On 25th January 1945, when Ross Paswell’s former comrades in the American navy were firing thousands of shells into the hillsides of Iwo Jima, destroying Japanese installations that were blocking the advance of the marine corps in the early days of a battle that would end the lives of twenty-five thousand men, Ross, who had been found unsuitable for naval service the year before, was robbing a café in Ellwood City, along with a man named Harold Geary, who was 4F on account of a broken ear drum.
Ross and Harold forced the café owner at gunpoint to hand over the contents of the till—$50—and drove off in a stolen car. They picked up their girlfriends—one of whom, Maria White, was married to an overseas marine—and drove south through heavy snow, stealing other cars in Washington and Uniontown on their way to Connellsville where, the police later said, “they lived as men and wives” for four days.
They were arrested when they returned the women to their homes in Beaver Falls. All four were taken back to New Castle, where they pled guilty to the charges against them. The men received six to twelve years in the state penitentiary for armed robbery and auto theft; the women got one to two years in the workhouse for being accessories after the fact.
Ross had difficulties in jail. He protested about the lack of educational opportunities, recreational facilities and an adequate diet. In return, he spent a great deal of time in the hole—a concrete cell with a concave floor beneath the administration building, with no furniture, toilet or light, where, after being stripped naked, he would have to sit, squat or lie in his own urine and excrement for up to seven days at a time.
After six years, Ross was paroled. He found that he was unable to buy a car, due to his criminal record, so he used a false name to sign the papers. His deception was uncovered, and he was returned to jail to serve the rest of his ten-year sentence.
Ross was released in February 1955. Four months later, he married a woman named Marjorie Dougal and moved into a house in Ellwood City, where he became a self-employed landscaper. Marjorie was pregnant for most of the next decade, producing two sons and six daughters before 1969, when she had Ross arrested for an assault in which he cracked two of her ribs. Ross and Marjorie were divorced as soon as the court would allow.
The following year, living alone in New Castle, Ross began to write long letters to the New Castle News in which he discussed the social upheaval that he saw going on around him. He said that the disillusionment of the young was entirely justified, that they had been betrayed by the capitalists and the communists, the liberals and the conservatives. He urged understanding of the Weathermen and other leftist bombers, whom he described as keeping America’s conscience awake. He spoke of the outright revolution that was to come and called for the United Nations to declare the ghettos, the Indian reservations and the migrant worker camps disaster zones and send in observers to determine if the under-privileged, the poverty-stricken and the down-trodden were being treated humanely. He said that the only way America could save itself and the rest of the world was to take all that was salvageable from the Judeo-Christian traditions and combine that with Zen Buddhism. He contemplated his time in jail and what he had done to Marjorie, and wrote that he considered that the dehumanising punishments to which he had been subjected had left him with a slow-burning animal rage that could burst into flame at any moment.
In October of that year, Ross was jailed for one to two years for passing bad checks at his local supermarket. He immediately began to campaign for prison reform, writing letters to congressmen, senators and the state attorney general to draw attention to the paucity of fruit in the jail diet, the lack of adequate light for reading and the fact that there were no laundry facilities. He also made “a silent commitment to the teachings of Christ” when he was given a few packs of tobacco and candy by a visiting preacher following an Easter service.
On his release in 1971, when he was fifty-one years old, Ross founded an organisation called IOU, Inc, which was made up of local business and professional people and ex-convicts who volunteered to help convicts reintegrate into the community when they got out of jail by providing them with employment, loans and fellowship. It became known throughout the state correctional system as an example of how to rehabilitate offenders. Ross was invited to speak at state anti-crime hearings. He was described as an inspirational figure by leaders of the community. His views on the political issues of the day—for example, that Richard Nixon had allowed “an arrogant clique of power mad political appointees to manipulate governmental agencies by adopting Nazi philosophies that are contrary to the morals and ethics on which our democracy was founded”—continued to find an outlet in the pages of the New Castle News.
Ross kept on working with ex-convicts until old age prevented him from doing any more. In one of his last published letters, he wrote, “Looking back over the life I have been compelled to live as a convict and ex-convict, considering the psychological scars imprinted on my mind, knowing that I could have been reduced to an animal, it has to be the continuing grace of God that I am alive, free and still a human being.” He died in a nursing home in 2008, at the age of eighty-eight.Sources: New Castle News (3 Feb 1945, “Arrests Solve Ellwood Case”, 7 Feb 1945, “Four Arrested In Café Robbery Are Given Sentences”; 8 March 1952, “Court House”; 10 March 1952, “Court House”; 24 Sep 1955, “Court House”; 20 May 1969, “Man Is Arrested On Assault Charge”; 4 Dec 1969, “The People Write”, 18 March 1970, “The People Write”; 23 April 1970, “The People Write”; 13 Oct 1970, “Paswell Hearing Set Oct 20”; 9 Jan 1970, “A Look From The Inside”; 14 Jan 1970, “Court Grants Divorces To 43 Persons”; 8 March 1970, “Wiseman Jury Selection Started”; 21 April 1971, “The People Write”; 26 June 1971, “Who’s Second Chance Is It Really?”; 4 Aug 1972, “IOU Holds Parley, Plans More Events”; 18 Nov 1972, “Progress Cited At IOU Dinner”; 2 Aug 1973, “The Majority Of Responses Say: Poppycock”; 15 Dec 1973, “The People Write”); Ellwood City Ledger (3 May 2008, “Marjorie E Paswell”; 13 Aug 2008, “Ross E Paswell”).