Felon Slain In Alcatraz Escape Try

Guard's Bullets Topple Fleeing Robber Off Fence, 60 Ft. Down Embankment

Man Was First to Attempt Flight From 'Devil's Isle'

Victim of the first attempt to escape from the "escapeless" fortress of the Department of Justice on Alcatraz island, Joe Bowers, 40, California postoffice robber, died yesterday under the fire of guards as he plunged 60 feet down an embankment.

Strangely enough, post mortem examination showed he escaped practically uninjured from the long fall and death was due to a bullet lodged in his lungs.

The autopsy was performed by Dr. Sherman Leland, San Francisco. He found no bones had been broken and only a few scratches about the legs and head.

Bowers, a prisoner with many aliases and a long police record, was shot in the right thigh and neck by guards when he scaled a wire fence in a mad dash for liberty.

He plunged from the cliff. His body was recovered an hour later by prison guards.

Bowers' mad attempt to escape took place while Sanford Bates, Federal Director of Prisons, who arrived in San Francisco Sunday was engaged in an inspection of prison workshops, accompanied by Warden James A. Johnston. The two were just going into the office of the warden, following the inspection when gunfire broke out.

The futile attempt to get away from the "Devil's Island of the West" took place shortly after 11 o'clock. Bowers, who was serving a 25-year term for mail robbery of a Butte county postoffice, had been detailed for work on the prison incinerator.

When he finished his work, instead of turning toward the prison stairway, he went in the opposite direction toward a wire fence that rings the area.

Guards called twice to him to go back, according to Warden Johnston. He disregarded their orders. The guards then fired twice into the ground.

Bowers continued until he reached the fence. This he scaled. As he dropped down on the other side, guards shot directly at him twice. Both bullets took effect and he plunged head first over the cliff.

The tide was out and the jagged teeth of the rocks upended in the prison foundation caught his fall. Warden Johnston detailed a launch to his assistance. The prison physician, Dr. Horace Hess accompanied the launch.

They found the body of Bowers hanging on the rocks. It was pulled into the launch by means of ropes with great difficulty.


The dead convict was known under the names of Bowers Ebner, Miller, Kiehner and Furland Zwomniero. He was an Austrian by birth and had a police record in Seattle and Oregon. He was wanted in the latter State for a violation of the Dyer act.

The postoffice robbery in Butte county sent him to a Federal prison in 1932, at Leavenworth, Kas. In 1934 he was transferred to Alcatraz.

Had Bowers been able to negotiate the face of the cliff to the rocks beneath in safety, it is believed impossible for him to have escaped, as the waters all about the island are in machine-gun range. Stringent Federal regulations prevent all watercraft from approaching the island within 200 yards. Inside that circle boats draw the fire of guards.


Swift currents about the island make it almost impossible for a swimmer to reach the mainland. Every device that science can conceive has been installed to prevent the inmates from getting away. Even visitors who visit the prison must pass the rays of photo-electric cells, which immediately reveal the presence of any metal objects such as files, saws and the like.

Steel sheaths cover the top of the three-tiered cell blocks. Barred doors are automatically controlled. Convicts may talk to attorneys or relatives only through a fine steel mesh over a narrow window opening.

Last January 100 prisoners were locked in their cells in solitary confinement when they staged a "work strike." The men finally returned to work. That was the last prison disturbance reported at the prison until yesterday's escape, and the only disturbance since the Government took it over in 1934.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 28 April 1936, pages 1 and 11.

Deperate Felons Elude Guards to Make Escape Off Fog-Shrouded Rock

Theodore Cole, Kidnaper, and Ralph Roe, Robber, First Discovered Missing at Noon

Two Oklahoma bad men vanished yesterday from "escape proof" Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary—dreaded "Devil's Island" of San Francisco Bay.

And late last night a pea-soup fog that blanketed the entire bay area still held the mystery of their escape.

Coast Guard and police boats moved cautiously through the waters of the bay, their searchlights battling the densest fog in years. Scores of police and Sheriff's officers of surrounding counties kept a constant vigil along the shoreline.

Radio orders crackled without intermission, guns were held in readiness, and long distance wires between the grim fortress and Washington were burdened with conversation.

Island Legend Shattered

All to no avail. Apparently the impossible had happened and the legend of Alcatraz had been shattered.

Somewhere in that shroud of tule fog—either dead or alive and well on their way—were the objects of the most dramatic manhunt this area has known. They are:

Theodore Cole, 25, kidnaper serving 50 years, and Ralph Roe, 32, bank robber serving 99 years.

Both had records as Houdinis of escape. Cole had broken to liberty from other prisons in a laundry basket and in a garbage can, and Roe, his buddy, has not been far behind him.

Never Accomplished Before

If they made good their escape from the rocky prison they have done something no man ever did before since it was turned into a Federal penitentiary.

But prison officials late last night were inclined to believe that the desperate men may have found a release that they had not sought—death in a swift ebb tide which might well have swept them out through the Golden Gate and into the turbulent waters of the Pacific.

"Both men were in good health," said Warden James A. Johnston last night. "But neither would have a chance at swimming that bay today. The tide would have swept them right out to sea."

The possibility remained that the two, planning their escape carefully through long months and waiting for the first heavy fog to aid them, had managed the impossible through the help of confederates equipped with a speed boat which slipped close to the island shore under the curtain of the fog and whisked them to the mainland and to liberty.

Admitting this as a possibility, prison officials were more agreeable to the theory that the bid for freedom had been lost in a brief-struggle with the currents that race around the island. They entertained still another thought.

This was that the two possibly were still hiding on the island. It was admitted, however, that indications pointed to the contrary. Hours of exhaustive search failed to reveal a trace of them and in fact there was evidence which appeared to confirm their actual escape into the waters of the bay. Their trail was one of broken glass. The glass had been broken from the window of a tire repair shop in which Cole and Roe were working when last seen.


And from that window investigators traced their footsteps through the impenetrable fog to a prison gate. There the trail that began with shattered window glass ended. But below the prison gate a drop of perhaps 15 feet lay the shore lapped by the misted bay waters and curtained above and mainlandward by a thick gray fog through which all day the ferry boats had groped on 40-minute schedules, sounded the fog horns constantly. The fog was what made the vanishing act possible. It hid them from the eyes of heavily armed guards that patrol the island shoreline. Their absence was discovered at 1:30 yesterday afternoon.


Following their usual custom of silence in such cases, Federal authorities put a clamp of secrecy and it was not until the Coast Guard had been called to aid in the emergency that word of the dramatic escape became public property. The first release of the escape news came from Washington, where it was announced by James V. Bennett, director of Federal Prisons. That was after Warden Johnston had talked to him by telephone. By that time the Coast Guard vessels — six of them — were operating in accordance with previous plans drawn up in preparation for just such an emergency.

Directed by radio from the island by means of a carefully worked out code, the vessels crossed and crisscrossed the waters around the island, stopping and searching all small crafts encountered in the hunt, searchlights in play and guns ready. They were aided by the San Francisco police boat D.A. White.


Searchers by land — police of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin County — turned the headlights of their cars into the swirling mist, but beyond the short reach of those lights shadows moved hardly distinguishable.

Had Cole and Roe made land? If so the fog still protected them.

But the search by water was regarded as having more possibilities. Each of the Coast Guard craft carried 20 alert men. Meanwhile the lights of the island gleamed through the fog and searchlights spread over the waters close to shore. A newspaper boat venturing too close to the shore to suit the guards became the target of two warning shots and scurried to safety through the murk. In San Francisco 60 police officers and eight police cars converged on the shores to prevent the convicts from reaching a haven. Late last night the island was still busy, directing the hunt, and in constant touch with Washington. Revelation that the island was in trouble had come during the afternoon with the calling of the Coast Guard boats to the prison waters.


Thus rumors of a disturbance reached the mainland a mile and a half distance from the "rock." Repeated telephone calls to the island brought the statement that Warden Johnston was "busy" and could not answer. Coast Guard headquarters, admitted in response to inquires: "There were some boats sent over there."

Newspaper headlines carried the news of the island calling for help of the Coast Guard, but still the mystery remained sealed, until Prison Director Bennett in Washington made his brief announcement. It was shortly after this that the police broadcast word of the escape. Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole, regarded as desperate, were missing. "Keep watch for two prisoners in prison clothes," was the order broadcast over the police radio.


As night spread the search spread to the north shores of San Francisco bay. Sheriff Walter E. Sellmer of Marin county dispatched deputies to watch the waterfronts. Deputies from Tiburon, Belevedere and Sausalito joined the hunt. Not far from San Quentin Prison, these communities are not unfamiliar with manhunts after escaped felons. But none held the drama of this.

The fog was so thick that Warden Johnston, talking with the Coast Guard boats by radio as they approached within a few yards of the island, could not actually see them. Today, if the weather clears, and Cole and Roe are unaccounted for, Army planes from Hamilton Field are expected to be impressed into the hunt. Last night the search was being concentrated between the Island and the Golden Gate.


The ebb tide as darkness fell, began flowing at the rate of seven knots toward the Golden Gate. "No one could swim in that water long," prison officials maintained. Warden Johnston based his belief the men were on their own in their escape attempt on his conviction the desperadoes were without powerful outside contacts.

Ranking as dangerous criminals, nevertheless some prison authorities have not rated them with some of the big shot criminals with whom they have rubbed elbows since their incarceration in the island prison — men such as Harvey Bailey and George ("Machine Gun") Kelly, who are also Oklahoma outlaws.


Other observers held to the opinion no men in their right senses would have been so foolhardy as to make their break without knowledge that aid awaited them.

The 12-acre island during the afternoon and last night was subjected to an inch by inch search on the possibility the two had secreted themselves and were awaiting a more favorable time to carry out the final chapter of their bold plot.

That the escape had been long planned, it was practically agreed, and it was believed also that the day of the winter's heaviest fog was the day upon which they had pinned their hopes.

Officers impressed into the hunt were warned of the desperate characters of the quarry.

When the two slippery Oklahoma bandits were transferred to Alcatraz, Federal agents breathed a sigh of relief. They were on the "rock" now — and would stay there from now on. Equipped with all the latest scientific devices, strategically located with sheer cliffs dropping into currents, Alcatraz was heralded as heavy "escape-proof."

The one man who attempted to escape from the island where the Naton's most desperate prisoners are housed under stern discipline died on April 25, 1936, a guard's bullet in his body. He was Joe (Dutch) Bowers, postoffice robber.


He had run to the fence surrounding the prison yard, scaled the fence and started over the wall when the guard's bullet got him. Grapevine rumors were that Bowers staged his spectacular break in a deliberate suicide to escape Alcatraz discipline. The death of Bowers was cited as new proof that no one could escape from Alcatraz and live to tell the tale.

Cole and Roe may have thought otherwise or were willing at least to give the theory a test.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, pages 1 and 9.

This is How It Happened

Here is how Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, Oklahoma bandits, made their bid for freedom yesterday from the dreaded Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, according to Warden Johnson:

Counted in a lineup at 1 p.m., the men were missing a half hour later and an investigation revealed they had broken two panes of glass in a metal-framed window of a tire repair shop in which they had been at work.

The window was silently cleared of the glass fragments. Quietly and unobserved by any of the prison guards, the two convicts made their way to the work yard, outside the tire repair shop.

They ran across the yard to the high wire mesh fence enclosing it. A jimmied lock on the fence gate told prison authorities the route taken by the desperate pair.

Clear of the yard, their movements still completely obscured by the impenetrable fog, dropped about 15 feet to the rock ledge at the water's edge.

They then are thought to have plunged into the cold, fast running water.

From Living Death to Death?

Warden Johnston late last night expressed the opinion that Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole had plunged to their death in the bay from the Island prison, realizing to the full that they could hardly hope to emerge alive.

"Serving terms tantamount to life imprisonment," said Warden Johnston, "it is my belief they decided to take a desperate chance and that they had no outside aid. I believed they drowned and that their bodies were swept toward the Golden Gate by the strong ebb tide."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, page 1.

"Here's Who They Are And Records of Crime — Theodore Cole Sentenced as Kidnaper"

Only 25 years old, Theodore Cole, Stroud, Okla., had a notorious record as robber, kidnapper and "escape artist."

He was described yesterday by Sheriff Stanley Rogers of Oklahoma City as the "slickest customer I ever handled."

For robbery with firearms, Cole was given the death sentence and committed to McAlester Prison October 22, 1929.

"The boy is a potential killer and deserves such a sentence," the judge replied. But in 1930 Governor W.J. Holloway commuted the sentence.


Later, the Criminal Court of Appeals reduced the sentence to 15 years. Cole escaped by secreting himself in a shipment of prison clothing being taken from McAlester to the subprison at Stringtown, Okla. In a previous attempt he was shot in the leg.

Shortly after his escape, the youthful convict kidnapped James Rutherford, a farmer near Cushing, Okla., on December 5, 1934, and forced the farmer, under threat of death, to drive him to Springfield, Illinois.

Tried for the Rutherford kidnapping, Cole pleaded guilty to the Lindbergh law, was given a 50-year sentence and sent to Alcatraz.

While in the County jail at Oklahoma City Cole attempted three escapes.


Once he hid himself in a trash can and was caught in the lobby of the jail. Twice jailers found hacksaw blades in his possession, once after he had partially sawed through the cell bars.

Cole stabbed and killed one of his cellmates, William Pritchett. Other convicts balked at staying in the same cell with him.

When under arrest, Cole was shackled with special handcuffs.

Cole's mother, Mrs. Esther Cole, now resides in Woodlake, Cal., and one of his sisters, Violet Dawson, lives in Bell, Cal.

Description of Cole is 5 feet 8 inches tall, 135 pounds, medium build, complexion fair, eyes blue, hair brown, and scars and marks, two-inch scar corner right lip, small scar middle right cheek, large eight-inch scar above knee of left leg.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, page 9.

"Here's Who They Are And Records of Crime — Bank Robber Roe Boasts Many Arrests"

Ralph Roe, 32-year old convict, missing along with Cole from the hitherto "escape-proof" Alcatraz is a bank robber from Duncan, Okla., with a long previous record.

He was give a 99-year sentence on "the rock" for the robbery of the Farmers' National Bank at Sulphur, Okla., September 10, 1934.


Roe was 21 when in 1927 he was committed to the Oklahoma Penitentiary for one of his first crimes, robbery with firearms in Osfuskee county. His sentence was for 12 years, but he was dismissed June 10, 1933, according to records.

In December of the same year, Roe was captured in a gun battle with officers at Shawnee, Okla. In the battle, Wilbur Underhill, Oklahoma killer and escaped convict from Leavenworth was shot and killed. Roe was shot in the shoulder.

Roe was likewise an escape artist. He managed to escape from the State prison at McAlester and the county jail at Oklahoma City.

Cole and Roe were convict pals at McAlester and spent as much time together as allowed, Warden Jess Dunn told the Associated Press yesterday.

Both served time in Leavenworth, the Federal penitentiary in Kansas, together, and travelled on the same train to Alcatraz, when transferred to the island prison on October 3, 1935.


Roe's name was formerly linked with that of "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Southwestern bandit, killed by Federal agents several years ago at Liverpool, Ohio.

An older, although no more notorious criminal than Cole, Roe has a long record and list of aliases. Among the aliases are the names, Paul Sullivan, Jack Sullivan, J.O. Sullivan, Jack McCarty, Jack McCarthy, Raymond Roe, Raymond Rowe and J.H. Reynolds.

Department of Justice authorities last night described Roe as 6 feet tall, 170 lbs., slender, complexion fair, hazel eyes, chestnut hair and scars and marks, tattoo star left index and back of left hand, and large rugged cut scar two inches left forearm.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, page 9.

Alcatraz Not Escape Proof in Former Days

While there is no record of any escapes from Alcatraz Island as a Federal prison, history records several incidents of escapes from it as a military prison.

One occurred November 18, 1912, when Thomas Franey and Michael Mullin, two calvaryman with bad records, were reported at large. It was believed at that time by the commandant at Alcatraz that the men fled on a raft that was lying on the shore of the island.

Their escape was considered particularly daring because it was effected from their cell rather than from one the of the working parties.

A few years before this a prisoner escaped by forging papers directing his release. He had been employed in clerical work in the offices of the prison. He presented the forged order of release in the regular way, walked to the steamer plying between San Francisco and the island and disappeared.

After these two incidents there was a little excitement in the military barracks until March 9, 1917, when a corporal and two soldiers escaped from the Island by poking a revolver under the nose of Martin Jesterston, pilot of the newspaper delivery launch. They got as far as Sausalito, where they were captured.

Another escape from the Island was effected November 28, 1918, while prisoners were celebrating Thanksgiving. Four men made their way past the guards to the beach, lashed together several planks and paddled toward the mainland.

The escape was not noticed until 9 o'clock that night at the roll-call when a searching party was organized. The men were never found. [Ed. Fred Koenig was eventually recaptured.)

The men were Fred Koenig, Paul L. White, Fritz Isell and Andy Amen.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, page 9.

"Pair Destroy Isle's Escape-Proof Claim"

Built up by the claims of Federal penal officials and countless movies and stories, the apparently successful escape yesterday by two desperate convicts destroyed the "escape proof" legend surrounding mighty Alcatraz Prison.

Every known protective device against escape had been added to the natural advantages of "the Rock" as American authorities sought to establish here in America a "Devil's Island."


The movies and the story writers had taken up the idea and until yesterday, every child and adult in the Nation had believed the word "Alcatraz" synonymous with the words "escape proof."

All important advances in penological science are embodied at Alcatraz. Already constructed of high grade steel and concrete, the prison, when remodeled in 1934, was equipped with three guard towers, equipped with machine guns and manned by expert rifleman.


Discipline is strict at Alcatraz. No prisoner serves as a trusty—as at most prisons in this country. The guards are organized on military lines and do not fraternize in the slightest with the convicts.

Though famous, Alcatraz is a small prison. It can house a total of 500 and there are slightly less than 300 on the island at present. No one, outside government officials, knows exactly how many prisoners are on the island or who they are.

Visitors to the prison must pass the rays of photoelectric cells that immediately reveal the presence of metallic objects, files, saws, guns, etc.


Swift currents about the island make it impossible for all except the most expert swimmers to swim safely to shore.

Although Alcatraz has a long history as a prison, it was first used as a fortress. The Spanish erected a fortress on the rugged island and named it "Alcatraz"—meaning pelican. Many of the birds used to home there.

Shortly before the Civil War the United States Army built a prison on the island. Dungeons were blasted out of the solid rock. Incorrigibles were first sent to the new prison—later regular soldier prisoners.

The dungeons are still in use. They are called "the hole." There are no lights, guards lead the way with flashlights. It is deathly still and absolutely black. Those who violate prison rules are placed in the hole "to think it over."

With long years of prison ahead of them, Ralph Roe, Muskogee, Okla., robber and Theodore Cole, Cushing, Okla., kidnaper, defied science, the natural hazards and the guns of guards, escaped and shattered a national byword, the legend of "escape proof" Alcatraz.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 17 December 1937, page 8.


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