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.