On a cool June evening in 1962, Robert Payne claimed he’d swallowed a razor blade. Payne was a convict at Western Penitentiary at the time, so he was taken to the prison infirmary, where an x-ray revealed his lie. As he was being led back to his cell block, Payne broke away from a guard and scampered up an 80-foot water tower on the prison grounds.
He stayed there all night. The next day, Payne looked down and saw a group of boys playing baseball outside the prison walls. Go get “newsmen,” he yelled to them.
Reporters converged on the prison gate. Prison officials wouldn’t let them in. But these were resourceful reporters. They scrambled up to the third floor rooms of houses adjacent to the prison to get a view of the tower. Payne was then just 50 yards away.
“Tell us your story,” one reporter called out. Payne, 28, said he was serving time for armed robbery and was unhappy with conditions in the “hole,” a cell block where “incorrigible” prisoners were sent. Payne had spent a lot of time in the hole.
“I’m not coming down until there’s a full investigation of the conditions here,” he yelled.
This guy Payne was a real troublemaker, the warden said.
The next day, 12 more prisoners rushed passed guards and climbed the tower to join Payne. Fellow prisoners in the recreation yard hollered encouragement to them.
Prison officials figured the best thing to do was wait. It was easy to keep an eye on convicts lounging on a catwalk eight-stories high. Said one prison boss, “There is no place for them to go but down.”
Within a day, conditions on the tower got nasty. Temperatures reached into the 90s. Hunger became a problem. The protesters had brought with them only a few scraps of food they’d stuffed in their pockets. Prison authorities drained the tank of water.
“There’s some trouble up here,” Payne shouted out. “The guys are beginning to argue among themselves.”
Prisoners scrawled messages on the water tank. “Help, Public!” read one.
“Hello, can anybody hear us?” one prisoner called out. “We have used up the last of our candy bars.”
For reporters and photographers, covering the standoff was a grand adventure. Pittsburgh Press photographer Howard Moyer took pictures of the tower from a helicopter, then instructed the pilot to fly over the Press building. Moyer dropped his film on the roof so his pictures would make deadline.
Most newsmen watched the protest from the roof of an abandoned warehouse near the prison. When they got hungry, newsmen tied a rope to a basket and lowered their food requests to neighborhood youngsters waiting on the street below. Local restaurants filled orders such as “22 hamburgers and eight quarts of milk.”
Two prisoners cracked after only 24 hours on the tower. One groped his way down “like a first-day construction worker with acrophobia,” noted The Pittsburgh Press.
Day by day, other prisoners gave up. After nearly a week, only three remained. That’s when Payne called it quits.
The last holdout was Charles Miller, a murderer serving a life sentence. Alone on the catwalk, he made a bed out of clothing left by the other prisoners and calmly laid down.
On the seventh day, rain fell on the prison yard. Miller scampered off the tower. The rain, he said, gave him the chills.
The warden promised inmates would have a chance to air their grievances. He also vowed to move the water tower outside the prison grounds.