Alcatraz – Part 2: The Incorrigibles

– Problem Wards with Tin Cups – A Death on the Island – “Who’s a Son of a Bitch?” – Milk Sugar and Eggs – Feeding Seagulls – Spanish Dungeons – Barbershop Sheers –

“A caged animal turns mean. If you taunt it deliberately, it becomes dangerous” – Alvin Karpis

There weren’t many ways off Alcatraz, especially in the short term. No prisoners were ever paroled out of the prison, the thought was: if you’re bad enough to be on Alcatraz, what business do you have being set loose on the public. Serving out a sentence was usually a long term prospect given the gravity of many of the inmates records.

Being stuck on Alcatraz was enough to drive a man crazy. Dreams of flight would inevitably cross a prisoner’s mind. The options were limited: get a medical transfer, serve your time, die or escape. With the additional pressures of the guards, the rule-of-silence, the threats of being locked away in a dungeon dramatically increased the thoughts of getting off the island.

Over the course of Alcatraz’s time as a Federal Prison 28 prisoners would be transferred by boats in body body bags to the morgue in San Francisco. The records kept, the guards, and those who survived sentences on Alcatraz would tell their tales.

Norman T Whitaker, Brains of the Mutiny Plot after the death of Jack Allen on January 17th, 1936.
Georg “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes (AZ-117), Imprisoned on Alcatraz from 1934-1951.
Al Capone (AZ-85)
Jimmy “Tex” Lucas, Ring Leader of the 1936 Alcatraz Strike. Capone’s tormentor along with other “Texas Cowboys”
Former Alcatraz Dungeons
Joseph Bower (AZ-210)
“Capone Stabbed in Prison” Daily News June 24,1936

Transcript:

Alcatraz

Part 2

1936

Problem Wards with Tin Cups – A Death on the Island – “Who’s a Son of a Bitch?” –– Milk  Sugar and Eggs – Feeding Seagulls – Spanish Dungeons –Barbershop Sheers – 

“A caged animal turns mean. If you taunt it deliberately, it becomes dangerous” – Alvin Karpis

 

Intro:  

There weren’t many ways off Alcatraz, especially in the short term. No prisoners were ever paroled out of the prison, the thought was: if you’re bad enough to be on Alcatraz, what business do you have being set loose on the public. Serving out a sentence was usually a long term prospect given the gravity of many of the inmates records. 

Being stuck on Alcatraz was enough to drive a man crazy. Dreams of flight would inevitably cross a prisoner’s mind. The options were limited: get a medical transfer, serve your time, die or escape. With the additional pressures of the guards, the rule-of-silence, the threats of being locked away in a dungeon dramatically increased the thoughts of getting off the island. 

Over the coarse of Alcatraz’s time as a Federal Prison 28 prisoners would be transferred by boats in body body bags to the morgue in San Francisco. The records kept, the guards, and those who survived sentences on Alcatraz would tell their tales:

 

1.

Jack Allen (AZ 209) was transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz due to the trouble he gave the staff at Leavensworth. He would complain to them of stomach pain’s and he regularly looked sickly. Hoping to rid themselves of the problem ward, Allen was shipped off to San Francisco. On the night of January 20th, Allen was experience his usual pain. Trying to get the attention of the guards Allen rattled his tin cup against the metal railings and yelled for the guards.

According to the prisoner who’s cell  was above Allen’s, around midnight “the entire cell bloc was alive to the situation, and the men began to shake their bars, keeping up the monotonous chant “Doctor, doctor, doctor.” Finally around midnight one of the guards got sick of the commotion and took Allen from his cell. Allen was so weak that the guards were forced to pick him up and carry his 125 lbs. body. The men in the cell house quieted down, thinking Allen was going to be looked at by the hospital staff. Unknown to his fellow prisoners, Jack Allen was being thrown in the hole, the dungeon for the commotion he caused.

On January 17th, 1936, upon checking on Allen at 8 a.m. the guards found him passed out on the damp cement floor. His colon had ruptured and he was sent to the hospital for an immediate operation, but the transfusion didn’t work and he died that same day.

Once the men of Alcatraz caught wind of the death of Allen, they decided to take matters into their own hands. For almost a year now tension filled the silent air of the prison, this was the perfect time for the prisoners to test their captors. Lead by Norman T. Whitaker, who had been on the island for about a year. The prisoners decided it was time to strike!

On the morning of January 20th the strike, or what the papers would later refer to as “three days of madness” began. In the laundry when a large group of men on the top floor began to yell for other workers to join them. They congregated on the first floor of the laundry and waited for others. One of the men who stayed at his work station was Al Capone. Jimmy “Texas” Lucas lead the other inmates as they taunted the Chicago Boss with shouts: “So Capone is yellow after all? What happened to the big shot gang leader? So he’s a scab and a rat?” And followed the taunts with threats of violence in revenge of turning his back on the other inmates. 

Capone stayed silent at his work station. Capone, Kelly and a few of Kelly’s associates were more concerned about keeping their nose clean and keeping their “good-time” than with striking against the Rock. Capone would later reflect on the strike to the guards, “Those guys are crazy. They can’t get anytime out of it. But I’ve got to protect my own skin if I’m going to get out of here alive.”

The guard on duty immediately notified  all the other stations on the island, including Warden Johnston. When Johnston arrived in the laundry he had the strikers, who now numbered around 50, taken back and locked in their cells. The inmates, lead by John Paul Chase began chants and howled at the guards. 

The San Francisco Examiner reported the scene of the first night of the strikes: “Once back in their cells the mutineers began shrieking and cursing. Over Alcatraz prison on Monday night arose a fiendish chorus audible to ferry passengers on the bay. It was the shrieking of hundreds of caged men.”

TUESDAY

The following morning, on Tuesday January 21st the strikers were joined by prisoners who worked in carpentery shop, the tailor, blacksmith shop and the mat factory. Two at a time the prisoners would refuse to work. Stepping away from their workstations after putting away their tools. They would be escorted by the guards back to their cells to join the workers from the laundry who continued their taunting of the guards. Warden Johnston decided to take his own action and refuse the mutineers of all food. “No work, no food,” as the Warder would say. 

By this time Johnston was interviewing the prisoners to try to find the ring-leaders of the revolt. He would conclude that Norman T. Whitaker, Jimmy Lucas, John Paul Chase (AZ-238), Harman Waley and Ludwig “Dutch”Schmidt were the initial trouble makers. 

Norman T. Whitaker (AZ-230) a.k.a. “The Fox”. He was in jail for a hoax involving the Lindberg Baby kidnapping and $104,000 in ransom money. By now already distinguished himself as an incorrigible inmate. From the time he arrived at Alcatraz he began to demand radios, commissary, more visitation from family and other freedoms granted to prisoners at other locations. He went so far as to hand out a petition for the prisoners to sign. A guard found the petition and figured out it was Whitaker behind the stunt. The petition only got Whitaker a sentence to solitary. 

In the cell block, th e prisoners, growing hungry from lack of food and drained by their efforts to revolt decided to take apart the plumbing of their toilets to let the cells flood with water. As the water filled and then ran down the tiers, Johnston made made the quick decision to shut off all water to the cell house. The cells stopped flooding, but there was now no water to drink or operate the toilets. All cells were stripped of both their mattresses and their blankets and the guards left the prisoners with threats of the use of  noxious gas if trouble continued. 

Undeterred the men locked in their watery cells taunted the Warden and the guards with a call and response chant of:

“Who’s a son of a bitch?” : “The doctor is a son of a bitch.”

“Who killed Jack Allen?” : “The doctor killed Jack Allen.”

And threw bodily waste and trash down on the guards. One guard would later be suspended for ten days for refusing to go into the cell block for fear of violence that evening.

WEDNESDAY

At midnight early Wednesday morning, the Warden saw that the scene had quieted down and issued blankets back to the hungry, wet and cold inmates. When the guards came around to get the blankets from the inmates, James Lucas, who had threatened Capone the day before, decided to have it out with the guards. When asked for his blanket he replied “Come in here and get it!” The challenge was excepted by a guard named Joseph Simpson. Simpson stepped into the cell  with Lucas. It didn’t take long for Lucas bloody Simpson, who was backed up by two more prison officials. Lucas fought off all three for several minutes before the guards got the upper hand and forcibly took Lucas down to the dungeon below. The report on the incident noted “Prisoner Lucas tripped and fell down the dungeon steps.” 

Whitaker and the other ring leaders were taken from their cells to join Lucas in the dungeon. Once in the dungeon, the prisoners were only allowed bread once a day and water twice. Whitaker and Lucas, refused their measly rations and threw their bread onto the cement floor. 

Back upstairs a massive victory came to  the strikers, they had the kitchen workers join them in their strike. This officially closed every industry on the island. Warden Johnston faced a dilemma on how he could feed the prisoners who were not striking. He decided the best plan of action was to send guards into the kitchen to prepare food for those prisoners who were not striking. With all the prisons industries closed over half the prisoners were now on strike. 

More prisoners were taken down to the dungeon, but there was a lack of available cells. A work order was put in for emergency cells to be erected in the dungeon. Eight new cells were quickly constructed on Wednesday which gave a total of 18 dungeon cells for 18 mutineers. All the cells would  be filled by Wednesday evening. 

While chaos continued above-ground, in the the basement, Warden Johnston and his Deputy Warden were dealing with the leaders of the revolt – turned hunger strikers. Although Johnston was strictly against physical beatings, shock treatments and other forms of strange torture, he did need a way to control the prisoners. One such procedure, that was in use, and disturbingly still in use today, was force feeding inmates that refused to eat. This punishment, or torture tactic, depending how you look at it, was introduced to the five men in charge of the riot. 

As they were extracted from the cell to be moved to the hospital, three of the inmates decided to back out and avoid the whole scene. Whitaker and Lucas were taken to the hospital for their feeding. In the hospital a concoction was prepared of raw eggs, sugar and quart of milk that were beaten together into a frothy liquid. Prisoners would be held or strapped down as a lubricant was applied to the end of a rubber tube. The guards would then shove the tube down the prisoners throat and pour the liquid into their system.

Whitaker, one to never quit. Forced himself to gag and threw up the eggs, sugar and milk. After three long days of chaos, Lucas and Whitaker were now the only strikers actively striking. The rest of the prison reluctantly went back to work. 

There was little to be shown for the efforts of the strikers, but one major victory was won. Despite Warden Johnston later claiming the strike was not the cause, the prison doctor who was in charge when Jack Allen died was transferred to Marine Island Hospital, far away from the San Francisco Bay in Seattle. 

In the after math of the Strike, Capone remained a target for other prisoners. In particular Jimmy Lucas, the ringleader of the strike who hurled insults at Capone in the laundry, and his cohorts known as the “Texas Cowboys” continued their beef with Capone. While Lucas was still in solitary for the strike, a Texan took a window weight and threw it at Capone’s head. Unaware of  the attempted assault being committed, Capone was only grazed on his arm, due to the quick thinking of former train robber, Roy Gardener, who pushed Capone out of the path of the weight. 

Lucas and the Texas Cowboys weren’t  done with Capone. They made it their mission to torment and hopefully have the chance to murder the Chicago gang leader.  

2.

The first escapee, if that is the proper term was Joseph Bowers’ (Alcatraz #210). His life was much less of the action film of many of his fellow inmates. His record states he was born in 1897 to two traveling circus members, possibly in Texas of German heritage. Upon his birth his parents abandoned him and he was raised by other members of the circus. He claimed to have worked all around the world as an interpreter speaking six languages. This same record dated 1933 also comments “on this man it has been impossible to get any dependable information.” This lack of concrete information would follow Bowers beyond his death.

Like his fellow inmates Bowers had racked up a long wrap sheet. Automobile thefts, driving while drunk and his final crime of Post Mail Robbery would find land him with a 25 year sentence,  despite only bringing him $16.38. Bowers found himself out of work and desperate for money. 

It was impossible not to notice that Bowers was unlike many of the other criminals. Warden Johnston immediately recognized that he was what he called “weak minded.” Prisoners would call him ‘criminally insane’  or just ‘nuts’. 

Unable to prove his American citizenship, a constant reminder of his circus roots, he spent  the first several months on Alcatraz pleading to be deported. There was very little hope inside the walls for a man of Bowers mental capacity. “Unpredictable and at high risk resulting from being emotional unstable” is how he was described when he was imprisoned at McNeil Island before his transfer. 

Just short of half a year locked in Alcatraz, Bowers seemed like he was cracking. On March 7 of 1935 Bowers made his first desperate act on Alcatraz. Breaking his eye glasses, the inmate took the sharp lens and dragged it across his throat in an attempt at suicide. He would be examined and interviewed by the Warden and the medical team on the island. The Chief Medical Officer, Edward Twitchell, drafted his findings:

The recent attempts at suicide have been theatrically planned and have resulted in very little damage to him. Had he been a determined suicide he had good opportunity to make a success of it. Hence, I believe the unsuccessful attempts were for the purpose of gaining opinion favorable to him. Like so many of his kind it must be admitted at first that he is not a normal individual but he is not so crazy as he is trying to make out. 

It is a well recognized fact that many an individual who is insane endeavors to make out his insanity worse than it really is for the purpose of gaining some end. Bower, while an abnormal individual, is not truly insane in my opinion and is pretending a mental disturbance for some purpose. 

The rest of the staff agreed: this man was not making an earnest attempt to kill himself. He was simply another trouble maker. 

Under the pressure of the Rule-of-Silence, the constant surveillance and the mistrusting medical staff, the mental state of #210 could not be solely attributed to his time on Alcatraz. It was noted in a medical examination the he suffered from a major thyroid problem and had contracted syphilis around 1914. Much like Capone, the disease was now taking control of Bowers who’s mental decline was likely progressed by his imprisonment.

Number 210 was not the only one suffering from mental and disciplinary strain. On September 20, 1935 a letter was leaked to the press by a concerned inmate. He expressed that several men, including Bowers by name, had cracked under the pressures and treatment of Alcatraz. He notes that Bowers along with other inmates have spent considerable amounts of time in isolation in the dungeons below the prison. Prisoners were “kept in dungeon for a total of more than six weeks, starved, shot in the face with gas gun, beaten over head with clubs.” This was the first story the press received from the prisoner’s perspective and it was extremely grim. 

Warden Johnston went out of his way to deny that any such cruel  treatment was used in Alcatraz. Throughout his time as Warden of Alcatraz, Johnston would keep in touch with the press to tell the official  line from the prison and defend the reputation of himself and his guards. 

The following month, Bowers would start a fight with Samuel Berlin, a D.C. area robber. As they fought two guards jumped into the fray and separated the two inmates. As Bowers was being escorted to Solitary, he began to beat his captors. After being subdued, 210 would spend the October 26- Jan 20th, a total of 86 days locked in the dungeon.

When Bowers was released from the dungeon Warden Johnston along with the doctor and deputy thought the best thing for Bowers would be to give him mindless physical work to occupy his time. Their best option on the island was to work the incinerator. This grueling job consisted of sorting and burning trash from the rest of the prison. Once the garbage was burnt the ashes had to be cleaned out and dropped to the ocean via a metal shoot. The trash smelled, the incinerator was hot and the work was exhausting. The seagulls that flew over the island were Bowers one distraction from the job. 

Mixed among the rubbish from the island was food left over from the mess hall and kitchen. Machine Gun Kelly told Alvin Karpis that Bowers would “throw stuff in the air for the gulls to grab on the fly. Joe was a bit simple and he loved to watch them snatch it in midair.”

The escape of  April 26,1936, like many of the events on the island have several differing accounts. The witnesses, prisoner’s and guards don’t agree with each other. The official story often differs from either of these. Reputations of the individual guards and the prison are on the line when tragic events happen. Prisoners are likely to demonize the guards in such events. The conclusions and the underlying issues are not always agreed upon or even clear.

What is clear is that Joseph Bowers was doing his normal routine of sorting trash, throwing it in the fire and cleaning out the ashes. The seagulls were swirling above him. As they dove down to catch the scraps of food, Bowers had a moment of enjoyment. Henry Larry, another prisoner watched as Bowers staked up and climbed on top of a garbage cans that were positioned next to the wire fence that surrounded the incinerator.  

A junior officer, E.F. Chandler, reported: 

“While on duty in the Road Tower at about 11:00 o’clock A.M. I suddenly looked to see Bowers #210-is on the top of wire fence attempting to go over, then I yelled at him several times to get down but he ignored my warning and continued to go over. I fired two shots low and waited a few seconds to see the results. He started down the far side of the fence and I fired one more shot, aiming at his legs, Bowers was hanging on the fence with his hands but his feet were pointing down toward the cement ledge. After my third shot I called the Armory and and reported the matter. When I returned from phoning, the body dropped into the bay.”

Bowers was dead,  his body had dropped 60 feet killing him on impact, but he was out of Alcatraz . The reaction of Chandler was that Bowers was attempting an escape in broad day light by simply climbing the perimeter fence. According to Chandler and the official story, this was Alcatraz’s first escape attempt.

It was known that Bowers had recently been pleading with prison officers and administrators to help him get his deportation papers. On the day of the Bowers’ death, the Warden happened to be giving a tour of the facilities to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates. It is known that they stopped at the incinerator and spoke with Bates. Researches believe it is possible that Bowers brought up his deportation status with the Director and was ignored, causing him to get angry. The anger mixed with the chance to embarrass the Warden in front of his boss, he talked to a few of his fellow inmates who likely persuaded him to climb the fence.

Officer Chandler’s account of shooting Bowers off the fence as he was attempting escape, after firing the first warning shot is contested by the account by another officer who witnessed the events from above the yard. This officer, Archer, claimed to see Bowers on the cement at the bottom of the outside of the prison fence before Chandler fired warning shots. If this is true, Bowers must have heard the warning shots and tried to rush up the fence and into the prison. Bowers, enraged by his discussion with Bates, lost in a spell of confusion, perhaps didn’t realize exactly where he was. Chandler would have not seen Bowers scale the fence, which is possible, considering he had more areas to watch than just the incinerator. If he had lost track of Bowers going over the fence, Chandler was likely embarrassed and would face questions, especially with the Director of Prisons present. Chandler shot and hit Bowers, who tumbled to the rocky ledge 60 feet below, dying of a broken neck. 

There is also the claims of the prisoners like “Machine Gun” Kelly, who relayed the story to Karpis upon arrival. Bowers was merely feeding the birds and some food got stuck up in the old barbed wire on top of the fence. Number 210 climbed up to get the food to throw to  the seagulls. According to the inmates, the guards saw this as their chance to take retribution against a pugnacious and theatrical inmate. They called it murder. 

Two days after the event the Daily News of New York ran the headline “$16 Thief Slain in First Break At Alcatraz”. Whether this was a desperate break, a murder or a suicide attempt, Joseph Bowers would go down as the first man to escape, albeit unsuccessfully, from the Prison Island.

The first escape proved that escape would be difficult. Between the ever present guards, the near hourly counts, and strict rule-of-silence, prisoner’s would have to be even more cunning than they had in previous institutions. Despite the protests of the public, Alcatraz had stopped the first attempt at beating the rock. 

 

3.

On the morning of June 23, 1936, less than a month after Bowers lost his life, Al Capone received a new mandolin in the mail.  The instrument was for him to play in the prison orchestra. He had organized and funded the purchase of instruments for inmates to play. Capone was busy showing a guard the new instrument in the clothing supply room when Jimmy Lucas, recently released from solitary saw his chance to exact revenge. Lucas was downstairs to see visit another Texan, one of the prison barbers, for his monthly haircut. Finding himself with a rare opportunity to strike, Lucas disassembled a pair of barber sheers  and walked up to Capone with the single blade in his hand. Without noticing Lucas, Capone continued his chat with the guard while mopping the floor. 

Seemingly out of nowhere Lucas lunged at Capone. The sheers struck Capone low in the back. Multiple thrashes. Multiple stabs. Capone turned to see his attacker. Without hesitation, Capone lifted and threw Lucas clear across the room. As Lucas made impact with the wall, the wind was knocked out of him. Capone, bloodied, shocked, asked an inmate to take him to the hospital.

Warden Johnston would deal with Lucas and Capone, sending Lucas back to solitary for six months and Capone protected in the prison hospital. 

The bigger problem for Johnston was the growing bad press. Following the leaked news of Bower’s escape/ killing, newspapers across the country now positioned the Capone stabbing on their front pages. The news reignited questions about the treatment and safety of the prisoners of Alcatraz. An FBI investigation would follow..  A slew of articles written by men who had spent time at Alcatraz started to appear in the papers with claims of torture and the island turning normal criminals into madmen. The stories of rules of silence, dungeons, tube feeding shocked the public. 

Warden Johnston would continue the course, but the increased scrutiny and press had their effects on the prisons. By the late 30’s the rule of silence was relaxed and almost completely removed by the 40’s. The dungeons, which Johnston never liked using, would be replaced with the help of a large grant in 1942 by newly constructed solitary cells reconstructed out of the old D-Block.

 

Conclusion:

The men who lost their minds and lost their lives are forever a part of the mythology of the island prison in the San Francisco Bay. Like the men fading from public view behind the bars of the prison, tales of the island are slowly fading into the past. Due to physical, mental or personal issues, many men did not make it out of Alcatraz in one piece, but were transferred by ferry, across the bay, in body bags.   

Alcatraz References:

Books (w/ Amazon links):

Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Penguin Book, 2005.

Denevi, Don, and Philip Bergen. Alcatraz ’46;: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy. Leswing Press, 1974.

Johnston, Warden James A. Alcatraz Island Prison And The Men Who Live There. C. Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

Karpis, Alvin, and Robert Livesey. On the Rock: Twenty-Five Years in Alcatraz. Musson Book Co., 1980.

Quillen, Jim. Alcatraz from the Inside. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, 1991.

Theme music“Speedy Delta” by Lobo Loco is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0