Wednesday, August 05, 2009

California Collision: Alcatraz

On Sunday I left you at Angel Island. Now it's time to hop on the ferry and escape to Alcatraz.

I touched on this subject in that post: Trips to Alcatraz sell out in advance. When we tried to purchase tickets online on a Saturday for a Monday ferry, all of them were sold out--save the one that included the Angel Island stop.

Plan ahead is my advice.

Of all the world's uninhabited islands, Alcatraz easily is the most steeped in history.

"The Rock" has served as a military fortification, a military prison, a federal penitentiary (its best known incarnation), the site of an 18 month long Native American protest, and finally, a part of a National Recreation Area.

Once California became a state, military officials realized the strategic importance of San Francisco Bay. If America would be attacked from the west, the bay would probably be the point of invasion.

But as I stated in prior posts, that attack never came.

Well, one almost did. In 1863, a wealthy twenty-year old Englishman, Alfred Rubery (different spelling, no relation) came to America to for adventure during the Civil War. Oh, he got it his adventure. He secured the funds to arm a schooner, the J.M. Chapman, with the goal of wreaking havoc on the west coast. They were being watched, and Rubery and the other pirates were arrested before they could stir up trouble.

They were quickly tried, found guilty, and became among the first detainees in the new Alcatraz military prison. I'm sure they were honored. But luck turned for Rubery:

Abraham Lincoln pardoned Alfred Rubery, a pirate captured in the San Francisco area. The pardon cut Rubery's ten-year sentence to a mere two months and raised the eyebrows of some historians and biographers. Lincoln's clemency warrant justifies the decision on the basis of Rubery's "immature age" and his "highly respectable parentage." John Bright, a Member of the British House of Commons (who also happened to be Rubery's uncle), recommended the pardon and Lincoln admitted that it was granted, in part, as a "a public mark of the esteem held by the United States of America for the high character and steady friendship" of Mr. Bright. Carl Sandburg observed Rubery's pardon illustrated the fact that those who administered justice "in their daily decisions knew it was in quality adulterated and shoddy while in politics expedient and necessary."

Bright was a very influential member of parliament.

In 1934, Alcatraz became of federal penitentiary, a basket where all of the rotten eggs would be held. The most famous of those eggs was Al Capone, who became part of the inaugural population of the new prison. I'm sure he was honored too. Capone managed to eke out a country club existence at his first stop on the federal circuit in Atlanta, and finally the warden had enough of Scarface Al.

This was rule 5 at Alcatraz, "You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege."

Other famous Alcatraz inmates were Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis, and George "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Alcatraz was ordered closed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, saltwater was corroding the buildings, and it was an expensive prison to operate: Everything, including fresh water, had to be shipped in. A brilliant but probably unsuccessful escape in 1962, dramatized in the Clint Eastwood film, "Escape From Alcatraz" helped speed up the closure. The escapees took advantage of the structural weakness of "The Rock."

Parts of Alctraz are rubble, although the staff social hall, pictured on the right, was destroyed in a fire during the Native American occupation forty years ago.

As for the prison, the last inmate to leave Alcatraz, Frank C. Weatherman, had this to say when he left the island, "Alcatraz never was no good for anybody."

UPDATE August 6: I wear a lot of hats. I've assisted Polly Rubery, who runs the Rowberry One-Name Study site, with research on the Ruberry family name, as well as information on Alfred Rubery. She assures me that John Bright was not an uncle of Alfred, by marriage or otherwise, something the Pardon Power blog stated. Polly tells me that Alfred was not 20 at the time of the seizure of the Chapman, he was born in 1841.

Next: The Castro

Earlier posts:

Angel Island
San Francisco's Chinatown
Fisherman's Wharf
Harvey Milk's Camera Shop
San Francisco's Union Square
The Painted Ladies
San Francisco and the military
Mission San Francisco de Asís
San Francisco's sea lions
San Francisco's blues mural
San Francisco: Cable cars
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