Henri Young on trial for the murder of Rufus McCain. Photo from the San Francisco Examiner Feb. 12, 1941.
“We had to be under twenty-four hour surveillance, or good-bye, we’d be gone… over the wall under the wall or through the wall. It made no difference how we escaped, just so we escaped….” Johnny Dekker, Ghost of Alcatraz
By 1937 the mood on Alcatraz was heating up. After three years in operation, there was growing tension between the inmates and guards. The more time the prisoners spent on the island, the more their hatred of the place grew, fueling their desires to revolt.
A new Director of Prisons was put appointed and visited the island. James V. Bennett would talk to prisoners in voluntary interviews. For the most part, the prisoners asked for the rule of silence to be relaxed. Shortly after the visit to Alcatraz, Bennett told the press that the inmates were a bunch of “crybabies” and would gain no additional privileges.
After hearing the harsh critique of the new Director of Prisons, the convicts organized another strike. This strike was far more aggressive and organized than the first strike, the year prior. While putting one of the strikers into an isolation cell, the small framed prisoner known as: “Soldier Tommy”, knocked out three prison guards before a fourth beat him into submission with billy club.
The prisoners scored another nasty victory during the strike, when Warden Johnston was inspecting the mess-hall during lunch one day. Johnston inspected the line of inmates who had finished their lunch and were now leaving the mess-hall. “Whitey” Phillips, stone faced, walked up to Warden Johnston and punches the warden in the mouth. The slug knocks Johnston to the floor, bleeding heavily. The guard in the catwalk lowers his gun, but knowing he could possibly hit Johnston, he holds fire.
The island of Alcatraz is heating up.
“The most notorious inmate of Alcatraz Island, Al Capone, will never leave the island alive. Of that I am sure. Despite the fact that he has only another year to serve of his sentence, he will “get his” before his time is up. He is hated and despised by practically every inmate of the prison, and sooner of later one of them will give him “the works””. – Robert B. Moxen Printed in Hartford Courant, Dec 26, 1937.
Capone had remained the target of his fellow inmates for his entire stay at Alcatraz. James Lucas, the man who stabbed Capone with the barber shear, would be his most persistent bully, but there were others. Capone was fading mentally, but that made little difference to the inmates who wanted to take revenge for Capone’s prior acts on the outside. Capone’s state of weakness was like an old lion with an injury. The young up and comers saw an easy mark.
For Capone, he would try to serve his time in peace. Playing instruments with the prison band in the basement, mopping the floors for work, and talking a big game about what he was going to do when he got out.
One of the sweeter stories was told by Alvin Karpis, it relates to the rule on Alcatraz that all letters in going and outgoing, would be opened by the prison staff, examined and then typed out, the original would never be sent outside the prison and the prisoners would never see the originals (p72):
Convicts in Alcatraz are not allowed to send Easter or Christmas cards. The reason given are the amount of administrative work involved in censoring each one in case it contains a hidden message and the problems of ordering cards.
Al Capone asks to speak with Warden Johnston. He has composed a single message which is an Easter greeting appropriate for parents, wife, children, brothers or sisters. He offers to pay for it to be sent by telegram to the relatives of every Alcatraz con.
Warden Johnston refuses.”
Capone would spend 1937, playing with the prison band and asking new transfers for news of his old friends on the outside.
In 1929, a 17 year old named Ted Cole was in the midst of crime spree that would lead to the death of police officers across Oklahoma. On August 20th Cole and two accomplices entered a bottling plant in Tulsa and drew their revolvers. Five employees were present including a cashier and truck driver. All were asked for their money and valuables. Cole and his associates got away with around $400.
Four days later on August 24th, the police spotted a stolen Buick driving and gave chase. They finally caught up with one of the suspects in a home in Berryville, Arkansas. After refusing to surrender, two of the suspects escaped, but Ted Cole was hiding under a bed. A fire fight ensued and Cole would be struck and injured by a round fired by the police, who then moved in and made an arrest.
When Cole arrived for sentencing, he acted like the cocky 17 year old that he was. The judge, Paul Yeager, like FDR and his Attorney General Homer Cummings in the years to come, was a man who wanted to stamp out the crime wave that was emerging across the nation. He looked at the 17 year old Cole and gave him the maximum sentence in Oklahoma for robbery with a gun: “You may have the rest of the year to prepare yourself to die.” Cole was given the death sentence with an expiration date of December 31, 1929. Cole, hearing the sentencing turned pale.
The public, despite their fears of the trends of increased crimes, protested the killing of a teen for a robbery in which not a single round was fired. Eventually the governor was forced to step in amid rising public pressure and outrage. The sentence was eventually reduced to 15 years which he would be sent McAlester penitentiary to serve.
At first Cole showed no predilection for escape. That change in October of 1933 when he across the yard with rope to climb the wall. As he was preparing to make his way up the wall, he was shot down by a guard who had spotted the escape.
The following year, a string of attacks by various inmates occurred, Cole violently stabbed his cellmate with a homemade tool 27 times, killing the man. The vicious crime and his criminal record likely would land him back on death row, Cole didn’t want to take chance it. On the first of December 1934, Cole hid himself in a laundry bag that was scheduled to leave the prison. Armed with a prison shank, Cole was loaded onto the laundry truck. He waited a long enough to know that he was no longer within view of the guards or the prison and made his move. Ripping the laundry bag he threatened to kill the two prison trustees who were in charge of the laundry transport.
Cole would make his way to town and force a driver to drive him out of state with the threat of death. He forced the driver to take him from Oklahoma to Illinois. The newly formed FBI decided he Cole was a priority and tracked him in accordance with the Lindbergh kidnapping act. After several days Cole was spotted in Dallas Texas and a plan was made for his capture. As the Federal detectives moved in, Cole caught wind and made a run for the roof of the hotel in which he was staying. Officers and Cole had a shootout as the fugitive tried to make yet another escape. He wouldn’t be as lucky this time and was recaptured after being shot.
In May of 1935, after a year of causing more trouble and more attempted escapes, Roe was sentenced to kidnapping the man who he forced to drive him across state lines while on the lam. A plea deal was made that would have Cole serve 50 years for pleading guilty to the kidnapping. This was somewhat of a relief for Cole, as he could have been charged with the death penalty yet again. There was one stipulation: the judge after reviewing Cole’s record of escape, and serious crime, he recommend Cole be sent to the one year old island jail Alcatraz.
Early on, the prisoners sought flaws in security and blind spots of the staff. The industry buildings, were known to have allowed more freedom of movement and access to areas that were out of view for the guards on hand. One example of how the inmates rigged the system was a major factor in the first somewhat successful escape attempt.
The convicts who worked in the Mat shop would spend their days shredding old tires and making mats for the navy out of the recycled rubber. Like many of the industries, there were several rooms for the guards to watch over and count during they routine counts. In the mat shop, two cons would make sure to be out of site during the first count of the morning. They had a legitimate work reason to be back there, so they would not be in trouble when the guard had to go to the back to add their tally to the count. Over time the cons figured the guard would trust that the two missing inmates would be in the back. Their plan worked and eventually the guards just assumed two workers were in the back during morning count.
Alvin Karpis recalls that during the end of 1937 rumors of plans to break out were swirling around the island. He himself requested a transfer to the laundry in order to join Harvery Bailey and another inmate named Jim Clark (AZ-242) in an escape plan. Karpis quickly realizes that time is short for their escape plan. His former partner in kidnapping and robbery, Doc Barker, informs Karpis that he and two other inmates are planning a similar plan in the industry just below the laundry: the mat shop, where the routine of two missing inmates will gain them precious time. “I realize immediately that whoever makes his break first, the other group will have to abandon its plans since the entire area will be resecured once it is made obvious to the officials just how weak it is.”
In the mat shop it is decided that security is too tight for all the members of the escape plan to attempt to break. Only two will be able to make a run of it. It is decided that the two men who attempt to break The Rock would be Ted Cole and fellow Oklahoma criminal Ralph Roe. Doc Barker would be left on the island and out of the escape plan. The plan was straight forward: wait for a foggy day, break out of the weakly secured mat shop windows and make a swim for freedom.
“Sacramento Faces Record River Flood; 2 Die, 5000 Homeless, Rail, Air, Road Traffic Paralyzed.” – Oakland Tribune Dec 12, 1937.
On December 16th, 1937 the rushing waters that caused the flooding of the Sacramento river, made their way into the San Pablo Bay. The San Pablo bay is a salt water bay that feeds out into the ocean through the San Francisco Bay. The flood waters would over run San Pablo Bay and create rushing waters around the island of Alcatraz. The water was measured near the currently unfinished San Francisco Bay at a steady 8-miles an hour. Later the City Engineer and expert on the tides in San Francisco estimated that the strong current would make the swim impossible.
Ted Cole and Ralph Roe would wait for the first count of the afternoon to be finished by Joe Steere, the guard in charge of the Mat Shop, the two Oklahoman’s went to work. In the weeks leading up to the escape Cole and Roe had slowly cut their way through the soft metal bars in the back room of the Mat Shop that lead to the water’s edge. To cover their handy work they had used shoe shine polish to cover over the cuts to the bars.
The pair were equipped for the break. First, they had a pipe wrench, which they used to break through the Mat Shop window and later on on the fence gate. Each man also had a 5-gallon container that was welded shut and had a strap attached for a flotation device. Finally, the men each had a file that was reshaped into a shank which they would be able to use once they reached society.
Alvin Karpis, in his book on his time at Alcatraz, wrote that he was in the back of the laundry just above the Mat Shop in time to look down and see Cole and Roe exiting the window and running toward the fence gate. Watching them he sees: the pair are struggling with the lock on the gate, it is Ralph Roe, the older of the two is the one working on it. Ted Cole, growing frustrated grabs the wrench and immediately removes the lock. Once the lock has been removed, the two inmates carefully climb their way down a 20 foot nearly vertical drop of jagged rocks to reach the beach on the edge of the island.
Each man carrying his 5-gallon welded flotation device makes a run for the water. They dodge the obstacles of stacks of tires and the rolls of barbed wire fencing that lines the shore. Finally making their way through the jungle of hazards they are finally in the water.
The only men who know for sure what happened to Cole and Roe on that foggy day are the inmates who had prior knowledge of the break and were in a position to watch. Along with Karpis, a number of inmates watched from the laundry as well as the metal shop. Karpis recalls: “as they reach the open water they are picked up by the current and taken off rapidly in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge, now safely invisible in the low-hanging fog… As Jim Clark and I turn away from the window to an anxious Harvey Bailey, I whisper, ‘they’re gone.’” That was the last time Ted Cole and Ralph Roe would ever be seen.
As the guard in charge of the Mat Shop, Joe Steere, makes his count only an hour later, he realizes something is off. Moments later the whirling sound of the prison siren rings throughout the bay. Despite hazardous waters from the flooding, Coast Guard boats circle the island. They are joined by the prison launch which focuses its sights on the Mat Shop. Thousands of rounds of ammunition and grenades are discharged. All along the barbed-wire and tire stacks the ground is littered with bullets in hopes of finding their targets.
The escapes are never recaptured. They are recorded as dead on the official report of the incident, but no body or evidence of their death exists. For weeks the prison is on lock down while the prison and the FBI search the island and the surrounding areas for any clues. Nothing turns up.
In the months and years that followed, Cole and Roe were reportedly spotted many times. On March 25, 1938 the Daily Capitol News of Jefferson County of Missouri ran a story that the police had reports of the pair riding freight trains and hitchhiking trying to make their way to Chicago.
When asked by another inmate what Karpis saw that day, he revealed a grimmer tale than the one passed around the jail and newspapers across the country:
“Don’t kid yourself, they didn’t make it!…
“They’re dead! Jim Clark and I saw them go down!” As Jim and I stood at the window watching, Ralph and Ted picked up speed. They had just passed the buoy straining on its side from the strong current when, less than 500 yards from shore, Ralph disappeared as if someone grabbed him from under the water. The five-gallon can he had been clutching jumped high out of the water and sailed off on the swirling surface of dark water.
“Jim Clark and I looked at one another in shocked silence and back again to the bay just in time to see the strong undertow pull Ted into its cold arms, as he too disappeared beneath the surface. His homemade water wings spurted forward released of his weight. The shroud of white fog pulled itself respectfully over the spot where we last saw the face of Ralph and Ted.
“Clark and I agreed instantly to keep the secret of the murderous waters from all but a few trusted friends.”
Karpis and Clark, perhaps wanted to keep the information on the escape secret to avoid suspicion of the prison that they were somehow in on the plan. Or, Karpis and Clark wanted to keep the hope of escape alive in the minds of the other prisoners.
The reaction on the part of the cons was to spend the remaining part of the year celebrating, laughing at the Prison Bureau and Warden Johnston, as well as spreading rumors of yet another strike.
With the prison officially considering Cole and Roe dead, the Rock would still maintain it’s perfect record as an escape proof prison. Warden Johnston took note of the weak spots and worked on the security around the industry buildings. Tool-proof steel was added to all exterior windows and another guard was hired to monitor the area that Roe and Cole had made their escape through. On days when dense heavy fog covered the island, the prisoners would no longer be able to work in the industry buildings due to lack of visibility.
With rumors of strikes and the escape of the two Oklahoman’s fresh in their mind, the prison gave the inmates a few gifts for the new year. Good time was doubled, magazine maximum’s were increased and inmates could now have as many fiction books as they could afford. In the word’s of Karpis: “Petty gains but, like a water wheel, we are methodically wearing down the system.”
A scene made famous in the 1978 film Escape from Alcatraz was based on an early inmate that arrived on Alcatraz in December of 1935 named Rufe Persful (AZ-284). Persful would later be described by fellow inmate Roy Gardenr as the “worst man” in the prison. He was not only despised by the public for his record of robberies and killings, but his prior stays in prisons made him a target for his fellow prisoners.
Persful was found guilty of killing an elderly man when he was 18 years old. Sentenced to 15 years he was sent to Tucker Prison Farm in Jefferson County, Arkansas. Tucker Prison Farm was organized and run as a working farm and required special security to keep it fully operating. One of the peculiarities of Tucker Prison was the use of inmates as armed guards for other inmates. Shortly after arrival, Rufe Persful was selected to guard the crop fields for run away prisoners. He was issued a horse and high powered rifle as part of his new position.
This position in the prison would allow Rufe and other “high powers”, so called after their rifles, to escape the tough physical days laboring on the prison farm. Additionally, the job came with a strange incentive system. When Persful caught an escape attempt in action, he lowered his rifle and blasted a fellow prisoner away. The killing was rewarded with his fifteen year sentence being reduced to 9 years, from which he was quickly paroled.
Persful had not had his fill of crime. Several years later he was returned to Tucker after a parole violation stemming from shooting a woman in the back. Back on the farm he was once again issued a horse and rifle and made quick work of an escapee and was yet again paroled. Within months he was arrested again for the use of firearms in a robbery. Once again he was back at Tucker and once again made guard of the farm for his good work preventing escapes in the past. This pattern went on for a total of four paroles.
Finally in 1933 Persful stepped on the wrong side of the law by violating the recently enacted Federal Kidnapping Act from 1932. This time he was not sent to back to the farm because he was now in Federal, not State custody. Persful was sent to the Federal Prison in Atlanta. He was a good inmate there, but his behavior wouldn’t be his biggest problem.
Federal Prison, and many State Prisons weren’t the same as Tucker Farm. Prisoners in other prisons despised rats, rapists and anyone who would try to stop another man’s attempt to escape. Persful found himself on the wrong side of the jail bars at night and soon would fall victim to the punishment of other inmates. After a short and difficult stay in Atlanta, Persful was scheduled to be transferred to Alcatraz for protection against his Atlanta attackers. Unknown to Persful at the time, many of the worst prisoners would be headed to Alcatraz from Atlanta before him. They would tell the inmates on the island of Persful’s record and turn them against him even before his reputation was established. Learning this, Persful attempted to change his transfer destination to McNeil Island, but was unsuccessful.
Once he reached Alcatraz, Rufe Persful realized the situation was even worse than in Atlanta. A tale from his past that had haunted him since his days on Tucker Farm would be revealed to his fellow inmates. The story was: that an official prison guard at Tucker would get drunk and rape one of the women at the near by female prison camp. Learning that he had impregnated one of his victims, the guard turned to Persful and asked him to take care of the situation. Dutifully, Rufe treated her like an escapee and shot and killed the woman. The guard and prisoner may have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for the prison doctor who, during the autopsy, realized that the woman was pregnant, raising questions about her death.
This gruesome tale was more chum for the piranhas in Alcatraz and Rufe knew that his days were numbered. Persful would be beaten by inmates on a number of occasions, but acted properly towards the staff. He earned the job as a prison-trustee, a prisoner who would be allowed to have extra privileges and responsibilities in return for doing work other inmates weren’t trusted to do.
On June 25, 1937 Persful was performing his duties as a prison trustee. Johnston would describe the actions of the day “Persful was walking in the yard, seized a fire ax from the prison fire truck as it passed by… He ran to a near-by wooden block…”
Persful would situate his left hand flat and raised the hatchet in his right. With a single swift blow, the left hand of Rufe Persful was severed from his body. Another inmate, concerned with the commotion came to his aid. Persful held up the bloodied hatchet to hand to the inmate and asked him to remove the other hand. The inmate, horrified by the self mutilation he had just witnessed called for a guard who immediately took Persful to the hospital.
Johnston would initially downplay the seriousness of the situation. After receiving confirmation he would be allowed to discuss the matter publicly, Johnston described the incident as an “extreme act of exhibitionism.”
Eventually, Persful’s attempt to be sent away from Alcatraz was successful. Shortly after the violent scene, AZ-284 was transferred to Springfield, Missouri to join 20 other former Alcatraz inmates who had previously “blown their top,” and proved too far gone mentally to remain in the facility.
One morning the cells open for another monotonous day of prison life. The men make their way outside of their cells and for a line to go down to the mess-hall to eat breakfast. The line starts towards the stairs, but there is a blockage. Al Capone is standing outside of cell with the others but he is not dressed like the others. Clearly dazed, Capone, isn’t dressed for his morning meal, rather he is wearing his work uniform, gloves prepared and all.
Breaking with the rules, Capone is out of order and rounds out the line into the mess-hall. Something is clearly wrong. Capone staggers and vomits in the middle of the dining hall. Guards finally come to his aid and take him to the prison hospital. Capone would finish the rest of his time on Alcatraz in the mesh-wire “bug cages”, that were created for the prisoner’s who were too mentally gone for the main cell house.
Roe and Cole would not be the only prisoners to escape from the industries building. Another attempt was made by three inmates on May 23, 1938. Rufus Franklin (AZ335), James Lucas, the perennially bully to Al Capone (AZ224) and Thomas E. Limrick (AZ263) were the three participants. The three had each gained a long wrap sheet of robberies and murder. With the threat of a long sentence facing them, they decided it was worth trying their hand at escape.
The three inmates worked together in the wood shop, which was located in the industry building along with the laundry and the mat shop, from which Roe and Cole made their escape. After much observation and planning, the three planned to use brute force as the driving force of their escape.
Limerick, Lucas and Franklin had prepared by sawing the bars in the wood shop. The guards in the building were unarmed, but the tower guards were armed with rifles and handguns. The plan was to make their way through the ceiling of the wood shop, capture the guard tower on the roof, retrace their steps and capture one guard at a time as they made their way off the Rock.
On May 23, 1938 Rufus Franklin made his way into a secondary room in the wood shop. The room was used to sharpen saw blades. From this room Franklin could view the guard that was on the roof of the building that looked over the industries. After much studying he knew that the guard would leave the area where they planned to make the break. It was Franklin’s job to give the “all-clear”.
While in the sharpening room, the guard on duty, Royal C. Cline went in to inspect. Cline was armed with only a billy club that had an attached gas canister. As Cline turned around, a lethal blow was dispensed from behind by the inmate watching the window. Warden Johnston writes: “receiving four deep wounds and three others that were superficial. Two of the wounds in the back of the head penetrated the bony structure of the skull and the brain tissue was visible. The conspirators dragged the bleeding and unconscious officer across the floor… leaving a trail of blood… that is the way he was found huddled in the corner, his battered and bloody body covered with a pair of overalls.” (Johnston 3630 of 5100).
After the attack on Officer Cline, Lucas took the lead on the escape. He was armed with a pair of pliers and went to work removing the windows and kicking out the glass. As Lucas was working, Franklin and Limerick gathered up all the metal and tools they could stuff into their pockets to aid in their escape. Lucas, experiencing some nervousness about the escape, paused before he made his way out the window and onto the roof. His two fellow escapees, nudged the first in line out the window. It wouldn’t be nerves that would stop this escape.
Now on the roof, Lucas, Franklin and Limerick headed toward the tower.. The tower guard, Officer Stites, had no idea that he was about the be the central focus for the band of escapees. The three men approached the guard tower from the north, west and southwest.
Officer Stites was now surrounded in the small guard tower. Lucas, Franklin and Limerick now began to remove the metal pieces and bits from their pockets and turn them into projectiles in hopes of breaking the glass surrounding Stites and giving them access to the cash of weapons in the tower. The officers who worked in the towers knew that the glass was shatterproof, but not bullet-proof. Immediately a piece of iron made its way straight through the shatterproof glass, hitting Stites in the knee. Keenly aware that the situation was getting dangerous, the officer drew his .45 caliber pistol and began to shoot through the window.
The second shot caught Limerick just above his right eye. Limerick collapsed immediately. With one prisoner down, Franklin made a run at the tower. Office Stites quickly moved to shoot Franklin too, hitting him in the left shoulder. Franklin fell, but took one more shot at getting into the tower. He took the hammer that he had been carrying since bludgeoning Officer Cline in the wood-shop, and raised it in a last ditch effort to attack the officer. Officer Stites, realizing the immediate danger and the fact that his .45 was out of ammo, grabbed his rifle and shot Franklin in his other shoulder. Franklin fell onto the barbed-wire that was positioned around the roof of the building. Entangled in barbed-wire, with his hammer having fallen to the ground floor of the prison, Franklin was no longer active.
The final escapee, Lucas was working on forcing the door open as the other roof officer finally arrived after the sound of gun fire. Accessing the situation, Officer Stewart, another guard assigned to the roof that day, raised his shotgun at Lucas and told him to “Hold it!”. Lucas knew the escape was over and there was no more damage to be down, except to himself. Lucas laid down under the bead of Officer Stewart’s shotgun, ending the escape.
Officer Royal Cline was found and quickly transported to Marine Hospital, where he would die of head trauma the following day. Limerick was taken to the hospital ward, but little could be done for the gun shot he took to the head. Limerick died before the night was out.
Franklin was put up in the hospital ward to take care of his pair of gun-shot wounds to his shoulders. After a recovery of several months, Lucas and Franklin would be put on trial for the death of officer Cline. The trial was the talk of San Francisco. The public was shocked and fascinated by the workings of the prison and the prisoners on the island. Filled with engrossing testimony and evidence, including the hammer used by Franklin, window bracing used to get through the windows, prison clothing and the death mask of Cline to show where the damage was inflicted, the trial lasted nearly three weeks. The pair of surviving escapees would receive murder charges with a sentence of life imprisonment on Alcatraz.
This was the first casualty of an official on the island. Marking a turning point in the trajectory of the prison. Royal Cline would be the first victim of a blood feud between inmates vs captors. Each side taking their turn at retribution for perceived wrongs.
By February 1938, stories of Al Capone’s odd behavior had made it to the press, One headline in the Ogden Standard Examiner (Feb 8,1938) reads: “Al Capone… ‘He bursts into operas’. Capone’s Mind Fails at “Rock” Spends hours making bed and taking it apart again.”
Two days later a newspaper in Minnesota wrote: “Al Capone in Alcatraz is reported to have suffered a mental collapse… it may be an attempt to convince the doctors that he is insane and should be transferred to a prison hospital- or he may be really insane. It will be wise to take no chance with him. While he was convicted of defrauding the government in his income taxes, he was the head of a bad gang in Chicago, that committed many murders and by its racketeering methods gathered in many millions of dollars.” (St. Cloud Times, Saint Cloud, Minestrone Feb 10, 1938).
After months of rumors in the press and much debate by Warden Johnston on how to handle the delicate situation, Johnston would issue the following statement: “It was announced at the Department of Justice today that on February 5, 1938, Alphonse Capone, an inmate of the United State Penitentiary at Alcatraz, became ill. Since that time he has been confined to the prison hospital on the island. He is still under observation but the doctors have not made a definite diagnosis of the case.”
The Warden was bluffing, a series of spinal taps had been administered and confirmed brain damage to Capone, from his long untreated syphilis. Capone was clearly losing his bearings. Keeping Capone in the“bug cages” didn’t benefit his situation. There are stories of Capone and Carl Janaway, “the Terror of the Ozarks” conducting endless childish taunting matches.
The final straw for Capone, as far as Warden Johnston was concerned, would occur during one of these marathon jailhouse roastings. Capone had gotten under Janaway’s skin by offering him a million dollars once they were free. Janaway didn’t like Capone’s hot-shoting and told him to “fuck himself.” Capone continued on, heckling with calls of “Bug House Janaway, the millionaire.”
Finally, Janaway, locked in his flimsy cage, grabbed the contents of his bed pan and hurled feces at Capone. Covered in Janaway’s remnants, Capone retaliated with a barrage from his own bed pan. The two went at it, hurling insults and human waste through the bars of their cages. The mess was unimaginable.
Johnston couldn’t handle watching Capone slip further into his illness and had Dr. Ritchey prepare for Capone’s release.
By the end of 1938, Alvin Karpis was again involved in planning a new escape. This plan was headed up by Karpis’ long time associate and friend, Arthur “Doc” Barker. Barker was the younger brother of Fred Barker, who along with Karpis,lead the Barker-Karpis Gang. Doc roll in the gang was to be the enforcer, the muscle of the operation. Doc was the one the gang went to when they needed to nab and physically intimidate William Hamm and Edward Bremmer during their high-profile kidnappings in 1933 and 34 respectively. In the course of his criminal career, he would kill both police officials as well as innocent civilians.
By 1938, serving a life sentence for the Edward Bremmer kidnapping, Barker was already working out the roster for his escape plan. Rufus McCain, serving a sentence of 99 years for kidnapping and bank robbery, Henri Young, serving 20 years for bank robbery, Dale Stamphill serving a life sentence for kidnapping and William “Ty” Martin, serving 25 years for armed robbery; all signed on to join the escape along side Barker.
The plan began by getting the participants moved from the main cell house and into the isolation cells in the D-Block. While the isolation cells were used for punishment, it was well known that these are some of the oldest cells in the prison. Prisoner’s were known to pick the locks and sneak to other inmates cells to have late night sexual encounters. These rendezvous’ were also made possible by the lack of counts in the D-block. In B&C blocks, counts were made hourly throughout the night. In D-Block however, there was no count between midnight and 3:30a.m. Giving almost three and a half hours to work and escape.
Karpis would listen to Doc’s plan, but ultimately it was only the initial five conspirators who would make the escape. They knew that the locks on the cells would be no problem. Even a young boy with rudimentary knowledge of lock picking, would make easy work of these cells. Once the inmates were freed from their cells, the task became more difficult. The D-Block’s outward facing windows had tool-proof steel installed on them and would take some real effort to break through.
The outer layer of the bars could be penetrated with a basic hack-saw and ample time to work. The interior would require bar-spreaders. These two items weren’t easy to procure, and certainly weren’t easy to get into the cells. The hacksaw was the easier of the two to smuggle in. The main barrier to stop contraband were the metal detectors that dotted the route from the industries to the cell house. After many attempts the inmates realized that the metal detectors would only ring if metal was detected several inches above the ground. The plan was simple, the blade would be concealed in an industry workers shoe, who would then shuffle his feet near the ground in order to evade detection.
According to Karpis’ recalling of the escape, the bar spreader was brought into the cellhouse in a strange fashion. “Slim” Barlett (AZ-239) was allowed to work on his own metal projects due to his being an engraver in his previous life on the outside. Barlett would ask to build a metal guitar as a special project. The request was approved. Once the guitar was constructed he requested that he could bring the guitar back to his cell. The officials on the island saw no problem with the homemade instrument being brought into the cell house. Little did they know that “Slim” had built a removable bar-spreader into the all metal guitar.
By January 1939, there is hope in the New Year’s air for the inmates who had made their way to isolation. The hacksaw and bar spreader had now found their way into the D-Block and the crew began to work.
I’d like to quote Karpis again here:
“One night in early January there is a great commotion in B and C blocks as a few dozen cons raise a racket to attract the attention of the guards on the evening shift. In the midst of the yelling and hooting, a loud crack echoes in the cell house which sounds like a rifle shot. The cell-house guard and the gun-cage guard hear it, but, with the other noise being created, they cannot tell where it came from or what it was. They remain mystified and curious for a few minutes but soon relax, as the cons quiet down, they probably forget all about… Over in D block the tool-proof bar on one of the windows has been snapped with the bar-spreader. Now there is an opening leading to freedom.”
The intentional distractions worked. The guards didn’t notice the snap of the tool-proof bars. The smuggling in of the hacksaw and bar spreader went undetected. Although the escape would be undertaken by five inmates, many others were required for their assistance in the lead up to the escape. The joy that the Cole and Roe getaway brought to the prisoners two years before, would continuously fuel the mutineer spirit of the inmates.
With that inspiration from Roe and Cole escape, the 1939 escapees knew their best chance for getting off the island was a foggy day. They wouldn’t have to wait long. Their foggy day arrived on January 13, 1939. The five inmates closely followed their plan: they picked the locks on their cells, opened the pre-spread bars and went for the fence that separates them from the edge of the prison. Once over, they made their way down the steep cliff-like side of the island and down to the beach where they reached the waters shore.
Barker, McCain, Young, Tyler and Stamphill now faced their last obstacle, the San Francisco Bay’s rushing waters. Stamphill would later recall to Karpis: “From 300 or 400 feet above, the ocean looks pretty inviting, but when you’re standing on the beach with those cold angry waves splashing in your face you give it a second thought.”
The five split into two groups. McCain, Young and Tyler would search for driftwood to make a raft in one direction. Stamphill and Barker would do the same in the other direction.
Back in the prison, a good number of the inmates were still up silently waiting with the anticipation of action. Finally as the 3:30 a.m count rolls around, the guard assigned to the D-block becomes concerned. The lights go on in the cell house, followed soon by the siren that alerts the bay entire bay.
As the night progresses news, gossip and heckles swirl around the cell house.
In the Warden’s house, he receives a phone call from Associate Warden Miller letting him know that five prisoners were missing during the early morning count. Once the warden arrived in the cell house, he and Miller equipped officers with firearms to monitor and control all areas of the island. Warden Johnston took a search party to the residents homes including the doctor’s and his own to see if their worst fears of kidnapping women and children had become true. Luckily for the Warden, they found no one there.
Search beams rained down from the guard towers, from the launch and from coast guard’s boats, all patrolling the shore for the escapees. Finally the two figures were spotted ducking behind wood piles near a recessed cove on the islands perimeter. The guards yelled for them to stop. A volley of rifles and machine guns rang out in the night. The two figures stumbled to the ground.
Inside the cell house one inmate reports: “I heard machine guns firing out there!”
“Doc and me was trying to put the raft together on the beach while the other three was looking for more boards… What with the waves and the wind and them fog horns howling, there was just no way we could her the goddamn siren go off. First thing we know, there was that searchlight from the boat blinding us. We tried to duck out of the beams but when we started to run our legs was shot out from under us. We was hit about a dozen times.
“… we couldn’t even crawl without a fuckin’ lot of pain. I remember Meathead pointin’ at Doc and shoutin’ above the confusion ‘if that son of a bitch even moves and inch, shoot him in the head!”
“(Doc) was hurin’ bad and twistin’ his body tryin’ to straighten so as to ease the pain some. That was all those motherfuckers needed for an excuse. They shot him in the back of the head as he tossed around in the cold sand.” (Karpis 114)
Ty Martin was spotted hiding among the large rocks on the south shore of the island by Associate Warden Miller shortly after McCain and Young were captured nearby. Associate Warden Miller told M artin to throw down any items he had and surrender himself. Naked, cold, bleeding and afraid, Martin at gun-point gave himself up. “I give up! I give up! I’m stoppin’ deputy, don’t shoot me deputy, I’m done deputy, don’t shoot me.” (Johnston Loc 3681).
After months of planning and preparation, the escape was abruptly derailed. McCain and Young would be brought to isolation after being quickly captured. Ty Martin recovered in the hospital ward from injuries he sustained during the break. Dale Stamphill spent time in the hospital nursing gunshot wounds to the legs. “Doc” Barker was the least lucky of the bunch. The shots he took while writhing in pain would be fatal. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, Barker declared: “I was a fool to try it. I’m shot all to hell.” Barker was declared dead from a bullet to the head.
Just a few days prior to Barker’s unsuccessful escape, Associate Warden Miller removed Al Capone from the “bug-cages” in the prison hospital. Capone was going to be transferred. Miller accompanied Capone from Alcatraz to Los Angeles by rail. Capone would spend the final year of his income tax evasion sentence from 1931 at Terminal Island Prison.
Terminal Island must have been a great relief for Capone who had spent the last several years in the toughest prison in the country. Terminal Island had Los Angeles weather, more freedom for prisoners and less threat of violence. would spend one year here before being sent to Lewisburg Penitentiary. From there he would be released to his family.
Once free, Capone was a shadow of his former self. The legend who ran Chicago was not the same man that had transferred out of Alcatraz. While his illness was the main driver in Capone’s mental downfall, the harsh environment of Alcatraz did it’s part to further break the man down. From tough guy, to schemer, to model prisoner, to yellow-rat, to bug, Capone’s legend would be overtaken by the new legend his name contributed to creating. Perhaps Capone never belonged in Alcatraz to begin with, but his early presence solidified Alcatraz as the most notorious prison in America.
After the failed escape plan of Barker, McCain, Young, Stamphill and Martin, McCain and Young would each spend 22 months in solitary confinement. Once released the two returned to new jobs in the industries.
A memory from the early morning of the escape continued to haunt Henri Young every day. When McCain and Young were attempting to get off the island, McCain revealed a key piece of information, McCain didn’t know how to swim. During the time in solitary, this confession grew in Young’s mind to somehow become the failure point of the escape and the reason they had not succeeded.
On December 3, 1940 Henry Young descends from his work station in the model shop to the tailor shop below. He is carrying two shivs he had been working on. Rufe McCain waits in the tailor shop, unaware of the danger approaching. A warning is slipped to McCain “Young is coming with a couple of shivs.”
Before he knows it, Young has sliced McCains abdomen open, to quote Alvin Karpis one more time: “One slash rips across Rufe’s stomach- only one-it slices his liver in two and his guts burst from the crevice in full view of the insane stare radiating from Henry Young’s eye sockets.” (Karpis 119).
For Capone and Persful, their escape from Alcatraz required thorough proof that they did not belong there. The men who chose to escape by their own choice faced the very real potential of death. To them it was worth it. After all, what did they have left to lose? The prison was heating up with desperate acts of violence and killing on all sides. Alcatraz had become a very dangerous place.
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