** NOTE: This article contains copyrighted excerpts from Letters from Alcatraz as well as uncopyrighted material created under the Creative Commons License with mulitple author contributions.
Roy G. Gardner (January 5, 1884 - January 10, 1940) was once America's most infamous prison escapee and the most celebrated outlaw and escaped convict during the Roaring Twenties. He is known as the last Great American Train Robber. During his criminal career, he stole over $350,000 in cash and securities. He also had a $5,000 reward for his head three times in less than a year during his sensational career. He was the most dangerous inmate in the history of Atlanta Prison and he was dubbed by the newspapers across the West Coast as the "Smiling Bandit", the "Mail Train Bandit", and the "King of the Escape Artists". He was one of the most notorious offenders of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, one of the most notorious inmates at Alcatraz, and one of the most ruthless criminals of in American history.
Gardner is said to the most hunted man in Pacific Coast history. While legend has it that he was the first to escape the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, this has been confirmed to be not true. The first escapes occurred before Gardner was even born, and, by the time of his imprisonment, several dozen inmates had made their escapes. McNeil Island, in fact, was the only Federal Penitentiary never to have a wall and was never considered a maximum security facility. Gardner was the "Most Wanted" gangster of 1921.
He is now largely forgotten for his daring acts. No longer the household name that he was in 1921, he never lived as an outlaw on the Western frontier, was never a Depression Era gangster, and was never in a gang, all things that may contribute to him being largely forgotten in modern times. He was a lone bandit and his reputation and notoriety made him a touchstone of his time.
Roy Gardner AZ-110
Gardner at San Quentin in 1911
Roy Gardner was born on January 5, 1884 in Trenton, Missouri and was raised in Colorado Springs. He was said to be attractive and charming, standing just under six feet tall, with short, curly auburn hair and blue eyes. He spent his early manhood as a drifter in the Southwest, learning the trades of farrier and miner. Supposedly, he joined the U.S. Army to escape the dangerous world of petty crime, reform school escapes, and the mining business, but he deserted in 1906 and drifted to Mexico. Gardner began his criminal profession as a gunrunner around the time of the Mexican Revolution. He smuggled and traded arms and ammunition to the Venustiano Carranza forces until he was captured by soldiers from Victoriano Huerta's army and was sentenced to death by firing squad, but, on March 29, 1909, he broke out of the Mexico City jail along with three other American prisoners after attacking the soldier guards. Gardner arrived back in the United States, where he was a prizefighter in the Southwest. He was good enough that he became a sparring partner for Heavyweight Champion J. J. Jeffries at Ben Lemond Training Camp in Northern California.
Eventually, Gardner ended up in San Francisco, where he gambled all of his boxing money away, and robbed a jewelry store on Market Street. He was arrested, and spent some time in San Quentin, but he was paroled after he saved a prison guard's life during a violent riot. Gardner landed a job as an acetylene welder at the Mare Island Navy Yard, married, fathered a daughter, left the Schwa - Batcher Company in 1918 on Armistice Day and began his own welding company.
Gardner had gambled all of his money away on a business trip in Tijuana at the racetracks. On the night of April 16, 1920, outside of San Diego, Gardner robbed a U. S. Mail truck of about $80,000 in cash and securities. A smooth job, but the outlaw was arrested three days later burying his loot. His name would become just as familiar to the lawmen of California as Jesse James. Roy Gardner was sentenced to 25 years at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary for armed robbery of the U. S. Mails, and he vowed he would never serve the sentence. On June 5, 1920, he was transported on a train with Deputy U. S. Marshals Cavanaugh and Haig. Some way outside Portland, Oregon, Gardner peered out of the window of the train and yelled, "Look at that deer!". The lawmen looked, and Gardner grabbed Marshal Haig's gun from his holster. He then disarmed Marshal Cavanaugh at gunpoint. The daring outlaw then handcuffed the two humiliated lawmen together and stole $200. He jumped off the train, and made his way to Canada.
He slipped back into the United States the next year, and started robbing banks and mail trains across the country as a lone bandit. Gardner came back to California, where he tied up the mail clerk to Train No. 10 eastbound from Sacramento and robbed the express car of $187,000 on May 19, 1921. The next morning, Gardner told the mail clerk to Train No. 20, to throw up his hands or he would blow his head off. When the train reached the Overland Limited, the elusive bandit darted down the tracks with an armful of mail. The home office recognized the gunman as Roy Gardner, the notorious train robber with a $5,000 reward on his head.
Gardner was recognized at the Porter House Hotel and a convoy of police arrived in Roseville while Gardner was playing a game of cards in a pool hall. Three federal agents came up behind Gardner and captured him. The bandit was arrested, and was sentenced to another 25 years at McNeil Island for armed robbery of the mail trains. Trying to reduce his sentence he told Southern Pacific Railroad detectives that he would lead them to the spot where he buried his loot. The officers found nothing, and Gardner announced, "I guess I have forgotten where I buried that money". He was heavily shackled, with the addition of an "Oregon Boot", and was once again transported on a train to McNeil Island, this time by U. S. Marshals Mulhall and Rinkell, both fast shooting veterans. During the journey, Gardner asked to use the bathroom, in which an associate had earlier hid a .32 caliber pistol. Gardner came out of the bathroom, pointed the gun at Mulhall's protruding pouch, and ordered another prisoner to handcuff the two humiliated lawmen to the seat. He relieved the officers of their weapons and cash before hopping onto another moving train outside Castle Rock, Washington.
The largest manhunt in Pacific Coast history began after this. He was known all over the country as the boldest hold up man, the cleverest and most slippery prisoner to ever be placed under arrest. Gardner was described as a dangerous man who would shoot on sight, and must be captured at all costs. He once again had a $5,000 reward on his head. He arrived in Centralia, Washington, where he was almost recognized by Jack Scuitto at the Olympic Club. Roy plastered his face with bandages to hide his identity, leaving one eye slit. Gardner told the Oxford Hotel staff that he had been severely burned in an industrial accident near Tacoma. Proprietor Gertrude Howell and Officer Louis Sonney became suspicious of the bandaged man, and when he saw a firearm in Gardner's hotel room, he accused him of being the "Smiling Bandit". Gardner fought back, but was arrested and a doctor removed the bandages to show that he was indeed the notorious train robber. This time Gardner, who was sentenced to another 25 years, was heavily ironed, and finally brought to McNeil Island. Dan Sonney, son of Louis, tells the story of the arrest in a 2001 documentary, and Louis's subsequent career change to the entertainment industry. The documentary also features a clip of an interview with an aging Gardner promising his reform, and showing his release from prison.
Escape from the Federal Penitentiary at McNeil Island
After six weeks at the penitentiary, Gardner had convinced two unlikeable prisoners, Lawardus Bogart and Everett Impyn, that he had "paid off" the guards in the towers. On Labor Day, September 5, 1921, at a prison baseball game, Gardner said, "Now" during the fifth inning when someone hit a fly ball into center field, as the guards in the towers had their eyes on the ball and the runners. Gardner, Bogart, and Impyn ran 300 yards to the high barbed wire fence where Gardner cut a hole, and the three men made it to the pasture as bullets whirled about their heads. Gardner was wounded in his left leg, but made it behind a herd of cattle near timber. About the same time, he saw Bogart fall, badly wounded. Impyn was shot dead; his dying words were, "Gardner told us those fellows in the towers couldn't hit the broad side of a barn". Bogart later stated that Gardner had deceived them and used his companions as decoys, to better his chances of escape.
Guards scoured the beaches and confiscated every boat on the shoreline, but no trace of the dangerous outlaw could be found. Gardner lived in the prison barn, getting nutrition from cow's milk, and then swam the choppy waters to Fox Island where he lived off fruit in the orchards. Warden Maloney claimed Gardner was still on McNeil Island, but the same day the statement was made, Gardner was already on the route to Oregon. Gardner taunted marshals and detectives on McNeil Island when he sent a letter to the Seattle newspaper stating, "Come and get me...." Two weeks later, the warden had to admit that Mr. Gardner, the notorious bloodless bandit and bad man, had probably gotten off the island.
Recapture and Alcatraz
Roy Gardner was now the "Most Wanted" gangster, and committed several crimes in Arizona before he was captured by a mail clerk during a train robbery in Phoenix in the fall of 1921. Gardner was sentenced to an additional 25 years, this time at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Headlines screamed, "Gangster Gardner brags, 'Leavenworth will never hold me'".
Gardner, now known as the "King of the Escape Artists", raised more hell when he was transferred to Atlanta Federal Prison, the toughest prison in the country in 1925. In 1926, he tried to tunnel under the wall and saw through the bars in the shoe shop. The following year, he led a prison break and attempted an armed escape with two revolvers holding the Captain and two guards hostage, but the escape failed and he was placed in solitary confinement for twenty months for shooting at officers. When he came out of solitary confinement, he was placed in a Mental Hospital in Washington, D. C.. In 1929, the warden described Gardner as the "most dangerous inmate in the history of Atlanta Prison", and that year he began a hunger strike, protesting prison food and threatened suicide. He was then transferred to Leavenworth Annex Prison in 1930, and in 1934 he was transferred to the infamous Alcatraz prison. Gardner was one of the first hardened criminals at Alcatraz during the hardest years.
He would describe Alcatraz as "the toughest, hardest place in the world." While at Alcatraz, his wife divorced him and severed all ties. He worked and supervised at the Mat Shop with Ralph Roe and it was rumored they planned an escape (which Roe achieved with Ted Cole in December of 1937, but disappeared into the turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay and presumed drowned). Gardner was released on June 17, 1938 after his appeal for clemency was approved.
Roy Gardner published his autobiography, "Hellcatraz", a sensational book that contains not only descriptions of his interesting life but also such familiar names as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and many others. It was one of the very first accounts about life inside Alcatraz. Gardner had written much of the manuscript while an inmate at Alcatraz. Roy took his story public which included a stint running a booth at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939. His friend and business partner, Louis Sonney, made one of the first re-enactments on a short film called, "You Can't Beat the Rap". . A 1939 movie called "I Stole A Billion" was based on his life. The movie was a failure, and Gardner's life spiraled into destitute.
On January 10, 1940, police found the one-time "Most Wanted" gangster and Western outlaw, Roy Gardner, dead at age fifty-six by suicide from cyanide fumes and tear gas at the Hotel Governor in San Franisco. He meticulously noted his final wishes, which included how he wanted his body disposed, and a heartfelt plea not to mention the name of his daughter in an effort to give her a fresh start and break the negative connotations he believed would continue following his death. The United Press publicized the details of his tragic death writing, "the last of the train robbers, a 20th-century Jesse James who cashed in his chips with neatness and dispatch, with malice towards no one and the hope of forgiveness of the heart."
Written in 1938 inside his Alcatraz cell, Hellcatraz described the tough conditions of the prison in 1930's.