Who's who of McNeil Island prisoners

Famous prisoners: The Birdman, 'Old Creepy' Karpis, Charles Manson, mafia leaders

THE NEWS TRIBUNE (TACOMA)March 28, 2011 

  • LIFE AND TIMES OF MCNEIL ISLAND

    1841: Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes names island for Hudson’s Bay Co. steamship captain William Henry McNeill.

    1853: Brothers Ezra and Oliver Meeker, first documented settlers on McNeil Island, establish a homestead on future site of prison.

    1870: Owner of former Meeker homestead donates 27 acres for Washington Territorial Penitentiary.

    1871: Construction begins on first cell house.

    1875: Washington Territorial Penitentiary opens.

    1889: Washington becomes 42nd state.

    1910: Cell house No. 2 completed.

    1911: First electric lights.

    1912: Baseball field built.

    1914: Black-and-white striped uniforms discontinued for plain blue pants and shirts.

    1915: First “moving pictures” shown.

    1919: Prison population: 250.

    1922: Cell house No. 3 completed.

    1923: First phone at the prison.

    1930: Prison population peak: 1,350.

    1936: Federal government acquires island’s last privately held land. Last of original settler families removed.

    1937: Bodies of settlers’ families disinterred, moved.

    1938: Prison population 1,000.

    1942: Shipbuilding plant and cannery help war effort.

    1966: Prison population 1,140.

    1976: Bureau of Prisons decides prison is too expensive; shutdown begins.

    1981: Washington state takes control of prison.

    1990: Legislature appropriates $90 million expansion.

    1993: Five medium-security residential units completed; Work Ethic Program established.

    1993: State Department of Fish and Wildlife deeded 3,119 acres for wildlife refuge.

    1994: Original cell block demolished and replaced with an “inmate services building.”

    2011: McNeil Island Corrections Center closes.

It housed bandits, sociopaths, killers, con artists and the last man to be dubbed Public Enemy No. 1.

The federal penitentiary on McNeil Island caged the Birdman of Alcatraz, Seattle’s loudest union leader and the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. An attorney who called himself “America’s Most Controversial Lawyer” ran for president from behind its bars. He finished third.

Mr. Blue from the movie “Reservoir Dogs” bunked at McNeil. So did Mickey Cohen, one-time king of Los Angeles gangsters and hater of germs.

The real-life model for Godfather Michael Corleone took an unpaid vacation on the island. He liked to say he was the government’s guest.

One cell contained a man with strange eyes who played guitar. Penitentiary Warden Lawrence Putman called him “a stinky little car thief.” His name was Charles Manson.

McNeil, a federal lockup until 1981 and a state prison for 30 more years, is all but closed. Most inmates will be gone by Friday. The last workers and prisoners will depart in June, leaving a gang of ghosts behind.

BIRDMAN

Robert Franklin Stroud entered McNeil in 1909 at the age of 19. He wasn’t the Birdman yet, but he looked like it. His nose was a beak. His ears splayed like coat hooks. The prison logs listed him at 6 feet, 136 pounds.

Stroud had killed a man in Alaska: a Russian bartender named Charlie Dahmer. Stroud, a drifting teen runaway, had befriended a woman named Kitty O’Brien. The two had been drinking with Dahmer the night before the killing. One version of the incident holds that Stroud was in love with Kitty and Dahmer got too friendly. Another states Dahmer had beaten Kitty, who asked Stroud to take revenge.

A third version, listed in prison reports and cited by author Jolene Babyak in her 1994 biography of Stroud, states he was Kitty’s pimp, and Dahmer hadn’t paid for rendered services.

Whatever the motive, Stroud walked to Dahmer’s cabin the next day and shot him in the head.

“My mother always taught that a woman who is good enough to sleep with is good enough to protect,” he wrote years later. “I took a pistol and blew his brains out.”

Stroud pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. That led him to McNeil. Decades later in an unpublished memoir, he recalled his arrival:

“A dead stench, as from the grave, struck me in the face as I stepped through the iron door and stumbled down the four or five steep, narrow and deeply worn stone steps leading to the floor-level of the cellhouse.

“I was in a little cage with no way out. There was nothing that even looked like a door. The stench was that of dead, cold air, the old odor of unwashed bodies, unsanitary night buckets, the accumulated filth of years.”

Two years after his arrival, Stroud, then 21, stabbed another inmate seven times. The wounds weren’t fatal. The two were dealing morphine and fighting about it.

Stroud was handcuffed to the bars of his cell and fed bread and water. Before long, he was transferred to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan. In 1916, he stabbed a guard to death.

Over the next 30 years, he became the Birdman, keeping birds in his cell (reportedly, his hygiene was horrific), studying their habits and writing two respected books on bird diseases and care.

He was intelligent, a self-taught writer – but prison officials still considered him a psychopath.

He should have been called the Birdman of Leavenworth; he kept no birds after 1942, when he was transferred to the federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

Stroud died in 1963, a celebrity jailbird, portrayed in a sanitized biopic starring Burt Lancaster.

CON ARTIST, CANDIDATE

The 1920s welcomed a bland little man named Frederick Emerson Peters – “the most extraordinary impersonator in the history of the United States,” a prosecutor once called him.

Peters had a face people couldn’t remember and a manner they couldn’t forget. He was a doctor, a minister, a diplomat. He signed checks as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. He tipped well. His victims invariably struggled to describe him.

At McNeil, he talked himself into luxury. He was Warden Finch Archer’s pet, his chauffeur for off-island trips. Peters drove the car in and out when he liked. He edited the prison newspaper.

Instead of a cell, he lived in a small house. He had his own key to the prison gate. When he was discharged in 1931, Archer held a general ceremony and presented Peters with a watch.

Peters promptly headed to Seattle, where he shopped like a diva, buying shoes, suits and luggage, charging all of it to Archer. He disappeared, resurfacing two decades later in 1952, when the FBI arrested him.

An unsourced online quote attributed to Peters gives his answer to why he kept returning to crime: “It would require the rock-like will of the Sphinx to resist such temptation,” he said.

The year of Peters’ capture, superlawyer Vincent Hallinan arrived at McNeil to serve a six-month sentence for contempt of court. The trial played on a Cold War stage: Hallinan had defended a prominent labor leader, Harry Bridges, who had been accused of Communist Party membership.

While at McNeil, Hallinan ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket. His running mate was pioneering black journalist and civil rights activist Charlotta Bass.

Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 election. Adlai Stevenson lost. The Progressive ticket finished third with 140,746 votes, but Hallinan won more votes than Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Hallinan’s prison term coincided with that of California gangster Mickey Cohen, who spent four years at McNeil while serving a sentence for tax evasion.

In his youth, Cohen worked for Al Capone’s Chicago outfit. In the late 1940s, he followed gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to California and kept an eye on Siegel’s efforts to start a casino paradise in Las Vegas.

At McNeil, Cohen was known for washing his hands so much that other inmates fought with him out of sheer annoyance.

PUBLIC ENEMIES

Alvin Karpis arrived at McNeil in 1962, after 26 years in other prisons, including Alcatraz, where he’d met the Birdman. His nickname, bestowed 30 years earlier, was “Old Creepy.” Some thought he looked like Boris Karloff, the long-faced Frankenstein monster.

Karpis was the brains of the Barker gang, the most effective and efficient robbers of the 1930s, when gangsters became celebrities. Though legend held that Ma Barker was a criminal genius who planned heists for her boys, Karpis ran the operation.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who handled the collar in person, arrested him in 1936.

Karpis was a model prisoner by all accounts. He helped other inmates take the straight path in and out of lockup. He also taught a younger inmate, Charles Manson, how to play guitar. Manson spent a few years at McNeil in the early 1960s. He’d been convicted of forging a government check and taking an underage girl across state lines. His worst offenses came later: in California, Manson guided a series of 1969 cult-style murders, including the slaying of actress Sharon Tate.

Karpis, paroled in 1969, also crossed paths with Dave Beck, president of the Teamster’s Union. Beck landed at McNeil in 1962 for a two-year stint that followed a corruption scandal.

“Hey, it wasn’t so bad,” Beck said. “On the positive side, I lost weight in prison, something my personal physician was always nagging me to do.”

WIZARD, GODFATHER

Samuel Bowers, imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, reached McNeil in 1970, after being convicted in the 1966 bombing death of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in Mississippi. Bowers left McNeil in 1976.

His term coincided with that of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno, the admitted model for Michael Corleone, depicted in the “Godfather” films. Bonanno’s father was Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, the model for Vito Corleone in the film series.

“Yes, he was that,” Bill Bonanno wrote in his autobiography. “Just as I was the model for his son Michael. But a fiction is only a set of colors, however beautiful … the spirit perhaps, but not the substance.”

THE WRITER

Edward Bunker was among the last of McNeil’s noteworthy federal prisoners. A thief and drug dealer, he stayed only a short time, causing a ruckus when he refused to be locked in a cell with 10 men.

Bunker had written books during his various prison stints. His first novel became the basis for the movie “Straight Time,” starring Dustin Hoffman.

He willed himself back to the straight path in the mid-’70s and forged a film career as a screenwriter and sometime actor. He played Mr. Blue, one of the hoods in “Reservoir Dogs.”

In his 1999 memoir, he wrote a dedication to his son: “I waited many years so I could deal him a better hand than I had,” Bunker wrote. “I’m sure he’ll play his cards better than I played mine.”

Reach Sean Robinson at 253-597-8486 or sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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