"Doc" on the Rock:
Ripples from the Fall
of Arthur Barker

Part Two


Doc's first home in the Federal penal system was U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth (nicknamed "Big Top") where officials evaluated his fitness for joining the regular prison population. For a few days, they called him No. 46928-L. They kept him in isolation, in a cell not far from the "Birdman" Robert Stroud, while prison guards, social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, and chaplins conducted interviews and tests.

He told the social worker that his father, the ever-diligent George, was living alone in Neosho, Missouri. The sixty-four year old George had worked honestly as long as he could, quitting only when a double hernia made lifting and carrying impossible. George lived off a small lead and zinc mine that he owned. Doc had $5,600 in a Chicago bank account under the name Ray Gordon. The money, Doc explained to the social worker, came from gambling. He planned to instruct his attorney to give this money to his aging father. Doc denied that any of it had come from the Bremer ransom, though he admitted that his associates had some of that money. The social worker considered Arthur to be "rather sleek and oily...and decidedly untrustworthy".(1)

Other experts examined the prisoner. The chaplin asked that Barker be urged to attend Protestant services. Leavenworth's doctor found him in excellent health. Doc denied using either narcotics or alcohol. A Wasserman test came up negative. The psychiatrist ran his own battery of tests. Arthur registered 81 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient, giving him a mental age of 13 by the standards of the time. His SAT score declared his effective level of schooling to be equivalent to grade 5.7. The deputy, the social worker, and the psychiatrist felt that while Doc could be counted on to work hard and would not be a disciplinary problem, he would be a "custodial" one. The Big Top had more prisoners than it could handle already without the added problem of guarding a well-connected gangster, so the prison admissions committee recommended that Doc be sent to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was the latest variant of a famous prison experiment known as the "Pennsylvania System". It traced its origins to well-meaning Quakers who were appalled by the 17th and 18th century practice of hanging criminals for petty offenses like cattle thievery and fighting. The Pennsylvania Charter, drafted by William Penn, reduced capital offenses to two: murder and treason. (Penn would have liked to have eliminated these, too, but the King forbade it.) This created a large prison population. In 1787, some Philadelphia Friends opened the Walnut Street Jail as a model of the kind of institution which they hoped prisons would become. Instead of being a punishment, reformers saw prison as a penance, hence the name penitentiary. The common room where inmates could pick up diseases or learn the criminal arts from more experienced lawbreakers was abolished. Each had his own cell. They did not often see other prisoners. Silence was the rule. The Friends hoped that this would stimulate them into reflecting on their sins and resolving to be better citizens.

This Quaker influence was apparent in the 1829 design of Philadelphia's vast Eastern State Penitentiary. The staff took elaborate measures to prevent prisoners from seeing or speaking to each other: The inmates had their own cells and personal exercise yards. A heavy iron door with a food slot covered each entrance. During religious services, the doors were opened and heavy netting was strung between the cells so that prisoners could not see anyone but the minister. If a prisoner was to be moved within the prison, guards pulled a hood over his head and led him about. Prison time was not idle time: the reformers provided prison industries like weaving and cobblery to occupy the hours. Theoretically, the prisoner wasn't completely alone. Members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of the Public Prisons planned to visit frequently. The day would also be broken up by guards bringing food and work materials. The implementation of good intentions, however, drove men insane. The visitors came infrequently and the guards ignored their charges as they kept to the tight schedule of making the rounds. Left alone, men talked themselves into madness and suicide. New York Quaker Thomas Eddy, a champion of prisoners and the mentally ill, redesigned the penitentiary system for his own state so that prisoners were housed separately at night but worked together during the day. But even during these hours of community, they were forbidden to speak. (2)

Pennsylvania formally ended the system of universal isolation in 1913 (the system had broken down years before). That same year, young James A. Johnston became the new warden of San Quentin, abolishing extreme physical tortures like the Oregon boot, the hooks, and the doors in favor of solitary confinement, bread and water diets, the Circle, and the rule of silence. And, on Alcatraz, the Army finished reshaping the Rock yet again to fit its new role as a disciplinary barracks.

The Army had come to Alcatraz in 1853 and began carving the rounded back of the island into a blocky mount of fortifications, barracks, and officer houses, leaving a little space for a lighthouse. Fortress Alcatraz looked like an ever-stationary battleship. Engineers broke the Rock, carved holes and terraces from the sandstone, and pushed the fragments into the sea. They brought dirt over from Angel Island to fill both gun emplacements for the cannons and garden patches for the officers' wives. The first prisoners came in 1859. The Army used convict labor to break the Rock into smaller rocks and to assist in the building of most of the fortifications, except for the Citadel. The Citadel and its dry moat squatted upon what used to be the South Peak. After the War Department designated the post "Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz Island" (1907), prisoners turned to the work of chipping down the top two levels of the Citadel and began laying the foundations for what would be the largest concrete building of its time, the Cell House. Lt. Colonel Reuben B. Turner of the Quartermaster Corps directed the post's reconstruction. He left the lowest-most level of the Citadel intact to serve as a basement for the prison. The area, Turner noted, would also serve the Army well as a solitary confinement facility. Over this Turner had the convicts lay the concrete foundations and erect an iron framework designed to support water tanks planned for the roof. The concrete for the project required massive amounts of fresh water which had to be imported from the mainland. A new power plant provided electricity for the lighting of the cell block. Turner's cell house could hold 600 convicts, one to a cell; and it gave to each prisoner something they'd not enjoyed until late during the earlier prison days on the Rock: a steel cot instead of a sleeping pallet on the floor. On February 6, 1912, the first convicts moved into the new prison which they had built with their own hands.

Running the disciplinary barracks proved to be expensive. An opportunity to unload it came in the early 1930s. Justice Department Division of Investigation (later FBI) chief J. Edgar Hoover's crackdown on bootleggers and other gangsters during the twenties and thirties had created an overpopulation problem in the federal penitentiary system. Attorney General Homer Cummings joined Hoover in wanting to create a super prison where they could send the worst of the worst. Alcatraz presented itself as having many desireable features: It was ready made; it was highly visible to the public; and its location cleaving the strong currents flowing in and out of the Golden Gate made escape almost an impossibility for men who had easilly squeezed out of the penitentiaries at Leavenworth, Atlanta, and McNeil Island.

Secretary of War George Dern first granted use of Alcatraz to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933. The Rock left much to be desired as a super prison, however. The Cell House, for example, had not been designed for maximum security. The BOP had to rip out all the riveted, strap-steel and square bars in B and C Blocks and install round tool-proof bars in their places. (The failure to upgrade D-Block at this time would figure in Barker's 1939 escape attempt.) Remote-control mechanisms replaced the easilly picked cell door locks. Guard towers and catwalks sprouted up all over the island. Warning signs told boaters to keep 200 yards away or risk being fired upon by prison guards. Barbed wire lined the walls and fences that separated the prisoners from the families of the guards. An aggravating problem for the BOP were the tunnels, powder magazines, storerooms, and other underground spaces which honeycombed the island. The BOP poured tons of concrete into steel barricades to keep prisoners out of these areas. Rock security reached new heights of necessary paranoia: checkpoints appeared everywhere; guards and their families were restricted in their travel; and phones were removed. Civilian employees and convicts left over from the Army era found themselves in an altogether different world.(3)

The ones who arrived afterwards would dub it "Hellcatraz".

Into this labyrinth of barbed wire, chain-link fences, concrete blocks tooled to look like granite, and yellow bricks left over from the Rock's service as a fortress, Doc Barker came in 1934. He left scant records of his arrival or his stay there. Historians who wished to recreate his Alcatraz days would find his federal prison files pilfered. For a sense of Doc's life on the rock, they would have to turn to the accounts of other prisoners which appeared in the newspapers of the time and to mentions of him in the files of other inmates. The general experiences of Alcatraz prisoners was well-documented by these sources (though one did have to sift out folklore, like references to "Spanish dungeons" beneath the cellhouse) and, sometimes, in a short paragraph, the unique face of Doc would appear before vanishing before an anecdote about Al Capone (85-AZ), "Machine Gun" Kelly (117-AZ), Alvin Karpis (325-AZ), or his one-time friend and partner, Volney Davis (271-AZ). Enough was left by the souvenir hunters, the memoirists, careless bureaucrats, and the survivors to form a reasonable if incomplete picture of what Doc did and saw from the day he left Leavenworth.

Officials at Leavenworth had placed him aboard a special car. The Union Pacific carried him and his fellow prisoners (including a bank robber and kidnapper named Rufus McCain, 267-AZ) across the plains and over the Rockies to Ogden, Utah. From there, the Southern Pacific hauled the convicts across the Great Salt Lake, over the undulations of Nevada's Great Basin, down the Donner Pass, and into California. Railroad switchmen played a shell game with the car in the Oakland yards, eventually putting it on a spur leading to a long pier in Richmond, California. Here the guards shackled the prisoners two together and made them descend a fifteen foot iron ladder to the deck of the prison launch, the General McDowell.

The prisoners were marched off the McDowell still wearing their leg irons and handcuffs. When Barker's accomplice and former Public Enemy Number One Alvin Karpis came to the island the following year, guards lined the balcony of Building 64. Riot guns, Winchester .30-.06 rifles, and machine guns followed the convicts' every move. From the third and fourth floor guards' apartments, wives and children watched for famous faces among the new arrivals or "fish".(4) Barker may have received a similar reception or he simply may have been herded onto a black, solid-sided panel truck for the ride to the top of the hill.

The truck dropped them off at the east side of the building. Guards used their rifles to point the way into the administration building. McCain walked in just ahead of Doc. Unimportant shipments of prisoners were interviewed by Deputy Warden Charles Shuttleworth. Doc probably merited the personal attentions of Warden James A. Johnston, who'd overseen both Folsom and San Quentin prisons in his time. A.W. Davis (311-AZ) described Johnston as a "medium-sized, pleasant looking man". In his serialized prison memoirs, Davis said "He doesn't look sour, but I don't think I ever saw him smile." Karpis caustically remembered him for wearing "costly gold-rimmed glasses that perch[ed] on a mottled and blue-veined nose. 'It cost him a lot of dough to get a nose like that, the most expensive kind of booze over a lot of years,'" Karpis recollected thinking at the time.(5)

Warden Johnston thought of himself as a humane, scientific penologist. As director of Folsom and San Quentin prisons, he'd abolished the corporal punishment tools of the straight jacket, the hook, and the doors. Johnston could not have lived in ignorance of the Pennsylvania System and its deleterious effect on prisoners's sanity. He either chose to disbelieve the effects it had on the minds of his charges or he meant to make the lives of prisoners hell because, at Alcatraz, he imposed the infamous Rule of Silence, purported to prevent outsiders from gaining information that could be used in a breakout. Upon the Rule and the water around the island, Johnston based his sense of security. When a prisoner broke the Rule with so much as a whisper, he was put either in the Hole or the Dungeon. Upon these bruiseless techniques (except when it proved necessary to "subdue" a prisoner), Johnston rested his claim that there was no brutality on his island.

When Barker and Karpis arrived, Johnston said in his 1948 book about the island, he "checked their records and studied their personalities, also." Three pages in that memoir described the gang's crimes outside the prison. To their life inside the Cell House, Johnston devoted only a sentence: he said he was not surprised when the gang "had their fights inside the prison" because they'd be so belligerent on the outside.(6) To Johnston, Barker was a collector's item, a pinned beetle whose habits outside the institution provided the warden with anecdotal material but, once in the glass case, was only something to be looked at from time to time. Doc proved to be a better student of Johnston than the warden was of his charge: in the years to come, he would work the system to bring him what he wanted. His contact with the warden when he arrived was brief: Johnston took time enough to inform Doc of the Rule of Silence, to enjoin him to do as he was told, and to assign him the number 268-AZ.

Doc had other rites of passage to undergo before he could enter the general population. Guards led him and the other prisoners to the bathroom where they removed his cuffs and manacles, told him to strip, and had him hand over any personal belongings he might have been carrying. They then had him take a shower and made him wait in the stall until the staff was ready for the next stage. A medical officer arrived, donned a clean pair of rubber gloves for each convict, and performed a cavity search. Doc and the other prisoners were then led into the issue room where they received heavy woolen underwear, tan brogan shoes, wool socks, a flannel mechanic's cap, and gray overalls. Each prisoner also received a change of underwear and a second "uniform" consisting of a dark blue shirt, pants, and coat. This was for Sundays in the recreation yard and when visitors came.

Once Doc and the others had dressed themselves, the guards led them into the Cell House. Alcatraz's modern construction seemed calculated to excite the fears of both claustrophobes and agoraphobes, restricting movement while also denying cover. Each cell was a little box inside the bigger cell block. The outlets were feigned, unreal. They also allowed no privacy. One wall was always transparent to those walking outside or residing across the way. The convict's every action could be scrutinized by guards or anyone else who happened to be passing by or living nearby. The guards opened the remote control doors and shut them as the convicts went inside. A.W. Davis described what he found:

My new home was 7 1/2 or 8 feet from cement floor to cement ceiling, from 8 1/2 to 10 feet long, 5 or 6 feet wide. I think the smallest of these estimates is the closest to being right. My bed was a steel frame bunk which folded down from the wall and a little chair you could sit on while writing on the table. There was a toilet, a shelf, a wash basin in the cell.(7)

Barker took a few minutes to inventory his prison-issue "possessions". He had an aluminum drinking cup, a second one with a cake of shaving soap, a shaving brush, a metal mirror, a bar of regular soap, a toothbrush, tooth powder, a comb, a pair of nail clippers, a sack of low-grade tobacco, a corn-cob pipe, toilet paper, shoe polish, face and bath towels, a wisk broom for sweeping out the cell, a rule book, and a safety razor sans razor blade. An orderly brought a numbered blade for each inmate three times a week. The convicts had half an hour to scrape the hairs off their faces before the orderly returned for the blades. Barker had to get used to shaving with cold water. The guards told him that he'd get to take a hot shower once a week with 39 other internees.

Once the door clanged behind him, Doc had three days to learn the ways of his new home. Warden Johnston's Alcatraz was not like any other prison as some have claimed. Unlike inmates at other Federal penitentiaries, Alcatraz prisoners had no commissary where they could buy candy, tobacco, and other little things which made prison life bearable. They were prohibited from eating candy except at Christmas. Cigarettes, the coin of many prison economies, were considered to be contraband. At Leavenworth, Doc had enjoyed the use of radio headphones while he waited in isolation. Alcatraz did not have these. Prisoners were strictly regimented: they rose at precisely 6:30 a.m. At 6:50, they faced their doors and waited until 6:55 when a whistle signaled the moment when they were to leave their cells and form single lines, facing the mess hall. Prison rules laid down the order of entry into the mess hall in excruciating detail and, also, specified the exact rules to be followed when they ate:

Twenty minutes are allowed for eating. When they are finished eating, the prisoners place their knives, forks, and spoons on their trays; the knife at the left, the fork in the center, and the spoon on the right side of the tray. They then sit erect with their hands down at their sides. After all of the men have finished eating, a guard walks to each table to see that all utensils are in their proper place. He then returns to his position.(8)

At no time could a prisoner strike up a conversation with his table mates or neighbors in the upper cell house. He was required to eat all the food he took. By 7:25, prisoners assembled in the recreation yard and marched to the shops. Here they could talk, presumably to allow them to clarify orders from civilian shop foremen and exchange information vital to the production of materials with their coworkers. Every half an hour, the foremen counted the men. They broke for lunch at 11:30 a.m: the routine consisted of allowing the convicts to eat the noontime meal up in the main cell house, marching the prisoners back to their cells, locking them inside, taking a count, and then marching them back out again for the afternoon shift. They ate dinner at 4:25 p.m. and were back in their cells for the final lockup at 4:50 p.m. Lights went out at 9:30 p.m. The guards were expected to count the prisoners all through the night until the first gong of the new work day. Before a prisoner started work, it behooved him to commit this complicated schedule to memory.

Work was a privilege. Men used to keeping large bankrolls in their pockets found themselves grateful for menial chores if for no other reason than to alleviate the despair attendant to the enforced silence. Al Capone started in the laundry, then got assigned to keep the bathroom next to the barber shop clean. Capone liked this job because he could talk to the men who came in and practice the tenor banjo. George "Machine-Gun" Kelly (117-AZ) worked as one of the penitentiary's two projectionists (the other was Floyd Hamilton who'd driven for Bonnie and Clyde). The authorities eventually assigned Arthur Doc Barker to the mat shop where the convicts converted used tires into door mats. He would put this assignment to his use in the months ahead.

The short man soon exercised a combination of charisma and brutality to inspire both fear and loyalty among his peers. From the security of a San Francisco newspaperman's desk, Pet Reed could feed the public's hunger for seeing the one-time public enemies brought low by their incarceration at Alcatraz. Reed chortled about Doc's combativeness, describing him as a runt who never knew when he was beat and who had a penchant for getting in more trouble than almost anyone else on the island. Everything was under control, Reed reassured his public. The mean men of Alcatraz kept the pretenders like Karpis, Barker, Kelly, and Capone in their place. A.W. Davis, on the other hand, described Doc as "a short, squatty guy who had a reputation of being dangerous with his dukes." Barker used his fists and several pairs belonging to some new boys in the gang to cow the mat shop supervisor, a forger named Frank Gouker (156-AZ), and to drive out other people he didn't like. Even Reed grumbled that Barker was now in control of the mat shop and was "running it like a little Hitler."(9)

A prisoner's worst enemies were his peers. Outside the prison, Doc's reputation suffered a little from the uncomplimentary press, but inside the prison he faced informers, "wolves" (homosexual rapists -- who often turned to heterosexual rape outside the prison), and little guys who tried to make it big by taking out a famous convict. Doc despised all informers but he reserved his greatest store venom for his one-time friend and partner Volney Davis, the robber who'd he helped get released from the Oklahoma Penitentiary. Davis had given the FBI a good run, but in the end they caught up to him and he cracked under interrogation. Karpis learned on the way to Leavenworth that Davis was writing his "life story" for the G-men, but word had already reached Doc at Alcatraz. Barker and Davis often shared the recreation area, watching each other from the corner of their eyes as they walked or participated in one of the sports. The betrayal of this life long friend who had gone to prison with Doc when they both were charged with the murder of the hospital night watchman back in 1921 must have angered Doc. Davis knew this and he knew that Doc had cultivated many allies. He worked out playing handball until he developed enough of a physique to defend himself. Shortly after Alvin Karpis arrived, Davis picked a fight with the relatively spindly former Public Enemy Number One and beat him almost into unconsciousness. Karpis, who'd faced Davis alone, took no revenge. Neither did Barker. They were organizing towards other ends.

Contrary to what Reed and Alcatraz officials believed, the Barker-Karpis gang survived its exile to The Rock. Except for Volney Davis, the members regularly met out in the recreation yard to chat about old times and new plans. Certain realities, however, led Doc to recruit new members. Charles Fitzgerald was getting old. Some of the others had only short sentences to serve and did not wish to jeopardize their releases. The men Barker brought together -- lifers and others with long sentences -- started to plot a series of escapes. Among the members of the new Barker-Karpis gang were Theodore Cole, Ralph Roe, Floyd Hamilton, Fred Hunter, Rufus McCain, Whitney Franklin, Dale Stamphill, Henri Young, John Chase (238-AZ), Charles Berta (132-AZ), Theodore Franklin, Jim Clark, Barker, and, after his 1936 capture, Alvin Karpis.

Whether Doc took a leadership or other role in Alcatraz's first general strike by the prisoners was not clear. In January 1936, laundry workers walked off their jobs and were herded back to their cells by the staff. The next day, workers in the kitchen joined them, forcing the guards to take up the roles of cook, waiter, and dishwasher. Prison officials fed the strikers bread and water for a few days while they tried to find out what the uprising was all about. To the warden and his associate, the reason for the strike seemed weak: the convicts wanted "more privileges". Henry Larry, however, told readers of his Examiner series that the strikers had three demands:

That officials regarded these dignities as "privileges" likened to year-round candy and cigarettes betrayed their desensitization to what they were doing in the prison. The Rock functioned not to reform or urge men to repent, but to break them. The silence system was now unique to Alcatraz, having been proved inhumanly destructive by the 19th century experiments. Prisoners often received legal decrees in the mail which they had to answer immediately or forfeit cash or property or a chance for a new trial. And the granting of four days per month of earned good time credit or time off the original sentence (which could be lost if the prisoner behaved badly) was standard at all other Federal prisons. All these demands affected a prisoner's life and his sense of hope.

Johnston ordered that the strikers be put on a bread and water diet until they agreed to resume work. By February, most had, but a hard core held out. These fifteen men began a hunger fast on the 15th. Three days into the fast, the Chief Physician decided to force feed them. Ten men took the tube-delivered mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar. By the end of February, only two men still took their meals in this fashion. The strike was over.

Joseph Bowers (210-AZ) became the prisoners' first martyr when he climbed the fence outside the incinerator. Bowers had a reputation as a "bug" -- a nut case -- who'd lost his sanity while doing time in the Alcatraz dungeons. He may not have been so sane before: his crime was robbing a Marin County post office of $16.00. Henry Larry, who claimed to have watched the alleged escape attempt from the doorway of the plumbing shop, said that Bowers had come out of the incinerator room (considered to be the worst job on The Rock) with some scraps of food in his pocket for the seagulls. Bowers upended some garbage cans, climbed up on them, and tossed his gifts to the birds. A tower guard turned at this point. Seeing Bowers atop the cans and waving his arms, he shot the convict through the lungs. Bowers fell head first over the fence and landed on the rugged shoreline sixty feet below. The sudden stop killed him.(11)

Karpis arrived shortly after Bower's shooting. By this time, BOP Director Sanford Bates had prevailed upon Johnston to grant the men two days of good time credit per month of work. Soon afterwards, Bates resigned amid a dispute with Attorney General Cummings over the management of the prison. Many Alcatraz prisoners who had looked to Bates for reform now found themselves facing an unknown named James Bennett. Bennett visited Alcatraz in July 1937. He interviewed many of the prisoners. When he was through, he went into San Francisco and characterized them as "a bunch of cry-babies who already have more privileges than they deserve".(12) Barker, Karpis, and their associates were impelled to try the fastness of The Rock for weaknesses. Others took the activist approach of joining in another general strike.

The strike erupted on September 20, 1937. This time the participants stayed in their cells after the noon meal. Prison authorities started the bread and water routine all over again. On September 23, a disgruntled kidnapper and bank robber named Burton Phillips (259-AZ) broke from the meal line, shoved Warden Johnston to the floor, and kicked him unconscious. Guard Joe Steere rushed to Johnston's aid, tackling Phillips so that a guard lieutenant could apply several blows to the back of Phillips' head. Doctors feared at first that Burton had fractured Johnston's skull, but x-rays showed that the warden could return to work in a few days. Phillips was taken upstairs to the prison hospital where he was handcuffed to the bed. Chief Clerk L.O. Mills wrote to James Bennett "Today, after regaining consciousness [Phillips] said to Deputy Miller that he regretted he did not have some sort of weapon with which to have killed the Warden."(13)

The 1937 strike put the Barker-Karpis gang in a quandary. According to Karpis, the convicts were of three minds on the strike. First, there were the avid communist and socialist agitators and those under their influence who actually organized the strike. Then there were those prisoners who wanted to simply finish out their time. To participate in the strike would have meant the forfeiture of the hard-earned two days per month of good time. Barker and Karpis found themselves in a third group, "more interested in escape than confrontation. We join the strike to avoid suspicion; if we refuse to strike the officials will ask themselves why and it will make our escape plans more difficult."(14)

The strikers who the authorities feared the most, including Karpis and maybe Barker, were sent to isolation. Those, like Karpis, who had proved intractable to the pleasures of the darkened white room known as The Hole were given time in the old military dungeons. To confuse and demoralize the prisoners who watched these men go downstairs in D-Block, the guards brought them up the A-Block stairs when their stays in the remnants of the old Citadel ended. This way, the men isolated in D-Block would be intimidated by the belief that those who went into the dungeons had been locked up and forgotten.

The strike only delayed the plans which were being laid by the mat-shop crew. The convicts had studied Alcatraz from many sides and had concluded that the first floor of the Model Industries building at the northwest point of the island presented the best opportunity for making their break. The tower guards could not see the factory's ocean side. The shop itself provided the men with the tools they needed for the attempt. Barker and his gang had intimidated the inmate shop foreman, Frank Gouker (156-AZ) into giving them real control of the shop. The convicts watched the counts and the actions of the guards. Were the Model Industries tower guard to walk to the seaside end of the building and go out onto a catwalk, they saw, he would be able to detect the escape. They noticed that he seldom did this. They also learned that the guards didn't trouble themselves when the mat shop count was short by two -- they assumed that the missing men were working out of sight in a back room. The routine made it possible then for two men to sneak out in broad daylight.

Using the same methodology of close observation which had served him well as a bank robber and as a kidnapper, Barker saw a way off the island. The real question was "could anyone make it to shore?"

Shortly after the 1 pm count on December 17, 1937, while Doc was up in the barber shop getting his hair cut, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe jimmied open a window in the mat shop, squeezed through it, and dropped to the ground below. A heavy fog gave them a little cover. Karpis and Clark watched their progress from the second floor of the Model Industries building, where they worked in the Tailor Shop. Cole used a heavy wrench to twist open a padlock and then climbed with his partner down to the shore where they donned crudely-fashioned water wings for the next stage in the journey. The pair tiptoed through the island's encircling barbed wire and rubber tire barrier out to the open water of the Bay. The current picked them up quickly and they disappeared from sight.

The escape confounded and panicked everyone from the tower guard to the Attorney General. Had they made it? Karpis and Clark knew the truth: the undertow had pulled Ted and Ralph down within seconds of their beginning the swim. But they said nothing to Johnston, to the guards, nor to most of their fellow prisoners.

The FBI took no chances. It circulated wanted posters with Cole and Roe's mug shots and descriptions to police agencies across the country. Coast Guard cutters joined police boats in searching the bay. Patrolmen and sheriff's deputies prowled the shoreline. Cole and Roe were "seen" throughout the Bay Area. Johnston believed that the men had drowned. Floyd Whaley, an assistant engineer for the City and County of San Francisco and a specialist in local tides, supported this view with the observation that the tides had been especially high that day. Between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., the tide had been running out at a speed of eight miles per hour. The authorities concluded that Cole and Roe had been sucked under, their bodies drawn out the Golden Gate into the immense Pacific.

The convicts on Alcatraz did not let these facts dissuade them from believing that there was a way off the island. Fabulists constructed a wondrous tale of the pair's exploits, tracing their flight up-bay, past Angel Island, and to an unspecified duck hunting lodge where they took some clothes and shotguns. They stole a car, robbed a filling station, and made their way to Roswell, New Mexico where they took one thousand silver dollars from another filling station and dumped their car in favor of a truck. For years to come, convicts would whisper to one another about the postcards which Warden Johnston was receiving from an unspecified South American country. The cards were signed "Ralph and Ted".

Though Karpis and, probably, Barker knew the truth, it did not deter them from devising other ways to leave "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island". They kept developing their plans, giving thought to the problem of surviving the cold water, swift currents, and killing undertow off the northwest point. Other experiments needed to be run. The Rock was full of men who'd give them a try. Up in the Cell House, along the dock, among the cliques in the yard, and down in the Model Industries Building came the whisper, like a mantra upon the lips of the hundreds of men incarcerated within the chilling walls of the old Army detention barracks: Cole and Roe made it. Cole and Roe made it.

In the prisoners' minds, what remained to be seen was not whether or not someone could escape from Alcatraz, but who would be the next to do it.


(1) U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth, Kansas, Admission Summary for #46928, June 3, 1935. (FBP Archive) These records constitute the largest remaining collection of documents about Barker in the federal penitentiary system. Unfortunately, his Alcatraz records were mostly lost after the prison's 1962 closure, probably ending up as souvenirs or material for books by former prison officers. Barker's Alcatraz experience is reconstructed from contemporary published accounts of life on the Rock.[Return]

(2)Bacon, The Quiet Rebels, pp. 132-135 provides a concise history of this experiment. Also see the Eastern State Penitentiary homepage. [Return]

(3)I am heavilly indebted to John Martini's Fortress Alcatraz, especially chapters 9 and 10, for my discussion of the Army period, the construction of the cell house, and the transfer to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. [Return]

(4)Karpis, On the Rock, New York, 1980, p. 30. [Return]

(5)Davis, "Alcatraz - The story from the inside", The Examiner, June 21, 1937; Karpis, p. 31. [Return]

(6)Johnston, Alcatraz, p. 76. [Return]

(7)Davis, June 21, 1937. [Return]

(8)Alcatraz Rules and Regulations quoted in Thompson, The Rock, p. 389. [Return]

(9)Davis, June 23, 1937; Reed, November 11, 1938. [Return]

(10)Larry, September 23, 1936. Larry himself did not take part in the strike. [Return]

(11)Larry, September 24, 1936. [Return]

(12)Quoted in Karpis, p. 85. What the prisoners did not know was that Bennett had asked Johnston to make a few changes. Among these were an end to the silence system, less censorship of magazines, better tobacco, and an expanded library. See Thompson, pp. 426-7. Another result of Bennett's visit was the closure of the island's rifle range. Convicts were often jarred into wakefulness by the sound of gunfire as guards, standing in the road tower, took shots at a set of targets beneath the dry cleaning plant. Bennett saw to it that future firing practice was conducted off the island. [Return]

(13)Mills to Bennett, September 24, 1937; quoted in Thompson, p. 433. Phillips was frustrated by Warden Johnston's denial of his request to allow him to receive legal publications. In a June 1937 note to the Warden, Phillips likened Johnston's treatment of him to more physical tortures and wrote "I'll grant you the point that there is nothing in the constitution to keep you from starving, torturing and mistreating me but it must be a regrettable oversight on your part to deny me full access to legal documents." Thompson (p. 432) wryly follows this with the comment: "Phillips would not get the legal material, but in two months...he would get himself a warden."[Return]

(14)Karpis, p. 85.[Return]

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