Sunday, August 28, 2011

#62: Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years by Michael Esslinger

San Francisco, Ocean View Publishing 2003. 450 pages

I am coming to love the city of San Francisco, and have resolved multiple times to learn more about it. I bought this book at the Alcatraz gift shop, as it portrayed itself to be definitive and had loads o' pictures. It is definitive at that, and some of the pictures are spooky.

The Good:
The coverage of the escape attempts is outstanding. While the depictions of the inmates can be somewhat shaky (see The Bad), Esslinger relies not only on official reports but also interviews with former inmates and guards to re-create the mindsets and plans of the would be escapees. Alcatraz was billed as "Escape Proof" but Esslinger documents 14 different attempts. The last, in 1962, saw John Paul Scott wash ashore directly underneath the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge, suffering from hypothermia but very much alive. Esslinger reproduces the Warden's escape report and maintains that Scott did not "Swim" but "was carried by a three knot current" (410)

The most well known attempts (the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz and the ingenious Frank Lee Morris and Anglin brothers attempt (June 1962) are covered in minute detail. This dovetails with the intertwining of popular culture and Alcatraz, which is well done by Esslinger. The author nicely contrasts the portraly of Robert Stroud by Burt Lancaster with the real McCoy; if anything, the real Stroud was even more fascinating and brutal than in the film.

Esslinger includes a section about some of the more notorious inmates (Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Stroud and Henri Young). He also takes the movie Murder in the First to the woodshed. In the film Kevin Bacon plays Henri Young, "sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister" (197). Esslinger quotes Young's own autobiographical writings that quite literally cover the movie in a thick Cloak of Bullshit. Well, it's Hollywood.

Lastly, the pictures and diagrams, taken from the Alcatraz archives, are second to none and exhaustive. It is nice to be able to reference a map on the previous page when Esslinger describes escape attempts. The care put into the physical description of the prison bears fruit when the history is discussed, especially for readers who have never been there.

The Bad
Esslinger is quick to point out that the inmates on The Rock did something to get there, and is downright dismissive of mental or environmental factors that landed them in prison. I can understand that, but after reading Public Enemies, Esslinger's depiction of Ma Barker (among others) is flat out wrong. Esslinger tends with the 1930s inmates to parrot official FBI dogma. It is a small complaint, but it gets tiresome in certain sections of the book.

The Ugly
Want to have some fun? Starting on page 453, Essligner reprints the Inmate Regulations from 1956 which include 6 count bells every afternoon, a limit of 12 books and two shelves. Esslinger describes conditions in "The Dungeons" which spawned the Henri Young trial in 1941. Warden Johnston decreed that the "inmate receive only bread for the evening meal if the lunch meal had been full" and prescribed "bread, water and salads" otherwise. (93)

This would be a major league pain in the ass, as here is the menu for March 13, 1956: 2 grilled frankfurters, hot chili, parsley potatoes, sauerkraut, buttered carrots, banana pudding, bread and tea. (115) Alcatraz had the reputation of having not only one of the best menus in the prison system but also one of the best libraries.

The AIM takeover of the Rock in 1971 and the pre-pen years of the 1850s to 1920s are treated in a cursory fashion, but the book is about the Penitentiary years. Esslinger provides an exhaustive bibliography if you are interested in these other time periods as well. If you have an interest in Alcatraz as a prison, this book is the place to start.

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