Top 5 Things You’ll Learn If You Read This Whole Thing.
- If you keep lots of birds in a prison cell with you, you’re going to be covered in bird crap.
- Robert Stroud was not a kindly prisoner, even if Burt Lancaster was a sexy stud.
- My Grandma Fiorina had elective hand-amputation surgery.
- Before Amazon, there was Alcatraz Prime.
- There was an attack on the U.S. Capitol before the one you’re thinking about.
- BONUS ITEM: ‘Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.’ Have at it, English teachers.
Quiz time! Which one of the following is a true statement:
- There once was a prisoner at Alcatraz who kept birds in his cell and discovered all sorts of wonderful scientific things about them that were heretofore unknown.
- Some of the hardest, scariest, most badass prisoners who ever existed, the kind of guys who were boogeymen to a generation of Honest Americans, spent many a long afternoon at Alcatraz … knitting.
Of course the first statement is the true one. I mean, there’s an actual movie called The Birdman of Alcatraz about a kindly prisoner named Robert Stroud who raised and studied birds from his cell on The Rock. It was released in 1962 and starred Burt Lancaster and received Oscar nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
And of course the second statement is false. No badass Alcatraz prisoner is going to knit anything. Unless, of course, his aim is to get his hands on some knitting needles to jam through the eye socket of a fellow prisoner.
Except, on both accounts, you’re wrong.
Oh, Robert Stroud was a real person and a real prisoner at Alcatraz. But that’s where truth and The Birdman of Alcatraz part ways.
Robert Stroud was anything but kindly. In 1909, he was a pimp in Juneau, Alaska. Which isn’t to say pimps can’t be kindly. Theoretically, I guess they can. Stroud just wasn’t one of those kindly pimps.
On Jan. 18, 1909, a barman named F.K. “Charlie” von Dahmer partook in the services offered by one of Stroud’s ladies, one Kitty O’Brien. However, perhaps not understanding how the whole “ladies of the cold Alaskan night” system works or perhaps just being a real douchebag, von Dahmer did not complete the transaction by remitting payment. This upset Stroud, who tracked von Dahmer down, beat him unconscious and shot him dead at point-blank range.
But Stroud wasn’t done.
He rapidly gained the reputation as one of the most violent inmates at McNeil Island federal penitentiary in Washington state. At one point, he stabbed a fellow prisoner who reported him for stealing food. Snitches get stiches, yo. But those who stab snitches (and also beat an orderly for reporting him to prison administration for trying to get morphine) are sent to tougher prisons.
Stroud received an all-expenses-paid trip to the flat hell of Kansas — right next door to my friendly Missouri relative and website creator John Agliata — and the infamous Leavenworth federal penitentiary. He continued to not play well with others.
On March 6, 1916, Stroud was reprimanded by a cafeteria guard named Andrew Turner for a minor rules violation. Stroud had the reasonable and appropriate response of stabbing Turner through the heart, killing him instantly. If not for a court of appeals ruling after a plea to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Stroud would have hung.
So yeah, Burt Lancaster might have been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Stroud, but suffice to say his performance didn’t exactly capture all the many facets of the famed Birdman’s personality.
And about that Birdman thing… The Birdman of Alcatraz never had birds at Alcatraz. Ever. Not one.
He did have them while he was at Leavenworth. Lots of them. So many that Stroud’s cell — and Stroud himself — was constantly awash in bird crap, a condition that tainted all of his supposedly scientific studies. He used this whole bird thing to generate sympathy — and cash, which he turned into equipment ostensibly for bird experiments but that in actuality went to running a prison distillery.
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This whole moonshine thing was the leverage Leavenworth prison officials needed. They hated Stroud with an intensity several notches above their disdain for the average convict, and they had wanted to get rid of him since about the half-second after he walked through the door. So Stroud was shipped west to a prison that did not allow him to keep any birds!
The Birdman of Alcatraz thing is a myth. Kind of like the foundation of our country, but that is a topic for another time.
Now. Onto the knitting.
Knitting was a thing at Alcatraz at the very end. It was brought in around 1961 by new and final warden Olin Blackwell, who considered it, as well as crocheting, “well accepted and worthwhile ventures.” The following year, Warden Blackwell implemented the first Amazon.com venture, whereby prisoners could use the internet of the day — a catalogue — to “order” items to be delivered to their cells. Not sure if shipping was free if the prisoner joined Alcatraz Prime.
Among the items available to prisoners were crochet hooks, knitting needles and yarn, along with books on knitting and crocheting. And the prisoners loved it. They crocheted and knitted away like my Grandma Fiorina, who had such a needle addiction she had to have her right hand amputated when she was 87 because it was painfully and permanently locked like a claw. And even that didn’t stop Grandma Fiorina. Instead of a prosthetic hand, she had a prosthetic crochet hook attached to the stump and then had her perfectly good left hand amputated as elective surgery to have a crochet hook attached to that stump. Oh, Grandma Fiorina was a tough old bird.
By the time knitting hooked Alcatraz prisoners, the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly were long gone. They had been broken by Alcatraz well before that. In February 1936, less than two years after arriving on The Rock with the first group of prisoners, George, as good-old Machine Gun was known to his wife — probably because Machine Gun sent some mixed messages in bed — wrote to Attorney General Homer Cummings with a request to be secretly released … to the South Pole so he could pursue a study of the most remote place on Earth.
“No one can know what it’s like to suffer from the sort of intellectual atrophy and the pernicious mental scurvy that come of long privation of all the things that make life real because even the analogy of thirst can’t possibly give you an inkling of what it’s like to be tortured by the absence of everything that makes life worth living.”
“Maybe you have asked yourself, how can a man of even ordinary intelligence put up with this kind of life, day in, day out, week after week, month after month, year after year. To put it more mildly still, what is this life of mine like, you might wonder and whence do I draw sufficient courage to endure it. To begin with, these five words seem written in fire on the walls of my cell: ‘Nothing can be worth this.’”
Damn, bro. Powerful stuff. Even hardcore gangsters exceed today’s teenagers by a factor of 100 on the eloquence scale.
Regardless, the folks who quite literally filled the 9-by-5-by-7 cells on Alcatraz in the early 1960s were still some badass mo-fos.
There was Rafael Cancel Miranda, who led an attack on the U.S. Capitol (no, not that one) in which five congressmen were shot.
Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was at the end of the longest prison sentence ever served at Alcatraz, which might have put him in a great state of mind to take up knitting. He was leader of the famous Barker-Karpis gang in the 1930s and one of only four people ever slapped with the moniker “Public Enemy #1” — and the only one of those to be taken alive.
And then there was Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson, who, though he was a gangster and drug runner known as the Godfather of Harlem, is listed here only because the nickname “Bumpy” is sweet and because he died how I want to die; he was at Wells Restaurant in Harlem shortly before 2 a.m. July 7, 1968, and the waitress had just served him coffee, a chicken leg and hominy grits when he keeled over and died from a heart attack.
Imagine these three guys getting together with their yarn and knitting needles.
“Say, Bumpy. What’s that you’re workin’ on there?”
“Oh, this? I can’t tell you Creepy. Your birthday is coming up.”
“Oh Bumpy, aren’t you just the sweetest thing to remember? Hell, I don’t even remember my own birthday after all these years of the U.S. Prison system breaking my spirit and will to live.”
“I hear that, Creepy. I’m knitting a Puerto Rican independence flag to continue my protest again America’s abuse of its colonial powers.”
“Keep on with that, Cancel. Never give up the fight.”
“Thanks Bumpy. You’re such a supportive individual.”
“Thanks Cancel. You two are the bestest friends a former Harlem drug kingpin could ever have.”
“Hey… Frank? Anglin brothers? Where you guys going? Don’t you want to sit down and knit with us? Guys? Guys?”
The Badass Alcatraz Knitting Circle was never quite able to get off the ground. In truth, it never actually really formed, seeing as how prisoners were kept in isolation 23 hours a day and were never allowed to have any human contact. But my version makes for a better story.
Even if The Badass Alcatraz Knitting Circle had been a real thing, the escape (or escape attempt, depending on what you believe) from the escape-proof prison on June 11, 1962, all but sealed the facility’s fate. Frank Morris and the Brothers Anglin (John and Clarence) dipped out that night, never to be seen again (unless you believe the letter the FBI received in 2018, purportedly from a South American-living John Anglin). Suddenly, the whole issue of “Damn, this is an expensive place to run!” seemed to matter a whole lot.
Alcatraz was abandoned on March 21, 1963 and the knitting needles went silent.
The last inmate to leave? A gun thief/smuggler by the name of Frank Weatherman, who quipped to reporters on the dock on his way out: “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.”
Q.F. Conseco is the relative of website owner and Storyteller-in-Chief John Agliata. He is, in fact, John’s great-grandparent’s son’s son’s son. He lives outside Escandido, California, near the Hellhole Canyon Preserve with his wife, Flaca, and their three children, Franz, Hans and Helga. All three are homeschooled and extremely unsocial. Q.F. is a singer, songwriter and poet when he is not working as a trimmer for a large medical marijuana growing operation in Humboldt County, California. He once spent a night in jail when he was accused of breaking into the tiger exhibit at the San Diego Zoo and dancing naked for its occupants. Charges were dropped when the real culprit came forward the next day.
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