Gone in Sixty Seconds

If you’re going to do the crime, be prepared to do the time. That aphorism (or something like it) is a decent way to discourage people from breaking the law —while robbing a bank or vandalizing some property may sound profitable or fun, spending time behind bars is definitely a disincentive. And of course, the point of prison goes beyond the desire to deter crime; we also want to exact some retribution on behalf of those who were harmed. The more serious the crime, therefore, the longer the prison sentence if you’re convicted. And for first-time defenders who commit minor infractions, it’s not at all unusual for the courts to give no jail time whatsoever, so long as the culprit changes their ways.

But more than a century ago, a judge decided to do the best — or perhaps worst — of both worlds. On January 19, 1906, Judge Archibald Wanless Frater sentenced a man named Joe Munch to one minute behind bars.

The year prior, Munch was serving in the Army, stationed at a base in Fort Lawton, Washington. On August 13, he was on leave and decided to do something hardly unusual — he went out drinking. But Munch couldn’t hold his liquor, and he likely passed out drunk on the street. As the Seattle Daily Times reported (via the Washington State Department of State): “A policeman found him in this condition and he was hustled off to the police station. In Judge Gordon’s court [presumably, a low-level court that dealt with minor infractions such as these] he was sentenced to thirty days for being drunk and disorderly.” Further, according to the Tacoma Daily Ledger, he was fined $100 — the equivalent of more than $3,000 in today’s dollars — which Munch surely thought was excessive. So he appealed to the Kings County (Washington) Superior Court.

That’s where Judge Frater got involved. On appeal, per the Daily Ledger, the judge noted that Munch “had received a pretty thorough physical chastisement at the hands of the police, and that he had also spent several days in the city prison before his case came up for trial.” Finding that Munch had demonstrated good behavior since, and that he had already been “sufficiently punished” per the Daily Ledger, Frater was not about to uphold the lower court’s sentence. But, per Frater, Much was still technically guilty and needed to be sentenced to something.

The solution? A one-minute prison sentence. Per the Daily Times, “Those who heard the decision were inclined to take it as a joke of the judge’s, until Munch was hustled off to jail and kept there until the second hand of the jailer’s watch had completed the circle of sixty seconds. Munch was so surprised that he hardly knew what was going on and when released decided that the best thing for him to do was to get away for fear the sight of him should cause the judge to inflict a heavier penalty.” At the time, this was believed to be the shortest prison sentence in history, and that’s probably true even today.

Unfortunately, Munch didn’t learn to control himself. Per the Washington State Department of State, “in August 1906, after leaving Fort Lawton, he was aboard the transport ship Buford and was shot by a sergeant in self-defense when Munch became unruly and assaulted him.”

Bonus fact: Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited as the inventor of the telephone, having patented the first one in 1876. He died on August 2, 1922, nearly half a century later. His funeral was two days later, completing at 6:25 Eastern Standard Time. And if you were in the United States or Canada then, and wanted to make a phone call to celebrate Bell’s life, you couldn’t. As Wired notes, “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.”

From the Archives: The Man Who Owned Google for a Minute: But not long enough to really do anything with it.