“Why do you want to go to Alcatraz, for heaven’s sake?” This question came over the phone from my eighty-four year old mother. My husband had a conference in San Francisco and I tagged along because, well, it’s SAN FRANCISCO. While he was tied up in meetings happily learning about “Data Mining and Text Analytics,” and other fascinating statistical stuff, I booked a trip to the famous fort and prison.
Alcatraz is a little over a mile from the city. Clear blue skies and a gentle breeze made the quick boat ride to the island quite pleasant. A sea lion accompanied us for part of the trip. Once we landed, I climbed the hill to the main cell block.
I found the audio tour to be fascinating. Guards, wardens, and inmates provided much of the narrative. I’d been to other prisons, so the small, dismal cells didn’t shock me. A prison isn’t supposed to be comfortable, and given the close-to-perfect climate of the place, it really wasn’t that bad.
On several walls, I perused the faces of some of Alcatraz’s most famous prisoners. No surprises there, either: Al Capone (who had organic symptoms due to syphilis while he was there), George “Machine Gun: Kelly (“a nice guy,” one of the guards said), Robert Stroud (the Bird Man, not the quiet, meek character Burt Lancaster portrayed in the film), and the gangster Mickey Cohen. As a mystery writer, I know about these guys. In fact, I have a strange fascination for them. Did you know Mickey Cohen was actually quite short? That he went to a “special school” as a kid and only learned to read and write as an adult so he could impress people? It worked, too—the gangster hobnobbed with Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. At one point, he claimed to be reformed; the evangelist Billy Graham tried to convert him to Christianity. All the while, though, he was blackmailing Hollywood figures and continuing to control the West Coast mafia. I find contradictions like this intriguing. Isn’t it far more interesting when we encounter an antagonist that has some complexity?
Perhaps the hardest thing about serving time on Alcatraz was its proximity to San Francisco. From the small, dusty recreation area, the inmates could see the city. On a Friday night when things got festive downtown, they could hear the bustle, the traffic, the laughter. The sounds of people embracing their freedom. “That was the cruelest thing of all,” one inmate said.
Over the twenty-nine years that Alcatraz served as a prison, there were fourteen attempted escapes. Most ended violently, though a few inmates made it to the water where they drowned. However, in 1962, three inmates, Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and his brother John Anglin, carried out an intricate escape plan (dramatized in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film). They used improvised tools to chisel out damaged concrete and left papier-mâché heads decorated with human hair in their bunks. They climbed an air vent, ran along the prison roof, and entered the water on rafts made of raincoats they had sewn together. While authorities had claimed they likely died in the water, others hold to the belief that they did, in fact, survive. Remnants of a raft were found on nearby Angel Island, and the oar found nearby came from Alcatraz. The US Marshals Service continues to investigate: “We just don’t give up looking for anybody,” said Supervising Deputy Mike Dyke of the U.S. Marshals Service. “I think probably the brothers lived… but there’s a chance that all three of them could have lived and they just split up once they left. There’s no body recovered. I can’t close the case.” (KCBS Newscast, Feb 8, 2011).
Why did I go to Alcatraz? Call it research. As a mystery writer, I’m fascinated by crime and its perpetrators. Walking the dusty corridor along the cell block, I could picture Cohen and Capone and the Anglin brothers. I had a brief taste of what life had been like for them. Hopefully, this will make me a better writer: multi-dimensional characters, even (especially) bad guys, make for richer fiction.
What criminals have you studied in researching your mysteries?