Indianapolis, Pop Culture

“Monopoly: the Hoosier Connection. Part I”

Hoosier Dan Layman with his invention.

Original publish date:  July 19, 2013 Reissue Date September 10, 2020

Last Winter, hundreds of thousands of voters in 180 countries elected a new “Monopoly” token that was added to the game earlier this year. The cat token won the race and replaced the iron, an original piece from 1933. By some estimates, more than 1 billion people have played “Monopoly” since its creation, with more than 275 million copies sold in 111 countries and 43 languages. But while the game’s success is indisputable, its origins are not. What we know is that the game of Monopoly was patented 80 years ago this month on July 30, 1933 by an unemployed salesman and heating engineer named Charles Darrow.
Darrow, reeling from the loss of his career during the Great Depression, enlisted his wife and son to design and hand-produce the very first games eight decades ago. Darrow drew the designs with a drafting pen on round pieces of oilcloth, and then his son and his wife helped fill in the spaces with colors and make the title deed cards and the Chance cards and Community Chest cards. Darrow called his game “Monopoly” and hand-painted one set per day, which he sold for $4.00 each. While Darrow received a copyright on his game in 1933, his original patent model and succeeding specimens have mysteriously disappeared from the files of the United States Copyright Office, though proof of its registration remains.
In 1935, Darrow licensed the game to Parker Brothers and quickly became the first millionaire game designer. When Darrow died in 1967, his New York Times obituary headline read “Charles B. Darrow Dies at 78; Inventor of Game of Monopoly.” That’s the official story line anyway, the real story is quite a bit more complicated.


The Landlord’s Game Board from 1904.

Some say that Lizzie J. Magie’s “The Landlord’s Game”, patented in 1904, was the first real monopoly game. Others claim it was a Reading, Pennsylvania college student, Dan Layman, and his pal, Louis Thun, created a game called “Finance” (that his friends called “Monopoly”) in the late 1920s. Or was it Ruth Hoskins? She learned how to play the game from a friend of Layman’s in Indianapolis. Yes, the game of Monopoly was created here in Indianapolis!
Originally titled “The Fascinating Game of Finance or Finance and Fortune” and later shortened to “Finance” for the sake of brevity, the board game was based on Ms. Magie’s “The Landlord’s Game”. The game featured the now familiar movement of pieces around the handmade board, the use of cards, properties that can be purchased, and houses that can be erected on them. The published board featured four railroads (one per side), Chance and Community Chest cards and spaces, and properties grouped by symbol, rather than color. Sound Familiar?
Hoosier Dan Layman developed his game while a student at Williams College in Reading, Pennsylvania in the late 1920s. In January 1975 during one of the many patent trials challenging the rights to the popular & profitable game, Dan Layman facetiously opined in his deposition that: “They forgot to mention that when Darrow died, he was working on the invention of the wheel.” The deposition insisted that Layman and his college fraternity brothers were playing Monopoly six years before Darrow ever saw it and he had copyrighted and published the first set of rules for the game in its modern form.
In an episode that must’ve foreshadowed the Zuckerberg / Winklevoss facebook controversy of this century, Layman created his version of Monopoly after being introduced to it by two of his Williams College Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity brothers, Frederick and Louis Thun. After leaving college, Layman returned to his hometown of Indianapolis and in his spare time he taught Monopoly to a variety of friends who made their own boards. Eventually Layman got the idea of marketing the game. So, he drew up formal rules (including: “Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.00 dollars, Ownership of a series entitles one to collect double rent on all the properties of that series, paying $50 to the bank, one may leave the jail the first time his turn comes around again…), and got a company called Electronic Laboratories, Inc., to make the board, cards, money and pieces (hotels, houses, markers).

In 1932, the board game “Finance” was first sold by the L. S. Ayres & Co department store chain. Initially, the game was sold in small black boxes (some of which came with poker chips for money) with four different versions of the rules and properties were auctioned rather than sold. Otherwise, it is almost identical to Monopoly including Chance and Community Chest cards. With L. S. Ayres & Co. and Electronics Laboratories producing and L.S. Ayres selling his version, Lyman published the game for a year before selling it to Knapp Electric for $200. Although Layman first intended to call his new creation “Monopoly”, the name was changed for trademark reasons. Some clarity to the Monopoly rights controversy can be found in the General Mills Fun Group (buyers of Parker Brothers and Monopoly) lawsuit against Ralph Anspach and his Anti-Monopoly® game in 1974. Dan Layman testified: “I understood from various attorney friends of mine that because Monopoly had been used as the name of this exact game, both in Indianapolis and in Reading and in Williamstown, Massachusetts, that it was, therefore, in public domain and that I couldn’t protect it in any way. So, I changed the name in order to have some protection.”
According to a Time Magazine article dated February 17th, 1936: “I wrote the entire rulebook for the game of Finance in 1931 (copyrighted 1932) and simplified the old game of Monopoly for manufacturing purposes…” said Dan Layman, “Almost exactly this same game as played at Williams was put on the market in Indianapolis early in 1932 through L. S. Ayres & Co.” This was the only article published which contradicted what would become Parker Brothers’ assertion that it had published the original Monopoly, and that Layman’s version was a spin-off. Layman had forced the retraction by Time in 1936, when an article two weeks earlier had published an article titled “Monopoly and Politics.”
What was unknown to Time was that Layman had sold the rights to the game to a small games manufacturer, David W. Knapp, the originator of the popular 1930s game “Krazy-Ikes.” Knapp was eventually bought out by Parker Brothers for $10,000- a significant sum at the time. But it was a far cry from the Millions in Royalties that were paid to Charles Darrow. Parker Brothers eventually published the game Finance, after simplifying the rules for easier play and marketing it as a separate entity. So much for Dan Layman’s claims.
Although the game company virtually ignored Hoosier Dan Layman’s virtual paternity claim as the “Father” of Monopoly, in the spring of 1935, Parker Brothers paid Layman’s old college fraternity brother Luis Thun a visit and offered to buy any remaining boards of their Monopoly game for $50 each. Thun said that he told the Parker Brothers representative “…it wasn’t at all clear to me how Mr. Darrow could be the inventor of a game… we’d played since 1925.” But $50 each for an obsolete board game at the height of the Great Depression proved too rich an offer to refuse and Thun caved, thus ending all claims to authorship of Parker Brothers’ best selling board game.
But Hoosier ties to the game of “Monopoly” does not end there. There is another historical footnote that binds Monopoly to our fair city.

Auctions, Creepy history, Health & Medicine, Indianapolis, Medicine, Music, Pop Culture

Elvis Presley — are you kidding?

Elvis Presley Autopsy Tools.

Original publish date August 10, 2010 Reissue date: August 27, 2020

Recently the Leslie Hindman auction house in Chicago caused a flap when it was announced that they would be auctioning off the instruments used to embalm Elvis Presley after his untimely death at the age of 42. The auction house was planning to sell the macabre Elvis relics in two separate lots: one with a pre-sale value of $4,000 to $6,000, and the other estimated at $6,000 to $8,000. Elvis may have left the building, but the man’s ability to get people “all shook up” has not diminished as the announcement sent shock waves through the media and wrought havoc among fans, collectors, historians and auctioneers alike.
The items in question, which included a comb, eye liner, rubber gloves, forceps, needle injectors, an arterial tube, aneurysm hooks, and a toe tag, came from an unidentified former employee who worked for the Memphis funeral home where Elvis’ body was last attended to. They were used only once — to embalm Elvis’ body, apply makeup to his face, and dye his graying hair to the jet-black color his fans knew so well. The replacement toe tag, marked “John Doe,” was attached to the King’s body after an eager fan stole Elvis’s original tag during the chaos at the hospital where he was taken. Other items in the grouping include the coffin shipping invoice, autopsy room preparation paperwork and the hanger that Elvis Presley’s funeral suit and tie arrived on.


Elvis Presley’s last concert at MSA in Indianapolis.

According to the auction house, the items were used to prepare the King’s body for a private viewing for family and friends only in the morning after his death. Presley died August 16, 1977, in the bathroom of his Graceland estate of an irregular heartbeat. “The senior embalmer at the Memphis Funeral Home at the time of Presley’s death saved the items for the last 33 years and decided to sell them after he realized someone might value them,” said Mary Williams, director of books and manuscripts for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Presley’s autopsy involved draining all body fluids and removal of all vital organs which were then sent to a pathology lab for testing to ascertain the cause of death. The coroner, Dr. Jerry Francisco, along with Dr. Eric Muirhead and Dr. Noel Florredo, presided over the autopsy of Presley. The trio initially concealed the facts by attributing the cause of death to a massive heart attack. They later claimed their motive “was not to tarnish the image by a scandal of a drug habit.” For decades, when asked about the rumors that Elvis is not dead, Francisco consistently replied, “If Elvis is NOT dead, he’s walking around without his major organs as Elvis’ brain and heart are still in storage at Memphis Memorial Hospital.”
When the sale was announced, a spokesman for the auction house admitted the auction may be controversial as some people “are going to be disappointed” by the sale of these items. However, Elvis memorabilia remains in strong demand with a lock of his hair selling for $18,300, a red ultra-suede shirt worn by Elvis in publicity photos garnering a $34,000 bid, and an inscribed record sleeve selling for $10,370 at a Hindman’s auction in October 2009. The proposed sale of these creepy collectibles combined with the fact that he’s been dead for 33 years, keeps Presley intact as one of the highest grossing celebrities, bringing in $55 million in 2009 according to Forbes.com. Presley’s posthumous popularity notwithstanding, why would anyone want to buy these things?


Luckily, that question will remain unanswered because these sad rock-n-roll souvenirs were removed from the August 12th auction after doubts were raised about their provenance and authenticity. According to the auction house, the items have been given back to the Memphis Funeral Home, following a dispute between the home and the potential consignor. “Due to questions of ownership, the retired embalmer and his son have decided to turn over the property to the Memphis Funeral Home and its parent company, Service Corporation International, with the intention of donation,” Hindman said in a post on their Web site.
Shortly after the auction was announced, the Memphis Funeral Home claimed that those tools were taken without the home’s consent. The funeral home thought the embalmer was dead, but he’s not. He’s in his 80s. The funeral home contacted the elderly man and told him he can’t sell the items and if they were not returned, legal steps would be taken to reclaim them. According to funeral home president E.C. Daves, “We are awaiting word from the Elvis Presley estate on its preferences for the items. The items could be donated to a funeral history museum in Houston or they could be destroyed. Either way, the funeral home is not going to do anything until the Presley estate agrees with it.”


Now, maybe you’re thinking, “But you never answered the question, who would buy this stuff?” Well, before the items were pulled from the sale, Hindman’s auction house specialist Williams explained, “It’s really about owning a piece of the celebrity themselves… and how much closer can you get than the actual embalming instruments?” Okay that’s a creepy statement. However, I can help add some clarity to the issue for you. If you’ve been paying attention to past columns, you’ve learned that I’ve been an antique dealer for 30 years and a memorabilia collector for even longer than that. As with many collectors, I’ve bought, traded and sold many collections over the years.


One of those collections was a group of crime related autographs, artwork and paintings featuring infamous names like serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy, Manson family members Charles Manson, Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromme and political assassins James Earl Ray, Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Charles Guiteau. I have owned signatures of Bob Ford, the “dirty little coward” who killed Jesse James and a personal check signed and written out by Bruce Lee made payable to and endorsed by his hairstylist Jay Sebring, who died alongside Sharon Tate in the Manson family massacre. Most of these items lost their appeal to me as I grew older but the urge of the infamous and their misdeeds never fully went away, for I still own a signed photo of John Wilkes Booth and a few other assorted macabre mementos from our country’s history.
I have seen many similar grisly relics offered for sale in the past, and held many of these macabre items in my hands including several items connected to the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the blood stained glasses that John Lennon wore the night he was murdered, the “Double Fantasy” record album Lennon signed for Mark David Chapman just a short time before Chapman killed Lennon, the watch that was in Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne’s pocket when he died in a plane crash, the watch Buddy Holly wore on his wrist when he likewise perished in a plane crash, and countless locks of hair and death masks from celebrities in every field across the board. Within the “hobby” they are commonly known as “blood relics” and they are in high demand. Whether you agree or disagree with their relevance, there exists a lucrative market for these sad souvenirs.
Collecting is an addiction. There is the thrill of the chase, the negotiation for acquisition, the elaborate planning for display and the final realization that you now possess the object of your desired search. For those collectors whose fandom goes beyond collecting rare records, signed merchandise and other conventional methods of capturing a performer’s essence, it’s only natural that they would be interested in something that would bring them a little closer to the performer. And friends, it doesn’t get much “closer” than this. So ask yourself: if you had the chance to own, possess or simply handle one of these unique items, what would you do?

Criminals, Indianapolis, Museums, National Park Service, Pop Culture

A Hoosier Guard on Alcatraz PART IV

Albright Part IV
The author and Jim Albright at the Albright family home in Terre Haute.

Original publish date:  July 30, 2020

I asked guard Jim Albright what he remembers about the closing of Alcatraz prison in March of 1963, in particular the visit by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “Oh yeah. I remember. He toured the island and had about 50 bodyguards all around him. He didn’t want any of those bad guys to get near him.” Jim can still recall the names and numbers of the infamous inmates on the island when he was there. “Whitey Bulger # 1428, Alvin Creepy Karpis # 325. Alvin was the lowest number left when I was there. Alvin did more time on the island than any other convict. He did just straight at 26 years.” Jim recalls both Bulger and Karpis as “good cons”, both were “quiet and respectful when they spoke to you.” However Jim does say this about Karpis, a notorious kidnapper with the Ma Barker gang, “He was creepy, oh yeah, he was creepy.” Jim states, “I always treated them like I would have wanted to be treated had I been the convict. My job was not to punish them, my job was security.”z ce unnamed
Jim recalls, “Everybody talks about that escape in the Clint Eastwood movie, but I was on duty for the last escape from Alcatraz. John Paul Scott # 1503. December 16, 1962. That was 25 years, almost to the day from the first escape. I was in the control center. I got the call on the red phone, that’s the emergency phone, and you ‘dial the deuces’ as they call it, 222. ‘Jim get me some help, I got a couple missing from the kitchen basement’ was all I heard.” It was Jim Albright’s responsibility to call out the news, order the boat and man the towers for that final escape. Once again displaying his amazing recall after nearly 60 years, Jim says, “Darrel and Don Pickens, they were from Arizona, and they were both red haired and red freckles, red faced…I put them out in # 2 and # 3 towers and every thing’s going along and pretty soon they’re yelling.” They had found Scott’s fellow escapee Daryl D. Parker clinging for life on “Little Alcatraz” (a small rock in San Francisco Bay roughly 80 yards off the northwest side of the Island). Scott, by now naked and battered senseless, came to rest on a rocky outcropping in the bay near Fort Point. He was brought back to the Rock.z JOHN PAUL SCOTT L

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Frank Weatherman & Jim Albright (far right)

“I escorted the last inmate off the island, Frank Weatherman # 1576. We never had reporters, they were never allowed on the island but that day (of the closing) we probably had 250 of ’em, from all walks of news. One of ’em almost got in line as we’re heading out and asked me ‘what do you think about this?’ as we’re walking and I said, ‘Hey! I’m still working. My job is going on right now. The biggest thing I gotta watch right now is that one of you damned idiots don’t give ’em something they can escape with. Afterwards, I thought, Jim, keep your big mouth shut.” I asked Cathy where she was during that final prisoner walk down to the dock and she answered, “I was on the balcony watching. I was filming it.” Jim says, “We took the film to get it developed, but never got it back.” Cathy answers, “Somebody’s got it but we don’t.” Cathy also notes, “Well the inmates did not want Alcatraz to close. Some of them cried when they left because where they were going they might have to go to a 4-or-5-man cell, Alcatraz was single cells and they liked that.” Jim adds, “Some of them went, and Creepy Karpis was one of em, to McNeil Island in Washington and they had 10-man cells up there. Creepy, for 25, 26 years almost was used to a one man cell. They finally paroled him and deported him to Canada…from there he went to Spain. I guess he couldn’t take being free, cause he hung himself.”

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Inmate # 594: Robert Stroud aka The Birdman of Alcatraz.

Jim missed Robert Stroud, the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz”, by just a few days. “I went there in August and he left in July. But I heard all the stories about him,” Jim recalls. “He was not liked by inmates or staff, either one. You talk about somebody no good, that was him…He was a weird old, nasty guy.” Jim and Cathy remained on the island for three months after that last inmate was escorted onto the boat by Officer Albright himself. It was only afterwards that the couple allowed themselves a little luxury, “We were there March to June. We moved from 64 building over across the parade ground to the city side…They had what they called B & C apartments, these were nicer apartments, they had fireplaces in them.” Jim smiles as he recalls Alcatraz historian and author Jerry Champion jokingly asking, “You had a fireplace did ya? Where’d you get your firewood?” (There are no trees on Alcatraz island).

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Jim Albright returns to Alcatraz.

Jim guesses that there may be a “half a dozen or less” Alcatraz guards still living, and “two of them are in wheelchairs” and the former guard estimates the same for the former convicts. Cathy notes that the inmates used to come to the reunions too and Jim recalls that it took awhile for the inmates to show up because “they were ashamed of what the guards would think, ya know.” But spend five minutes with Jim Albright and you quickly realize that he was never one to hold a grudge. Officer Albright is simply not the judging kind. Jim Albright is a people person. He enjoys meeting people and loves to see their reactions when he shares his story, especially when he reveals that they lived on the island. “As soon as I tell them that and point to my wife, it’s “FWEET!” (he says with a whistle and grin), they go right over to her and I’ve lost ’em.”
For many years, Jim and Cathy traveled by train from Terre Haute to San Francisco, a 2 1/4 day’s travel from nearby Galesburg, Illinois. “There used to be 150 people come out to those reunions, but then it got down to 30 cause there’s just nobody left.” Because of the current situation with Covid-19, the couple’s trip has been postponed. Cathy admits, “Well, we’re all getting older” and Jim chimes in, “And that’s the thing about not going in August, that means that last August was probably our last time going out there. The odds are against us.” Jim and Cathy fear that the alumni association will soon be no more. “There’s just not enough of ’em left,” Cathy says.
z DYwvoC_VAAABixRA week after our visit to Jim and Cathy Albright, the United States Supreme Court lifted the ban on executions at the Terre Haute penitentiary located a mere three miles from their front door. At the time of this writing, there had been three executions in four days. While there were never any State sanctioned executions at Alcatraz, there was not much rehabilitation taking place there either. Convicts were different back then, some actually viewed it as a profession. When asked about the convicts of today, Jim simply shakes his head and says, “They were more like professional convicts ya know ‘I did the crime, I’ll do the time’. It’s just not the same. It’s a different world now.”
In his book, Jim wrote quite eloquently of his feelings on that last day, “Emotions of prison personnel were very strong and it was hard to accept that all the convicts were gone…I boarded the boat for the last time as a guard on Alcatraz. I though to myself, what an experience I had just completed, and how fast the time went by. I felt tears grow in my eyes as the boat went across the water to Fort Mason.” I asked the couple individually, if they could make one statement about the Rock, what would it be? Cathy answered, “Well, I really liked the place. I did not want to leave. It was one big family… It was something special. It was home.” Jim reflected for a few moments, titled his head back as if looking through the mist of time, and replied, “A very enjoyable life living on the island and a very safe place to raise our children.”

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The Rock.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary has been closed for over 57 years now. During that time it has become more myth than reality. Alcatraz Island encompasses a total of 22 acres in the center of San Francisco Bay. It opened to the public in fall 1973 and since that time has hosted millions of people from every corner of the world. The flood of people who once lived on the island during the time it was the world’s most famous prison has trickled to a slow drip. However, there remains one couple living on the western edge of the Hoosier state who know that sometimes, even if they don’t consider themselves as such, legends are real and history is the foundation of all that is worthy in life.

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Criminals, Indianapolis, Museums, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

A Hoosier Guard on Alcatraz PART II

Albright Part II
Cathy and Jim Albright

Original publish date:  July 16, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, with Covid-19 restrictions finally easing up, I traveled west on the National Road to Terre Haute with my wife Rhonda and friends Kris and Roger Branch to see a couple of Hoosier legends that I hadn’t seen in almost a decade. Jim and Cathy Albright welcomed our little band of intrepid historians into their home to catch up and listen to stories as only they could tell them. Jim was the last guard off the Island prison in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz. No, it doesn’t mean that Jim was the last man to board the final boat off the island when it closed on March 21, 1963, rather, Jim and his wife Cathy remained living on Alcatraz for weeks after it’s closing. As detailed in part one of this series last week, when the prison closed, the Albright’s daughter Donna Sue was only 11 days old and suffering from a foot abnormality that required surgery. The child could not be moved in her fragile condition, so the family remained on the island for 3 more months before leaving on June 22, 1963.
Social distancing guidelines and masks in place, we sat down for a talk about “The Rock.” Ironically, the couple celebrated their 65th anniversary in April during Indiana’s stay at home lockdown period. And Jim Albright knows a thing or tow about lockdown. On their 60th anniversary the couple renewed their vows on Alcatraz, “The biggest surprise I had when we got remarried out there was that she said yes the second time,” Jim says with a smile. Cathy recalls that she can still gaze up at their old apartment in Building 64 and see the curtains she made hanging in the window, although, “You can’t go into the building now, the floors and stairs are all falling apart and it’s not safe,” Cathy says.

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Building 64 at Alcatraz.

From time-to-time, the couple still visit different civic organizations and talk about their years at Alcatraz. “You name the organization, we’ve spoken to ’em.” Jim says, “We have been going back to Alcatraz every year in August for a long time now. (Cathy recalls that first visit was on the 35th anniversary of the prison’s closing-“to the day”-she says) We take the train out but we are going to cancel this year because of the virus.” Jim recalled his first visit to his old island home so many years ago, “John Cantwell (NPS Ranger) offered to escort us around the island and it turned out to be a six-and-a-half hour tour.” To which Cathy laughs and says, “That’s because you were talking so much.” Jim’s recall of events on the island is remarkable. During that first tour, Jim shared details which Ranger Cantwell had never heard before. According to the former guard, Cantwell remarked, “Jim, we’ve had a lot of guys come back here, but they don’t remember the things that you do.” Jim continued, “That’s because wherever I went on the island, and we went EVERYWHERE; the east gun gallery, up on the roof, the old officer’s dining room, every time that I go somewhere, when I step in it seems to trigger something, and I remember…”

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The New Industries Building at Alcatraz.

Cantwell took them to the old Industries building where there were “Great big, probably 8 foot by 10 foot, photographs of the prison and Jim was in several of them, so that was neat to go see that.” Jim says with a chuckle. Cathy adds, “He says he remembers stuff all the time, brings it up, he used to be able to tell you every inmate that was in there when he was there…their name, number, where they worked, where they lived.” Jim chimes in, “But I can’t anymore. It’s all gotten away. When I went there on August 24, 1959, that was my original starting date, and the low number of the inmates at that time was a guy named Clark, number 242, and of course when I left, 1576, Frank Weatherman was the high number. So we had not quite that many inmates cause if you came back, you got another number, I can think of one inmate who was there three different times under three different numbers. I come in August of 1959 and left the island June 22 of ’63.”
I asked Jim if he still had relics and souvenirs from his time as a guard and he shared that he still had his uniform but not the jacket. “I had to turn that in. I don’t know why, I was the only one left on the island and I shoulda kept it.” To which Cathy replied, “Then he found out later that they took all of those coats and stuff like that and dumped it out in the bay.” Jim adds, “Lt. Robbins came on the boat with a whole box of keys and dumped ’em into the bay. Fortunately, I was working the control center when it closed up so I have a key to the main gate. Being in the right place at the right time…I’ve also got a key to the main visiting room.”

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Jim Albright leading the “last line” of prisoners out of Alcatraz.

And, since we we all seated in the Albright’s living room, I recalled that Jim had once told me that they also bought much of the de-accessioned furniture from Alcatraz. Cathy giggles as Jim reveals that the chair he is seated in, and that from which Kris was filming from, were all once located in the furnished apartments for guards and officials on the island. Jim points out, “that magazine rack, is off the island.” Cathy reports, “We bought most of it out of the warden’s house, they were selling it, when they closed the island, you could go up there and buy it and we did.” Cathy notes that the furniture is marked with a small metal tag reading “USP Alcatraz Survey” on the bottom. Jim further reports, “that tag has a number stamped on it and they had a book that they could tell exactly what that was and where it was.” He points over his shoulder and states, “That one bedroom down there, most of the furniture is Alcatraz, two or three items in our bedroom are all Alcatraz, the dining room table and chairs, a couple items out here and on the back porch. Red Ball moving company came to the island moved it for us. Everything had to go by barge over to Fort Mason”

Albright Part IIa
Jim Albright seated in one of the original Alcatraz chairs.

Jim recalls that his duties were light during the three months he remained on Alcatraz as the last guard. “There were others there, we weren’t alone on the island. There was a caretaker, a few maintenance workers and the lighthouse operators. I still spent my time patrolling the island with my bullhorn cause everybody wanted to board that island so I ran around yelling ‘you gotta stay off, this is Government property.'” When Jim left Alcatraz, he went to Marion, Illinois. “That was one of the seven places,” Cathy replies. The couple settled in Terre Haute and Jim retired here. “Three miles from my door to the prison gate. Last April I’m retired 35 years and I enjoy every minute of it.” he states. When I asked if his Alcatraz service helped him later on in his career, Jim said, “Because I had worked at Alcatraz, they didn’t even question what I did or how I did it. You know, it really helped as I went to different places.”

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The Warden’s house on Alcatraz as it once looked (right) and as it looks today (left).

I asked how Alcatraz compared to other duty, especially considering that the guards lived with their families alongside the prisoners. Cathy replied, “Well, we could go anywhere but ‘up top’ that’s what we called where the cellhouse was located. The only time we ever went up there was when the warden’s wife had a party and then we were escorted up there and when the party was done, we were escorted back down.” Cathy further stated that the families could travel into San Francisco whenever they wanted. “When we’d go to the grocery store, if they found out we were from Alcatraz, people would just back away from you. They had a big park there and our son would want to go so I’d let him run all over there. When the women found out that we lived on Alcatraz, he couldn’t play with them anymore. The kids didn’t care what the moms said, they’d just play, you know.” Jim recalls, “there was like twelve boats a day” going into San Francisco, “somewhere around here I still have the boat schedule. The last boat ran back at 12:20 am for the guys working midnight shift, if you missed that boat, you were in town all night.”

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Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

A Hoosier Guard on Alcatraz Part I

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NPS Ranger John Cantwell and the author with Jim and Cathy Albright at Alcatraz fpr the 75th anniversary of the prison’s opening on August 11, 2009.

Original publish date:  October 23, 2009                Reissue date:  July 9, 2020

 

This column was first published 11 years ago. Last weekend, I traveled to Terre Haute to check on it’s subject. Next, week, in Parts 2, 3 & 4, I will bring you up to speed on Jim Albright, the last guard to leave the notorious San Francisco Bay island prison know as “The Rock.”

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened 75 years ago on August 11, 1934. I covered my visit to the “The Rock” in an earlier “Eastside Voice” article. As I stood on the same Alcatraz boat dock that received the likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Stroud aka “The Birdman of Alcatraz” my attention was caught by a distinguished looking gentleman with what appeared to be a uniform draped over his arm and an Alcatraz prison guard hat in his hand. I asked one of the Park Rangers standing near me what the story was and he identified the man as a former Alcatraz guard from Terre Haute, Indiana and realizing that I was on the island for a story on an Indianapolis inmate, he followed that up with, “Oh yeah, you might want to talk to him. He was the last guard off the island.” I barely heard the last line as I was race walking across the dock towards him.

            As soon as I approached, the man saw my Indiana University hat and immediately extended his hand in a friendly greeting. “Indiana, huh? I’m from Terre Haute” he said, “I’m Jim Albright and I was here for 4 years until the prison closed in 1963.”  He went on to tell me that he gained a unique designation as the last guard off the island when he and his family left on June 22, 1963, over 3 months AFTER the prison closed on March 21, 1963. At that moment, the V.I.P. tram arrived to escort Jim and his lovely wife Catherine up the winding 130 foot hill that covers a steep quarter mile series of roads up to the cell house where Jim was here to sign copies of his book’ “Last Guard Out“.  You can imagine my distress at having just heard and comprehended this tasty nugget as the tram was pulling away. Just as I was contemplating the idea of chasing after the tram to complete the interview, I was whisked away into the bowels of building 64 under the old officer’s quarters that act as the backdrop for arrival.

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Alcatraz Island.

            Here I awaited Alcatraz park ranger John Cantwell in what once was a gun port of old “Fortress Alcatraz” with the gun ports still plainly visible in the walls. The building now acts as the Ranger’s research station and library. Cantwell graciously answered all of my questions and then led me on a tour of several areas that are strictly off limits to the general public. A dedicated public servant and a true asset to the National Park Service, Cantwell then took me up to meet up again with Jim and his wife Cathy who were busily autographing copies of the book for guests on the island in the huge new bookstore humorously referred to as the “Alcatraz Wal-Mart” by island employees. It’s interesting to note that the bookstore is located in the basement below the old kitchen, an area previously off limits to visitors probably best remembered by true Alcatraz buffs as the area where inmate / author Jim Quilllen attempted his breakout through the tunnel housing the steam pipes for the cell house. Jim greeted me wearing his original Alcatraz guard’s uniform from head to toe and looking pretty sharp I must say. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could fit into the same clothes I wore 20 years ago, let alone 50 years after I wore them.

            Jim and Cathy had driven across country from Terre Haute to San Francisco with their nine grandchildren in tow (complete with sleeping bags & luggage) to attend the 75th anniversary celebration on “The Rock“. The grandkids got the thrill of a lifetime when the whole family spent the night in the cells on “D block” together with the other guests and families attending the official ceremonies. With a sparkle in his eye, Jim told how he made sure the family slept in the cells on the middle tier of D block because “that’s the only tier that you can see all of the San Francisco shoreline from.” He paused for a moment to make sure that I knew it was the first time he’d ever slept in a cell. Jim lamented how he sometimes runs into young people who have never heard of Alcatraz, which is hard to imagine.

            In between autographs, Jim told me the story of his time on Alcatraz. He proudly pointed out that he was hired as a guard 50 years ago that very month (August 1959) as a 24 year old Iowa farm boy with no previous law enforcement experience. He was loading milk cans for Sealtest Dairy in Denver, Colorado when his corrections officer brother-in-law asked if he had ever considered a change of career. Alcatraz sounded a lot more exciting than milk cans, so in 1956 Jim, Cathy and their son Kenneth packed everything they owned into the back of a 1956 Chevy Nomad and drove out to the city by the bay. Jim took one look at the fog covered rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay and wondered what they had gotten themselves into. He was proud of the fact that both of his daughters, Vicki Lynn (Harland) and Donna Sue (Hinzman) were born on the island and their birth certificates list “Alcatraz” as their place of birth.

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The author, Jim Albright & Addison Hunter at Alcatraz.

            As Jim signed books, took pictures with guests and chatted with fans, I was able to talk to Cathy about her time on the Island. Most people unfamiliar with Alcatraz do not realize that the families of the guards lived on the island alongside the inmates; although Catherine pointed out that they rarely came into contact with each other. “There were 3 inmates that worked in the mess hall and from our windows we could see the 5 inmates that worked on the dock, but that was about it. Of course, there were no women employed on the island. The only women here were housewives and mothers.” she said. When asked what, if anything, made Alcatraz special, Catherine replied that it was the feeling of “Community” that she remembers most. Everyone knew everyone and there was always someone willing to help whenever you needed it. She remembers that she had one of the girls at 3 am and before she could pack an overnight bag for her trip to the hospital, 2 neighbors were in the apartment to help.

The Albrights remembered that the island had its own grocery store, bowling alley and movie theatre with a new movie showing every Sunday night. Jim & Cathy lived in an apartment in San Francisco for the first 6 weeks while waiting for housing to open up on the island, Cathy remembers that it was hard to find housing in the city by the bay as most apartments would allow pets, but no children. Someone had told the Albrights that the apartments on the island were furnished, so the family sold all of their furniture only to find that, when they moved in, the rooms were bare. Jim smiles broadly when he recalls that rent on the island apartment was $ 27.50 per month and included laundry, dry cleaning and utilities. Along with his uniform, Jim brought along several artifacts from his years on Alcatraz including his 1959 ID card, whistle, leather key strap, Alcatraz key “chit” tag that was exchanged for cell door keys and perhaps most interesting a couple of shiny brass Post / PX / Store tokens from the old military post years. Jim recalled how the launch boat used to dock on the west side of the island where he found the tokens shining in the moonlight in about 6 inches of water near the dock one night.

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Jim Albright’s Book.

            Jim then told me the story of how he gained the designation as Alcatraz Island’s “Last Guard Out“. When the prison closed on March 21, 1963, the Albright’s daughter Donna Sue was only 11 days old and suffering from a foot abnormality that required surgery. The child could not be moved in her fragile condition, so the family remained on the island for 3 more months before leaving on June 22, 1963. The Albrights were the only family left on the island aside from a night watchman and a handful of government workers left behind to remove any useful equipment that could be transferred to other prisons or facilities. In late June of 1963, Jim was one of 10 Alcatraz guards handpicked by the Warden to be transferred to the new “Supermax” prison in Marion, Illinois which was built to replace “The Rock“.

            I asked Jim if being known as a former Alcatraz guard carried any weight at other facilities and he quickly replied “Oh, yes. With both guards AND Prisoners.” He remembered how he went from Alcatraz, which had 1 guard for every 3 inmates, to Marion where he worked alone from Midnight to 6 am watching 212 inmates armed only with a telephone in a prison so new that it had no doors on the cells and the containment fence that was supposed to surround the prison was incomplete. “That’s when the Alcatraz reputation made a difference. The inmates just didn’t mess with that.” He said. After Marion, Jim worked for a time at the Federal Prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Jim and Cathy Albright were transferred to the Federal Prison in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1972 and, aside from 4 years spent at a Milan, Michigan facility (1979 to 1983), they’ve been Hoosiers ever since. Jim retired as a Terre Haute Federal Prison guard in 1985.

            It was on a visit to Alcatraz Island in 1998 that Jim’s identity as an Alcatraz treasure was discovered. Jim was visiting “The Rock” as a tourist with his family, having purchased a ticket just like everyone else to visit his old home and workplace. Ranger John Cantwell asked the crowd if there were anyone present with a connection to the island and Jim, humble as always, didn’t say anything. It was Jim’s brother-in-law, John Peters, who finally spoke up to reveal Jim’s past as an Island guard. For years, everyone who knew Jim’s story urged him to write a book, now Ranger Cantwell himself contributed his voice to those urgings. The end result is the 2008 book “Last Guard Out –A riveting account by the last guard to leave Alcatraz” covering Jim Albright’s years of service on “The Rock.”

In case you’re wondering, yes I bought one and gleefully asked Jim & Cathy to sign my copy and date it on that historic 75th anniversary day. Now you will have the same opportunity as I did to meet and talk with Jim and Cathy Albright right here in Irvington. The Albrights will be in Irvington for the Halloween festival, signing copies of his book “Last Guard Out” at Book Mamas book store located at 9 South Johnson Avenue in Irvington from 3 PM to 4 PM on Saturday October 31. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet a true Hoosier legend.

The book’s a great read made even better now that I know the author and his wife. Of course, I would not be true to the “spirit” of this column if I didn’t ask Jim about the ghosts of Alcatraz. Jim thought for a moment and said, “You know, I worked on this Island for 4 years at all hours of the night and day. Midnight, 3 am, 4 am, every possible time slot and I never heard anything that I could call a ghost.” It does make me wonder though, what do you think those 9 grandkids who spent the night in Alcatraz’s legendary spooky cells of D block would say if I asked them the same thing?