Miran Edgar Thompson (December 16, 1917 –
December 3, 1948) was an inmate of Alcatraz whose participation in an
attempted escape on May 2, 1946 led to his execution in the gas
chamber of San Quentin. At the time of the Battle of Alcatraz,
Thompson was serving life plus 99 years for kidnapping, and for the
murder of Amarillo, Texas police officer Detective Lemuel Dodd Savage.
Thompson had a record of eight escapes from custody by the time he was
transferred to Alcatraz in October 1945.
Detective Savage was shot and killed while
transporting Thompson and Elber Day to jail. Savage had arrested the
two when he found them burglarizing a store. He searched the two
suspects before transporting, but missed a handgun hidden in
Thompson's pants. During the transport, Thompson produced the gun and
shot Savage. As Thompson fled, he kidnapped three other people before
Detective Savage was survived by his wife, a son
and two daughters.
Thompson was convicted of federal kidnapping
charges and sent to Alcatraz Prison. While in Alcatraz, Thompson was
part of an escape attempt that ultimately left Correctional Officer
Harold Stites and Correctional Officer William Miller, of the Federal
Bureau of Prisons, dead from gunshot wounds.
Battle of Alcatraz
On May 2, 1946, Thompson, with five other inmates,
participated in the unsuccessful attempt to escape Alcatraz by seizing
the prison's gun gallery and then the prison launch to San Francisco.
Although initially successful, the convicts failed to open the yard
door and the failed escape turned into a bloody struggle that lasted
almost two days before prison authorities regained control. Thompson
survived the fighting, which left two corrections officers dead and
thirteen wounded, and three convicts dead. Thompson was tried for his
part in the violence, specifically accused of inciting Joe Cretzer to
open fire on nine hostage guards in an effort to eliminate witnesses.
Thompson was found guilty along with inmate Sam
Shockley, and they were both executed in the gas chamber of San
Quentin on December 3, 1948.
The Battle of Alcatraz, which lasted from May 2–4,
1946, was the result of an unsuccessful escape attempt at Alcatraz
Island Federal Penitentiary. Two guards—William A. Miller and Harold
Stites—were killed along with three of the inmates. Eleven guards and
one convict were also injured. Two of the surviving convicts were
later executed for their roles.
On May 2, 1946, while most convicts and guards were
in outside workshops, Bernard Coy, a bank robber serving a 25-year
sentence at Alcatraz, was in the C Block cell-house sweeping the floor
when kitchen orderly Marvin Hubbard called on guard William Miller to
let him in as he had just finished cleaning the kitchen. As Miller was
frisking Hubbard for any stolen articles, Coy assaulted him from
behind and the two men overpowered the officer. They then released
Joseph Cretzer and Clarence Carnes from their cells.
The cell block had an elevated gun gallery which
was regularly patrolled by an armed guard. The guard, Bert Burch, had
a set routine and the convicts had attacked Miller while he was away.
Coy, as cell-house orderly, had over the years spotted a flaw in the
bars protecting the gun gallery which allowed them to be widened using
a bar-spreading device consisting of a nut and bolt with client metal
sleeve which moved when the nut was turned by a small wrench. Coy thus
managed to spread the bars and squeeze through the widened gap into
the temporarily vacant gallery and to overpower and bind Burch on his
return. Coy kept the Springfield rifle in the gallery and lowered an
M1911 pistol, keys, a number of clubs and gas grenades to his
Continuing along the gun gallery, Coy then entered
D Block, which was separated from the main cell-house by a concrete
wall and was used for prisoners kept in isolation. There he used the
rifle to force guard Cecil Corwin to open the door to C Block and let
the others in. They then released about a dozen convicts including Sam
Shockley and Miran Thompson. Shockley and Thompson joined Coy, Carnes,
Hubbard and Cretzer in C Block. The other prisoners prudently returned
to their cells. Miller and Corwin were placed in a cell in C Block.
The escapers now needed to secure the key to the
yard door of the prison from which they expected to make their way to
the island's dock to seize the prison's launch. The boat docked daily
between 2:00 P.M. and 2:30 P.M., and the plan was to use the hostage
guards as cover to make their way to the dock, then San Francisco and
Miller had held on to the yard door key, contrary
to the prison's regulations, so that he could let out kitchen staff
without having to disturb the gallery guard at lunch. Although they
eventually found the key by searching the captive guards and the cell
in which the prisoners had placed them, the door would not open
because the lock had jammed as the prisoners had tried several other
keys while searching for the correct one. The escape attempt was thus
inadvertently foiled from the outset as the prisoners were trapped in
the cell house.
Meanwhile other guards who entered the cell block
as part of their routine were seized along with others sent to
investigate when they failed to report in. The prisoners were soon
holding nine guards in two separate cells, but with nowhere to go,
despair set in among the would-be escapers. At 14:30, Coy took the
rifle and fired at the guards in some neighboring watchtowers,
wounding one of them. Associate warden Ed Miller went to the cell
block to investigate, armed with a gas billy club. He came across Coy
who shot at him. Miller retreated. By now the alarm had been raised.
Their plan having failed, Shockley and Thompson
urged Cretzer, who had one of the guns, to kill the hostages in case
they testified against them. Cretzer opened fire on the guards
wounding five, three seriously including Bill Miller who later died of
his wounds. Carnes, Shockley and Thompson then returned to their cells,
but Coy, Hubbard and Cretzer decided they were not going to surrender.
Meanwhile, one of the hostages discreetly wrote down the names of the
Battle of Alcatraz
At about 18:00 a squad of armed guards entered the
gun cage but were fired upon by the convicts. One officer, Harold
Stites, was killed and four other guards were wounded. Prison
officials then cut the electricity and put all further attempts on
hold until darkness.
Warden James A. Johnston now called upon the
expertise of two platoons of Marines under the direction of General "Vinegar
Joe" Stilwell to guard the general population of convicts and to take
the cell house from the outside.
After night fell, two squads of guards entered the
prison to locate and rescue the captive officers. There was a long-standing
rule at Alcatraz that no guns were allowed in the cell-house and the
prison officials did not want to have further guards injured or killed.
In addition, the convicts' position on the top of a cell block
provided a nearly impregnable firing position as it was out of range
of the guards in the gun cages.
Thus it was that at 21:00 unarmed guards undertook
the rescue attempt, but they were provided with cover by guards in the
two gun galleries overhead. They found their colleagues and sealed off
D Block by locking the open door but one guard was wounded by a
gunshot from the roof of one of the cell blocks during the rescue.
When the last officer had reached safety, a massive gun barrage opened
on the prison with D Block subjected to heavy fire from machine-guns,
mortars and grenades as the authorities erroneously believed one of
the armed convicts was stationed there. Eventually it was established
that the mutineers were confined to the main cellhouse and there was
another lull in the battle as tactics were worked out.
Security forces adopted a plan to drive the armed
convicts into a corner with tactics perfected against entrenched
Japanese resistance during the Pacific War. They drilled holes in the
prison roof and dropped in grenades into areas where they believed the
convicts were in an attempt to force them into a utility corridor
where they could be cornered.
On May 3, at about 12:00 noon, the convicts phoned
Johnston to try to discuss a deal. Johnston would only accept their
surrender. Later that day a shot was fired at a guard as he checked
out C Block's utility corridor. That night, a constant fusillade was
fired at the cell block until about 21:00. The following morning,
squads of armed guards periodically rushed into the cell house firing
repeatedly into the narrow corridor. At 09:40 A.M. on May 4, they
finally entered the corridor and found the bodies of Cretzer, Coy, and
Prior to the escape attempt, Hubbard had petitioned
for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that his confession had
been beaten out of him and had produced hospital records to back up
his claims. A federal hearing into the matter had been scheduled for
the Monday that followed his death. The case was dismissed on a motion
filed by prosecutor Joseph Karesh, who is quoted as saying that had it
gone through Hubbard would have had "a fair chance" of being released.
Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley were executed in
the gas chamber at San Quentin on December 3, 1948 for their role in
the Battle of Alcatraz. Carnes was given an (additional) life sentence
but was eventually released from prison in 1973. The increased
security measures ensured that there were no more escape attempts
Several versions of the events of the Battle of
Alcatraz have been depicted on film:
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) — again
starring Burt Lancaster, this film briefly depicts a largely
fictional version of the battle which, from the start, is portrayed
as a full-scale riot rather than a discreet escape attempt. Robert
Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz", is given unwarranted credit for
ending the conflict.
A Brief History of Alcatraz
Before the Prison
The name Alcatraz is derived from
the Spanish "Alcatraces." In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de
Ayala was the first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco
Bay - his expedition mapped the bay and named one of the three islands
Alcatraces. Over time, the name was Anglicized to Alcatraz.
While the exact meaning is still debated, Alcatraz is usually defined
as meaning "pelican" or "strange bird."
In 1850, a presidential order set
aside the island for possible use as a United States military
reservation. The California Gold Rush, the resulting boom in the
growth of San Francisco, and the need to protect San Francisco Bay led
the U.S. Army to build a Citadel, or fortress, at the top of the
island in the early 1850s. The Army also made plans to install more
than 100 cannons on the island, making Alcatraz the most heavily
fortified military site on the West Coast. Together with Fort Point
and Lime Point, Alcatraz formed a "triangle of defense" designed to
protect the entrance to the bay. The island was also the site of the
first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.
By the late 1850s, the first
military prisoners were being housed on the island. While the
defensive necessity of Alcatraz diminished over time (the island never
fired its guns in battle), its role as a prison would continue for
more than 100 years. In 1909, the Army tore down the Citadel, leaving
its basement level to serve as the foundation for a new military
prison. From 1909 through 1911, the military prisoners on Alcatraz
built the new prison, which was designated the Pacific Branch, U.S.
Disciplinary Barracks for the U.S. Army. It was this prison building
that later became famous as "The Rock."
The U.S. Army used the island for
more than 80 years--from 1850 until 1933, when the island was
transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice for use by the Federal
Bureau of Prisons. The Federal Government had decided to open a
maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most
incorrigible inmates in Federal prisons, and to show the law-abiding
public that the Federal Government was serious about stopping the
rampant crime of the 1920s and 1930s.
USP Alcatraz was not the "America's
Devil's Island" that many books and movies portray. The average
population was only about 260-275 (the prison never once reached its
capacity of 336 - at any given time, Alcatraz held less than 1 percent
of the total Federal prison population). Many prisoners actually
considered the living conditions (for instance, always one man to a
cell) at Alcatraz to be better than other Federal prisons, and several
inmates actually requested a transfer to Alcatraz.
The island's most famous prisoner
was probably Robert Stroud, the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz." In
reality, Stroud never had any birds at Alcatraz, nor was he the
grandfatherly person portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the well-known
movie. In 1909, Stroud was convicted of manslaughter; while serving
his prison sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary (USP), McNeil Island,
Washington, he viciously attacked another inmate. This resulted in his
transfer to USP Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1916, he murdered a
Leavenworth guard, was convicted of first-degree murder, and received
a death sentence. His mother pleaded for his life, and in 1920,
President Woodrow Wilson commuted the death sentence to life
It was Stroud's violent behavior
that earned him time in segregation. During his 30 years at
Leavenworth, he developed his interest in birds and eventually wrote
two books about canaries and their diseases. Initially, prison
officials allowed Stroud's bird studies because it was seen as a
constructive use of his time. However, contraband items were often
found hidden in the bird cages, and prison officials discovered that
equipment Stroud had requested for his "scientific" studies had
actually been used to construct a still for "home-brew." Stroud was
transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, where he spent the next 17 years (6
years in segregation in "D Block" and 11 years in the prison
hospital). In 1959, he was transferred to the Medical Center for
Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he died on November
While several well-known criminals,
such as Al Capone, George "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis (the first
"Public Enemy #1"), and Arthur "Doc" Barker did time on Alcatraz, most
of the 1,576 prisoners incarcerated there were not well-known
gangsters, but prisoners who refused to conform to the rules and
regulations at other Federal institutions, who were considered violent
and dangerous, or who were considered escape risks. Alcatraz served as
the prison system's prison - if a man did not behave at another
institution, he could be sent to Alcatraz, where the highly structured,
monotonous daily routine was designed to teach an inmate to follow
rules and regulations.
At Alcatraz, a prisoner had four
rights: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Everything else was
a privilege that had to be earned. Some privileges a prisoner could
earn included working, corresponding with and having visits from
family members, access to the prison library, and recreational
activities such as painting and music. Once prison officials felt a
man no longer posed a threat and could follow the rules (usually after
an average of five years on Alcatraz), he could then be transferred
back to another Federal prison to finish his sentence and be released.
There were, however, prisoners who
decided not to wait for a transfer to another prison. Over the 29
years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated Alcatraz, 36 men (including
two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape
attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during
their escape, and 2 drowned. Two of the men who were caught were later
executed in the gas chamber at the California State Prison at San
Quentin for their role in the death of a correctional officer during
the famous May 2-4, 1946, "Battle of Alcatraz" escape attempt.
Whether or not anyone succeeded in
escaping from Alcatraz depends on the definition of "successful
escape." Is it getting out of the cellhouse, reaching the water,
making it to land, or reaching land and not getting caught? Officially,
no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day
there are five prisoners listed as "missing and presumed drowned."
Following are summaries of the 14
April 27, 1936 - While working his job
burning trash at the incinerator, Joe Bowers began climbing up and
over the chain link fence at the island's edge. After refusing
orders to climb back down, Bowers was shot by a correctional officer
stationed in the West road guard tower, then fell about 50-100 feet
to the shore below. He died from his injuries.
December 16, 1937 - While working in the
mat shop in the model industries building, Theodore Cole and Ralph
Roe had, over a period of time, filed their way through the flat
iron bars on a window. After climbing through the window, they made
their way down to the water's edge and disappeared into San
Francisco Bay. This attempt occurred during a bad storm and the
Bay's currents were especially fast and strong - most people believe
Roe and Cole were swept out to sea. Officially, they are listed
missing and presumed dead.
May 23, 1938 - While at work in the
woodworking shop in the model industries building, James Limerick,
Jimmy Lucas, and Rufus Franklin attacked unarmed correctional
officer Royal Cline with a hammer (Cline died from his injuries).
The three then climbed to the roof in an attempt to disarm the
correctional officer in the roof tower. The officer, Harold Stites,
shot Limerick and Franklin. Limerick died from his injuries. Lucas
and Franklin received life sentences for Cline's murder.
January 13, 1939 - Arthur "Doc" Barker,
Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, and Rufus McCain
escaped from the isolation unit in the cellhouse by sawing through
the flat iron cell bars and bending tool-proof bars on a window.
They then made their way down to the water's edge. Correctional
officers found the men at the shoreline on the west side of the
island. Martin, Young, and McCain surrendered, while Barker and
Stamphill were shot when they refused to surrender. Barker died from
May 21, 1941 - Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley,
Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll took several correctional officers
hostage while working in the industries area. The officers,
including Paul Madigan (who later became Alcatraz's third warden),
were able to convince the four that they could not escape and they
September 15, 1941 - While on garbage
detail, John Bayless attempted to escape. He gave up shortly after
entering the cold water of San Francisco Bay. Later, while appearing
in Federal court in San Francisco, Bayless tried, again
unsuccessfully, to escape from the courtroom.
April 14, 1943 - James Boarman, Harold
Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter 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 hostages was
able to alert other officers to the escape and shots were fired at
Boarman, Brest, and Hamilton, who were swimming away from the island.
Hunter and Brest were both apprehended. Boarman was hit by gunfire
and sank below the water before officers were able to reach him; his
body was never recovered. Hamilton was initially presumed drowned.
However, after hiding out for two days in a small shoreline cave,
Hamilton made his way back up to the industries area, where he was
discovered by correctional officers.
August 7, 1943 - Huron "Ted" Walters
disappeared from the prison laundry building. He was caught at the
shoreline, before he could even attempt to enter San Francisco Bay.
July 31, 1945 - In one of the most
ingenious attempts, John Giles was able to take advantage of his job
working at the loading dock, where he unloaded army laundry sent to
the island to be cleaned - over time, he stole an entire army
uniform. Dressed in the uniform, Giles calmly walked aboard an army
launch to what he thought was freedom. He was discovered missing
almost immediately. Unfortunately for Giles, the launch was headed
for Angel Island, not San Francisco as Giles hoped. As Giles set
foot on Angel Island, he was met by correctional officers who
returned him to Alcatraz.
May 2-4, 1946 - During this incident,
known as the "Battle of Alcatraz" and the "Alcatraz Blastout," six
prisoners were able to overpower cellhouse officers and gain access
to weapons and cellhouse keys, in effect taking control of the
cellhouse. Their plan began to fall apart when the inmates found
they did not have the key to unlock the recreation yard door.
Shortly thereafter, prison officials discovered the escape attempt.
Instead of giving up, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam
Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes decided to fight.
Eventually Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells,
but not before the officers taken hostage were shot at point-blank
range by Cretzer (encouraged by Shockley and Thompson). One officer,
William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold
Stites (who stopped the third escape attempt), was shot and killed
attempting to regain control of the cellhouse. About 18 officers
were injured during the escape attempt. The U.S. Marines were
eventually called out to assist, and on May 4, the escape attempt
ended with the discovery of the bodies of Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard.
Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes stood trial for the death of the
officers; Shockley and Thompson received the death penalty and were
executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes,
age 19, received a second life sentence.
July 23, 1956 - Floyd Wilson disappeared
from his job at the dock. After hiding for several hours among large
rocks along the shoreline, he was discovered and surrendered.
September 29, 1958 - While working on the
garbage detail, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson overpowered a
correctional officer and attempted to swim from the island. Johnson
was caught in the water, but Burgett disappeared. An intensive
search turned up nothing. Burgett's body was found floating in the
Bay two weeks later.
June 11, 1962 - Made famous by Clint
Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, Frank Morris and
brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were
never seen again. A fourth man, Allen West, believed by some people
to have been the mastermind, was also involved; however, he was
still in his cell the next morning when the escape was discovered.
An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved
homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and
realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds
so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts. The
three men exited through vent holes located in the rear wall of
their cell - they had enlarged the vent holes and made false vent/wall
segments to conceal their work. Behind the rear wall of the cells is
a utility corridor that had locked steel doors at either end. The
three men climbed the utility pipes to the top of the cellblock, and
gained access to the roof through an air vent (the men had
previously bent the iron bars that blocked the air vent). They then
climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cellhouse and
made their way to the water. It is believed they left from the
northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster
building. They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests
and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search
turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while
the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other
outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs
belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be
watertight. But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later, a
man's body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform
was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the
body was too badly deteriorated to be identified. Morris and the
Anglins are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.
December 16, 1962 - John Paul Scott and
Darl Parker bent the bars of a kitchen window in the cellhouse
basement, climbed out, and made their way down to the water. Parker
was discovered on a small outcropping of rock a short distance from
the island. Scott attempted to swim towards San Francisco, but the
currents began pulling him out to sea. He was found by several
teenagers on the rocks near Fort Point (beneath the Golden Gate
Bridge) and was taken to the military hospital at the Presidio Army
base suffering from shock and hypothermia, before being returned to
One of the many myths about
Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island
to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no "man-eating"
sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The
main obstacles were the cold temperature (averaging 50-55 degrees
Fahrenheit), the strong currents, and the distance to shore (at least
1-1/4 miles). Prior to the Federal institution opening in 1934, a
teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. Fitness guru
Jack LaLanne once swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and several
years ago, two 10-year-old children also made the swim.
If a person is well-trained and -conditioned,
it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However,
for prisoners - who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting
or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge
of high and low tides - the odds for success were slim.
On March 21, 1963, USP Alcatraz
closed after 29 years of operation. It did not close because of the
disappearance of Morris and the Anglins (the decision to close the
prison was made long before the three disappeared), but because the
institution was too expensive to continue operating. An estimated $3-5
million was needed just for restoration and maintenance work to keep
the prison open. That figure did not include daily operating costs -
Alcatraz was nearly three times more expensive to operate than any
other Federal prison (in 1959 the daily per capita cost at Alcatraz
was $10.10 compared with $3.00 at USP Atlanta). The major expense was
caused by the physical isolation of the island - the exact reason
islands have been used as prisons throughout history. This isolation
meant that everything (food, supplies, water, fuel...) had to be
brought to Alcatraz by boat. For example, the island had no source of
fresh water, so nearly one million gallons of water had to be barged
to the island each week. The Federal Government found that it was more
cost-effective to build a new institution than to keep Alcatraz open.
After the Prison
After the prison closed, Alcatraz
was basically abandoned. Many ideas were proposed for the island,
including a monument to the United Nations, a West Coast version of
the Statue of Liberty, and a shopping center/hotel complex. In 1969,
the island again made news when a group of Native American Indians
claimed Alcatraz as Indian land with the hope of creating a Native
American cultural center and education complex on the island. The "Indians
of All Tribes" used their act of civil disobedience to illustrate the
troubles faced by Native Americans. Initially, public support for the
Native Americans' cause was strong, and thousands of people (general
public, schoolchildren, celebrities, hippies, Vietnam war protesters,
Hells Angels...) came to the island over the next 18 months.
Unfortunately, the small Native American leadership group could not
control the situation and much damage occurred (graffiti, vandalism,
and a fire that destroyed the lighthouse keeper's home, the Warden's
home, and the Officers' Club). In June 1971, Federal Marshals removed
the remaining Native Americans from the island.
In 1972, Congress created the
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Alcatraz Island was included
as part of the new National Park Service unit. The island opened to
the public in the fall of 1973 and has become one of the most popular
Park Service sites - more than one million visitors from around the
world visit the island each year.