Christmas means different things to different people. For many it is a time of great religious significance or a season of parties, gift giving and feasting. For Tom Daley and Hiram Lepper, Christmas day in 1914 Atlanta meant freedom.
These two inmates of the Federal Penitentiary took advantage of the relaxed holiday security by escaping from the even less secure “tuberculosis camp” inside the walls. They built a ladder from their iron beds and scrap wood to get over the barbed wire and the prison’s outer wall. A heavy mist on Christmas Day helped and the “break” for this post office burglar, Daley, and counterfeiter, Lepper, was not discovered until the next day.
Meanwhile, most Atlantans indulged in “having fun” during the holiday week. As one local reporter said, “Parties galore have been planned by members of every age and set, and the social calendar for the season is overflowing.” Atlanta was the great party town in 1914 for locals as well as throngs of visitors.
Eggnog parties were held at private homes throughout the city and the fraternity houses at Georgia Tech held open house for the “college and debutante set.” The Christmas Day eggnog parties were deliberately staggered so friends could go to several all day long. As many as 200 guests came to the elegant Peachtree Street mansion of William Speer. After all the excessive eggnog consumption, many went on to dinner and dances held at all the private clubs and at hotels.
There were also more serious celebrations on Christmas Day around town. All the local churches except the Methodists held special services on the day. Volunteers from the Salvation Army and other charities cooked up lavish meals for the poor or sick. Prisoners at the Penitentiary and other jails were fed by these groups as well. African-American “newsboys” of the city were given a special party at the Big Bethel Church. Postal workers and local delivery companies spent Dec. 25 delivering last minute gifts and cards.
Despite prohibition and stern warnings from Mayor James Woodward and Police Chief Beavers, there were excesses. Downtown streets were filled with celebrants on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day where fireworks, noisemakers, and the discharging of firearms accompanied street parties. Luckily, it was reported that the City of Atlanta made it through Christmas without a single murder – supposedly a first in its recorded history – and there was a record low number of Christmas arrests, only 176. Among those were Tom Daley and Hiram Lepper, whose holiday “freedom” proved to be very short lived.