Tag Archives: Alcatraz

Have You Seen These Men?

Alcatraz is an island 1.5 miles off the shoreline of San Francisco.  How much do you know about the escape attempts from that notorious prison?  Today’s photo (shot this past May) is of the cell of one of the escapees.  Here’s the story about the attempted escapes…and their outcomes.

During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoner had successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three escaped and were never found. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to what would become known as the Battle of Alcatraz.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and his brother, Clarence Anglin, carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.  Behind the prisoners’ cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot (0.91 m) wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.

The escape route led up through a fan vent; the prisoners removed the fan and motor, replacing them with a steel grille and leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum abrasive cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mache dummies in their cells affixed with stolen human hair from the barbershop, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m.

The official investigation by the FBIwas aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who was part of the escapees’ group but was left behind (West’s false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers (John and Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he got out, his companions were gone). Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were discovered on nearby Angel Island.  The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay. But there were sightings of the men over the years, and friends and family of Morris and the Anglins claimed to have been receiving postcards written in the men’s handwriting.

The TV show Mythbusters investigated the escape stories, concluding it is “plausible” that the three survived their intricate escape attempt. The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris.  The film strongly implied that the three men made it.  If you see them, be sure and tell your local law enforcement officials!

The cell of one of the escapees...

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1944, US forces landed on the coast of Leyete Island in the Philippines, fulfilling the promise made by General McArthur: I will return, which he made after his forces retreated to escape from the Japanese army.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: there are 4,300 known species of ladybugs in the world.

Forewarned (and Bummed)

I have never been imprisoned.  I never want to be imprisoned.  I have to think it would be a horrible, horrible experience.  If you were imprisoned between 1934 and 1963, one of the worst places must have been Alcatraz Island in San Francisco bay.  It is an isolated chunk of rock sitting far enough off shore that it is deadly to consider swimming the distance, though some have done so recreationally!  The currents are strong, the water cold, and hypothermia is a very real possibility.

But what you may not know is that from 1850-1934, Alcatraz was a military base, even during the Civil War.

I’ve been to Alcatraz a couple of times (only as a visitor!).  Today’s photo is of a sign that greets your boat as you approach the landing on the island…a warning that the wise will heed!  That’s the forewarned part of the title for today.  The “Bummed” part is because my external backup hard drive seems to have gone belly up…and I had lots of old photos on it!  Most of them are also on DVD’s somewhere around here, but I’m still BUMMED…but probably not as BUMMED as someone who tried to get a prisoner off Alcatraz would have been when caught!!!!!  So, here’s a warning for you even if you don’t got to Alcatraz: always have more than one way to back up your data!

You should pay attention to this...warning at Alcatraz landing

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1967, the Soviet spacecraft, Venera 4, entered the atmosphere of Venus and sent back data.  Contact was lost 15 miles above the Venusian surface.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: cocaine was hailed as a wonder drug in the late 1800’s, but was banned in the United States in 1914.

Play Time

Even the crooks and criminals on Alcatraz had to have a bit of exercise.  After all, how much exercise can you get in a 5×9 cell that has a toilet, sink, metal cot, metal table and chair (all the metal stuff attached to the wall)?  Not much!  There was hardly even room to get down on the floor to do push-ups, or room enough on the cot to do sit-ups!

So, what was the solution?  The exercise yard.  The exercise yard is on the northwest side of the main Alcatraz complex and is fenced in with tall cement walls (probably 12-15 feet high).  There was a horse-shoe pit (seems strange that they’d let them have horseshoes – those things could really hurt if someone whacked you in the head with one!), a shuffle-board area, a cement baseball diamond (with painted on base paths), and long rows of concrete “steps” that inmates could sit on.

Today’s picture looks back toward the southeast.  You can see the long cement steps, and looming above it is the building that housed the main cell blocks.  To the right at the top is the segregation cell area, including where the solitary confinement cells were.  They were horrible, nasty places.  Pitch black inside.  One inmate described how he survived when in solitary: he pulled a button off his prison uniform and would toss it in the air and then get down on his hands and knees and feel all over the floor until he found it – and then he’d repeat the process over and over and over.  It allowed him to keep his sanity, I guess.

It is relatively clear from this photo (and many others I took) that the buildings are quite dilapidated.  The place was shut down as an active prison by order of Bobby Kennedy in 1963 because it was just too expensive to keep running.  Everything had to be brought in by boat – even water for the inmates.  It was a formidable, and rather inhospitable place if you were an inmate, though the guards and their families who lived there seemed to be quite content…but they had better accommodations than the inmates and would often take a boat in the evenings across the channel to San Francisco for a show or dinner!!!!

Taken from the exercise yard in Alcatraz...looking at the main cell block building.

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: Caesar Cella was the first person to be convicted of a crime by the use of fingerprints … way back in 1911.  He was “thumbed” in New York City.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: rubber is one of the elements in bubble gum – it’s what allows the chewer to blow bubbles.

A Light on the Rock

As one stands on the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco and looks northward, you can’t miss Alcatraz Island.  One of the landmarks on the Rock that sticks out is the lighthouse on the southern end of the island.  As I looked at this lighthouse, I could imagine the heavy fog that would have rolled in under the Golden Gate that is due west of the island, and the sweep of the lighthouse and sound of foghorns that must have punctuated the sleep of the inmates.

As we rode up to the unloading dock at Alcatraz, I got this picture of the lighthouse that warned approaching ships about the presence of the island.  At least, that’s what it probably was for, but it just as well have been warning any boating passers-by of the residents of the Rock who were there doing hard time.  They were a rough and tumble lot – and not to be trifled with.

The audio tour tells about an incident that happened one time in the dining hall, where several hundred of the most hardened criminals in the US would come to eat.  Remarkably, they used metal utensils – and each utensil had its own numbered place on a wall behind the wired cage (in order to ensure that all items were returned and not smuggled off to a cell) that was the kitchen (wired for the safety of those cooking food inside).  Apparently, a riot of some sort started in the dining hall.  Inside the kitchen was the warden.  At that time, there was also apparently glass there to separate the dining room proper from the kitchen.  When the riot broke out, the warden took his machine gun, smashed out the window and pointed the gun out into the room of brawling men.  They heard the smashing of the glass, saw the machine gun pointed in their direction, and the fighting immediately stopped and they all left the dining hall in an orderly fashion to return to their cells.  Ah, persuasion!!!!

A light for a very dark place...Alcatraz

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1947, the great thoroughbred Seabiscuit, died at 14 years of age.  Seabiscuit was buried on the owner’s farm in a place that was known only to the owner and perhaps a very few other people.  The ranch is outside of Willits, CA, not far from where we live.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: the first commercial vacuum cleaner was so large that it was mounted on a wagon.  People had house parties and invited their friends to come and see how the amazing new invention worked.

Room for Rent

I doubt that an ad was ever placed in the newspaper for lodgers in this place.  This is one of nearly 336 cells located on “The Rock” – Alcatraz.  There were a few cells in that infamous prison that were larger – but they were in the segregation ward, and though they were larger, they were considered to actually be worse than this kind of cell.

The typical cell at Alcatraz (this is one) was 5 feet by 9 feet, had a cot, a metal table and chair attached to the wall, a toilet and a sink.  Oh, and don’t forget the privacy and peaceful surroundings.  Lovely, eh?  I mean, who wouldn’t be eager to spend 10 or more years in such a place?

Room for rent....

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1960, a survey was conducted that found that commercials shot in “living color” resulted in 3X more effective than commercials shot and broadcast in black and white.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: Phobos, on of the moons of Mars, is so small that it would not be visible to a person standing at either of the poles of the planet.  Phobos orbits the planet Mars three times a day.

Alcatraz – Broken Things

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I visited Alcatraz as a chaperone with a high school class on Thursday past.  I’d not been there in probably 12 years or so and I’d forgotten how broken the place is.

Of course Alcatraz was home to broken people…men who had started out like someone’s sweet little boy, who at one time sat upon their father’s knee and played “horsey”, or who were held to their mother’s heart and cooed to sleep, hair tousled and eyes struggling to stay awake.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, that person lost their way.  Only the worst ended up on Alcatraz.  It was reserved not for the petty thief, but for the hardened criminals that society wanted to put away in a place that was safe and where the devil could not escape.  And so they came to Alcatraz on an all expenses paid journey.

Alcatraz has quite a history.  It had housed some prisoners all the way back to Civil War times.  There were cannon all over the island to protect the bay.  And there were the cells.  I’m sure at one time it was quite a spectacle.  Now it’s a spectacle because of its crumbling buildings – worn by weather and human hands alike.  As you walk the corridors between the cell blocks, you can imagine the sounds of hundreds of inmates echoing down the hallways, you can imagine the faces turning to look at you as you pass.

This picture was of part of the wall that surrounds the recreation yard and shows the decrepit state of affairs that Alcatraz now faces.  It reminded me of all the broken lives that filled the place…and how tragic those lives were.

A symbol of things and lives gone awry...

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1940, nylon stockings first went on sale in the United States.  They were such a huge success that 64 million were sold the first year.  Sales had to be curtailed, however, during the second World War as the Army bought up nearly the entire supply for use in building parachutes and tents.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: the Japanese have some strange pets, including crickets, beetles and fireflies.  Some insects are kept as pets because their chirping and other sounds are said to be soothing – and to remind the frenetic Japanese of less hectic times.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

For the next several posts, I’ll be sharing some pictures that I shot at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary (yep, that one…otherwise known as The Rock), this past Thursday when I served as a chaperone for a group of high school kids from Cloverdale High.  You’d never know, from today’s picture, that this picture was taken at Alcatraz, though.

After we finished our tour and climbed onto the boat that would take us back to the dock in San Francisco where we started, this guy came rowing is row-boat along the side of our ship.  I thought it was a beautiful, wooden boat and was impressed at the man’s perseverance (and courage) at rowing across the water from the city all the way out to Alcatraz.  On the one hand, I’ve rowed farther myself (it’s about 1.5 miles from the shore in the city to Alcatraz Island), but I’ve done it on a lake, not the ocean…and certainly not across water that was that cold, rough or that had such a strong tide.  The tide, of course, is one of the things that made Alcatraz escapes so daunting.  To this day, it is not clear if anyone ever survived an escape attempt, though most think it is highly unlikely.  Three people did get off the island, but were never again seen anywhere…they are believed to have succumbed to the cold water or to have been swept out to sea under the Golden Gate.  At the point I took this picture he was in a sheltered area of water on the eastern side of Alcatraz.

Anyway, here’s the photo….

Row, row, row your boat, viciously across the bay!!!!

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY: in 1796, Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox vaccination.

TRIVIA FOR TODAY: a 4-month old baby in the womb will become startled and turn away if a bright light is flashed on the mother’s belly.  They will also react to loud noises.