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Mysteries at the museum: Prison art by killer ‘Gypsy Bob’

Courtesy Photos Arthur “Gypsy Bob” Harper painted these canoe paddles while imprisoned for murder at Marquette Branch Prison. The paddles are now at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan.

Two miniature canoe paddles rest on shelves at the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. Though small, they tell a big story about folk art, prison and murder. They were painted by “Gypsy Bob,” bank robber, gangster and serial killer, to be sold to tourists at Marquette Branch Prison.

Arthur “Gypsy Bob” Harper, whose criminal career was laced with murder and mayhem, was finally sent to prison for life in 1921. However, his criminal activities didn’t end there. Records show he led at least one riot, fatally stabbed a fellow inmate, and made one escape, hijacking a car and its driver in the process.

The worst of his prison misdeeds, though, happened on December 11, 1921. He and two other convicts attacked the warden and three other employees in the prison theater. The vicious knife attack left three dead, with Warden Catlin escaping to another room until guards got the situation under control. He died six weeks later from his wounds.

How does the state punish a murder when the murderer is already serving a life sentence? In those days flogging was permitted. Harper took thirty lashes. The other two received more lashes on two other days, but Harper avoided another flogging by beating his head on the floor, feigning insanity. He was put in a straitjacket.

The murder case never went to trial. Because the three had been punished already, such a conviction would be considered double jeopardy. “Gypsy Bob” served out the remainder of his life sentence at Marquette Branch Prison, selling prison art to tourists.

This article was written by Besser Museum volunteer Judy Dawley. It is part of a series that appear here on the Lifestyles page pertaining to museum artifacts and the stories behind them.

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