The Desperate Escape of Joe Bowers
Joseph Bowers, 210-AZ
Joe Bowers, an inmate considered criminally insane by many of his fellow inmates on the Rock, would make national headlines with a desperate act that for over a half century has been called an escape by some and suicide by others.
Joseph Bowers was by all accounts a desperado and loner, unable to come to terms with the conditions of Alcatraz. Imprisoned during the toughest and most strict era on Alcatraz, Bowers, serving a 25-year sentence for Postal Mail Robbery that netted a mere sixteen dollars and thirty eight cents. He held an expansive criminal record and as one report highlighted: “If at large, he probably would engage again in criminal activities and constitute a serious menace to the public safety and society.” He had claimed, and it was also supported in belief by fellow inmates that his crimes had resulted from a lacking ability to support himself. He claimed that he was completely desperate and out of funds, hungry and mostly unable to afford food or proper lodging.
In a 1933 summary report, his background was noted:
“On this man it has been impossible to get any dependable information. He states that it is represented to him that he was born of parents who were members of a travelling circus on February 18, 1897, at El Paso, Texas, was immediately deserted by his parents, and was raised by circus people who were travelling about and with whom he has lost all contact, so that he has been unable to establish his birth as an American Citizen. Claims to have worked in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Russia, Buenos Aires, Mexico, Cuba, and other places principally as an interpreter, as he claims to speak six languages.
He came to the office complaining that he thought his sentence too severe, that he was in his present trouble due only to the fact that he had been unable to get work, and wanted to know if there was any manner in which he could establish his citizenship so that he could get pass-ports to foreign countries, as he said he never had any trouble finding steady employment, but did have some trouble because he did not have proper passports when in foreign countries.”
Bowers arrived at Alcatraz on September 4, 1934, in one of the first groups, and it quickly became obvious that he didn’t fit the archetypical model of the standard Rock inmate. While imprisoned at McNeil Island, a federal penitentiary located in the Puget Sound of Washington State, he was a considered “unpredictable and at high risk resulting from being emotional unstable.”
Warden Johnston later wrote: “I did not class him with the shrewd gangsters with whom he associated in prison. He was a weak-minded man with a strong back who would get peace of mind by exercising his body.” The Rule-of-Silence was in its most strict form, and within only six months of his imprisonment, Bowers was already showing signs of significant mental strain. He attempted suicide, but the resident physician didn’t feel Bowers was making a serious attempt on his life. A memo to the director described the attempt:
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
UNITED STATES PENITENTIARY
ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
March 25, 1935
Bureau of Prisons
Attention: Dr. F. Lovell Bixby
Re: Joe Bowers, Number 210-AZ
About 7:30 A.M. on March 7, 1935, Joe Bowers, 210-AZ, cut the skin of his throat by breaking his eye glasses and using a piece of the broken glass: the cut was about three inches long, there was very little loss of blood , and he was given immediate medical attention.
He has been in the hospital since that time and we have had Doctor Twitchell , Consultant Psychiatrist, make examination and report. Copy of Dr. Hess' report to me with copy of Dr. Twitchell's report to Dr. Hess in this case enclosed for your information.
Joseph Bowers Fingerprint Card Alcatraz Inmate #210
Joe Bowers Alcatraz Conduct Report
Road Tower from where Bowers was shot by E.F. Chandler
Edward Twitchell, the prison psychiatrist citing to Chief Medical Officer George Hess, who would later become the resident physician of an ailing Al Capone, wrote about the attempt:
March 22, 1935
Subject: Joe Bower, Number 210
Dr. George Hess, Chief Medical Officer,
U. S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz, California.
Dear Dr. Hess:
The more I listened to Bower, the less belief I had in him. He has been watched now for months and no epileptic seizures have been noted, although he insists that he has them.
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.
Yours very truly,
EDWARD W. TWITCHELL, M.D.
UNITED STATES PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE
U.S. PENIITENTIARY, ALCATRAZ, CALIFORNIA
March 25, 1935
For your information I am transmitting a copy of the latest Psychiatric report on Joe Bowers, number 210. It is my opinion that we have carefully observed this man and have given him every possible consideration.
My conclusions in the case are that the man is not insane to the degree that he is trying to make us believe and that I am in perfect accord with Doctor Twitchell's belief that he has some purpose in view.
I see no particular reason for keeping Bowers in the hospital any longer, however I shall do whatever you think best about the matter.
/s/ George Hess, A.A. Surgeon
Chief Medical Officer.
Bowers was assigned to the incinerator detail only a month prior to his escape by flight. The incinerator detail was considered a difficult and unpopular work assignment by the general inmate population. It was hard and laborious work, sorting metals and burning the prison waste. Working alone and having to endure the cold weather elements of the San Francisco Bay, Bowers would soon break. The inmates assigned to the incinerator detail passed time slowly. Under constant watch by the Road Tower officer, Bowers could only dream of his freedom, as tour boats passed the island in close enough distance where faint laughs could be heard over a seagull screech.
On April 26, 1936, Bowers could serve no one time on Alcatraz. Some inmates called it suicide, while others were convinced he was simply trying to climb up to grab garbage wedged in the chain link fence. Another account claimed he was climbing to feed a seagull, but what is clear is Bowers ignored the forceful signals to halt. At approximately 11:20 AM, just as the signal for the inmate to return to their cells and prepare for lunch, Bowers started walking towards the industries building and then charged the fence, making his ascent.
The official officer accounts where documented as follows:
Bowers was only 40 years of age when he fell to the violent rifle fire of E.F. Chandler. In his testimony to a Coroner’s jury panel, Chandler stated: “Bowers was over the deadline. He knew what he was doing, and I couldn’t go get him without wings.” As many historians still debate the sanity of Bowers and whether or not his flight over the fence was a true attempt at freedom. But as one former correctional officer pointed out to help make sense of the tragedy and determine whether or not his intent to escape was real, he stated most aptly, that regardless of what Bower’s intent was, whether to escape, feed a bird or collect garbage, when he was finally struck by a bullet, “he fell over the fence and onto the side of freedom. Where he fell says it all...”
Sources: National Archives and Records Administration and the Alcatraz Archive.