Great Genealogy Stories...

Great Genealogy Stories

Previously published by Julia M. Case and Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG, Missing Links

ALCATRAZ ERNIE "Copyright 1998-2004 by Lee A. Phillips. From"

In the early 1930s, during The Great Depression, names like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley and the like were well known. It was an era of escalating bank robberies and kidnappings. Hometown folks saw these villains more as modern-day Robin Hoods than as criminals, but, in 1933. J. Edgar Hoover formed what is today the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. government declared that bank robbery and kidnapping henceforth would be federal crimes. Another move the U.S. government made at that time was to create a federal penitentiary to house "the worst" of America's criminals -- Alcatraz.

In the fall of 1933, my grandfather (who is alive today, 8/98) and his partner robbed a small bank in a small Midwestern town. They got about $2,000 and then forced the bank president and one of the tellers into their stolen get-away car. They soon freed their hostages and took off. Eventually, both young men were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of their belligerent conduct while awaiting trial (threats of escape and revenge) and their youth, they were sent to the brand-new Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.

For three years my grandfather, who we will call "Ernie," diligently studied law books in an effort to have his sentence reduced. One day, the warden had his books and papers confiscated. After several unsuccessful attempts to have them returned, Ernie decided to vent his frustration. As he filed out of the mess hall after lunch one day, Ernie stepped out of line and attacked the warden. Miraculously Ernie was not beaten to death, but he did spend about a month in the prison hospital and in various isolation cells. Once he theoretically was physically able, they dragged him downstairs and chained him to the wall in what was then known as "the dungeon." Ernie soon took up residence in Alcatraz's D-Block, solitary confinement, where he spent the next 13 years. To my knowledge, there was only one other man who spent more time in solitary at Alcatraz than Ernie did. That would be Robert Stroud, better known as "The Birdman of Alcatraz," who was in the cell next to Ernie's for many years.

Eventually, the warden retired and Ernie was removed from solitary to the general population of Alcatraz, and then to Leavenworth. After a total of 19 years in federal prisons, Ernie was paroled. Sadly, Ernie is, to this day, still in solitary confinement. He has lived, almost as a hermit, in a rural area of the Midwest for nearly 50 years in a small trailer hardly larger than his Alcatraz solitary confinement cell.

Ernie was present during many notable events at Alcatraz but those stories will have to wait till he passes. One day, after Ernie has finally found peace, I'll set down the fascinating tale of a man whose life was inextricably linked to The Roaring 20s, Prohibition, The Great Depression, and The Rock.