The First U.S. Fort on the Coast, Rock Has Been a Prison since 1868
Alcatraz was first the home of pelicans, whence it got its name in 1775 from Spanish explorers—Isla de Alcatraces or "Island of Pelicans."
It has been Federal property since 1850, when it became the first completed fortification on the West Coast. Since 1868 it has been chiefly the abode of prisoners.
Briefly at the time of the 1906 fire and earthquake it was used as a place of safekeeping for jail prisoners from San Francisco.
It is a precipitous rocky island with cliffs rising as high as 75 feet. The crest, on which main buildings are located, is 135 feet above sea level. The island contains 12 acres, seven of which are enclosed.
It can be reached only by boats operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Army. The latter boats carry fresh water to the rock.
Twenty foot cyclone fences, or stone walls, topped by barbed wire surround the main buildings.
Mirrored towers, permitting two-way vision, of steel and shatterproof glass are control centers for the restricted areas. Each tower is equipped with a submachine gun and a 30-30 Army rifle, as well as gas grenades, a cell battery, an electric torch, binoculars, a telephone and signals. Each tower officer carries a .45 revolver.
Prisoners must pass through gun and metal detectors to and from work. No inmate is permitted to handle keys or doors, to drive a truck on the island, or have access to the institution's records.
The principal building is a self-contained wall of reinforced concrete construction, with administrative office in the front, inaccessible to inmates.
To the rear of the offices is the cell house, and behind that are the dining room, kitchen and bakery.
A door opening from the rear of the cell house is the only one used by the inmates and leads to an enclosure outside the building with concrete walls 20 feet high. This is used for recreation.
The guarded cell house, constantly patrolled by an officer armed with a rifle and gas gun for each of the three tiers. The four cell blocks have varying construction with the principal housing block containing 336 cells of concrete construction with tool-resistant fronts.
Silence is required in the cell blocks and general formations. Talking is permitted only in the shops during working hours and in the mess hall at mealtime. Newspapers are prohibited. Prisoners in good standing may have monthly visits of one hour from members of their immediate family.
The institution was not designed for rehabilitation. It is solely for punishment of dangerous criminals.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 3 May 1946, page 9.
By Fred Duerr
So far as is known, no prisoner has escaped from Alcatraz since it was made a Federal prison in 1934 for top public enemies.
But two men disappeared from "The Rock" on December 16, 1937. Whether they died in attempted escape or made their way to South America, as underworld rumor had it, has not been answered.
They were Ralph Roe, 32, and Theodore Cole, 25, who hacked their way from the prison into the surrounding fog. It was reported they were picked up by a boat.
There have been deaths and brief holidays from the prison in attempted escapes, but with the exception of Roe and Cole, there were bodies or the prisoners themselves to answer.
Last reported attempted escape was that of John K. Giles, 50, murderer, mail robber and four-time loser, who gained a half-hour boat ride in an Army launch, July 31, 1945.
Giles had disguised himself in an Army uniform and entered the Army launch which plies between Alcatraz and Fort Mason. He was detected before the launch arrived at its destination.
ESCAPE TO DEATH
April 13, 1943, marked the last bloody attempt at escape from Alcatraz. A quartet of desperate men who names in crime had made top headlines over the Nation, slugged, gagged and bound the captain of the guard and leaped barefooted 30 feet from a window to the prison's rocky shore.
They were Floyd Hamilton, one-time No.1 desperado; Fred Hunter, who had harbored the notorious "Creepy" Alvin Karpis, the kidnaper; Harold Martin Brest, kidnaper and bank robber, and James A. Boarman, 24, the "baby" of the lot.
Brest and Boarman attempted to swim from "The Rock," but a bullet caught Boarman, and he slipped from the supporting hands of Brest when a prison launch drew alongside.
Hunter had less than eight hours of shivering liberty and was found hiding under slimy debris in a cave on the island.
Desperado Hamilton ignominiously crawled back into the prison compound for shelter after three days of hiding in a rocky foxhole on the grounds. His body was covered with cuts and bruises from the rough terrain.
In 1938, Thomas R. Limerick, Rufus Franklin, and James C. Lucas, all bank robbers, slugged Senior Custodial Officer R.C. Cline to death in a futile break for liberty. Limerick was killed.
Franklin and Lucas were tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In May of 1941, four convicts broke through an inside barrier of a workshop but were convinced by their captured guard further attempts would be futile and surrendered.
The island's swirling tides have been considered one of its great barriers, but in 1933 two girls swam from the San Francisco shore to Alcatraz and around the island in an effort to discourage establishment of Alcatraz as a Federal prison.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 3 May 1946, page 11.
An Alcatraz murderer picked his moment yesterday and vanished.
It was still too early to tell for sure whether Floyd P. Wilson, 41, had got away from the “escape proof” Rock or whether he was hiding in some remote cave on the shores of the island prison.
But the very fact that he was missing set off one of the Bay Area’s biggest manhunts.
All Police Departments and Sheriff’s offices in the nine Bay Area counties were alerted to watch for the blue-eyed convict. Dozens of FBI agents joined the search.
MPs JOIN SEARCH
Special detachments of Military Police beat the brush of Fort Mason.
Two Coast Guard patrol craft circled the Rock, their searchlights probing the water, watching for a bobbing head.
And on Alcatraz itself, teams of FBI agents and prison officers began an inch-by-inch search.
Police radios around the Bay Area monotonously intoned Wilson’s description—5 feet, 14 inches tall, weight, 165, deep suntan, bright blue eyes, and wearing a blue prison workshirt and bluejeans.
Wilson was a hard luck gunman who sallied forth from his unheated home in Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1947 to raise $17 for a ton of coal to warm his wife and five children.
The food market stickup he planned blew up and he ended taking the life, but none of the money, of the store’s manager.
Wilson, a lifer, was first missed by Alcatraz guards at 3:45 p.m. yesterday.
He had been working on a dock-gang. When the gang was checked at 3:25 p.m., Wilson was still around.
His chance for escape, however, may have come when the prison’s water barge, towed by an Army tug, shoved off from Alcatraz dock for the mainland at exactly 3:25 p.m. All water for the prison must be shipped to the prison island in the barge.
At the same instant, according to prison officials, the prison launch left the Alcatraz dock.
It was believed that Wilson might have slipped onto the water barge and rode it across the tide-swept bay to Fort Mason.
The Army tug and barge stopped for seven minutes at Fort Mason’s Pier 3 at 3:55 p.m., long before the first police radio broadcast of the escape was made.
Then the tug and barge moved to the pier at the foot of Van Ness avenue between Fort Mason and Aquatic Park.
AHEAD OF POLICE
The first police broadcast was not made until 4:47 p.m., so Wilson would have arrived at the Van Ness pier long before police and FBI agents did.
Two boys who were fishing on the Municipal Pier which curves out into the bay from Aquatic Park told FBI agents they saw a man in shorts swimming across the Aquatic cove at 4:15 p.m.
They were Leonard Frey, 13, of 1043 Connecticut street, and Jonathan Solas, 10, of 1058 Connecticut street.
“He was swimming south across the cove,” said young Frey, “and we watched him climb into a rowboat anchored there.”
AGENTS IN LAUNCH
This information sent three FBI agents in a Sea Scout launch on a careful inspection of all the small boats moored in the cove. They failed to find Wilson, however.
Agents also checked under the piers of the Municipal wharf and checked automobiles and brush in the area in hopes of finding the missing convict. But these checks also proved negative.
Although Wilson had the opportunity to escape on the water barge, Alcatraz officials still believed he was hiding out somewhere on the island.
“I feel strongly he’s still on the island,” declared Deputy Warden Joseph Latimer.
Latimer said he believed the water barge left Alcatraz at 3:20 p.m., about five minutes before Wilson was seen in a line-up of the prison crew working at the dock.
For this reason, he concluded, the convict could not have gone off the island on the water barge.
But the log of the Army Tug 3 T-893, which towed the barge shows that the tug and barge did not leave the Rock until 3:25 p.m., the same minute the line-up was assuredly held.
One Alcatraz guard told The Chronicle that Wilson, because of his co-operative attitude at the prison, had worked on the dock gang for several years.
This experience enabled him to find out about the caves and coves along the island’s shoreline, the guard reasoned.
At the height of the search in the vicinity of the Van Ness pier where the Alcatraz launch ties up, Warden Paul Madigan arrived returning from his vacation.
“What’s all the excitement about?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just one of your convicts escaped,” replied fireman Dick Uriarte, who mans a pumping station there.
Deputy Warden Latimer said that Alcatraz dock gangs are made to stand on a white line on the dock whenever a boat arrives or departs.
Usually there are one or more guards on the dock with the men, he said, while a tower guard covers the dock and the line-up with his rifle.
Prison officials said the tugboat is not given permission to leave the dock until the muster is complete.
Wilson would have had to cross some 50 feet of open dock under the eyes of two guards to reach the departing tug and barge.
If he did make the barge he could have crawled through one of the unlocked deck hatches into the empty water tanks. However, none of the three deckhands aboard the barge at the time reported seeing anyone.
Yesterday, Wilson was standing in such a line-up as the prison launch and the Army tug and barge departed from the Alcatraz dock.
Then, according to Latimer, the launch returned to Alcatraz at 3:45 p.m. and another line-up was staged.
This time, Wilson was missed.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 24 July 1956, pages 1 and 4.
Floyd Wilson, who bungled his only attempt at crime, did likewise yesterday in an effort to get off Alcatraz.
The 42-year-old holdup slayer was found cold and wet, in a depression near the water’s edge at the foot of the South end cliffs on the Rock.
A search party came upon him at 2:45 a.m., ending a determined hunt that began nearly 12 hours earlier when the convict slipped away from the dock gang.
Warden Paul J. Madigan said the U.S. Attorney’s office here would be requested to take the case before the Federal Grand Jury for an indictment charging attempted escape.
U.S. Attorney Lloyd H. Burke said later he had received a report from the FBI, and if witnesses were available, would submit the matter to the jury meeting today.
Conviction could add another five years to Wilson’s stay at Alcatraz, plus a $10,000 fine. Serving a life term for murder, he had been eligible for parole in 1963.
Wilson was a jobless carpenter with five children aged 18 months to 9 years when he set out from his home in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the winter of 1947 to get $17 to buy a ton of coal “so my kids won’t freeze to death.”
He shot and killed a chain store manager, sitting in a car with $10,000 in a paper bag on the seat, then fled in panic, without the money. Wilson, who had no previous record was picked up at his home shortly thereafter, saying he had not intended to kill.
Sent to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1952—a routine transfer, Warden Madigan said, because “of his long sentence and the possibility of an escape problem.”
That problem came up Monday afternoon when Wilson saw his chance and slipped away from the dock gang, apparently under cover of smoke from a trash fire. A routine checkup 20 minutes later revealed he was missing.
‘NOT A TRUSTY’
The fact that Wilson was with a dock detail helping unload cargo from barges, does not mean he filled a role comparable to that of a jail trusty.
“We have no trusties here,” Madigan explained. “For jobs such as that, we try to select men who are less of a security risk.”
Was it true that Wilson admittedly could not swim?
“We don’t know,” the warden said, “How could we?”
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 25 July 1956, pages 1 and 12.
Big Manhunt on The Rock; Missing Prisoner Boasted Of Having Getaway Boat
Two Alcatraz convicts bet their freedom on a knife and the fog yesterday and, although one of them lost, the other may have made the first “impossible” escape from The Rock.
Still missing and possibly headed for mainland in a getaway launch is Aaron Walter Burgett, 28, a rangy gunman from St. Louis, Mo.
He and fellow convict, Clyde Johnson, 40, a Memphis bank robber, flashed a knife in the face of Guard Harold Miller shortly after 3 p.m.
Johnson was the FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1 in 1949.
The pair bound and gagged the guard and threw him in some thick brush at the southeast point of the island.
OUTSIDE THE WALLS
Both men were outside the prison walls and working on a garbage detail at the time.
“They told me,” Miller gasped when rescued, “that I’d be good I’d be all right. Then they slipped away in the fog.”
While they were binding his eyes, lashing his wrists and gagging him, Miller said, the two desperate criminals told him a getaway launch was waiting in the fog to whisk them away from the “escape-proof island.”
Johnson was captured, cowering and shivering in waist deep water an hour later.
But Burgett vanished and a posse of prison guards which was kept to a strength of 60 men had failed to find a trace of him on the Rock by early today.
HARDLY A CHANCE
“I don’t think there’s one chance in 1000 that he’ll make it to the mainland,” declared Associate Warden Joseph B. Latimer. He added, “if Burgett made it to the mainland we’d probably have a lot more escape efforts in the future.”
The warden said the man was not known to be a strong swimmer and he doubted that he could survive the mile-and-a-half ordeal of swimming to the mainland.
Bay tides, outgoing at the time of the escape, were running past Alcatraz at about 2 1/2 to 3 knots. The water temperature was between 50 and 55 degrees.
The fog-shrouded escape drama came to light at 3:40 p.m. when prison officials realized that Guard Miller and his two charges had failed to return from collecting garbage.
“We went looking for them right away,” said Associate Warden Joseph B. Latimer, “and about 15 minutes we found Miller.”
Miller, his eyes and mouth bound tightly with cloth and his wrists and legs bound with rope, was lying in the brush just below some guards’ houses on the southeast side of the island bastille.
“They jumped me with a knife,” said Miller, “and told me I’d be all right if I was good.”
The eerie growl of the Alcatraz claxon blasted the news of the escape to all hands on The Rock.
Warden Latimer immediately notified the Coast Guard, the FBI and the San Francisco police.
Special squads of FBI agents were rushed to Alcatraz while four Coast Guard cutters circled the island hoping to catch any getaway launch.
A Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead in case the boat might break out of the fog bank and make a dash for the mainland.
Meanwhile, 60 Alcatraz prison guards were matched off in pairs and began probing the rocky recesses along the island’s sea-battered shores.
One guard in each two-man team carried a carbine or revolver to cover the second man, who walked ahead unarmed.
This was a precautionary measure to prevent either Johnson or Burgett from jumping an armed guard and getting a gun.
The search had been going on for about an hour when the sharp-eyed crewman of a Coast Guard patrol boat spotted Johnson.
He was standing just off shore, up to his waist in the cold bay water on the west side of the island.
“He looked mighty unhappy,” an official said.
The Coast Guard crew trained their rifles on Johnson and kept him in their sights until prison guards could grab him.
Through chattering teeth the thoroughly chilled convict blurted:
“We made a good try and it just didn’t work.”
Blue with cold, Johnson was hurried to the warden’s office for questioning by FBI agents.
When he came face to face with Warden Latimer, Johnson said:
“Sorry I let you down. I wish I hadn’t done it.”
Latimer eyed the convict sternly and said nothing.
“I think Johnson’s sorry he failed. That’s what I think,” the warden said later.
Warden Latimer said Johnson and Burgett had been working together on the garbage detail for the past six months.
“But they were not known to be particularly close friends,” he added.
The warden described Burgett as “rather pleasant and good natured.”
“He had no troubles here. He got along very well,” he said.
Johnson was described by Latimer as the more professional criminal of the two while Burgett was the man considered more inclined to take a chance.
The search for Burgett continued. At one point, amidst the confusion caused by Johnson’s capture, Alcatraz officials thought they had Burgett, too.
Guards, who thought for a few minutes they would be spared the cold search of the island shores in the darkness, were told to go back and look again for Burgett.
They slopped along in shallow water or climbed over the slippery rocks while the search lights from Coast Guard cutters pricked through the foggy darkness.
“The fog’s thick as soup. You can’t see 10 feet,” a tired guard said.
Johnson, once gunned down by the FBI in Indianapolis, is serving a 40-year term for the $43,000 stickup of a bank in Memphis, Tenn.
He has a string of tough armed robberies on his record, and he once escaped from the 21-story Dade county jail in Miami, Florida.
Burgett, a rangy 28-year-old, is doing 26 years for the $15.26 armed robbery of a post office at Banner, Mo.
He was credited by the FBI with a string of 25 stickups and, when he was packed off to the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1952, he struggled with a deputy U.S. marshal in an unsuccessful attempt to escape.
Burgett is 6 feet, 2 1/4 inches tall, weighs 180, has medium brown hair and blue-hazel eyes. The mid-finger of his right hand is crooked and stiff.
Johnson was brought to Alcatraz in 1950 from Leavenworth while Burgett came to The Rock in 1955 from the same institution.
Johnson will be hauled before the prison disciplinary court, Warden Latimer said.
“We want to find out where they got the knife,” he said.
Most probably Johnson will be deprived of all privileges and placed in solitary confinement.
Both Johnson and Burgett also will probably be indicted by the Federal grand jury for assault with deadly weapon and escape.
The penalty for assault with a deadly weapon is 10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. For escape, the penalty is five years in prison and a fine of $5000.
Source; San Francisco Chronicle, 30 September 1958, pages 1 and 4.
‘Hoods Will Send Him’
By George Draper
A Catholic priest in St. Louis, Mo., maintained a lonely vigil yesterday for Alcatraz escape artist Aaron W. Burgett.
“I’m waiting for him. I won’t double-cross him,” declared the Rev. Charles Dimas Clark, who is known to the underworld as “the hoodlum’s priest.”
The search for Burgett, meanwhile, was intensified both on Alcatraz island the on the mainland.
The rangy St. Louis gunman has been missing since 3 p.m., Monday, when he and a fellow convict overpowered a guard.
Burgett’s companion in the escape, Clyde Johnson, stopped at the chilly water’s edge but said Burgett, aided by improvised waterwings, floated away through the fog.
Father Clark said he became acquainted with the 28-year-old Burgett when he was being held in the St. Louis jail in 1952 for robbery of a post office.
“He was a mine-run con, an ordinary, punk con and there was nothing outstanding about him. He hadn’t even committed a murder,” the priest said.
Burgett was described by the priest as “a not very aggressive and probably easily led” fellow, who was just getting started in the business of crime.
Asked whether he thought Burgett was enough of a man to make the perilous swim from Alcatraz to the mainland, Father Clark declared:
“I don’t think he had either the physique or the mental drive to do it.”
But if Burgett is alive and if he makes his way to St. Louis, the father said, “then my doors are open to him. I’m waiting.”
“If we wants to see me,“ the priest continued, “I’ll be there and he can be sure I won’t double-cross him.
“But I’ll tell him you can’t run and run. I’ll tell him the FBI will get its teeth into him eventually.
“I’ll try to persuade him to turn himself in. If he goes for it, I’ll see to it that he’s turned over safely and that he gets a fair deal.”
HE’LL BE SENT
Father Clark said Burgett will probably try to get to St. Louis, his old stamping grounds.
“When things get hot enough for him, the underworld will probably send him to me,” the priest said.
In southern Missouri, meanwhile, Burgett’s holdup victim during the 1952 post office robbery fearfully exclaimed, “Oh no!” when informed Burgett was once again on the loose.
Mrs. R.D. Meadows said she could still see the flash of Burgett’s revolver and hear the deadly growl of his voice when he warned: “This is a stickup.”
“He was smart, cunning and awful cool and his eyes were cold as ice,” she said.
Burgett was serving a term of 26 1/2 years for robbing Mrs. Meadows and the Banner post office when he skipped the Rock with the help of waterwings last Monday.
At Alcatraz, meanwhile, tired guards blocked off the island fortress into zones and then began double-checking each zone.
Could Burgett still be hiding on The Rock?
“Gee, I don’t know,” said Warden Paul Madigan.
Madigan, who has had hardly any sleep since the escape plot started, said the search would be continued for at least another 24 hours.
“We haven’t received a single report that Burgett’s been spotted on the mainland,” he said.
There was a brief flurry of excitement in Sausalito yesterday morning when Mrs. Fred Baker, 51, of 16 George lane, reported a man with shabby clothes and a silk stocking mask came to her home and robbed her at gunpoint of $2 and a diamond ring.
At first, police thought this might be Burgett. The possibility was discounted, however, when Mrs. Baker said the gunman was very short. Burgett is 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 2 October 1958, pages 1 and 2.
By George Draper
The long-term convicts on Alcatraz were becoming restless yesterday—the fourth day they have spent locked in their cells while the search continues on The Rock for Aaron W. Burgett.
Warden Paul Madigan described the situation as “touchy.”
Since Monday, when Burgett vanished from the fog-shrouded island prison, the warden said, the 285 prisoners have been let out of their cells only at mealtime.
“The monotony is getting them and they’re restless,” the warden said.
All available guards have been needed to shake down the prison in the manhunt for Burgett.
For this reason, the prisoners have been kept “locked up” so that they could be watched by the smallest possible number of guards.
Warden Madigan said the search for Burgett will continue through today.
"Maybe tomorrow we’ll let the prisoners out in the yard for a little while and on Monday we’ll try to get back to regular prison routine,” he said.
Madigan still clung to the theory that Burgett is either hiding on Alcatraz or is resting at the bottom of the bay.
The FBI, however, was investigating all leads based on the possibility Burgett triumphed over the swift bay tides and reached the mainland.
Agents were searching for Jay Burgett, a brother of the missing man, who left his home in Missouri several months ago and headed for California.
When Burgett and fellow convict Clyde Johnson overpowered Guard Harold Miller on Monday afternoon they remarked that a boat would be waiting for them in the fog.
In Missouri, meanwhile, Burgett’s father Walter H. Burgett, 64, a cotton picker, said his 28-year-old gunman son’s trouble sprung from his getting “mixed up with a no-account woman.”
“Before he met her he was a mighty nice kid, a mighty good boy. He never drank none, went to church and never got in fights,” Burgett said.
The elder Burgett said the Alcatraz escape artist was his tenth child and used to be known as “Wig” because of his long, blond curls.
“I was father and mother both to him,” said the old man, “because Wig’s mother died when he was only three.”
His son, the elder Burgett said, made an honest living picking cotton until he ran into the no-account woman and was introduced to a gang of St. Louis gunman.
A somewhat different picture of the Alcatraz escaper was provided by the Missouri State trooper who captured Burgett and his gang on May 16, 1952.
Trooper David Walker said Burgett and the three men with him had eight loaded guns in two automobiles.
Also with them in the car was Mary Francis Burgett, wife of the fugitive, and Mrs. James Wilhelm, wife of another of the holdup gang.
Walker said Burgett impressed him as “a sadist who doesn’t seem to have any reason for wanting to live.”
The gang was stopped by Walker and Trooper Robert Burgess on the outskirts of Rolla, Mo., in the dark of the night.
“We questioned them and were just about to release them when I noticed two revolvers they’d thrown in the ditch. So I drew my gun and ordered them to get out. That’s when we found the other six guns,” Walker said.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 3 October 1958, pages 1 and 2.
He Got Off Island, Says Warden
By Charles Raudebaugh
The hunt for Aaron W. Burgett, lanky St. Louis post office robber who vanished from fog-shrouded Alcatraz prison Monday, turned into a grim underwater search for is corpse yesterday.
Warden Paul Madigan called in Coast Guard frogmen to probe the kelp beds around the rocky island penitentiary for Burgett’s body.
“I’m satisfied he is not on the island,” said the warden. “I believe he drowned. It’s a tough swim, even for an expert.”
BACK TO ROUTINE
The prison’s 287 long-term inmates, who have been locked in their cells since the escape klaxon blasted its alarm at 3:50 p.m. on Monday, will be given a chance to stretch their legs today.
Madigan said the usual week-end recreation periods would be resumed, and that the prisoners would have their regular semimonthly movie today.
For the first time since Burgett and Clyde Johnson, another long-term convict overpowered and bound a guard, Madigan invited newspapermen to the prison yesterday to see for themselves the scene of the escape attempt.
Johnson was recaptured the afternoon of the escape try, in neck-deep water on the western side of the island.
“He was very gentlemanly,” said the Warden. “He was cold, weak and tired. He gave us no resistance.”
Madigan said Johnson has been in solitary confinement since the escape attempt, and will remain there for “days, at least.” After that will be an “extended period”—perhaps two or three years—-of segregation from other inmates.
“Escaping is a very serious violation of the rules,” said the Warden. “The punishment has to be severe. The men expect to be punished.”
Warden Madigan and Guard Harold Miller, the man from whom Burgett and Johnson escaped, gave a detailed account of the getaway at the press conference.
“The escape attempt had been planned for some time,” said the Warden. “Johnson told me that they waited for Daylight Savings Time to end, so that darkness would come earlier.
“On Monday we had our first fog of the season. The men took advantage of it.”
Burgett and Johnson made their break when they went down a pathway at the southeast tip of the island to throw some trash into a bed of century plants.
Both men had been on garbage detail for about six months as reward for good behavior.
Miller, who is 27 and has been in the Federal prison service for only 10 months, was shifted to the garbage detail in a routine rotation of guards only four days before the break.
Miller accompanied the men down the path through the giant succulents and watched them empty their container of trash.
“As we started back,” said Miller, “Burgett suddenly grabbed me by the right shoulder, and I found myself facing Johnson, who had a knife at my chin.”
Johnson said: “We’re going to go. If you remain calm, you won’t get hurt.”
“I didn’t have time to get the shakes or say anything—it happened so fast.”
Burgett gagged the guard with a piece of overall, and then both prisoners worked swiftly to tape Miller’s hands behind his back and blindfold him.
TIED TO TREE
Miller and Madigan revealed for the first time that the guard was guided down the hillside to a eucalyptus tree near the water and tied to the tree with a rope.
“I couldn’t see anything and after they left me I couldn’t hear anything because of the wind and the foghorns,” said Miller. “The next I knew I heard someone say, ‘Here he is.’ It was other guards looking for me.”
Miller had made a regular check to the prison control room at 2:30 p.m., and when he failed to check in on schedule at 3:45 p.m. the search began.
Miller was found by other guards at 4 p.m., and estimated he had been tied to the tree for about an hour.
Johnson was found on the other side of the island at 5 p.m.
Miller, a former casket maker who said he entered the prison service because he wanted to make a career of it, declared the experience had not deterred him from continuing as a guard.
Burgett and Johnson turned on Miller at one of the few spots on the island that is not within view of a gun tower. Guards who work among the prisoners are not armed, but guards in the gun tower are armed at all times.
The spot at which Miller was gagged and bound was not more than 100 feet from the home of Associate Warden J.B. Latimer. In fact, Burgett and Johnson had just finished picking up pieces of wind-blown debris around Latimer’s house.
Warden Madigan said the escape attempt showed the need for revising the garbage detail at the prison. It is the only crew at the institution which has to move around the island, said the warden.
Miller said the knife with which he was threatened appeared to be a kitchen paring knife, with a blade about five inches long.
Madigan disclosed that the foot-by-foot search of the island that has been in progress since the escape attempt had turned up a kitchen knife on the boat dock, but it was not the escape weapon.
Burgett and Johnson normally had access to an axe, saw and heavy garden clippers in the truck assigned to the garbage detail.
“What stops a prisoner from whacking a guard with an axe?” the warden was asked.
“Nothing,” said Madigan.
“It’s a difficult assignment, isn’t it?”
Madigan said searching parties had gone over the island several times since the escape, but were called off last night.
“I’m satisfied Burgett is not here,” said the warden. “There is nothing to indicate he had even the help of a raft or a log.
“They blew up plastic bags—like vegetables come in—but they’d be worth nothing at all in the rough water.
“I only hope that his body floats in.”
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 4 October 1958, pages 1 and 5.
Aaron Walter Burgess, the St. Louis, Mo. convict who tried to swim to freedom from Alcatraz on September 29, was taken from the San Francisco Bay yesterday.
The body was partially decomposed from 13 days of immersion in chill waters, but the coroner’s office made a clear thumb print.
The belt on the body was stenciled “991,” Burgett’s number. In a pocket was the thin, sharp knife Burgett used to overpower Guard Harold Miller.
“We’re satisfied the body was Burgett’s,” said Warden Paul Madigan. “So far as we’re concerned, the case is closed.”
Burgett was clad in khaki and gray prison uniform.
He had extra socks under his heavy, brown boots. His trouser legs were bound at the ankles with black plastic tape, presumably to prevent them from ballooning during the mile and a quarter swim to San Francisco.
Pulled over his prison trousers he wore long winter underwear, safety-pinned at his waist.
Plastic tape was also secured around the soles of his boots, holding what remained of a pair of homemade wood fins, to help him in his freedom swim. The fins had broken off at the toes.
Attached to Burgett’s belt were a plastic bag “water wing” to keep him afloat, and a small ditty bag.
“Prisoners have those little bags to hold dominoes and recreational gear,” Associate Warden Joseph B. Latimer said.
Inside the ditty bag was a coil of black plastic tape, two small rocks and a length of string with safety pins and small pieces of wire attached. Its purpose was unexplained.
The body was discovered at 8:15 a.m.
FLOATING IN BAY
Lyndon M. Cropper, who came on duty at 8 a.m. on the west tower, spotted the body floating about 100 yards off the east end of the island.
Warden Madigan called the Coast Guard Harbor Patrol Office near Fisherman’s Wharf. A Bay patrol boat was dispatched.
A minor mystery was why the swift Bay tides had not swept Burgett out to sea.
“Either they carried him out, and then carried him back here again,” Madigan declared, “or perhaps he sank near the island and was snagged on the bottom.”
Latimer, with C.L. McCleary, the prison’s recordkeeper, was sent to the mainland to help identify the body after it was brought ashore at Pier 45 1/2, at the Coast Guard Port Authority headquarters.
Burgett, 28, made his bid for freedom with a fellow convict, Clyde Johnson, 40, a Memphis bank robber.
GUARD TIED UP
The pair worked on the prison garbage detail, outside the walls. They overpowered Guard Miller, bound and gagged him, and tied him to a tree on the southeast shore of the island. Then they slipped away in a cover of fog.
Johnson was captured, cowering and shivering waist deep in water on the west of the island, at 4 p.m., an hour after the escape attempt.
For ten days special patrols were maintained on the “escape-proof” fortress. Finally, Warden Madigan called them off.
Burgett was the 18th convict who tried to flee the maximum security prison since the Federal Bureau of Prisons took it over from the Army in 1934. Five were shot to death, two vanished, and the rest were caught.
The two who vanished, Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole, presumably drowned.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 13 October 1958, pages 1 and 4.