Visalia’s Most Famous Jail Break
Jail escapes in the old west were not uncommon. Poor jail construction, inadequate staffing, sloppy visitor screening, and lax security in general combined to make many of the old prisons leak like sieves.
Visalia’s lockups were no exception, especially the Tulare County jail built in 1890 at a bargain price of $30,000. When the Italian style building was finished, it was described locally as “architecturally perfect,” and it was called a model for jails all over the coast. But after a year, this architectural dream turned into a community nightmare when Grattan Dalton, one of Visalia’s most famous prisoners, made his escape. After his departure, James Hume, well-known and respected lawman and Wells, Fargo & Co. detective, examined the jail and said, “Why I have been in every jail on the coast and am familiar with all of them. I have been acquainted with jails the great part of my life, and I do not hesitate to pronounce the Visalia jail the worst constructed one I ever saw.”
Grat, born in 1861, was one of 15 children born to Lewis and Adeline Dalton. The family lived in Belton, Missouri and later moved to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. According to one of his brothers, when Grat was 16, he was an experienced fighter and “had whipped every boy his age…nobody much liked him, but everybody was afraid of him.”
Grat would make occasional trips to California to visit a brother living near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. By January 1880, Grat had made California his home and ended up in the San Joaquin Valley. The move to the golden state did not mellow him at all. One brother described Grat as the worst of his siblings, adding that if he could not “win in a poker game, he would start a quarrel, grab stakes, including most of the money in sight, kick over the table, and start a fight.” By 1888, Grat had fought in saloons all over the San Joaquin Valley, and soon more serious crimes would follow.
On February 6, 1891, a Southern Pacific train left Alilia (now Earlimart) heading south. Two masked men boarded the train, and with cocked pistols, forced the engineer to stop the train about half-mile south of the town. The messenger in the express car refused to open the door, which started a gun battle. In the shootout, the fireman on the train was mortally wounded. The two would-be robbers fled the scene empty handed, except for the blood on their hands.
Tulare County Sheriff Eugene Kay and his posse pursued them, and eventually, Grat and William Dalton, his brother, were implicated in the crime, arrested, and lodged in the Tulare County Jail. Grat went to trial and was found guilty of involvement in the attempted Alila train robbery. William was luckier than his brother. The jury, in a separate trial, found him not guilty.
Even though he was found guilty, Grat proclaimed his innocence and while in jail awaiting sentence, he told the guards he would not be going to state prison. Sheriff Kay, obviously concerned about Grat’s intentions, increased the guard. In September 1891, the sheriff received a credible threat to break Grat out of jail. Sheriff Kay telegraphed California Governor Henry Markham asking for National Guard assistance in protecting the exterior of the jail. The governor never responded, so the sheriff personally asked the local National Guard commander for help. Several members volunteered as individuals, not guardsmen, for perimeter security. The assault on the jail never materialized.
Grat seemed to like all the attention he was getting and continued to let it be known that he would be escaping from the Tulare County Jail. This bold and belligerent attitude continued to intimidate the authorities. Was this baseless bravado, or did the outlaw have a plan?
On the evening of Sept. 27, 1891, the answer came. Undetected for several days, he and other inmates had sawed away bars while other prisoners sang loudly to muffle the noise. Under the cover of darkness, Grat and two other inmates, William Smith and John Beck, slipped out. The fugitives stole a nearby horse and buggy and fled. The investigation determined a hacksaw blade had been smuggled into the jail, and on the outside wall, a ladder had been strategically placed, as had a Winchester rifle and ammunition.
After the Dalton escape, the county jail suffered serious humiliation. Criticisms of it and Sheriff Kay were openly talked about. In response to the complaints, on Oct. 29, 1891, the Tulare County Times wrote, “That the present construction of our jail calls for a much needed change there is no doubt, and if some of our county friends will only bestow a little more attention to this important matter, and less injustifiable [sic] criticism on Sheriff Kay and his officials, the general public shall be considerably benefited thereby.”
Sheriff Kay and his posse began the search for the men and both Smith and Beck were captured. Grat remained illusive. In December 1891, Sheriff Kay and Fresno Sheriff John Hensley received word that Grat was camped in the mountains north of Visalia. They had a brief gun battle with Dalton, but again, he got away. The mountain where the shootout occurred became known as Dalton Mountain, and still is today.
Grat made his way to Oklahoma where he, some of his brothers, and other confederates practiced their outlaw trade. On Oct. 5, 1892, Grat and the gang attempted to rob two Coffeeville, Kansas banks at the same time. Grat and other gang members were shot to death by the townsfolk. Grat’s lucky streak had run out.
The Visalia Daily Morning Delta reported on the ferocious gunfight, “…yesterday’s battle in Kansas, although the loss among its [Coffeeville’s] citizens was heavy, accomplished a good work in removing these desperadoes from the earth.”
The much-aligned Tulare County jail building was torn down in 1917, just 27 years after it was built. It was soon replaced by the jail building that currently houses Jack & Charlie’s restaurant on Oak and Church streets.