Lit: Not-so-pearly Gates
A new book about Alcatraz tells all the sordid tales.
Thursday, July 3, 2003
Photo: Jail Tale: Michael Esslinger stands outside Monterey''s historic city jail; his book cover (inset) emphasizes Alcatraz''s lurid appeal.
Salinas writer Michael Esslinger should have a ready-made audience for his new book about Alcatraz. First of all, people are fascinated by prisons. Convicts, murderers, executions, cells, it all seems endlessly intriguing.
Second, Alcatraz is just about the most famous--and fascinating--prison around, with the possible exception of the Bastille. Alcatraz has famous alums like Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly; it''s got riots, foiled escape attempts, and two big Hollywood movies (Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Clint Eastwood in Escape From Alcatraz.) Plus, there''s that terrifying, romantic image of hundreds of hardened criminals locked up on an impenetrable island fortress within spitting distance of San Francisco. The pure visual juxtaposition of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge is heartbreaking.
Finally, Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years is simply a terrific book, and an even better reference tool. Sure, it plays off the stereotypes and the murder-mystery tales surrounding the Prison-by-the-Bay--each of its 14 escape attempts gets its own numbered chapter, with a cast of characters and "location" of the main action--but Esslinger goes way beyond rumors and lip-licking. This is a serious book, a comprehensive history of the island during its three decades as a federal penitentiary.
At 415 oversized pages, including more than 1,000 pictures, it also represents a mammoth research undertaking for Esslinger--as well as an investment. The director of American Medical Response for Monterey County and a previously unpublished writer, he wrote this book on his own time, and published it himself.
Alcatraz begins with an encapsulated history of the discovery of California and the San Francisco Bay by European explorers, then zips quickly to the island''s early years as a fortress and then military prison during the Civil War. "Troublesome Native Americans" were incarcerated there by the US military in the 1870s, and during the first World War, conscientious objectors were imprisoned in "disciplinary cages" that forced men to remain standing for days on end.
But the bulk of the book deals with the 30 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, beginning in 1933, when it was brought into service to house the country''s most dangerous gangsters. Many of them tried to escape--no one did so successfully, Esslinger says, so far as anyone can prove.
Yet despite the book''s length, and the weight of dates and numbers embedded in the text, it''s easy to leaf through--mainly because of the numerous and fascinating pictures. In that way, it reads more like an encyclopedia than a history book, and--oddly enough--would make a great house gift. (Perhaps not for a wedding, however, what with the recurring "escape" motif.)
Esslinger says his fascination with Alcatraz dates back to a childhood visit he made to San Francisco in 1970, when his parents let him look through the viewing telescope out toward the abandoned island known as The Rock.
"I knew there were no longer any prisoners residing on the island," he writes in the introduction to Alcatraz, "but...there was still something intriguing and mysterious about it all."
He was in the middle of researching a history of the Apollo space missions when, in 1999, an article he wrote on the prison for Delta''s in-flight magazine spurred him to expand the story into a book. The sheer scope of his research took him around the world, into primary sources at the National Archives and the National Park Archives, into federal prison libraries, to meetings with former inmates and Alcatraz guards. He collected thousands of never-before-published photographs, including mug shots of all the most notorious inmates.
"There were so many myths around Alcatraz," he says. "I wanted to separate myth from fact. Most of the [previous] books were about escape attempts. The [former] inmates I interviewed said they always dreamed of escape. They''d hear tour boats go by, they could hear the guides talking, and women laughing--it was a terribly painful experience.
"One inmate told me that he dreamed of finding a bottle, pulling out some of his hair and sticking it in the bottle, then throwing it from the rec yard--he thinks it made it into the water. It was a symbolic thing, that part of him was escaping."
Esslinger interviewed more than a dozen former inmates of Alcatraz. He says he didn''t care for many of them. "It''s clear that some had been glamorized in these books," he says. "These were real criminals. I wanted to humanize them, yes, but in no way glamorize their crimes. But a few of them I do admire intensely, for what they accomplished since they got out."
One of those he admired was Darwin Coon, a former bank robber who served 15 years at Alcatraz, and then had a successful career, fostered 94 children, and wrote a first-person book about his experiences. Esslinger met Coon while the latter was giving a tour of the former prison, and Coon ended up writing the forward to Esslinger''s book.
Esslinger published his book last month after several publishers turned it down as being "too big," he says. He''s already printed a first run of 10,000 books, and plans a second run of 10,000 specifically for the US Parks Service, which has committed to selling it in their gift shops--including, natch, the three bookstores on Alcatraz itself.
A perfect souvenir.
Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years is available at Borders and Thunderbird Bookstore, and on amazon.com.