There have been numbers of escape attempts before this one. In 1891, convicts seized a supply train that regularly came into the prison to deliver clay to the brick yard. They captured Warden John McClees and held him at knife-point. McClees did not give in to their demands to open the gate but instead yelled at a man on the wall to shoot. Turnkey Phil Berry quickly fired at the inmates holding the warden, and shot the two leaders of the riot. Another escape attempt in 1933 resulted in the death of inmate Donald Collins. He and three friends attempted to escape over the prison wall after cutting through the wall of a vegetable cellar. Collins was shot down by a guard while scaling the prison wall.
On the morning of February 12, 1934, Officers Floyd Jackson and H. M. Williams were standing in an office when inmates Frank Butler and James R. DeLong entered. DeLong pulled a knife and held it on Williams. Some other inmates joined DeLong in the office. DeLong said, "Sorry to do this, but we’re doing too much time."
Turnkey Tom S. Hubbard walked in and wrenched a knife away from one of the convicts. But then more inmates entered the office, grabbed Hubbard, and stabbed him several times. An inmate wound a wire around Jackson’s neck. Then they forced Jackson down the hall to a nearby cell. He unlocked it and the inmates pushed him in.
A few minutes later Warden J. M. McCauley called the office. The inmates took Jackson to the office to answer the call and warned him not to say anything. Jackson was able to relay the danger by inflections in his voice that the inmates did not notice.
After the call, the inmates lined up Jackson, Williams, Hubbard, William H. Truman, H. L. Briggs, and Chief Engineer S. B. Bowen and bound their wrists with wire. They forced Truman and Bowen to lead them outside into the yard, using the other four guards as shields.
In the meantime, Warden McCauley assembled a team. The tone of Jackson’s voice told him that everything was not "all right." He put Captain J. F. Gemmell in charge of the detachment on the wall.
As the inmates led the captured men toward the southwest gate, other guards hurried along the top of the wall to meet them. On the way, one inmate fatally stabbed Briggs and wounded Williams in the leg. Officer Ballou was nearly strangled, but he survived. When the wall guards saw this, they ordered the convicts to get down on the ground. They refused, and the guards fired.
A moment earlier, convict Phillip Wallace had taken Williams’ gold-braided cap and placed it on his head. This fact may have saved his life, as guards on the wall overhead must have thought he was also a guard. He was able to run inside a building, while his comrades fell.
The first volley took down H. R. Clark, serving 10 to 20 years for killing a man in Walla Walla. Six escapees died instantly and several others were wounded. The noise of the shots attracted other inmates to the doors of the nearby shops. They saw what was happening and started to run outside toward the gate. Guards fired submachineguns over their heads and they retreated back inside.
The five injured men lay where they fell while guards attempted to get the situation under control. The guards encountered three men, whom they forced to get down on their knees and throw away their knives. These three were Ross E. Chapin, Thomas J. Woods, and Frank Butler, who had helped organize the escape attempt.
Officers rounded up the uninjured inmates and marched them back to their cells. The warden placed the entire prison on "lock down" while he investigated what happened. This meant that no one was allowed to leave their cells, except for meals.
When there is trouble at the penitentiary, an alarm sounds to the outside. On this occasion, the Walla Walla sheriff’s office and Walla Walla city police dispatched units to the prison. Company F of the Washington National Guard was also mobilized. Captain Fred Roecker had his men on site within a half hour. Fortunately, their assistance was not needed, but Captain Roecker kept his unit on alert status at the armory just in case there was another outbreak.
Killed on the scene were inmates Wallace Turcott, attempted robbery; Paul Krouse, robbery; H. R. Clark, second-degree murder; Gerald Hill, grand larceny; James R. DeLong, robbery; Ernest De Boer, robbery; and Herscholl Robert Parks, statutory offense, as well as officer H. L. Briggs.
Several staff members were injured in the altercation including H. M. Williams, Malcolm H. Burnett, Tom S. Hubbard, Frank L. Geitzen, A. W. Ballou, and George Binder. Inmates Edwin Alonso Ware, Robert Bain, Leo Lynch, and Lawrence Colton were also injured. Ware later died of his wounds.
Wounded officers were taken to St. Mary’s hospital. Turnkeys escorted the wounded convicts to the prison hospital. Four women and a child had been visiting in a cell block when the inmates walked by with their captives. One inmate wanted to take the women captive too, but Chief Engineer Bowen pleaded with the inmates to leave them alone, as they were convicts' wives. Instead of taking them hostage, the inmates locked them in an office.
Warden McCauley investigated the prison break. He found no evidence that the riot stemmed from a protest over bad food or any other issue related to treatment. He interviewed F. J. Evans, chief steward at the prison, who noted that inmates received at least one serving of meat per day and sometimes more.
He talked to several inmates and initial findings indicated that the riot was not preplanned, but simply a result of several men suddenly deciding they had too much time to serve. He discovered that the men had fashioned knives in the license plate shop. There was also a sap made from leather and loaded with nails, and a marlin spike used in doing work with knotted cords. The inmates had buried their weapons in the prison yard. On Sunday, the day before the riot, they dug up the weapons during "yard time."
Inmate Phillip Wallace led the attempted prison break. DeLong and Butler also helped organized the escape, according to Officer Williams, who overheard conversations. Butler and another inmate, Carl Brehan, were DeLong’s cohorts in the robbery they had committed in Tacoma in 1933. Brehan was in solitary confinement at the time of the riot.
Accordingly to McCauley, one convict was supposed to escort a guard across to the yard to the door that led to the administration building. When the officer inside opened the door, he would see only one guard and one inmate and not think anything of it. As soon as he stepped aside to let them pass, the guard was to be rushed by a larger group of inmates. Once inside the administration building, they would have access to the outside. They had taken Truman’s keys and would have used his vehicle as a getaway car. However, they lost valuable time talking things over. The warden was alerted to the plot by the quick thinking of Jackson.
The Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney charged six convicts with murder with a sharp instrument. They were Colton, Woods, Wallace, Bain, Butler, and Lynch. All but Bain were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor.