The Mighty Pen

A couple of years ago, back when we could do such things, I went to see a band at a Brooklyn nightspot. In performing what I thought would be a cursory rummage through my bag, the bouncers found my pens. All two dozen or so of them.

Hey, I’m a writer! I tend to pocket pens absentmindedly—just in case—and I had no idea I’d accumulated so many. How many pens are too many to take into a Brooklyn nightspot, you might ask? Apparently, the answer is more than none. I had to hand them all over, and it being Brooklyn, I’m convinced every one of those bouncers was a writer looking to grab some free pens.

Pens in the wild can be… interesting

However, I’m also a crime writer, and this sent me researching crimes committed with pens. Turns out, there’s lots. From schoolyard stabbings, where admittedly ballpoints are at their most handy, to domestic battles and psychotic rages on the street, pens can definitely be a mighty weapon.

But my favorite true crime story of a pen being put to use involves an ingenious prison break. Steven Russell is an American conman currently serving a 144-year sentence. Now, the reason his sentence is so harsh is not so much for his crimes, which were of the nonviolent fraud variety, but for his four brilliant escapes from prison and the ensuing embarrassment to the Texas penal system.

Ink matters

For his third escape Russell collected green felt-tip pens from his prison art classes. When he believed he had enough, he emptied their dye into a bucket of water, then dunked his white prison uniform into the makeshift dye bath. Once dry, his uniform looked like scrubs, and he simply walked out. No guards questioned a man dressed like a doctor, instead opening the doors to freedom.

Now that’s what I call nerve.

What are some everyday objects you’ve seen used in imaginative ways?


  1. I’m howling about the green pen! So creative. I confess to loving pens. Not all, of course. Many are clearly inferior. I have rediscovered the fountain pens from my mostly miserable days at parochial school and am rediscovering the joy of writing longhand.

  2. Great story. Too bad Russell didn’t put his creativity to better use. I favor pencils for everyday use–the Bic click ones–because I like to feel the drag on the page. And I erase often. When I do use pens, like signing books and cards, I like the fresh ink variety for the same reason.

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