1941 Willie Sutton Prison Escape Head & Hand

Value (2017) | $2,500 Auction$3,500 Auction
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APPRAISER:
You brought in this wonderful, mysterious box.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
And, I know everyone's been asking at the table, all I wanted to say was, "What's in the box?" And if you could hold that for a moment. Now inside the box we found this wonderful plaster head with human hair, human eyelashes, and a strangely realistic human hand. What can you tell us about the contents of the box?

GUEST:
I don't know if anyone has heard of Willie Sutton. He was a famous bank robber, well-known bank robber. He was also well known for breaking out of prisons. This was his, that he used in an attempted breakout. He had made this himself, in prison.

APPRAISER:
He reportedly robbed over 100 banks. He had escaped successfully from prison three times, and this is a dummy head and dummy hand that he used in an unsuccessful escape from prison.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
Well... and the prison was run by your grandfather.

GUEST:
Yes. After he was released from the Eastern Penitentiary, they sent it up to the Camp Hill Prison, where my grandfather was located, and then he simply kept it upon his retirement, since Willie had been released long since.

APPRAISER:
Now, reportedly, what Sutton had done, was over the course of several months-- possibly even years-- he made this false head, using hair from the barbershop-- and it is actually real human hair, same with the eyelashes. We have no idea where he got the pigments.

GUEST:
Right.

APPRAISER:
Where do you find paint in prison? You just can't go to the store and get-- color with toothpaste and pink.

GUEST:
Yeah, but they're very creative. I'm sure they mixed things and made things up and everything. You know, as far as the plaster, I heard he went to the dentist a lot.

APPRAISER:
(laughing) He fashioned this wonderful head, left it in his bed, left the hand clutching a corner of the bedsheet. Do you know what happened that night when he tried to escape?

GUEST:
Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, two other inmates in another area of the prison also attempted to escape at that point, at about the same time. And that set off all the bells and whistles and alarms. He ran back to his cell.

APPRAISER:
This escape attempt was in August of 1941.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
And it was just a few years later, when he then managed to finally escape, for several years. And in 1950, he was actually the 11th person to be added to the FBI's most wanted list. Willie Sutton was also known for a wonderful, wonderful quote. Reportedly, he was asked once why he robbed banks. And he was reported to have said, "Well, because that's where the money is." Well, later in life, he vehemently denied ever saying it. But he said it sounded good, and said it sounded like something he would say. And he titled his autobiography "Where the Money Was" and talked about how he never, ever said that.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
I mean, this is such a wonderful, wonderful piece, and doing the research on it, there's not a lot of information. Most of the escape tools, props and things like that, that were used by prisoners to help them escape, are owned by prisons or in prison museums. So not a lot of these come up for auction. And we almost never see anything so prominent, and, frankly, so well done. I mean this is a master work. But without the box, and the provenance of the label on the box, it's just a creepy plaster head. But if you look at pictures of Willie Sutton, it looks just like him.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
It is amazingly well done. And after conferring with my colleagues, we are able to give it a very conservative auction estimate of $2,500 or $3,500.

GUEST:
Wow, that's nice. That's very nice. That's surprising.

APPRAISER:
As far as I know, this is the first head in a box we've had on ROADSHOW. (laughs)

Appraisal Details

Appraiser
Coronado Trading Co.
Appraised value (2017)
$2,500 Auction$3,500 Auction
Event
Harrisburg, PA (June 03, 2017)
Period
1940s

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