Civil War, Gettysburg, National Park Service

Barb Adams- Gettysburg’s Nurse of Artillery.

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Original publish date:  September 13, 2018

155 years after the last cannon shot was fired in anger on the hallowed fields at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a dutiful volunteer keeps watch over the cannons located there. The Gettysburg National Military Park is 9.358 mi.² in size and features some 1,300 monuments and 400 cannons. It takes an army to maintain the monuments but there is only one angel left on the field caring for those artillery pieces, many of which saw use in the battle itself.
I ran into Barb Adams quite by accident in late June 2018, just a couple days before the 155th anniversary of the great battle. I was visiting Gettysburg with my wife and friends Kris and Roger Branch. I have recently taken up a new hobby of “etching” tombstones, plaques and monument faces at the many historic places I often find myself visiting. Etching is a fairly simple hobby that involves paper pencil and a little masking tape. If you, like me, ever traced a Lincoln penny with a pencil by rubbing the graphite over the surface of the coin, then you have etched too.
Roger Branch is a former U.S. Army artilleryman with an interest in cannons. Last year I found an “artsy” photo collage of the crest of Little Round Top which I gave to Roger. One of the photos was a close up of the muzzle from one of the big guns. Little did I know, that minor gift would set him on a quest to find that cannon, the very gun pictured in that old photographic display. Kris, Roger and I hit the battlefield at dawn in search of the many rock carvings made by soldiers still existing there. (Sleepyhead Rhonda stayed behind) I was determined to make a couple etchings if practicable. I also knew I wanted to make etchings of the Irish brigade monument along with the Hancock, Sickles and Lewis Addison Armistead wounding monuments. Especially since Armistead was the man I named my son Addison after.
Roger wanted to make an etching of the Alonzo Cushing marker at the bloody angle just yards away from the high water mark of the Confederacy. All of these we did and more. Etching can get into your soul and literally seep into your blood. Once you’ve been out etching, you notice that your fingers are covered with black graphite. It gets on everything you touch from that point on. Oh, it washes off easily, but somehow that sooty residue makes you feel authentic, especially when you’re on a battlefield.
Flush with excitement and caught up in the moment, our grimy little trio headed to the massive Pennsylvania monument in search of Roger’s cannon. We had checked all of the guns at the high watermark for comparison; to no avail. While checking the muzzles of the guns near the First Minnesota monument, it occurred to us that we could easily etch those muzzles. The guns are dated per time of manufacture, so the thought of getting one etching from each year (1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, & 1865) became our quest of the moment.
There we stood, three middle-aged graphite-stained 8-year-olds tracing our little hearts out. Kris held the paper taut like a spider web on a gutter spout. Roger traced away like a Hollywood makeup artist on an aging starlet. My job? To keep watch. Because we weren’t entirely sure we were allowed to do this. We were stretching the boundaries of our usual mantra: “Take nothing but pictures-leave nothing but footprints.”
Suddenly, a car pulled up and out stepped an athletic looking woman whose shirt, pants, shoes, wrists, fingers and elbows were be-dabbed with paint. She walked up to our sheepish looking little trio and for a few seconds we wondered if we were in trouble or not. Roger remained cool, calm and collected and never stopped etching. He remained focused and was determined to complete his task. Turns out, this handsome suntanned lady was Barb Adams and she was the keeper of the cannons.
We asked if we were in trouble, and she answered, “No, I just want to watch you do one.” Roger finished his etching as we chatted with Barb and she informed us of what she does every day. Her job is to maintain, clean and repaint every cannon on the Gettysburg battlefield. She knows them all by heart and maintains a detailed accounting of every gun on that field. Roger immediately pulled out his cell phone and asked, “Do you know where this gun is?” To which Barb answered, “Are you guys going to be here for a while? I can go check my book and let you know.”

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Heading into the cannon shop at Gettsyburg.

She jumped in her car and drove back to her office, returning several minutes later with her binder identifying the location of her cannons. “Sorry guys, that gun is not on this field.” came Barb’s reply. To say we were crestfallen might be an understatement. Our spirits were lifted when Barb invited us to come visit the cannon restoration shop later that day. “I have to get permission from my boss first, but I don’t think he’ll mind,” she said. So off we went to spend our day trying to contain our excitement until 5:30 rolled around and we could visit what we were sure was going to be a magical place.
The Gettysburg cannon shop is located just off Confederate Avenue on the outskirts of the Lutheran seminary. You wouldn’t even know it was there unless someone (like Barb) gave you directions. Our little group, now joined by Rhonda, entered the shop and were immediately transformed back to 1863. The shop is littered with all things cannon. There are barrels, carriages, limbers, wheels, and parts of every sort. Guns, howitzers 3 inch ordinance rifles, 10 pound parrots, and 12-pound Napoleon’s; Wrought Iron, Bronze, and Cast-Iron; Smoothbore’s, James and Whitworth’s; 6 pounders, 10 pounders, 12 pounders, 14 pounders, 20 pounders, 24 pounders, and 3-inch ordinance rifles. Truly, an artilleryman’s dream.
20180628_183203Barb guided us through every step of cannon restoration, carefully explaining what it took to keep her guns in perfect order. This was heady air we were breathing. Terms like breeches, swells, trunnions, rimbases, chambers, astragals, base rings, vents, bores, girdles, chambers, cascabels, knobs, wadding, windage and calibre seeped into our heads like sand through an hourglass. Barb Adams knows every inch of these guns.
She explains that the cannon restoration program was started by the “Friends of the National Park” at Gettysburg over 20 years ago. Barb spends her days, especially in summertime, on the un-shaded, boiling hot fields of Gettysburg. “I try to get out there early, before it gets too hot and the buses start rolling in, ” she says. “I love talking to people, especially schoolkids, but I never seem to get enough work done because I get wrapped up in talking about cannons.”
Barb’s routine is a patient one. Each cannon, when removed for restoration, is taken back to the shop where it is sandblasted and the carriage refurbished. “The wood wears down quickest and we have to replace the wooden carriages and the spokes of the wheels most often. It takes two months just to get each gun to my paint room.” Barb continues, “Each cannon gets two coats of primer, two coats of green paint and two coats of black paint. Anywhere two pieces of metal meet has to be caulked to keep moisture out.” Add to those duties that Barb also paints the white letters on all of the coal black battery markers and itinerary plaques found scattered throughout the battlefield, and you can tell she has her hands full.
I wondered, how did a distinguished looking lady like Barb get started in this meticulous business? “It was my husband’s dream to paint a cannon. Just one cannon. Somehow, one cannon turned into all of them.” Barb explains that she met her husband, John Scott Adams of the Washington Post, on the battlefield July 1st, 1998. The couple was married in 2001 and John died in 2002. In her previous life, Barb was a nurse from Rochester, New York, which seems fitting for someone who cares so lovingly for the cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield. “I was a fan of Lincoln and that’s what brought me to Gettysburg. I met John here and he told me he had always wanted to paint a cannon, which I thought sounded interesting. So we did. That’s how it all started.”
Sixteen years later, Barb is the only volunteer caring for the cannons full-time. She’s at it everyday, weather providing, with her ancient brown metal folding chair, coffee can full of paintbrushes, paint rags, paint cans and, pardon the pun, an abundance of patients. “You’d be surprised how much wear and tear these big guns take.” Barb says. Besides schoolkids climbing all over them and overzealous reenactors incessantly rubbing / leaning on them, Barb says squirrels cause a lot of damage. “Squirrels sharpen their teeth on the wooden carriages and even on the metal parts like the rings, axles, knobs and necks of the guns. If you look close you can see their little tooth scratches.”
Barb explains that while there are many good part-time volunteers that sometimes help her in her task, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what still needs to be done. “At any given time, there are 30 to 40 cannons waiting to be restored.” she says. When asked who will take over when she decides to hang it up, Barb forlornly replies, “I don’t know. I’m the only one left. There just doesn’t seem to be an interest anymore. I tried giving it up once, and answered the phones at the desk for two weeks, but then I said that’s enough of that and headed back out to the battlefield. Luckily, there are other people just as passionate as I am about these cannons. You should talk to Bruce Vanisacker, he lives in your neck of the woods near Monroe Michigan. He knows everything about the history of these cannons.”
Well you didn’t have to tell me twice. I can talk to an expert from the adopted hometown of General George Armstrong Custer? Yeah Boy! I called him straightaway. Although it is a 7 hour drive from Monroe to Gettysburg, Bruce seems to know every inch of that battlefield like the back of his hand. Like Barb, who is 435 miles away, Bruce knows every gun on that field. He knows where every gun is placed, which ones have been restored and which ones are waiting. Bruce created a large wall map hanging just inside the door of the cannon shop featuring hundreds of tiny red and blue cannons designating their condition.

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Bruce Vanisacker & President George W. Bush.

Bruce’s expertise is in the repair and manufacture of broken or damaged cannon parts. A dedicated tool and die maker who makes the 45-mile (one way) commute every workday, Bruce can cast any artillery replacement part in a flash. He visits Gettysburg on average three times a year and has for the past quarter century. He is a walking textbook of Gettysburg artillery. Bruce notes that in 1916 there were 410 cannons, which he calls “tubes”, placed on the field. Attrition brought that number down to 370 by 2002 “counting cannons damaged by vehicles or trees falling on them.” Bruce says that cannons were largely ignored until 1896. Bruce recalls how 8 cannon tubes were taken from storage and traded away to other parks for other items to add to the Gettysburg NPS Museum. “The carriages were in pretty bad shape so it seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1930s one cannon was removed from the field and sent down to the Stones River Battlefield. It had the name “Murfreesboro” carved in the barrel so we sent it home.” says Bruce.
He explains how most of the ordinance stacks (cannonballs and parrot shells) were removed in the late 1970s / early 1980s. “The only original stacks left on the field are located on Benner’s Hill. There are a couple stacks at the Confederate High Water Mark, but I believe those are cast in bronze and not original ordinance. The High Water Mark does have the earliest tubes on the field though, place there in 1892. I have records showing that 60 original 24-pound field howitzers were shipped to Gettysburg in the 1890s. They were left laying in an open field for 3-5 years before being mounted.” Bruce states that before the age of battlefield preservation at Gettysburg, there were howitzers being used as flagposts on parts of the field, muzzle up with the “flags sticking out of the tubes. We had two cannons stolen back in 1968 and 1972 and they were never recovered. But one of those was a replica, so…” Bruce states that since the artillery restoration program began in 1996, “We started pulling tubes off 10-12 at a time for restoration and repair. When those were finished we’d pull another 10-12 off and replace them with the restored tubes.”
I couldn’t resist asking Bruce about the range of firepower used on the field during those three hot days back in 1863. “The best example I can think of is that the Union was using 10 pound parrot guns and three-inch ordinance guns placed on top of Cemetery Hill. Those guns could easily hit the tree line on Seminary Ridge 3/4’s of a mile away. They could fire over a mile but were most accurate at 3/4’s distance. The most common ordinance was canister shot. Like a coffee can filled with golf balls that was deadly at 400 yards or closer.”
Bruce can’t say enough good things about Barb Adams. He worries that hers is becoming a lost art. And, that there is no one to replace her. “There is absolutely no one to take over when she leaves. No one with the enthusiasm and pride that she has. It’s more than a hobby to her, it’s a labor of love. She is so humble that I don’t think she realizes how truly talented and valuable she is to the Gettysburg battlefield.”
On our last morning at Gettysburg, we revisited the crest of Little Round Top to drink our morning coffee atop the ridge and watch as the fog rolled in over Devil’s Den. About 30 yards away from the rock where the life-size statue of Union General Gouverneur K. Warren stands (the only rock on the entire battlefield visitors are forbidden to climb) rest the cannons known as “Hazlett’s guns”. This is truly hallowed ground. Here alongside these guns Brigade commander Stephen Weed fell mortally wounded, and when Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett knelt to hear the General’s dying words he, too, fell mortally wounded.
Roger decided to check and see if one of these cannons, some of the most famous Union cannons in the history of the Civil War, might be the one from his photo. We were stunned to find that the object of our search had been right under our noses the entire time. Roger found his cannon and we immediately left the summit in search of Barb Adams. We found her at the bloody angle painting one of Cushing’s guns. She was elated at the news, saying, “I thought we were looking for a 6-pound gun, those are 10 pounders up there. See, YOU taught ME something new.” No Barb, YOU taught us everything we know. And what of her husband, the cannon man John Scott Adams? Barb wears his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Meaning that, although he’s been gone for 16 years now, he’s still with his bride Barb… cleaning cannons on the Gettysburg battlefield everyday.

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Barb Adams and Alan E. Hunter
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The picture of the St. Gaudens Lincoln Statue in the break room of the cannon shop.
Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART II

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Original publish date:  August 18, 2009

On April 14, 1943- Four Alcatraz prisoners, Indianapolis bankrobber James Boarman, Harold Brest (a kidnapper serving life plus 50 years), Floyd Hamilton (Bonnie & Clyde gang member), and Fred Hunter (partner of Alvin “Creepy” Karpis & member of Ma Barker’s gang) took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water’s edge.
One of the overpowered guards, Henry “Bullethead” Weinhold wriggled free and began to blow his whistle. At that moment, tower officer Frank L. Johnson saw the men heading for the water and sounded the alarm. Within seconds, Johnson trained his powerful Springfield 30-06 rifle towards the water where he could see the bobbing heads of the escaping inmates through the fog. The shots from the powerful gun spattered the waters around the escapees with tiny geysers. Within 30 yards from shore, the first rain of bullets grazed Hamilton, who shuddered and sank beneath the choppy waves with the sounds of the island’s sirens wailing shrilly through the eerie fog.

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New Industries Building from which the Alcatraz inmates escaped.

Brest and Boarman were swimming side by side traveling swiftly stroke by stroke like two athletes in an Olympic race just a few hundred yards from shore when Boarman suddenly stopped. Brest reached out to assist his now silent friend as slowly, the water surrounding them began to turn a bright crimson red. Brest recalled that Boarman’s eyes were open but glazed over with saltwater and it was a struggle to maintain a grip on the sinking, silent form beside him. Brest managed to get hold of the dying man’s leather belt, which ironically had been Boarman’s own idea for the escapees to wear as an attachment device for the canisters, just as the Alcatraz Island boat appeared from the fog with guns of the on board officers aimed at Brest’s head. Instinctively, Brest loosened his grip in preparation for his eminent apprehension just as the belt snapped and James Boarman’s body sank slowly into the green waters of the bay. As the body turned over, Brest could plainly see the fatal bullet hole behind Boarman’s left ear. It would be the last time anyone would see James Boarman’s body, which presumably rests somewhere on the bottom of San Francisco Bay to this very day.
Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston announced to reporters; “Brest was nicked by a bullet before he was captured. Boarman is gone.” and continued with, “We’re positive that Hamilton is dead. He was shot, and we saw him go under.” The fourth escapee Hunter, shivering in his underwear, was discovered hiding in a cave located in the cliff wall so near the escape scene that it was filled with discarded tires from the prison mat shop. Hunter had injured his back and chest in his leap over the fence and his journey down the sheer cliff wall had cut his hands to pieces. He gave up trying to swim, entered the cave and covered himself with the floating tires to avoid discovery. “Guards took a boat to the entrance of the cave, where they found bloodstains on the entrance—as if someone had been leaning on the rocks for support,” the Warden said. “One of the guards called for Hunter to come out. He refused. Then the guard fired a pistol shot and Hunter came out. Both the recaptured men disclaim knowledge of leadership in the attempt. Each says he ‘just got in on it a couple of days ago. We will probably never find the bodies of the other two. Sometimes bodies come up in the bay after nine days, sometimes after 30 days—but usually they don’t come up at all.”

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Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston inspecting his officers.

However, the warden was hasty in his proclamation, for Hamilton wasn’t dead at all. During the frenzied shooting, the former Bonnie & Clyde cohort managed to swim to a small rock located about a hundred yards offshore known as “Little Alcatraz”. Here he caught his breath and swam back to shore underwater as bullets whizzed above his head, surfacing only briefly to gulp for air before continuing on his panicked journey. Hamilton ended up hiding in the same cave with Hunter, but did not surrender when the warning shot was fired into the cave. Hamilton would hide in the tires as the guards hauled Hunter out of the cave. He would remain there for three days dressed only in his underwear as the 58 degree waves crashed against his body. Hamilton recalled the most harrowing ordeal of his 3 day brush with freedom was battling the many aggressive crabs in the cave that constantly nibbled away at him whenever he tried to sleep. On April 16th, Hamilton crept back into the old electrical shop where, cold and weak from hunger; he curled up in a pile of rags and was found lying in a fetal position by old “Bullethead” himself who must’ve thought he was seeing a ghost.
z 7010813_1039845019What didn’t change was the fact that 24-year-old Indianapolis resident and “baby” of the Alcatraz escape outfit, James A. Boarman was dead, the victim of the prison guards’ gunfire. Ranger John Cantwell took me to the old Model Industries Building, now off limits to the public and home to the protected nesting California waterfowl that populate the island in summertime, to show me the approximate place of Boarman’s demise. Over his years of service, Cantwell has become an expert on Alcatraz escapes and the 34 men who attempted them. One former inmate, “Alcatraz from the Inside” author Jim Quillen, was a close friend of Cantwell’s. The dedicated park ranger did not miss the opportunity to ask Quillen about that 1943 escape. Quillen, a bank robber and kidnapper imprisoned on the island for ten years from 1942 to 1952, knew James Boarman.
Cantwell was aware of the official Alcatraz version told by tower gunner Frank Johnson, who claimed he was firing warning shots in front of the escapees and that Boarman “accidentally” swam into the fatal bullet. According to Cantwell, Quillen quickly dismissed this version saying that Boarman was a “good con” who didn’t deserve such a fate. Quillen, who died in 1998, remained convinced that Boarman was intentionally “murdered” by Johnson, claiming bluntly that the gunner “took the top of his head off…that was no warning shot”. If you read Quillen’s book, it’s easy to understand his motivation in sticking up for his fellow con, for Jim Quillen’s life story might as well be Jim Boarman’s life story. A couple of Depression era kids who wandered into a life of crime as a means to survive until a line was crossed that sent both men to America’s own Devil’s Island known as “The Rock”. Boarman didn’t murder anyone, he was just a thief, a thief that paid his Alcatraz tab with his life.

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Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

Cantwell, who was a pall bearer at Jim Quillen’s funeral, wanted me to know that his friend had no disillusions about himself or his fellow inmates, recalling how Quillen often told him that “We were all young and we were all bad boys who didn’t know any better. We all deserved to be here.” But Quillen used the lesson of the ill fated breakout and death of his fellow con in part to turn his own life around, eventually becoming a good family man and successful medical technician in San Francisco after his release from Alcatraz. An opportunity Jimmy Boarman never got.
As I stood there with Ranger John Cantwell in front of the “Old Modern Industries Building” on Alcatraz Island, looking at the last site on earth that my fellow Hoosier, James Arnold Boarman ever gazed upon, I could not escape the overwhelming feeling that permeates this dilapidated old building now existing in a state of “arrested decay” as that of sheer hopelessness. The drop over the fence is treacherous, the face of the cliff is steep and foreboding, the waters of the bay crash and swirl in whirlwind fashion and the land across the bay is forever away. What would it take to cause a man to attempt such a foolish escape? Hopefully, none of us will ever know.

Criminals, Indianapolis, National Park Service

The Indiana Alcatraz Connection PART I

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Indiana Alcatraz inmate James A. Boarman

Original publish date:  August 11, 2009

I first ran this article in 2009 on the 75th anniversary of an Alcatraz escape attempt by a desperate inmate with ties to fountain square. I thought it might be worth another read. Next week will mark the 84 years since the escape escape attempt. Since the time of my visit, the Island has changed much. The area where the escape attempt occurred, closed to the public back then, is now open to visitors.

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Alcatraz Prison and lighthouse.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened on August 11, 1934, exactly 75 years ago last week. I visited “The Rock” last Tuesday morning for an exclusive “Behind the Scenes” tour led by arguably the most famous face on the island, Emmy award winning park ranger John Cantwell. If you’ve ever seen a television program on the subject of Alcatraz, Cantwell’s face should be very familiar as he’s appeared in nearly every taped segment made on the island over the last dozen or so years. A Wisconsin native, Cantwell has worked for the National Park Service for almost 20 years having started as a clerk in the Alcatraz book store while still in high school. During his tenure, he has befriended over two dozen former inmates, countless former island residents and more than a dozen former guards, several of whom were like family to Cantwell often staying with John and his wife in their home while visiting the island for reunions and book signings. Sadly, the ranks of these former alumni have dwindled drastically in the last few years to the point that during the official 75th reunion ceremonies, only 5 former inmates and 2 former guards were in attendance.

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Alcatraz National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell.

The subject of my visit was a young man by the name of James A. Boarman, an Indianapolis bank robber with eastside ties who served two and one half years on “The Rock” from 1940 to 1943. James Arnold Boarman was born on November 3, 1919 in Whalen, Kentucky, the sixth of eight children. His father was a carpenter who died of an accidental drowning when James was only seven years old. His mother moved her brood to Indianapolis where all 9 family members shared residence in a small apartment on the cities’ southeast side. Young Jimmy Boarman attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Fountain Square until dropping out at age 14 when he got a job as a gardener to help support the family. His mother recalled that he was a “good boy” who didn’t mind turning his earnings over to her to help support the impoverished family.
At the age of 16, Jimmy was arrested for stealing an automobile, placed on probation and released to the custody of his sickly mother. However, he quickly stole two more cars (one in Indianapolis and another in Oklahoma) and, with two accomplices, headed to California where the trio was quickly apprehended. Unbeknownst to James, with this crime, he had graduated from a small time car thief to an enemy of the Federal Government by transporting a stolen car across state lines. His mother traveled west to plead for mercy for her son to no avail as James was sentenced to three years in Federal Prison in El Reno, Oklahoma. Boarman quickly became involved in several escape attempts and was considered such a high flight risk that he was transferred to the more secure facility at Lewisburg less than a year after arriving in the Sooner state. Unrepentant, James continued to fight, plot escape and hoard weapons until his release right up to his release in Christmas of 1939.
James headed back to Indianapolis and tried to “go straight” by getting a job at the RCA plant on Sherman Avenue. A series of layoffs and rehires pushed Boarman back into a life of crime. James was later quoted as saying: “When I came out of Lewisburg, I intended to go straight. I got me a job and did go straight. I lost that job, and couldn’t find another one for hell. I tried to join the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps and didn’t get in, so I went and got me a gun and started robbin’.” A sympathetic parole officer attempted to help Boarman in his quest to join the military by contacting recruiters directly, but the armed forces representatives felt that James’ past criminal conduct made him an unsuitable prospect for military induction. In August of 1940, James began what would be his last crime spree by stealing a car a gunpoint from an Indianapolis auto dealer and robbing the “Fletcher Trust Company” bank of $ 12,812 in cash. He was quickly arrested in Frankfort, Ky. after drawing attention to himself by spending over $1,000 of the stolen cash on a new car, firearms and several suits of flashy clothing.
When questioned by police, Boarman proudly claimed that while in town, he had amused himself by holding up several gas stations, grocery stores and “two ladies in a parking lot.” His F.B.I. report describes James as a “vicious menace to society… a highly unstable and impulsive youth…quite proud of the fact that he committed the instant offense without the aid or advice of others…He is convinced that he is entirely capable of whipping the whole world.” Sentenced to 20 years in Federal prison, true to form, James would again attempt escape while enroute back to Lewisburg by violently kicking the back of the driver’s seat of the police car transporting him, causing the car to veer off the road into a ditch. James struggled in a vain attempt to wrest the revolver away from the officer earning instead a one way ticket to Alcatraz, arriving 2 days before Halloween of 1940.
Boarman was a “Con’s Con”, generally well liked by his fellow inmates and always on the lookout for a viable escape plan. Ironically, Boarman would hatch his plan for freedom in early 1943 while working in the Island’s mat shop manufacturing cement ballast blocks for submarine nets used by the military during the war, the very same military that denied him employment as a citizen before his incarceration. Boarman, along with three other inmates, Harold Brest, Fred Hunter and Floyd Hamilton, would plan their escape for April of 1943. Brest was a kidnapper and bank robber destined to serve two separate stretches on the rock, Hunter was a member of the Ma Barker / Creepy Karpis kidnapping and robbery gang who made it to the F.B.I.’s legendary “Public Enemy” list, and Hamilton was one of the most famous men on Alcatraz at the time, a bank robber intimately linked to the famed 1930s outlaw couple “Bonnie & Clyde” and former “Public Enemy # 1” on the F.B.I. most wanted list of 1938. The four inmates planned their escape carefully and by April fool’s day were ready to go. However, Hoosier James Boarman insisted that they wait until the time and conditions were perfect for them to “Do the Houdini” and escape.
z 1d0f1fbf-0205-3d74-354f283f1068d086-masterTuesday April 13, 1945 dawned unusually cold with a dense layer of fog blanketing Alcatraz Island. The four convicts walked nervously down the narrow gravel road that led from the cell house to the mat shop located in the old “Model Industries Building” on the far northwest corner of the island. The building was built by the U.S. Military in the years that Alcatraz served as a disciplinary barracks before the Federal prison arrived in 1934 and as such was filled with many hidden corners and blind angles, not to mention a design flaw that seemingly allowed the back corner walls to drop directly into San Francisco Bay. The inmates had previously cut through the steel mesh covering the windows in preparation for their big moment. At 10:00 am, they made their move.
One of the guards, Custodial Officer George Smith, was overpowered by Hamilton, quickly tied up, gagged and dragged into a back room just as the Captain of the Guards, Henry Weinhold, a former Marine that the inmates called “Bullethead”, rounded the corner. James Boarman, armed with a knife and a hammer, began to beat the massive officer repeatedly with the heavy carpenter’s tool until finally subduing and tying him up to join his fellow guard now lying helpless on the floor. The inmates pushed the metal bars off the window and placed a cloth covered wooden ramp over the barbed wire fence located just a few feet from the window. The fugitive foursome then scooted carefully across the makeshift bridge and dropped to the narrow ledge below. The desperadoes, clad only in their underwear and leather belts, miraculously escaped grave injury during their bare-footed 30-foot plunge down a sheer cliff to the rock-strewn shore below. The quartet brought with them two empty cans designed to keep them afloat in the bay, each stuffed with stolen Army uniforms with which they hoped to make good their escape. Keep in mind that 1943 was the height of World War II and the shores of San Francisco Bay were lined with Army units and defense gun crews as well as being a major debarkation point for U.S. soldiers heading off to war in the Pacific theatre. Armed with the false confidence of their makeshift flotation devices and oblivious to the fact that they were surrounded by enough guns to fill an armory, the quartet hit the water.