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, Museums, National Park Service, Pop Culture, Travel

A Hoosier Guard on Alcatraz PART III

Albright Part III
The author and Jim Albright-Indiana National Road Meeting at Brazil Lodge in 2010.

Original publish date:  July 23, 2020

Jim Albright was on duty the night the most famous escape from Alcatraz took place. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and his brother John escaped through a hole in the back of their cells, the details of which were chronicled in Clint Eastwood’s 1979 film, “Escape From Alcatraz.” Albright recalled the escape in his 2008 book, “Last Guard Out. A Riveting Account By The Last Guard To Leave Alcatraz” (available at Amazon), “The movie showed them escaping off Broadway and that is not correct. In real life they escaped off Seedy Avenue (outside of B Block).” Jim also points out that the movie showed Eastwood stealing a pair of fingernail clippers off the Warden’s desk, “This would not have been necessary as each inmate was issued a pair when they first arrive at the prison.”

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The Anglin Brothers, Morris & a dummy head.

On the night of the escape, Jim recalled, “I had been over in town playing ball and I stepped in a gopher hole and twisted my knee, so they give me some crutches. The next morning (after the escape was discovered), I’m crutching up the hill when I run into the Lieutenant and he says ‘we got some missing’ and orders me to watch the back of the cell house.” Later, Jim went inside the cellhouse to “see what was going on.” He looked in Anglin’s cell and saw the false head. “They got dummy heads up there now that look like I made them. The dummy head I saw that morning looked very real. They did a good job, in fact, when I saw it I thought I had the wrong cell, it looked that real.”
Also in his book, Jim vividly remembers the events leading up to the bustout (“I told them those blankets should not be there”), the escape (“After the escape I was placed on roof detail after night fell, with a pistol and flashlight. I couldn’t flash very often because of limited mobility with crutches.”) and the aftermath (“The inmates had a field day teasing, laughing, comments, etc., toward the guards in the immediate time after the escape.”). “John Anglin was the older brother and John worked for me in the clothing room, so I knew John real well,” Jim believes, “I strongly feel the Anglin brothers probably killed (Frank) Morris to lesson the weight of the raft, and they in turn drowned and washed out to sea…I think about it even after all these years and realize that I too was a part of all of this.” The after effects are still visible. Several times during the story, Jim would stop, shake his head, and say “Them damn blankets.”
Likewise, Cathy recalls the escape from her unique perspective. “I was downstairs with the kids visiting with Betty Miller and we heard this alarm go off. Well, that means you don’t leave where you’re at and I’m down there and I’ve got two kids in diapers and didn’t have any extra diapers so we used towels for diapers until I could go. They searched Betty’s place and then they searched my apartment. But as far as being afraid, I never was, I really felt safer there than I did some other places.”

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Tom Reeves, Jr.’s reconstructed water tower on Alcatraz.

When I asked Jim about the current trend of tearing down monuments, he recalled the Native American Indian occupation of Alcatraz that took place from 1969 to 1971, years after the Albrights’ left the island. “When the original water tower was replaced after it was rusting away and pieces were falling off of it, they hired a guy, a former kid named Tom Reeves, Jr. who was teenager living on the island when I was there, his dad worked in the hospital as an MTA, his stepmom worked in town as a nurse.” the old guard chuckles as a memory bubbles up, “Tom had a little scheme going when he was in high school, everybody wanted to go to Alcatraz. All of his buddies, everybody in the school wanted to go to Alcatraz. Tom would say ‘I will take you to Alcatraz for two bucks’ so he’d get 3 or 4 guys, get two bucks a piece, bring ’em over and show ’em the island and take ’em back. The Warden found out about it and he wasn’t happy.”

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Cathy and Jim Albright.

After the laughter died down, Jim continued, “Tom grew up and became an engineer. He has an office in San Francisco, Seattle and somewhere in Hawaii, he was that big. So he engineered the repair of that water tower to make it look just as it did when we were there so that it would hold up. And it looked like new. And then they went and put Indian Graffiti back on it. And I asked (National Park Service Ranger) John Cantwell why they did that and Cantwell’s answer was, ‘Jim, love it or hate it, that is part of our history.'” Jim points out that Reeves, Jr. and his company restored the water tower and helped preserve several of the decaying buildings, including the steel tie-rods used to shore up the Warden’s House that was burnt during the Indian occupation, “at no charge, he did all that for free, he didn’t charge ’em a dime.” Jim and the Alcatraz alumni association wanted to place a plaque near the water tower thanking Reeves, Jr., as a former resident and benefactor, but the Park Service wouldn’t let them.
z Ghiradeli_54_990x660Jim’s recollections about his time on the island are limitless, he can affirm or deny legends about the island with ease. He relates details as if they happened yesterday. “The best cell placement on the island was the second tier because you could look out to see and hear San Francisco. On New Years especially, you could hear the parties and watch the party boats go past. When I was there, Ghiardelli Chocolate factory was still operational and you could smell that chocolate cooking when the breeze was just right.” He continues, “Al, you’ll like this, when I was in the tower, if one of those boats got too close to the island, I’d warn them with a bullhorn and if they didn’t listen, I could fire a shot across their bow. They moved then,” says the veteran guard. The prisoners were aware of the rumor that the island was patrolled by sharks, “Well the prisoners heard the rumor that the guards went down and caught all the sharks and cut the left fin off to make them swim in a circle around the island and we guards didn’t do anything to change their mind.”
z shutterstock_743324311.0Jim recalls patrolling the perimeter of the island and occasionally finding relics left over by military personnel during the time Alcatraz was in operation as a military fort guarding the bay from the Civil War up into World War II. Jim would see the old tokens gleaming in the moonlite at water’s edge, “I found script, I guess you’d call it. I think I’ve still got a dime, a fifty cent piece and a quarter around here somewhere.” He continues, “the guys would fish, there was a bout a half a dozen of them, down below the industries building. When you were dock and patrolman, there was a list, when you walked into the dock office, and when you saw the stripe bass running, you looked on that list and you’d call those guys who wanted to fish, anytime day or night, and you could make another round and when yo came back there could be anywhere from ten to thirty guys down there fishing. They made a Formica chute where they’d filet them right there on the spot and give the scraps to the seagulls. Quite often, you could help yourself to as many filets as you wanted. The head chef loved it cause they’d catch enough to feed the whole main line of prisoners.” I asked Jim if he ate the same meals the convicts ate. “When I first started there, I went thru the line and took my food back to a table in the kitchen. then they built us an officer’s dining room upstairs. The food was good.” Jim says the Alcatraz convicts, “had the best food in the prison service. Good food keeps trouble down.”

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Alcatraz “script” tokens.

Cathy chuckles as she recalls Blackie Audett (a longtime convict who worked in the kitchen). “Whenever I baked cookies, I’d lay them out on the window sill to cool. Every time I baked cookies, there would be 3 or 4 officers, I counted 10 one time, that would knock on the door and say, ‘Hey you’re making cookies, I want a few.’ And I asked Jim how did they know? Well, come to find out, that Blackie Audett could look out of that dining room window into my kitchen and see my cookies. Well, that scared the heck out of me. I wondered if he can see in the kitchen window, can he see into the living room window or the bedroom window.” Jim, forever on guard, says, “Yeah, Blackie was there (incarcerated) three times.” Jim also confirms another bit of trivia from Clint Eastwood’s movie, “We had a guy named Ianelli. He was a weightlifter and he had muscles on top of his muscles. I always shook him down extra special and teased him that he was getting lax. They called him Wolf.” Albright confirms that Wolf was a sexual predator as portrayed in the movie and recalled that Wolf was after a young inmate named Robbins who worked back in the “dishtray room”. Jim recalls Wolf was after “Robbie”. “One day Robbie got a pipe and came up behind Wolf hit in the back of the head and damn near killed him. If he (Wolf) had not been in such good shape he would have died. He was sent to our hospital upstairs and brought him about a third of the way back before they shipped him to our medical hospital in Springfield, Missouri. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not but he sure was never the same.”

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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

Albright-Cantwell-Hunter
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?

 

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.