Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Prisioners-Strikes, Riots, And Escapes

In the spring, and again in the summer of 1940, a considerable number of prisoners went on a partial hunger strike. They ate only enough food to prevent starvation. However, they made no demands and they continue to work at their assigned jobs. The Chronicle wrote it up as much as it could, calling it a "Gandhi Hunger Strike” and saying that a strange tension had gripped the place. Prison officials dismissed the incident as unimportant.

From the time of their capture on the beach in December 1939, Young and McCain had been kept in solitary confinement. They returned to their cells in November of 1940 and both were assigned to the tailor shop. Ever since the attempt to escape, a feud had smoldered between the two. Early in December, while at work, Young fatally stabbed McCain. Within minutes a dozen prisoners in the laundry went on strike. They were rushed to their cells and had their privileges suspended. The newspapers assumed that the two incidents were related, but Warden Johnston saw no connection between the two.

Young's trial was held in San Francisco in April of 1941. His attorney argued that he could not be responsible for his actions, having been in solitary or isolation since 1937. Warden Johnston was called to testify and he attempted to explain the regulations and procedures followed at the prison. The defense called several inmates gave a most unfavorable picture of life on the Rock. Although the jury found young guilty (he was sentenced to three additional years), it also presented some severe criticism of Alcatraz to the court. As a result the Bureau of Prisons made a special investigation of the penitentiary but could find no evidence of brutality or improper conduct on the part of the prison officials, or so it said.

Three more incidents occurred in 1941. In May, four convicts seized for officers, one by one, in the industrial building and attempted to pry open steel bars on a window in the mat shop. The captured guard convinced them that they could not escape in the four gave up the attempt. They were placed in solitary confinement for an indefinite period. All four had life sentences for a variety of crimes including bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Two of them, Joseph Paul Cretzer and Arnold T. Kyle, were brothers-in-law. The others were Floyd H. Barkdoll and Sam R. Shockley.

In September, 27-year-old John R Bayless, serving 25 years for robbing a bank, attempted a one-man escape while on a garbage detail. A guard discovered him as he was about to begin his swim. A year or so later, Bayless was in a San Francisco courtroom on his petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on the grounds that he had not been represented by legal counsel when convicted. Just before the judge entered the room, Bayless leaped a railing and dashed for the rear door. A deputy marshal grabbed him and foiled his second attempt.

Then in November, 29 laundry workers went on strike in the laundry. The majority of them had been ringleaders of a massive strike Leavenworth penitentiary a few months earlier and had been transferred Alcatraz. 20 of the strikers were locked in their own cells; the other nine were placed in isolation in the newly remodeled D-Block.

The ill-fated industrial building was again the scene of a bloody escape attempt in April of 1943. On this occasion for desperate characters were involved:

Harold Breast, described as a handsome, cold-blooded, Pennsylvania bank robber;

Fred Hunter, a stoop shouldered, 43-year-old former member of the Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis gang of kidnappers; James A. Boarman, 24 years old, sentence in Denver, Colorado, for bank robbery; Floyd Hamilton, 36 years old, was at one time declared Public Enemy Number One. He was a brother of Raymond Hamilton who was executed for murder in the Southwest as the head of the Hamilton-Clyde Barrow-Bonnie Parker gang (known to most as Bonnie & Clyde).

Armed with homemade knives, they seized two officers and gagged and bound them. They undressed to their underwear, leaped through a rear window, and scrambled down the 30 foot cliff to the shore. They left behind two of four cans that they had planned to use as floats and in which they had hidden army uniforms stolen from the laundry. Meanwhile, one of the officers freed himself and blew an alarm on his whistle. Guards in the gun towers opened fire with their rifles. They struck Hamilton when he was 30 yards out of the water; he sank was presumed drowned. Boarman was hit in the head with a bullet. Breast held him up until he prison lunch approached; and when breast let go, Boarman, too, sank and was drowned. Breast was recaptured in Hunter was found hidden in a cave. Warden Johnston told the press that he was positive Hamilton was dead. It must've been with considerable embarrassment that the Warden announced three days later that Hamilton had been found hiding in the industrial building. He had swam back to shore, hidden in the same cave as Hunter, then crept back through the same window from which he escaped.

The most ingenious escape attempt from Alcatraz occurred in July 1945. John K. Giles, 50 years old, had come to Alcatraz 10 years earlier in 1935. For the past eight years he had worked on the dock as a stevedore. Somehow or other, he had gradually assembled a complete army uniform, including dogtags, probably why stealing them from the prison laundry. The Army's launch, General Frank M. Coxe made a scheduled stop in Alcatraz en route from Fort Mason to Angel Island. When the time seemed right to him, Giles appeared on the dock dressed in his uniform and casually boarded the Coxe as it prepared for departure. He did not know that it was the custom to take a headcount on the vessel after left Alcatraz. The count showed one extra soldier and the information was sent to the dock guard. At the same time a count at the dock showed one stevedore missing. Assistant warden Miller took a small speedboat, caught up with the Coxe, and arrived at Angel Island at the same time. Giles was soon at home again, but had a nice little trip.


Henry Young


Rufus McCain


Joseph Cretzer


Arnold Kyle


A minor event occurred in August 1948, when Ted H. Walters, and Arkansas bank robber, escaped from the new prison laundry. He made his way undetected to the shore on the Southwest side of the island, only to be discovered in our later unable to take the plunge into the cold tidal waters.

Reminiscent of Cole and Roe’s disappearance in 1937 was the sensational break by three bank robbers in June 1962. By far, this was the most cleverly planned and skillfully executed attempt in all of Alcatraz’s history. Originally, as many as nine prisoners may have been in on the scheme, but at the time of the break only four were fully prepared. The fourth man Allen (Clayton) West, decided in the end that he “didn't want to leave,” and remained behind. The three who got away were Frank Lee Morris, 35 and two brothers, John W., age 32, and Clarence Anglin, age 31.

At the foot of the rear wall of each cell was a small ventilator measuring 6 x 10 inches. This opening that led into a utility corridor behind the cells was covered by a stout wire mesh. Probably using spoons, the four men patiently dug at the concrete around the openings during the nights over a period of months. To cover their work they painted and crafted fake ventilators on cardboard and carefully placed these paintings over their handiwork before dawn each day. The resulting openings eventually measured about 10 x 14 inches (West was said to have covered his opening with an accordion). Once the holes were large enough, the prisoners entered the utility corridor and climbed to the top of the tiers by way of the drainpipes. On top of the cells the prisoners established a virtual workshop, including a crowbar, an electric fan, and a homemade flashlight. They make crude life preservers out of stolen raincoats. They had worked with relative safety because the gun galleries were not manned after lights out at 9:30 PM. They loosened the rivets on a 5 foot section of a ventilator that led through the roof. Earlier in this report it was noted that the ventilator openings had been covered by tool proof bars in 1934. Patiently, the prisoners bent these bars until they had made an opening, said to have been only 12 inches in diameter.

On the night of June 11-12, 1962, the Anglin brothers and Morris were ready to begin their journey. At the lights out inspection tour the three were very much present. During the night, guards made the routine headcounts and found nothing out of order, the prisoners forms could be seen in their cots to the bars. At 7:15 AM the standard headcount was made when each prisoner was required to stand in front of his cell next to the bars. These three were still asleep. The guards rouse them, only to discover that each of the three cots contained a head made of plaster with a painted face and hair made of brush bristles. The alarm was sounded.

A massive search was undertaken. Prison officials said they have worked out the men's trail to the north side of the island, opposite Angel Island. 200 soldiers searched Angel Island from end-to-end. Warden Olin G. Blackwell did not think the escapees could've sworn that far, the water temperature being only 54 degrees. To prove him wrong, two men (a salesman and an insurance agent) swam the distance in less than one hour, although both admitted to being very cold. Blackwell blamed the escaped on the fact that the prison building was suffering from "erosion and debilitation” (just a year before and engineers survey had disclosed the buildings were dangerously deteriorated). But, he said; from then on there would be more frequent and more thorough inspection of the cells and that the prisoners cell assignments would be rotated. Mayor George Christopher decided that San Francisco had enough of the penitentiary. He wanted the prison closed and Alcatraz turned into a tourist attraction of some kind.

In contrast to the case of Cole and Roe, the newspapers did not pursue the idea far that these three were alive and South America, or elsewhere. Four days after the escape, an Army engineers debris boat found a watertight plastic bag floating near the Golden Gate Bridge. The bag contained a receipt for a $10 money order made out to Clarence Anglin, by a Rachel Anglin, that had been cashed at the penitentiary post office, and some 50 photographs of a woman. This evidence helped lead people to the conclusion that the man had drowned. The Chronicle headlined: "Grim Wait for Bodies of Three Escapers.” Still, visitors to the Rock today tend to let their imaginations drift to the possibility that somewhere in the world the Anglin's and Morris are still enjoying their freedom.

The last tried to escape from the Rock were to long-term bank robbery, John Paul Scott and Daryl Parker. On December 12, 1962 they wriggled through a storage basement window, located in the kitchen basement and made their way to the shore. Parker got as a rock just a few feet out but was so overcome by the cold and currents that he gave up. Scott had much more stamina. Aided by inflated rubber gloves he succeeded reaching some rocks near the Golden Gate Bridge. However, he was close to death from exposure and was unable to pull himself out of the water. That was the end Alcatraz prison closed for months later. As a place of maximum security, the Rock was thought to be escape proof. Although the public doubted this belief from time to time, it is fair to conclude that no federal prisoner successfully escape from Alcatraz Island.