Alcatraz – Part 3: Escape! and Capone’s Last Years


Alcatraz, 1938

The tension in Alcatraz heats up in 1937 as the guards and prisoner’s clash. Escapes will be made, prisoner’s and guards will be killed. Al Capone spends his final years on the island. And another con’s reputation finally catches up to him in a shocking act. Alcatraz is beginning to live up to it’s reputation as the toughest prison in America.

Al Capone at Alcatraz.
Theodore “Ted” Cole and Ralph Roe – First two inmates to make a planned attempt at escaping Alcatraz.
Flooding of the Sacramento River added to the chaos and confusion to the 1937 escape plot. The weather caused not only rushing waters, but opaque fog that helped conceal the fates of the escapees. Front page of: Oakland Tribune December 12, 1937.
Alvin Karpis, Witness to the Roe and Cole escape. The longest serving prisoner of Alcatraz.
Daily Capital News March 25, 1938
Rufus “Whitey” Franklin criminal record. Part of the 1938 Mat Shop Escape.
Jimmy “Tex” Lucas, Leader of the 1938 Mat Shop Escape
Thomas Limerick, a member of the escape plan. Killed by a shot to the head by Officer Stites during the May 23, 1938 escape plot.
Officer Royal C. Cline, the officer on duty in the mat shop during the 1938 escape. Died of injuries sustained during the escape.
The tower which Lucas, Limerick and Franklin attacked in an attempt to seize tower-guard officer Stites’ weapons. San Francisco Examiner November 18, 1938
James “Tex Lucas (far left) and Rufus “Whitey” Franklin, being escorted to jail to be tried for the death of Officer Cline during the escape.
Officer Stites (far left) giving testimony on the May 23, 1938 escape plot.
“Capone’s Mind Fails at ‘Rock'” – The Ogden Standard Examiner Feb. 8,1938. Rumors of Al Capone’s mental decline makes its way to the press.
Photo of Carl Janaway, who spent time in the “bug cages” in the hospital ward of Alcatraz. From the McComb Daily Journal, Jan. 20, 1937.
Karpis and Barker from their kidnapping days. From – Pensacola News Journal Jan 19,1935.
The participants of the escape organized by “Doc” Barker in 1939. From The Courier Journal (Louisville, KY) Jan 14, 1939.
Henri Young on trial for the murder of Rufus McCain. Photo from the San Francisco Examiner Feb. 12, 1941.




Part 3



“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): 

Easter 1937:

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. 

  1. 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!” 

Stamphill recalls:

“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.  

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


Newspapers (Historical):

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Daily News
  • McComb Daily Journal
  • Oakland Tribune
  • The Courier Journal
  • The Daily Capital
  • The Daily Oklahoman
  • The Evening News
  • The Indianapolis Star
  • The Ogden Standard
  • The San Fransisco Examiner


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



Part 2


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 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:



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.”


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.


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.  


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. 



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.



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


Alcatraz – Part 1 – The Warden and the Rock

– The Recurring Problem of Crime – Anastasia Scott’s 47 Minute Swim – The Bureau Takes Over the Island – A Kingpin’s V8 and the Cook County Sheriff – Kansas Union Transfer Massacre and Dead Public Enemies – Moving Furniture –

As dusk settled on the era of prohibition, the United States was in the midst of a crime wave that spread across the nation. Would be bootleggers turned their attention to other vice trades including holdups, bank robberies and kidnappings. The introduction of powerful getaway cars and high capacity Thompson submachine guns allowed criminals to outrun and outgun the law.

FDR’s New Deal program created public works projects with the hope they would help move the nation out of the Great Depression that hit the economy in 1929. A part of this program would be to focus on stopping cross-state crimes that were the calling card of the modern gangster and bank robbers. Laws were created for this purpose and their enforcement would be left to a small, then unknown agency, that would eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

As the Federal Prison population swelled and the prisoner’s names became more infamous, there was a clear need for a place to house the worst of the worst from across the nation. The opening of Alcatraz Federal Prison signified a major change in the way the U.S. Government handled mobsters and outlaws. The reign of gangsters bootlegging, running brothels, speakeasies, protection rackets, gambling wires and cold blooded gangland killings were coming to an end. Most of the criminals would not survive being hunted by the law, but many of those that did would find themselves in the state-of-the-art prison: Alcatraz.

Attorney General Homer Cummings. Along with FDR, helped push for the further the power of the FBI by creating a series of new laws that made kidnapping, crossing state lines with stolen goods and bank robbery federal laws. He would come upon Alcatraz in 1933 and convert the island to house the new class of federal inmates.

Alcatraz in 1920, thirteen years prior to being taken over by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Warden James A. Johnston. Warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary from 1933-1948.

After math of the Kansas City Massacre – June 17, 1933.

Al Capone and U.S. Marshall Henry C.W. Laubenheimer playing cards during prison transport from Chicago to Atlanta.

Map of Alcatraz Island.

Mess Hall (1950s) being inspected by a guard before prisoners are brought in.

The chow line in the mess hall of Alcatraz.

Inmates enjoying recreation time on the yard.

A guard looks over the yard.

A cell on Alcatraz

“It was the toilet paper I use first because , after the long trip, I need to sit on the “crapper”. I look across the corridor to see most of the guys doing the same thing. It’s a strange situation for all of us, takin a shit while staring at someone else a few feet away doing likewise, but just one of the things we will have to become used to.” – Alvin Karpis, “On the Rock”


Episode 1: Fortifying the Island


– The Recurring Problem of Crime – Anastasia Scott’s 47 Minute Swim – 

The Bureau Takes Over the Island – A Kingpin’s V8 and the Cook County Sheriff – 

– Kansas Union Transfer Massacre and Public Enemy #1s –

– “The Crapper”– Moving Furniture –



As dusk settled on the era of prohibition, the United States was in the midst of a crime wave that spread across the nation. Would be bootleggers turned their attention to other vice trades including holdups, bank robberies and kidnappings. The introduction of powerful getaway cars and high capacity Thompson submachine guns allowed criminals to outrun and outgun the law.

FDR’s New Deal program created public works projects with the hope they would help move the nation out of the Great Depression that hit the economy in 1929. A part of this program would be to focus on stopping inter-state crimes that were the calling card of the modern criminal. Laws were created for this purpose and their enforcement would be left to a small, then unknown agency, that would eventually be rebranded the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

As the Federal Prison population swelled and the prisoner’s names became more infamous, there was a clear need for a place to house the worst of the worst from across the nation. The opening of Alcatraz Federal Prison signified a major change in the way the U.S. Government handled mobsters and outlaws. The reign of gangsters bootlegging, running brothels, speakeasies, protection rackets, gambling wires and cold blooded gangland killings were coming to an end. Most of the criminals would not survive being hunted, but many of those that did would find themselves in the state-of-the-art prison: Alcatraz.


“’The Recurring Problem of Crime.’: For some time I have desired to obtain a place of confinement to which could be sent our more dangerous, intractable criminals. You can appreciate, therefore, with what pleasure I make public the fact that such a place has been found. By negotiation with the War Department we have obtained the use of Alcatraz Prison, located on a precipitous island in San Francisco Bay, more than a mile from shore. The current is swift and escapes are practically impossible. It has secure cells for 600 persons. It is in excellent condition and admirably fitted for the purpose I had in mind. Here may be isolated the criminals of the vicious and irredeemable type so that their evil influence may not be extended to other prisoners who are disposed to rehabilitate themselves.” – U.S. Attorney General Cummings radio address, October 12, 1933

FDR’s Attorney General Homer Cummings, was a Chicago-born progressive and had previously help three terms as the mayor of Stamford Connecticut. Cummings was tasked with building a model prison to house the worst criminals. 

Cummings had originally chosen a small island in Alaska for a new state-of-the-art prison. On the boat trip back, Cummings would spot the Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz as they passed the San Francisco Bay. The island had been a Military Prison during the Civil War. Later it was converted to a fortress and then the disciplinary barracks that was in place when Cummings happened to pass by on his trip.

There was a great deal of skepticism when the plans were announced to the public.

San Francisco Chronicle October 20th, 1933:  “According to officials in Washington, Alcatraz was selected as a gangster prison because it is surrounded by “deep rushing waters and is 100 percent escape proof.”… Early this week these same officials were startled to learn Anastasia Scott, 17-year-old-girl, had successfully undertaken the swim in 47 minutes.” The Chronicle reported the protests by Women’s Clubs from across northern California. They publicized more women who had swam across the bay on multiple locations as proof that escapes were possible. 

The concerns weren’t limited to escapes however. The Chronicle also reported that locals worried about having their towns being over run by gangsters who would flock to be near their leaders to take orders. They noted the proximity to state universities and how detrimental the criminal element would be for the students. Think of the children!


Despite the public’s protests the Department of War turned over the island to the Prison Bureau and AG Cummings was eager to get started.. The Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, was put in charge of reinforcing the island. Bate’s and Cummings first task was to hire a warden. They found their man in James A. Johnston the former warden of Folsom and then San Quentin. Johnston left San Quentin in 1924 due to the new Governor of California wanting to reward the job as a political favor to one of his men. 

Johnston’s reputation was publicly outstanding, to say the least. When he left, or was pushed out of San Quentin, officials and newspapers raved about his performance over the past 12 years. In 1924 the San Francisco Examiner reflected on Johnston’s time as Warden “there never was a warden in all California’s history who remotely approached him in sheer ability, insight and achievement….California had always treated its convicts as men deliberately bad, requiring punishment: as willful enemies of society… Johnston perceived that the problem of the criminal was psychological and social.”

It continued, “Observe that the idea of punishment is altogether foreign to this attitude… Medical men do not punish the diseased. They seek to cure… San Quentin today is a sort of university and health-center combined.” While Johnston was Warden at San Quentin the recidivism rate (prisoners who returned to the prison for new crimes) drastically decreased. 

Warden Johnston would arrive for work on the island on January 2, 1934. The first order of business was to reinforce the prison building that was erected in 1909. The criminal’s that had been housed there in the past were usually military prisoner’s. They would have been much less prone to escapes. The men who would arrive at Alcatraz would be facing long, difficult sentences and would certainly be on the look out for any gaps in security.

To combat future escape plots, Warden Johnston would pace the island looking for any improvements to physical or operational security. Tool proof bars were installed on half the cells. Gun galleries were installed on two ends of the prison unit. Six guard tower’s were erected, strategically across the island. Barbed wire was strung along the walls around the work area and all across the shore line. Tunnels were checked for seams and either locked or filled with brick and mortar.

Connection to the mainland was somewhat limited. There would be three phone lines that had incoming connections to the island from across the bay. Outgoing calls could only be made from the captain’s office. There were several occasios when Alcatraz lost it’s phone line due to ships anchoring and cutting the phone line.  A large sign was installed reading “Cable Crossing. Do Not Anchor.” On occasions when the cable was disturbed, two way short wave radios were used to keep in contact with the mainland. 

Warden Johnston was summoned back to Washington once work on the island was nearly complete. He met with Attorney General Cummings and Director of Prisons, Sanford Bates in order to iron out the details of Alcatraz. Johnston summarizes the goals put forth during the that meeting: 

“They wanted to make sure it would be tight enough to hold men who had already achieved notoriety by escaping from other prisons. They wanted a firm rein over men who had defied regulations and abused privileges in other prisons. They wanted to deflate “big shots” and exhibitionists who seemed to glory in their bad reputation… What it boiled down to in essence was that Alcatraz would be a prison of maximum custody with minimum privileges.” (Johnston).

The other issue that was discussed in Washington was how inmates would be selected for transfer to Alcatraz from other state penitentiaries. They agreed to work with wardens and classification committees from other institutions to determine the worst prisoner’s. These prisoner’s included men with large criminal networks who could attempt to be sprung from prison. Men with long wrap sheets. Men whose reputation’s drew attention to the prisons. Men wanted by multiple jurisdictions. Escapees and attempted escapees. Rioters and ring-leaders. Men with histories of violence against officers and other inmates would also be transferred to Alcatraz. Johnston wrote “they would select their worst; I would take them and do my best.” (Johnston)

The initial staffing of Alcatraz was supervised by Warden Johnston. Johnston and Bates wanted a well trained and career oriented prison staff. They created training classes on the McNeil Island, Lewisburg, Leavenworth and Atlanta prison. The first class of new recruits, however, was trained in New York. “For several weeks they were put through a rigorous course of physical training – gymnastics, setting up exercises, marching, drilling, boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, use of gas, handling firearms. They listened to lectures on sociology, psychology, penology, criminology and behaviorism.” (Johnston) These guards would be making a regular prison guards salary, but were locked in with the worst prisoners from across the country with no access to weapons, on  a remote island. 

Johnston continues: 

“Most of the questions indicated that the student officers were more interested in every day problems of practical management in dealing with the inmates that in sociological theories.

They wanted to know how we controlled the prisoner’s, how we punished them, what we did to them when they refused to work, when they attacked each other, or had contraband articles, or were discovered plotting or violating rules.

From the way they worded the questions and the way in which they explained them in discussion it was evident that when they came to the island they expected to see prisoners being severely punished for minor infractions therefore their surprise when they noted what they considered fair treatment.” (Johnston)

The guards preoccupation with punishment was clear prior to arriving on the island. Bate’s and Johnston planned to keep this impulse checked through rigorous rules and regulations for both the prisoners as well as the guards. Rumors would spread from the island of the poor treatment of the prisoner’s and perhaps writing his reflections later Johnston was attempting to both clear himself as well as the prison of any violent or unjust acts.. 

Johnston would continue to describe the purpose of discipline to Alcatraz:

“When discussing discipline for prisoners we should keep in mind the purpose of the prison. Alcatraz is reserved by the government for perplexing problem prisoners and organized on the basis of maximum security with every precaution taken to insure safe-keeping of prisoners and to prevent possibility of escape…

Privileges are limited, supervision is strict, routine is exacting, discipline in firm, but there is no cruelty or undue harshness, and we insist upon a decent regard for the humanities…

“Discipline in the sense of training is more important than discipline that is synonymous with punishment.”

With the staff hired and trained, the island surrounded by barbed wire and gun towers and all seams checked, the island was secured and ready for inspection. 


Attorney General Cummings was on hand on August 18, 1934, to give the final approval on his pet project that would soon become known as “The Rock”. Just months earlier, in May, AG Cummings was inspecting another Federal prison in Atlanta. There were wide spread rumors on an inmate buying off guards, smuggling drugs into the prison and generally being treated better than the other inmates. Murmurs of bribes had gone all the way to the House of Representatives through the spread of a gangster obsessed media, parroting stories of former prisoners. Cummings, however, found no grounds for these rumors.  

The inmate in question was Chicago racketeer and mobster Alphonse “Scarface” Capone. There was a basis for this rumor, years ago when Capone was locked up in the Cook County Jail during his original sentencing and imprisonment. From his cell in Chicago, Capone ran his entire outfit, wore his own custom suites, silk underwear, had prostitutes brought in and conducted business meetings with his associates from the outside. Although, unable to leave Capone had a good setup for business in the jail. He was given what amounted to a private suite and all the protection he could ever want. 

When news leaked out from Cook County jail, a local FBI investigator, followed by the then Attorney General George E. Q. Johnson began work investigating the situation in Chicago. After talking with the Cook County warden and other employees of the jail, both the FBI and Attorney General decided that the rumors were unfounded and that Capone was being treated just like everyone else in the jail. 

Just a week after the investigation was dropped a reporter for the Lincoln Evening Courier in the small town of Lincoln, Illinois ran the plates on a car that had broken down. The souped up 16 cylinder car stood out in the small rural town when the reporter took notice. The car had been traveling back to Chicago from Springfield when it stalled on the side of the road. The driver was the Warden of Cook County. Once the reporter had the information back on the car, the story became a little clearer. The car came back as owned by Mae Capone, the wife of Al. 

The Lincoln Evening Courier ran the story and it lead to new investigations of Cook County Jail. The warden was ultimately found to have no knowledge of the car being Capone’s but the suspicion of payoffs and special treatment followed Capone all the way to Atlanta Penitentiary when Cummings made his investigations in 1934. 


While Capone was locked up in Cook County beginning in 1931 and then Atlanta in May 1932, the violence that began in the 20’s swelled. Kidnappings and violent shootouts with the cops were on the rise and there were new names of young gangsters in the headlines of newpapers. The FBI would be given new powers to name, track, capture or kill those that were deemed “Public Enemies”. 

The term was first used by Chicago Crime Commission’s chairman, Frank Lloyd to  create newspaper headlines about the growing crime problem in Chicago in 1931. The first list was created by him locally and at the top of that list was was Capone. 

A new designation would be created Public Enemy #1. Of the four men ever named Public Enemy #1, three would be killed by law enforcement in 1934, the same year Alcatraz opened. These men unlike Capone, weren’t mobsters, rather they were professional criminals. John Dillenger would be slain in July 1934 after a crime spree with his Terror Gang across the midwest. Baby Face Nelson,  would terrorize the new FBI agency, killing three agents. Nelson’s run would end when he had a shootout with the FBI in Barrington, in November of 1934 leaving him dead.

Pretty Boy Floyd was another bank robber of the post-Capone era crime wave. His crimes included a string of bank robberies up and down the midwest. He would go on to kill several police while on the run. Floyd would garner more public notoriety when he was linked to the shocking Union Transfer Massacre in Kansas City on June 17th 1933.

The Union Transfer Massacre, also know as the Kansas City Massacre is worth mentioning in the context of Alcatraz, because it is in many ways the start of the end of the Gangster Era, in the United States. Frank “Jelly” Nash was a horse riding train robber for most of his early criminal career. Like many pre-prohibition outlaws, Nash had to change with the times and traded in his horse and revolver for a fast car and fully auto machine gun. 

In response, the the then unknown J. Edgar Hoover made a play with FDR to gain increased power’s to track criminals over state lines. Prior to this, interstate policing was nearly impossible and bank robbers would be nearly free once they crossed state lines. 

Frank “Jelly” Nash was locked up and then escaped from Leavensworth prison. After three years on the lam, two FBI agents caught up with Nash in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Word got out to his criminal friends and plan was hatched to break Nash out during transport. Once the agents and Nash reached Kansas, they were joined by Kansas City police officers to assist in the transfer from train to the Chevrolet that would be complete the journey back to Leavensworth Prison. The criminal syndicate laid in wait.

When all parties arrived in Kansas City on June 17, 1933 there was tension in the air. The agents scouted the scene but saw nothing wrong. Nash was escorted from the train through the station with a total of seven law enforcement agents. Three gun man saw the Nash and his seven man entourage exit the station and make their way to the transport car. As FBI agent Caffrey unlocked driver’s side door, one of the men in the car noticed the gunmen lurking in addition to a machine gun. 

Without time to react, shots were fired. Who shot first is still up for debate historians of the era. The car would be riddled with bullets. Two Kansas City police officers were struck by bullets dying immediately on the scene. The driver, FBI Agent Caffrey was hit as well and would later die on the way to the hospital. 

The three mysterious gunmen would approach the smoking car and access the situation, noting the dead law men and the lifeless body of the man they came to break out Frank Nash were all dead.

 “They’re all dead, let’s get out of here,” one of the gun men yelled to his accomplices. 

This tragic killing demonstrated the power of crime syndicates and the inability to control them in the 1930’s. In the aftermath the FBI would be allowed for the first time to carry firearms and make arrests of criminals. With these new power’s they would track and kill Pretty Boy Floyd, for his presumed involvement in the Union Transfer Massacre. 

With the new laws, firepower and arrest powers given to the FBI, they would went to work creating and erasing Public Enemies.


While Capone was locked up in Cook County beginning in 1931 and then Atlanta in May 1932, violence swelled as the repercussion of the depression set in. Desperate men made the headlines of newspapers. Bank robberies, kidnappings and murder were all on the rise. The public was in fear they would get caught up in the violence. With the top public enemies on the lam or exterminated, Alcatraz needed a few test cases to make their appeal to the public.

The Capone biographer, Lawrence Bergreen writes, “The super penal colony required a supply of super criminals equal to its reputation. John Dillenger would have been among the first to be assigned there, but he was already dead, as were so many other gangsters and badmen who had inspired Cummings to create Alcatraz in the first place. In their absence the slightly older Capone filled the bill quite nicely.” 

By 1934 Al Capone was beginning his mental descent due to syphilis that he had contracted as a young man. Most times he acted like a feeble child with grandiose dreams of his high ranking friends finally breaking him out of prison. He would often complain about how his high powered attorney’s weren’t doing enough to get him out of prison, or how his old associates weren’t greasing the wheels of politician’s sufficiently. Capone was truly a shell of his former self. 

It was this Capone that would be roused out of his cell on the night of August 18th, the same day Cummings gave final approval for Alcatraz. His cellmate, Red Rudensky recalls that night: Capone refused to leave his cell without knowing where he was being taken. When he was told he was going to see the warden he still refused to leave. As he was arguing with the guards other prisoner’s were yelling for him to keep quiet, until a voice from another cell shouted “You’re going to the Rock, Al!.” Rudensky remembered seeing “all the fire and hate and strength and torment erupt suddenly. He was all power and anger as he leaped at the nearest guard, shouting obscenities.” Rudensky joined the fight but was knocked out and when he came to, Capone was gone.

As the 18th turned to the 19th, Capone along with fifty three of Atlanta’s worst prisoner’s were boarded onto specially reinforced trains for transfer to an officially unknown destination. Although the passengers and the press weren’t notified, everyone knew this train was headed for the new super max prison in the San Francisco Bay. With the echoes of the Kansas City Massacre in the air, the Prison Bureau and the railroads worked together to create an airtight plan. 

They began by finding suitable locations for stops along the way. At each stop armed guards would protect the train while the inmates were shackled to their chairs and handcuffed. The public, the press and other prison officials were kept out of the loop when it came to where the train would stop in addition to it’s final destination.

Warden Johnston would take a launch named the McDowell from Alcatraz to Tiburon to meet the incoming prisoners. Tiburon was chosen as the transfer spot in order to draw less publicity than if they had terminated their trip in Oakland. A barge was waiting for the prison cars to arrive. Once loaded onto the barge, a heavily armed coast guard ship escorted the three specially made prison trains to the docks of Alcatraz. 

Handcuffed in pairs, leg shackles removed, sweaty and stinking from the long ride from Atlanta the first prisoners stepped off the train.  The yard was filled with it’s new inhabitants. Featuring sweeping views of the the bay and the city, the yard would be a constant reminder to the inmates of the freedom just a swim away. 

From the moment they stepped off the train the new inmates were surrounded by guards on the ground and armed COs watching from their tower’s above. Escorted by guards who had made the trip from Atlanta, two by two, pairs of inmates were announced by name and brought into the cell house from the yard. Warden Johnston, waiting at a table to meet the his new prisoners, would note their prison sentence, give them their number and turn them over to a guard for further processing. 

Johnsto n would later write that when the convicts were removed from the trains he immediately recognized Al Capone from all photos in the newspapers. Capone, whispering to the other lined up inmates caught the wardens attention. Once Capone’s turn came, he approached the warden and began small talk. Johnston would have no part of it. He gave Capone his number and sent him along his way to the next step of intake. 

After the hand over from Atlanta to Alcatraz, a guard would walk the man to the bathing room where they were stripped naked and showered. The medical examiner of the island would then administer ad Wassermann test for antibodies (including syphilis) and check the inmates with a thorough orifice inspection. 

The Wassermann test would confirm Capone’s earlier diagnosis of syphilis. Healthcare was not the only purpose of these invasive exams. Warden Johnston later noted “ I never saw a naked man yet who could maintain any sort of dignity.” The stripping nude and searching of orifices was the first of many acts to break the new prison population.

Once cleaned and inspected each man was given a card with his name, prison number and cell number written on it. The inmate was issued the following for their wardrobe on the island:  1 B&W 1 pair of pants, 1 cap, 1 wool coat, 1 blue shirt,1 belt, 1 pair of shorts, 1 bathrobe, 3 pairs of socks, 2 handkerchiefs, 1 raincoat, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 wool undershirt (on request), 1 pair of slipper and one light undershirt. All clothing issued on the island was XL.

Now the inmates were clothed, the guard escorted into the cell house to their cells. 

While walking through the cell house for the first time, a new inmate would likely notice the bright natural light from the many windows of the building. The scent of salt water from the surrounding bay filled the air. The Warden had chosen to paint the cells a mint green in an attempt to use soothing colors to lessen the harshness of prison life. Visitor’s from other jails would later remark that they had never seen such a clean, fresh smelling and well shined prison. The constant shining of the floor would often make it easy for guards and inmates alike to slip, creating another obstacle to escape. 

The main cell house consisted of four cell blocks that ran the length of the building. The cell blocks were each three tiers high, separated by long corridors named after famous streets from across America. Cell blocks A & D were not initially upgraded due to a shortage of funding. The main population of the prison was to be housed in cell blocks B and C. These two blocks were separated by a hall way dubbed “Broadway,” which lead from the administration offices straight back to the dining area. Across both far ends of the cell house gun galleries were installed, connected by catwalks that would give the guards the advantage of movement and height if they needed to put down any trouble.

At the end of Broadway was the door that lead into the mess-hall. The mess-hall was considered by staff and prisoners to be one of the most dangerous areas of the prison. Here the inmates would have metal tools for eating and also outnumber the guards by a good number. If things went wrong in the mess hall, things could go very bad, very quickly. Expecting the worst, Warden Johnston had gas canisters installed in the ceiling of the mess hall. He would tell prisoner’s that if any violence broke out, the entire mess hall would immediately fill with poisonous gas from canisters that visibly hung above their heads. The population on Alcatraz would often refer to the messhall as “the gas chamber” for this reason.

Next to the kitchen lies the yard. The yard would act as one of the few reliefs of the silence of the cell house. Despite the fun and games, the yard was a place that a con had to watch his back. Alvin Karpis would later reflect on the yard: “The central area is like a squared-off version of an old Roman arena. The years ahead are to be filled with many dangerous contests played to the death… It almost appears as if the architect foresaw the dramatic potential of the yard because… he has built in a “spectators’ gallery” of cement steps overlooking “the pit” area.” (Karpis 45).


After the days of grueling travel, finally booked into the new state of the art prison an inmate would find himself in a five by nine foot cell. Each cell was furnished with a folding bed and thin mattress, a seat less toilet which faced the cell across the corridor and sat next to the head of the bed and a tiny sink that only ran cold water. Each inmate was given a copy of the rules and a run down on how they would be counted and moved from their cells. This list of rules was long and strict. One of the strictest rules was the rule-of-silence that wouldn’t be relaxed for almost 6 years.

Alcatraz was also different from other prisons in that it housed each inmate in their own cell. Other prisons would have either open day rooms where all the inmates bunked together, or they would typically have cellmate’s. A.G. Cummings and Warden Johnston made this choice early on to help prevent conspiracies of violence and mutiny. The silence and lack of cellmate weighed heavily on the prisoners in the early years. 

In their cells the inmates must have reflected not only on their journey to San Francisco, but the paths that lead ultimately led them there. Soon their mind would turn to their new surroundings, how they would be treated, how they would get along, how they could get out.

The kidnapper and gang leader, Alvin Karpis would be locked up two years after the opening of Alcatraz, but his account of the first moments in his cell were common: “It was the toilet paper I use first because , after the long trip, I need to sit on the “crapper”. I look across the corridor to see most of the guys doing the same thing. It’s a strange situation for all of us, takin a shit while staring at someone else a few feet away doing likewise, but just one of the things we will have to become used to.”

Now that the inmates were cleaned, dressed and secured to their cells, Warden Johnston took a few moments in his office to send a telegraph to Attorney General Cummings: “Fifty three crates furniture from Atlanta received in good condition-installed-no breakage.” For Capone and the fifty two other convicts from Atlanta, they were now home. 

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