"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, October 17, 2011

My Separation from Alcatraz

During my late teens and early twenties, my life was heavily involved with crime.  Not as a participant, mind you, but as an observer of the legal process that followed crime.  I was a newspaper reporter who wrote almost exclusively about trials and such.

Though I am far removed from that arena now, I still have the interest.  So when the Sunday night football game proved to be a bore-fest, I scrolled through the television programs and found a documentary called Alcatraz Reunion.  I switched to that channel.

That program was very few degrees removed from my previous career, and names I recall from history and current news were spoken aloud.

An Alaskan criminal named Frank Weatherman was the last one off it when the prison was closed in 1963.  Trussed in handcuffs and leg irons, Weatherman was shuffling toward the boat carrying the final cons when he was asked how he felt.

“Good,” he said. “Alcatraz was never no good for anybody.”  

Another Alaskan, but before my time, was Robert Stroud, who was convicted in Juneau, Alaska, of manslaughter and sent to the federal prison at McNeil Island, Washington.  Alaska was a territory then with all crimes prosecuted in the federal courts.  Stroud was far from a model prisoner and received an additional six months on his sentence for assaults.  

He was transferred to Leavenworth prison, where he stabbed a guard to death.  That earned him a death sentence.  Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson commuted the sentence to life in prison.  While at Leavenworth, Stroud took an interest in birds, which he was allowed to keep in his cell.  He became a renowned ornithologist.  

His transfer to Alcatraz in 1942 meant he could not keep birds.  By then he was already known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”  

Stroud spent most of his time in solitary confinement.  He died of natural causes in 1963, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  He was 73.  Forty-two of the 53 years of his imprisonment were served in solitary confinement.

On a visit to Alcatraz in the early 1970s, I, a fellow bird lover, stood outside Stroud’s cell when I visited the solitary block and thought of his many achievements.

As I watched the documentary last night, my ears perked up at the name Leon Thompson, better known as Whitey Thompson, a prolific armed robber, who also served time at Alcatraz.  Thompson, so the story goes, could see the lights of Berkeley from his cell.  He claims he only looked out at them twice, but watching the cars moving and seeing the lights ignited something in Thompson that led to turning his life around.

He authored several books, one of which was titled, “Deadly Litter.”  It is the story of a man who hated litter so much, he turned into a serial killer, hunting down the people he saw littering and killing them.  Then he carved “litter is bitter” into their foreheads.  Thompson had his books set on a table at Alcatraz during the alumni reunion and was happily autographing them for his former ex-cons.
“I haven’t been this popular,” he said, “since I was on the 10 Most Wanted.”

I remember Frank Weatherman, remember seeing newsreels of him leaving Alcatraz.  I learned about Robert Stroud from the movie Birdman of Alcatraz.  I remember many of the names mentioned during the documentary, including Whitey Thompson.  All I can say about him is that I empathize with hating litter, but I’m no serial killer.

1 comment:

  1. I have a copy of the sheet music from the theme song from the movie, "Birdman of Alcatraz." I dug it out this morning -- great cover. This was back when a piano sheet music song cost 60 cents. I see the song was recorded by The Highwaymen and the movie (which I never saw) starred Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Edmond O'Brien an Telly Savalas.