly amazed at the progress that had passed him by while he sat behind prison bars. During the car trip from Chester to St Louis [where he caught a plane to San Francisco to meet his niece], Honeck said, ‘Why, we must be going 35 miles an hour.’ The driver, Warden Ross Randolph, answered, ‘Actually, Richard, we’re going 65.’ Later, on the jet, Honeck remarked, ‘I travelled faster in that car today than I ever had in my life, and now we’re going almost 10 times that fast – and six miles up in the air, too.’”
Clara Orth – the daughter of Honeck’s sister, seen above left showing her uncle a scrapbook filled with clippings about him – was profiled, too, in a wire report published in somewhat different versions by the St Petersburg Evening Independent of 27 December 1963 and the Tuscaloosa News of 1 January 1964. She had quit her job to care for Honeck, it was reported, and sold her one-bedroom trailer home and bought another trailer with two bedrooms for them. Orth had some family memories to recount as well. Her mother had died a couple of years after Honeck went to jail, and her widowed father sent her to Hermann to live with her grandfather, Honeck’s father, and an aunt. In six years in Missouri, Orth recalled, “Uncle Richard’s father and sister never once mentioned him.”
Interviewed again at the time of Honeck’s death, Orth said that her uncle had slowly become senile and had to be placed in care. “He wasn’t bitter,” she added. “He decided long ago that if he had to be in prison that he would make the best of it. Since he got out he’s had a glorious time.”
[Afterword (29 August 2010):] Further research suggests that while the sentence served by Richard Honeck probably was unique in its day, his unwelcome record has since been exceeded in at least two known cases in the US alone.
Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911, served 68 years and 245 days in various New York state prisons. He was released on May 7, 1980, at the age of 86. Geidel’s case differed from Honeck’s in two key respects. Firstly, he was initially sentenced not to life imprisonment but to twenty years to life, but later declared insane, being incarcerated not in a prison but in a hospital for the criminally insane. Secondly, Geidel was offered parole at an earlier date than was Honeck – in 1974, when he had served only 62 years. Geidel had become institutionalized and declined release, voluntarily choosing to remain confined for an additional six years.
William Heirens, the “Lipstick Killer,” confessed to three murders in the aftermath of World War II, and was convicted, sentenced to three life terms, and sent to prison on 5 September 1946. He exceeded Honeck’s record of time served in August 2010 dying, still incarcerated, on 5 March 2012. Heirens – who was born in 1928 – would have had to live until 9 May 2015 to beat the record set by Geidel.
Richard Honeck was the subject of significant press interest at the time of his parole. Below is a gallery of press photos released at that time. Click on any image to view it in higher resolution.
[Afterword (8 April 2012):] Also worthy of note is the case of two imprisoned Black Panthers, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, who when their case was noted by the BBC, had spent 40 years in solitary confinement for the murder of a prison guard named Brent Miller in 1972. Both men – originally jailed for armed robbery – say that they joined the Panthers in an attempt to improve the appalling conditions in Louisiana State Penitentiary; aside from a brief spell in 2008 spent in a high security dormitory, they have spent 23 hours a day locked up alone for the whole of that time. They protest their innocence.
[Afterword (31 December 2012):] As noted below by commenters Edward Stengel and David Frigault, the current consensus seems to be that – if Geidel is excluded – the unwelcome record for the longest prison sentence served that ultimately ended in release is held by Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (probably February 1886-18 May 1987), of Jefferson County, Kentucky. He was convicted of second degree murder in 1908 and eventually paroled from Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City in 1974, having served 66 years, four months and one day (24,228 days, allowing for leap years) of his life sentence. Grigsby had been 56 years into that stretch at the time that Honeck was paroled, and was 89 when he was freed. His sole possessions at that time were a well-thumbed Bible, three old watches, a bottle of foot spray, and a packet of tobacco.
Grigsby entered the pen as prisoner 4045 on 8 August 1908 – have travelled cross-country for several days in a horse and cart to get there – and was freed on 9 December 1974. He had been convicted of knifing one James Brown to death in a saloon in Anderson, IL, on 3 December 1907.
The fight broke out over a game of five card stud poker. As Grigsby remembered it, “I never should have been sentenced to [serve a term for] natural life because that murder was more suicide than murder… I was in this saloon, just mindin’ my business, and this fellow comes up to me. I always wore a big diamond in them days. And he seen that diamond. Come up and said, ‘Wanna play some cards?’
“I had an ace, king, jack and deuce in my hand when he stood up and came at me. I had this little deerfoot knife that I pulled out and just cut him on the shoulder. He was bleeding, but so drunk he wouldn’t see a doctor… Stayed at the bar like a crazy man or something ‘stead of gettin’ to a hospital. He was a fool, is what he was… Just kept saying, ‘I don’t need no help.’ We even got a doctor to his house, but he went to bed and didn’t want no doctor.”
The victim, who was white, was found lying dead on his blood-soaked mattress the next morning, Grigsby added, and the sheriff who arrested him told him: “You couldn’t have picked a better one there, Van Dyke. He was a mean S.O.B.” In this telling of the story, Grigsby owed his sentence mostly to the machinations of a prosecutor who was running for the senate and wanted to look tough on crime; as he saw it, he had the last laugh, because although the DA who convicted him won the election, he was “dead in a year.”
At other times, however, Grigsby – who was the son of freed slaves – said that things had gone down rather differently. Brown had had a knife, he told the Kokomo Tribune, and he had grabbed it from him during their fight; on another occasion, probably more accurately, he admitted that after the row erupted over the card table, he left the saloon and visited a pawn shop to redeem a knife that he had pledged there – thus establishing the premeditation necessary to justify a life sentence.
Research suggests that elements of all these various accounts combine to form the truth. Genealogist Reginald Pitts, who looked into the story and read the original sources, tells it this way: “According to the transcript of the trial, Mr Brown and Van were playing poker and started fighting. Curses and racial slurs were uttered, and Mr Brown pulled a knife on Van. Van left the bar, went home and got his own knife. Mr. Brown saw Van coming up the street back to the bar. He picked up a chair and threw it at Van, who dodged it, and then lunged at Mr Brown with his knife and stabbed him to death. Supposedly, the lawyer told Van to plead guilty to second degree murder in order to escape the electric chair.”
Grigsby seems to have been a model prisoner in the mould of the post-Joliet Richard Honeck. His main pass-times were reading the Bible (two of his three brothers were country preachers), an encyclopaedia and a dictionary. “That encyclopedia is an amazing book,” he said. “I read the whole thing from A to Z.” His other interest was boxing, and he reminisced frequently about the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries heavyweight title bout of 1910, although that had taken place a couple of years after he was imprisoned.
Like Paul Geidel, Grigsby became institutionalised during his long confinement, and spent a large part of his sentence under psychiatric observation – one source says nearly 50 years of it, another puts the time at 55 years. He found it difficult to adjust to freedom once it had been granted to him and he was sent to live in Woodview nursing home in Michigan City, where he kept mostly to himself and was described by staff as “moody” and friendless. He returned voluntarily to prison in 1976 after 17 months on the outside – a move he told one reporter he regretted – after complaining that life in his home was boring and that he had expected to be found a job “like being a porter in a barber shop… I could have done that, but there was no job. It was like being useless.”
The old-timer was put up in the prison hospital because guards felt that, at 90 years old, he would struggle in the hurly-burly of the chow line, and served a further several months there. His parole officer, John Rascka, said that Grigsby was a loner who preferred incarceration in the maximum security facility because it was all he knew and he was treated well. Most sources agree that he retained considerable vitality well into his 90s, maintaining physical fitness by dancing a “stiff-legged dance” of his own invention. He was “alert and reality-oriented”, the Bryan Times reported; added Jet: “He receives more attention than most inmates. The staff like him. He tells fabulous stories and they get a kick out of it.” Said one: “Van Dyke is just the sweetest old man, but he will use the ‘French language’ now and then.” And late in November of ’76, Grigsby left prison again, by now aged 91 and this time apparently for good. “I’ve been here too long. I’ll not be back,” he said as he was taken to the Marion County Home in Indianapolis. “I feel like I’ve been born again.”
Speaking in 1976, the old-timer said he had made 33 unsuccessful attempts to gain parole before finally being released. He added that he thought his sentence was cruel and sometimes wished the judge had sentenced him to hang, but added: “I’ve put all my trust in God. There’s got to be a meaning for this.”
Grigsby’s celebrity was such that Johnny Cash wrote a song about him entitled Michigan City, Howdy Do and presented him with a colour television. Van Dyke’s last take on the justice system he was so intimately familiar with was: “Nobody likes it in prison. They make it as good as possible. Prison life is not really that bad. But nobody really wants to be here.” And his view of human nature was that little had changed in the course of his long stretch: “The people are the same. Just gettin’ you in trouble and all kinds of foolishness. Always gettin’ you in trouble. I keep to myself and don’t pay ‘em no attention. Read my Bible. Why, that’s exactly what I do.”
The old man’s one other hobby, during his time in prison, was collecting keys – a habit that he kept up in his nursing home, and which Ebony journalist Hamilton J. Bims thought was significant: “The keys may be signs of his lingering conviction that he is still a kind of prisoner.” Ebony, Dec 1975; St Petersburg [FL] Evening Independent, 9 Sep 1976; Jet, 16 Sep 1975 + 6 Jan 1977; Bryan Times, 9 Aug 1976; Beaver County Times [PA], 25 Nov 1976; Kokomo Tribune, 28 Nov 1979.]
[Summary (31 December 2012 & 17 March 2013):] Based on all the above, therefore, plus recent data on current inmates in US prisons released via freedom of information requests, and material in the comments below, the time served ranking looks like this, with a § denoting a prisoner who survived to be released, and figures based on the date of final release, whether or not parole was offered at an earlier date, and irrespective of whether the prisoner was held in a prison or a secure hospital; Howard Unruh, for example, never stood trial at all, having been diagnosed – controversially – with dementia praecox. In Unruh’s case, these proceedings reportedly took two months, so I have taken 6 November 1949 as the date of the start of his “sentence”.
As of March 2013 I have also added data on prisoners who remain incarcerated, denoted †. Readers will need to recalculate the time served in these cases by adding in time elapsed since this date.
The listing is probably incomplete; furthermore, since, as David Frigault points out below, there are currently 50,000 prisoners in the US serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, a sentence introduced in many states in the 1970s, it seems inevitable that these records will eventually be beaten. Indeed, if Francis Clifford Smith of Connecticut, handed a sentence of life without parole for murder on 7 June 1950 and currently 87 years old and the longest-serving inmate in the US prison system, survives, Paul Geidel’s unwelcome milestone could be passed as early as 24 February 2018.