Turkey Pete, the prisoner from Cell #1

    Paul Eitner came to the old Montana State Prison in 1918 to serve a life sentence of 40 years for murder. He got his nickname 'Turkey Pete' by tending the prison's turkey flock. In his own world, he thought he owned the prison. When he died the guards purchased his tombstone. In Montana Moment we explore the colorful life of the inmate in Cell #1.

    Only one funeral has ever been held on the grounds of the old Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

    Turkey Pete, whose real name was Paul Eitner, was an inmate who died in 1967.

    His funeral packed the old Clark Theater with prisoners, guards and dignitaries.

    In this week's Montana Moment we explore the life of the inmate who became one of the old prison's most colorful characters.

    Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation Curator, Melanie Sanchez. took NBC Montana on a tour of the old prison, which closed in 1979.

    We went to see Paul Eitner's cell.

    "We are in the 1912 cell house," said Melanie, "where Turkey Pete was housed from 1918 until his death in 1967. This cell is about 6 feet by 8 feet."

    She pointed to two portraits on either side of the cramped space.

    One was a portrait of Paul Eitner when he first came to the prison in 1918. The other picture was of the inmate in his later years.

    Eitner was a German immigrant who was living in a Miles City boarding house in 1918.

    Also living in the boarding house was a woman he was fond of."

    " He really liked her," said Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation Director, Sandy Pettey. "But there was also a traveling salesman who lived in that boarding house, and he also liked the young lady. And the two men got in a fight down in the kitchen one night."

    " He went and got his .38 revolver and he walked in the kitchen," said Melanie, "and he shot that gentleman."

    Joseph Nugent died three days later.

    Paul Eitner was convicted of first degree murder and began serving a life sentence of 40 years.

    So how did he get the name Turkey Pete?

    "He was a model inmate," said Melanie. "He was entrusted with taking care of the prison's flock of turkeys."

    One day a fellow came by and told Eitner how much he liked the birds.

    "And Pete sold him all the birds for 25 cents apiece," said Sandy.

    Eitner gave the money to the prison.

    But prison officials saw it as a sign that the trustee was losing touch with reality.

    " That was Pete's last day outside prison walls," said Sandy. " From then on Pete was kept inside the prison."

    "So this," said Melanie pointing to Eitner's cell, " would have been Turkey Pete's home for 49-years."

    Eitner resided alone in #1, in a block that was four-tiers high with 200 cells, two bunks apiece.

    He never had a roommate.

    Inmates would come and go, but Turkey Pete stayed.

    Through the years he slipped deeper and deeper into his own world.

    " His understanding of this place,"said Melanie," was that it was his. He owned this prison."

    The prison went along with it.

    Inmates were allowed to print up checks for Pete, with 'Eitner Enterprises' stamped on them.

    The checks couldn't be cashed.

    But in his mind Turkey Pete gave away fortunes.

    " He sent $12.5 billion to Brazil when the coffee crop failed," said Sandy. " And he would send the President a check for the entire defense budget."

    Turkey Pete sent checks to families for groceries and utilities.

    He made sure the prison had everything it needed.

    With gloved hands Melanie held up a check from museum archives.

    "Fifteen loads of soda pop for the prison," she said. "Pepsi."

    The prison board had long decided that Turkey Pete could not adjust to the outside world.

    After he had served his 40-year sentence he really had nowhere to go.

    "And no one had the heart to throw him out at that point," said Sandy. " And the Head of Corrections was okay with it."

    Turkey Pete came and went as he pleased.

    He slept on the couch outside the deputy warden's office. He read the warden's newspaper in the morning.

    "He had a relationship," said Melanie, "a friendship with the wardens and the guards."

    Sandy said one day a warden told Pete to stop sleeping on the couch and to quit reading his newspaper.

    " So Pete folds the paper back up and he smooths it all down and hands it back to him," said Sandy. "And then he bangs on the desk and he says I hired you and I can damned well fire you."

    Turkey Pete became mascot for the prison band.

    He managed the prison's boxing team.

    The boxers called him 'Champ.'

    "It eases up the tension in the prison to have a distraction," said Sandy. "And he (Pete) was a very long lasting one."

    His funeral inside the prison was an historic event.

    The guards purchased his tombstone.

    More than 600 people came to the Clark Theater.

    "From the Lieutenant Governor and the Department of Corrections head," said Sandy, " and all the inmates that could pack into the theater were there."

    Turkey Pete was a convicted murderer.

    But in a life sentence paying for his crime, he created lasting impressions and friendships.

    After his death, Cell #1 was retired.

    Even today visitors leave gifts on his bed.

    Cigarettes, coins and other tokens.

    At Hillcrest Cemetery in Deer Lodge, Turkey Pete is buried in the Montana State Prison's section set aside for inmates.

    There you will see a number of rocks marking the graves of inmates who have passed on.

    Those rocks are etched with inmate numbers, with many of those numbers fading or gone.

    No names.

    The sign that stands in this section says Montana State Prison, and from the Bible, Luke 23:42-"Lord Remember Me."

    Carved on Turkey Pete's headstone is P.G. "Pete" and Champ.

    Paul Eitner, the inmate who spent 49 years inside Montana State Prison is not forgotten.

    News In Photos

      Loading ...