Tunnel Joe: A Baltimore prison escape true legend

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Joseph “Tunnel Joe” Holmes
1910 – 1973

“Tunnel Joe” became a folk hero in Baltimore. He represented a sad and interesting story of a man who lived a life of crime.  

In 1949, at the age of 39, Joe Holmes was in the 6th year of a 20-year sentence for burglary at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.

Because he had a fear of an emotional breakdown, he started to make plans to escape. He needed money to make good his escape plans and made $152 by taking bets on the numbers with fellow prisoners. He averaged less than $1.00 per day.

Joe Holmes’ plan was to dig a tunnel to freedom outside of the prison. He worked for 20 months to chip through the slate flooring and then 10 inches of concrete to dig a 70-foot-long tunnel to reach outside of the prison. He disposed of the dirt and debris from his excavation by flushing them down the toilet in his cell. 

Tunnel Joe’s route to a short-lived freedom

Tunnel Joe’s route to a short-lived freedom

When the tunnel was complete, Tunnel Joe gathered his clothing and and crawled to freedom. He emerged still within the prison grounds a short distance to the exterior wall. Shortly, Joe was on his way to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

His stay in Philadelphia was a short one. He could not find a job, because he did not have a Social Security number. He soon ran out of the money. (Joe Holmes did not know, at that time, that he could walk into a Social Security office to register and receive a Social Security number.) 

Tunnel Joe returned to Baltimore and stayed at a YMCA several blocks from the penitentiary. After less than 24 hours in Baltimore, Holmes held Mary Ruiz, 64 years old, at gun point and robbed her of $5.00. The police were alerted and soon saw a man matching the description of the robber. 

Patrolman Plunkett stopped the suspect and immediately had a revolver stuck in his stomach. Holmes pulled the trigger twice and the gun did not fire. Holmes got away from the patrolman and ran. Several other police officers took chase and it turned into a running gun battle. The exhausted Tunnel Joe was finally captured by Officer Downes in a bowling alley near Howard Street.

During his short period of freedom, he had returned to an area close to the institution from which he had escaped. The crime he committed guaranteed his return to the Maryland Penitentiary.  

Holmes was returned to the Maryland Penitentiary to complete his sentence and additional time for his escape and attempted murder of a police officer. 

Tunnel Joe was released on parole on November 1, 1970 to live with his sister on Edmonson Avenue. He had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed while in prison. Joseph “Tunnel Joe” Holmes passed away on April 25, 1973. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Baltimore’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Bibliography and read more:

“Tunnel Joe” is Captured Downtown
Baltimore Sun, March 4, 1951

“Tunnel Joe” Out Again – On Parole
Baltimore Sun, November 2, 1970

“Tunnel Joe” Made History in His Escape: “Tunnel Joe” Dies
Baltimore Afro-American,
April 28, 1973

The Great Escape of "Tunnel Joe" Holmes by Wallace Shugg
Maryland Historical Magazine, VOL. 92, NO. 4 (WINTER 1997)