Jolene Babyak lived on the Rock in 1954-1955 and also 1962. Her father was acting warden when Warden Blackwell was on vacation, which happened during the most famous escape attempt on Alcatraz. She is a premiere Alcatraz author and historian.
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Berkeley, California, on July 10, 2013
How did it feel to be the Associate Warden’s daughter?
My dad was just my dad. I was pretty unconscious at the age of 15. I was just trying to figure out who I was. If anything it might have embarrassed me a little bit.
Did you feel more responsible because you were the warden’s daughter?
Did you get special treatment?
The only thing I remember happening was once I missed the boat and the pilot, Pat Mahoney, turned the boat around to go back and get me. It was just a little turnaround but it was embarrassing at the time. Later I wondered if it was because I was the A.W.’s daughter. But he assured me that it was because he liked me!
Any downside to being the Warden’s daughter?
There was a girl on the island who I thought didn’t like me because it was rumored that her dad had been up for the job. But my father got the promotion instead.
Are you the person who determined which was Al Capone’s cell? And if so, how were you able to document this?
John Martini and I worked on this together. There were three different numbering systems on the cells. When Al Capone came to Alcatraz the original numbering system was in place. By creating a grid of all three numbering systems we were able to determine which was Al Capone’s cell. (Cell #181).
Given the mythology around Alcatraz, what are some of the guidelines you use to determine fact from fiction?
I only use primary sources and documents. I read books and newspapers for color (quotes, attitude) but generally not for facts.
What are some of the most surprising facts you’ve discovered about Alcatraz?
The size of the cells. (5’x 9’). I was shocked by how small they were. Also, I was surprised by how collegial some of the prisoners and the guards were. You can’t work in an environment that is hateful all the time. People found the humanity where they could.
Were there ever any kids on the island who you thought shouldn’t be there?
No, if you got in trouble, your dad got in trouble and then you’d be in trouble when you got home too.
In your book, Eyewitness on Alcatraz, you talk about getting a hand ball from a prisoner. You said “It was a proud moment; I had in my hand the most valuable item on Alcatraz—the coveted black handball that had rolled down the hill from the prison yard wall.” One of the questions kids always ask me, is what happened to that ball? They want to know if it’s on eBAY or what?
I don’t have that exact handball. But I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of another handball, also from a prisoner on Alcatraz. That one I still have.
You were living on the island during the 1962 Morris-Anglin escape; can you tell me what that felt like?
The escape was fun. If it had been two a.m. and there had been guns it would have been scary, but we found out at seven a.m. It was broad daylight. My mother came in and I could tell by her voice she was excited, because life would be different that day. We had to go into the cellar and I grabbed a paring knife. That part was a little scary. My mother made me go first.
Because I had the paring knife.
As an Alcatraz historian who has spent the better part of her life researching Alcatraz, is it your opinion that the men in the 1962 escape attempt, (the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris) drowned or do you think they made it?
The Anglin brothers were show-offs; it would have been impossible for them to hide out without telling anyone. (There’s no fun in that.)
Morris was quiet, but he had no relatives and few resources. They weren’t like James “Whitey” Bulger, who also spent time on the Rock. Years later, Bulger landed on the Ten Most Wanted list for almost two decades before he was caught in 2011. When found, he had stashed more than $800,000 in cash in his apartment. That’s after not working for two decades! Morris and the Anglins were small-time criminals with no money except what they could steal.
Jolene Babyak has published numerous books on Alcatraz including: Eyewitness on Alcatraz; Breaking the Rock, the Great Escape from Alcatraz; and Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. She has interviewed scores of former residents, prisoners and guards, reviewed hundreds of Alcatraz files, and is currently working on another book about life on Alcatraz.
Father Bernard Bush, S.J., assisted Father James Tupy, S.J., on Alcatraz from 1958-1962 when Father Bernard was a Jesuit theology student. While not yet a priest, the convicts called him “Father.”
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Los Altos, CA, on June 28, 2013.
Were you ever afraid while on Alcatraz?
No. The convicts liked me. I brought them news from the outside and I wasn’t a guard. I felt protected. The guards were nervous about me being there. While I was in the prison yard, I would look up and they would have their guns trained generally in the direction where I was with the men gathered around me.
What were the convicts like?
They were hard people. Tough. When I got to know them they were friendly but I had no illusions about what their lives had been like before Alcatraz. One prisoner I became friendly with was Paul “Frankie” Carbo who I later found out was a member of Murder, Inc.*
*Murder, Inc. was a name given to a group of contract murderers in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Murder, Inc., was the muscle behind the Mafia.
You were a swimmer and the swimming coach at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School. You said this made you popular with the inmates. Is that just a joke?
Oh, no. They were dead serious about their interest in swimming. They asked all kinds of questions about the water temperature, the currents, the tides, the sharks. The guards told them there were man-eating sharks in the water but I let them know that wasn’t true. Not in the Bay. It was too shallow.
Did the convicts have any pets on Alcatraz?
One convict had a mouse named Stumpy who had no front legs. He was trained when the convict would rap on the table twice, he would run up his sleeve and into his pocket.
While on Alcatraz you became close friends with a prisoner named Larry Trumblay. Can you tell us a bit about that?
One day I was in the recreation yard where the men were playing cards, playing handball, lifting weights and walking around. One man had his eyes closed, sunning himself. He was a tough looking guy. I introduced myself to him and struck up a conversation. I asked him what he did, which you’re not supposed to do since it is against prison etiquette. He said: “They told me I held up some banks.” Later, when I mentioned to Warden Madigan that I had talked to Trumblay, Madigan said: “You’re wasting your time with him.” The warden showed me his “rap sheet”. He had not earned any good time in the years he had been there because he was involved in one scrape or another.
Did you continue to visit with Trumblay?
Yes, I always made a point of visiting with him even when he was in “The Hole.”(The disciplinary cells on Alcatraz called the “TU”, Treatment Unit.) One day he said he’d like to repay my visit. I said to him: “If you come to San Francisco dripping wet, forget it.”
But you stayed friends?
Yes, I have about fifty or sixty letters from Trumblay. Even after Alcatraz closed, we stayed friends. From Alcatraz, Larry was sent to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, and eventually he was paroled. We got permission from the Attorney General of the United States for him to come to California. So on June 4, 1965, Larry was at my ordination. He gave me something that day to remember him and the boys by. It was an alb**, which he had designed and crocheted in his cell at Alcatraz. I wore it for my ordination and first Mass.
** A special religious garment worn by priests
Now you are a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos, what is the main difference in the kind of spiritual assistance you give now versus what you did while on Alcatraz?
On Alcatraz I wasn’t trying to guide or convert, only to be a friend. Now, in my work my conversation is more focused on God.
Father Bernard Bush, S.J., is a retreat director at the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos.
Phyllis Hess (Twinney) lived on Alcatraz Island because her father was the Chief Medical Officer. She lived on the island from 1934-1939.
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko via email March 3, 2013.
When did you live on the island?
From 1934 through 1939. Like Moose, in Al Capone Does My Homework, I lived on Officer’s Row. Our Alcatraz home was built in the late 1800’s. It had Victorian architecture and dust and mold from the same era. I loved living there. The bells, whistles and fog horns were just part of comforting normal life.
What was your father’s job?
My father, Dr. George Hess, was the Chief Medical Officer on the island. We arrived on the island to help supervise the retrofitting of the prison hospital and stayed through the first few years of operation.
Did you have any contact with the prisoners?
Alcatraz was just like any street in any town in America. The only difference was we had high security convicts. Did I see them? Yes. Did I have direct contact with them? No.
Did you ever meet a pass man?
If by pass men, you mean the convict servants in the warden’s house, no I never met them. My father was not in favor of Warden Johnston having prisoners in white jackets doing servant duty in his house. Dad hired a housekeeper for us. She was Irish, her name was Lydia, and she came over on the first boat each morning. She taught me the “right way” to eat oatmeal; she had lots of “right ways” to do things.
What did your father think of Al Capone?
Al Capone was my father’s specially assigned patient. They met in Atlanta where Capone was held before Alcatraz. My father was aware Al was a highly demanding and very sick man. That only made my father more sensitive to Al’s plight.
What did Capone think of your father?
Al liked the bedside manner of my father and his assistant, Nurse Ping. (He threw hissy fits with the other medical staff.) With Al’s medical condition, he was choosey as to who he would let touch him, which meant my father got stuck with him from Atlanta to Alcatraz to Terminal Island. It all boiled down to “Let Dr. Hess handle him.”
Did you ever receive a gift from Al Capone?
Al Capone sent an occasional present via my father, who was Al’s doctor. Once he wrote a piece of music for me. He had heard I was born in Ohio, so he wrote a song called: “Beautiful Ohio” and signed it “for Doctor Hess’ little daughter from Al Capone.”
What else can you tell us about Capone?
The best story about Capone is that Dad and Nurse Charles Ping and a guard took Al by train back to his family in Florida. This trip was supposed to be top secret. Walter Winchell, the radio gossip columnist, broadcast the exact train, route and layover. No one to this day knows who leaked this information to Winchell. Since my dad did not have a radio, he was shocked to see the press out in full force when the train pulled into St. Louis. Don’t laugh, but it was Al who was the dodgiest of them all. He suggested that he and my father be handcuffed while Charlie and the guard put their guns (dismantled) under the seats, blast out onto the platform and bash cameras and create a distraction. Dad and Al hightailed it off the other side and ran, shackled together, to the next train for Al to get home.
What was the scariest place on the island?
There were no scary places for me on Alcatraz. The only person who scared the liver out of me was the Warden.
What do you miss most about Alcatraz?
I miss Alcatraz because there was such enormous good will among the families on the island. We understood our rules. They made sense. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. Life has been á la carte ever since.
Since Alcatraz, Phyllis has taught elementary school in four states; been an assistant in biology at Wayne State University in Detroit; and an editor for the Michigan Psychiatric Society.
Chuck Stucker grew up on Alcatraz Island because his father was a guard in the prison. He lived on the island from 1940-1943 and from 1948-1953. He is a well-respected Alcatraz historian and archivist.
Interviewed by Gennifer Choldenko in Roseville, CA on February 20, 2013
Did your parents ever worry about you living on the island?
They never voiced any concern. We didn’t lock our doors. Not everybody opted to live on Alcatraz. Some felt the community on Alcatraz was too small. Everybody knew everybody’s business.
What was the scariest part of living on Alcatraz?
My only fear was being caught in a place I shouldn’t have been. We heard that our fathers could be fired if we got in trouble.
What was your favorite Alcatraz prank?
There were two of them. The first happened on the 4th of July. Bill Hart and I bought fireworks in Chinatown. This was back when the fireworks were really large, nothing like they have today. We put one on the parade ground with a really long fuse. We lit the fuse then skedaddled back to our apartments. I was lying in bed when it went off. They investigated, but didn’t find out who did it. Someone asked my father and he said: “It couldn’t have been Chuck. He was asleep in his bed.”
The second one is a bit like you have in Al Capone Shines My Shoes. We were climbing between the floors of 64 building. Bill told me don’t step off the 2×4 supports. My foot slipped. It didn’t go through the ceiling but people noticed. They yelled “Earthquake.” When we got back, everyone asked us if we’d felt the earthquake. The crack is still there.
Did you ever break an Alcatraz rule?
I broke all sign rules. Anything that said: DO NOT ENTER. Any fence or sign was subject to a violation.
Did you need to treat your father differently than you might have ordinarily?
I was told never to jump out and say: “BOO.” We couldn’t surprise them because they were always on alert.
Did convicts ever seem like they knew you?
We used to help the convicts load the laundry and the trash on the truck. They just seemed like adults to us. My sister was older and she remembers the cons that had trade talents—plumbers and electricians—coming into our home to help us out. Once a convict asked her if we were the Stuckers from Leavenworth. That upset her.
Did you ever meet a pass man? (a convict who works in the warden’s home)
Yes. I met Montgomery who was a pass man for Warden Swope. I used to fish with Warden Swope’s wife. I would knock on the Warden’s door and Montgomery would answer.
Were you ever on the island during an escape attempt?
Yes, but I was a baby at the time. I do remember hearing rebellious behavior in the cell block. The prison population would rattle cups on the bars, yell and scream. My sister remembers hearing the escape siren going off. The protocol was to lock yourself in your apartment and wait. The fear was that a convict would grab a hostage.
What do you miss the most?
The social group and the fishing. There was no limit to the amount of fish you could catch. No game warden. You didn’t need a license. I caught capazoni, eel, perch, sting ray, sand and leopard sharks up to four and five feet long.
Any do-overs? What do you wish you’d done now that you didn’t do then?
Every kid wanted to go in the cellblock. You had to be twenty-one years old to get in there.
When I turned twenty-one, I came back to Alcatraz. Because the Warden’s daughter married my cousin, I was able to get a tour. I was in a boat with a group of about twenty-five other people. When I got off the boat, a convict who was working on the dock came up to me and grabbed my arm. He said: “Are you Ed Stucker’s son? Tell your father hello. I always liked the man.”
This was eight years after my father left Alcatraz. I wish I had asked that convict his name or his Alcatraz number. But I was so surprised, I didn’t. I don’t know how he picked me out of a group of twenty-five. The prisoners knew who everyone was.
Can you describe your first look inside the cell house?
It was intimidating. It felt like I was in a zoo. I did not want to stare.
There are a million myths about Alcatraz. How would you like to set the record straight?
The Alcatraz myths were created by the secrecy and Hollywood. In the thirties, media was not allowed on the island. The inmates who were released gave interviews, which only added to the mystery and the mystique. The press was never allowed to come and take a look.
To me the real events are more interesting than the fiction.
Why do you think you are so fascinated by the island?
I guess I started collecting information about Alcatraz, because I saw the history was being lost. I wanted to make sure people’s stories were recorded. I wanted to be a keeper of information.
What is the strangest true story you know about Alcatraz?
Prisoners on Alcatraz knew everything there was to know. Cons knew about Pearl Harbor before the guards did. They had their own sources of information.