Tuesday, January 15, 2013


1/13/1939 - Less than nine months after an escape attempt costs the lives of guard (Royal Cline, killed with a hammer) and a convict (Thomas Limerick, shot to death by tower guard Harold Stites), five prisoners decide to test Alcatraz again.

                                                             The Rock

Conceived by two murderers, Dale Stamphill and the notorious Arthur "Dock" Barker, the escape plot entails manufacture of personal saws capable of cutting through cell and window bars and a metal bar spreader, sneaking the saws and spreader through a metal detector called the "snitch box" and into the cell block, getting the saws and spreader to the isolation cells in D-Block where the weak bars have been found, breaking through the bars without being detected (and covering up the work that has been done until the men are ready to move), and moving to the water on a foggy night when the escapees have the least chance of being detected (little thought is given about what to do when they get to the water, the men believing they can craft a raft on refuse that dots the beaches of the island).  Along with Stamphill and Barker, in on the plot are a trio of rotten apples ... William Martin is serving a sentence for a post office robbery, Rufus McCain is in for bank robbery, and Henry Young is behind bars for bank robbery and murder.

                                                   Martin, Stamphill, McCain

Plan made, it takes months to execute its various requirements ... the saws are manufactured out of a large machine shop saw that is being scrapped, the saws and spreader are moved into the cell block by hiding them within a blade sharpener made for the guards to get more use out of the cons allotment of shaving razor blades, the equipment is moved into D-Block through use of a holed cell getting a new toilet and a crawl through the utility corridor dividing the cell blocks, the work on the bars is covered up using a mixture of paint and floor wax and a puttyish compound of tooth powder and paint, and Barker gets in a fight (sawing away on the bars of his new cell, the outlaw will hum "I'll be home for Christmas!") and Stamphill lets himself be caught with a knife so they get assigned to the isolation cell block.  Pieces all in place, the men then wait for a foggy night to make their break.

An omen of how things will go, the grey dark night the men need for their escape comes on Friday, the 13th.

                       Area where the cons hit the water, now known as
                       Barker Beach

Waiting for the 3:00 head count by the guards to be concluded, the cons leave their cells through ten by sixteen inch gaps in the bars, crawl out of the cell block through an opening in the window bars fourteen inches tall and twelve inches wide, drop eight feet to the ground outside, slink past a guard tower, and make their way to the end of the island closest to San Francisco.  In the dark, seeking various flotation methods the group breaks up as escape discovered by a guard making his rounds, the prison's alarm siren begins to sound.  Five failures ensue.  Martin falls off a twenty foot cliff he is attempting to climb down and is captured in the water by Lt. Isaac Faulk and Deputy Warden Edward Miller.  While arguing whether they should try to take family hostages from the guards' living area,Young and McCain try to make a raft out of pieces of wood, broken chairs, their clothes and bed sheets, and are forced to surrender by Lt. Henry Weinhold.  And the worst fate befalls the team of Stamphill and Barker, the planners of the escape.   

                                                      Arthur "Dock" Barker

Swimming for San Francisco, the tide pushes the pair back to shore where they are cornered by Officer Clifford Ditmer standing on an overlooking cliff with a machine gun and armed guards on the prison launch.  Ignoring calls for their surrender and the warning shots that are fired, the men scurry about seeking somewhere to flee ... movement that causes the guards to finally open fire on the men.  Stamphill is hit in the leg, an injury that will require a hospital stay in traction of eight weeks, followed by two weeks in a cast and then a stay of seventeen months in a solitary cell (Martin, McCain, and Young will also spend months in isolation cells).  But Barker gets it the worst ... also hit in the legs, he rises up in pain from the water, directly into the path of a bullet that goes through the outlaw's neck and exits at the corner of his right eye.  Taken to the prison hospital in a semiconscious state, the former public enemy's last words before dying at 5:30 in the evening the next day are, "I'm all shot to hell.  I was a fool to try it."

                                                            Alcatraz Prison

Feet first free for Barker, there will be more death in the future because of the failed escape.  Brooding over the outcome of their attempt to leave Alcatraz, former friends McCain and Young will trade insults and accusations until finally their feud becomes violent.  In the prison tailor shop in December of 1940, Young takes a knife made from a sharpened spoon and stabs McCain multiple times in the stomach, killing the convict.  Brought to trial for murder, Young will escape a death penalty when his lawyers are allowed to use the harsh conditions on Alcatraz as an excuse for the killer's actions and a jury finds him guilty of only involuntary manslaughter (events that will be portrayed in bowdlerized fashion in the Hollywood movie Murder in the First starring Kevin Bacon as Young).

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