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This content is shared with MinnPost by MNopedia, the digital encyclopedia created by the Minnesota Historical Society and supported by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

In the 1940s, Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle escaped from the Shakopee Reformatory for Women five times

Their fourth escape, in 1949, led to eight months of freedom and allowed the two women to live together as a couple while traveling around the United States.

mugshots of larrabee and brunelle
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Edna Larrabee and Beulah Brunelle in 1948. Composite of photographs published in the Minneapolis Star, November 22, 1948.
Note: This article mentions attempted suicide.

Beulah Brunelle (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) and Edna Larrabee escaped from Shakopee State Reformatory for Women five times between 1946 and 1949. Though most of the breakouts ended in their recapture within a few days, their fourth escape, in 1949, led to eight months of freedom and allowed the two women to live together as a couple while traveling around the United States.

On April 29, 1946, a judge ordered twenty-five-year-old Edna Larrabee to serve time in Shakopee State Reformatory for committing grand larceny in the second degree (writing bad checks) in St. Paul. It was not her first time in the prison. She had served out a sentence for a separate larceny charge between 1940 and 1942, when she had attracted scrutiny for her “boyish mannerisms” and sexual relationships with other prisoners. Larrabee, staff reported disapprovingly, took “pride in having a problem which she believes is quite unusual” and criticized her parole board for focusing on her sexuality rather than her chances of release. One supervisor noted “she does not feel there was any reason for her being punished in the first place.”

When Larrabee began her second term in Shakopee in April 1946 she met Beulah Brunelle, a twenty-one-year-old Ojibwe woman also serving a sentence for grand larceny (in her case, stealing clothes, shoes, and a ring). They escaped together three times over the next two years. After the failure of the third escape on November 22, 1948, Larrabee attempted suicide but survived. The next morning, she tried again. She then turned her frustration on the institution that was confining her, flooding her cell with water from her toilet and using a mattress spring to break a window. Staff responded swiftly by transferring her to St. Peter State Hospital for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also known as shock therapy) and a sixty-day psychiatric study.

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Larrabee’s time at St. Peter led her and Brunelle to escape again. Disguised in overalls and farm jackets, they sneaked into the basement of Sanford Cottage on February 2, 1949, broke open a nailed-shut window, and fled. They hitchhiked west looking for jobs, introducing themselves as a married couple named Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Farrell.

Shakopee superintendent Clara Thune guessed that the pair was headed to California. After escaping in 1946 with her then-girlfriend, Larrabee had fled to San Diego. During World War II, moreover, she had worked as an arc welder for the Western Pipe and Steel Company in San Francisco. Thune wrote to four California sheriffs and police chiefs, asking them to look out for the fugitives. She stated that Larrabee was “acquainted with the colony of homo sexuals [sic] in Los Angeles” and likely to show up in that city.

Larrabee and Brunelle, however, were headed not to LA but to Sacramento, where Larrabee’s sister Vida took them in. After three months they hitchhiked to Seattle, Washington, and visited Larrabee’s parents; William Larrabee gave his daughter a black 1936 Plymouth coupe. The women then made moves to settle down, renting an apartment and opening a bank account together. To pay their rent, Larrabee ran a gas station and Brunelle sewed for a dress shop.

By the late summer they were traveling again and visited a friend from Minneapolis. Afterward, Brunelle brought Larrabee to meet her mother on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The Minneapolis friend, meanwhile, tipped off police, telling them to look for a black Plymouth coupe with a missing hubcap. Police recognized the car in Sioux City, Iowa, on October 3, seized the two women, and returned them to Shakopee. Their eight months of freedom were over.

Larrabee and Brunelle escaped together one final time late in 1949 but were found and returned to prison within days. They made no further attempts. By 1952 they were both paroled and starting new lives apart—Larrabee in Washington, Brunelle in Minnesota as the wife of a man named George Venne. Shakopee case files contain one final record of their relationship: a note stating that in 1953, Brunelle left her husband in St. Paul and drove for more than 1,600 miles to Seattle, where she and Larrabee reunited.

Editor’s Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741. Trans Lifeline (1-877-565-8860) and the Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386) offer hotlines specifically for queer and trans people.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.