Tales From the Big House: Al Capone and Other Alcatraz Cons
Living on Alcatraz was like living in a 50-gallon drum. There weren’t a lot of leaks and all the lives inside just rattled against each other and made echoes, year after year. There was fog in the morning and two cell blocks, one man to a cell, 200 cells’ worth, standing by their bunks to be counted every second hour. And then there was the same thing all over again. Every tenth day, razors were issued. Every Wednesday and Saturday there was hot water for a bath. All mail was read by the police and retyped on Alcatraz stationery before it was delivered. For two hours a day, residents of the 200 cells got to hang around in the walled courtyard between buildings. Six rifles watched them shuffle back and forth. After awhile, life on Alcatraz did strange things to anyone who tried to live it.
The strangest Earl Johnson ever saw happened right after he got there in 1939. It was between two crime partners and best friends named Stanley and Jimmy Dee. They were still youngsters when they ran into 50 years apiece, head on, right after Jimmy Dee told the teller to push the money across the counter. The two of them lived on the bottom tier. Jimmy Dee caught a mouse and trained it as a pet. He loaned it to Stanley one afternoon and Stanley accidentally flushed the rodent down the shitter. The crime partners didn’t talk the rest of the day. When the cop turned the lights out, Stanley apologized and said good night.
“You better have a good night,” Jimmy Dee answered. “Come morning; Stanley, you got no more nights coming at all.”
Stanley figured Jimmy Dee was talking jive, but he should have paid attention. When the hack opened the doors for work call, the bank robber revenged his mouse. The two crime partners reached the hallway at the same time and Jimmy Dee stuck a homemade shank into his best friend’s belly and out the other side. The knife was a foot-long piece of steel, sharpened on one end. When Stanley reached the hospital, his guts were leaking all over his pants. Earl Johnson worked the day shift as a nurse and he saw Stanley while the police carried him in. Stanley died with his knees drawn up to his chest, trying to keep what was left of his stomach from falling out. Watching the body made Earl Johnson want very badly to move. Stanley’s cold blue face convinced him that life on Alcatraz was a one-way proposition.
Not that Earl Johnson wasn’t used to it. His life had been that way for a while. He’d started low and didn’t have a long way to fall when it came time to touch bottom. His earliest memory is the St. Peter Home for Children in Memphis, Tennessee. The orphans slept ten to a double bed, a hundred to a room. They shit in buckets and the older boys cleaned the drippings. The home lived on what the sisters could beg from the produce houses downtown. If you were ten or 11 years old, you spent the day cutting bad spots out of vegetables. If you were six or seven, you watched the twos and threes. After 12 years, Earl decided to take a look at the world and went over the fence.
He ran from Memphis to Lascassus, Tennessee, and lived with a doctor’s family for seven years. Earl milked the doctor’s cows and got a room in exchange. In 1929, the doctor signed a note saying Earl was of age and he joined the Army. To Earl, it was a way to beat the Depression … but Private Johnson never turned into much of a soldier. He was dishonorably discharged with the rank of private from the 28th Infantry in 1936. Once in civies, Earl had a career all staked out.
It was sort of a small business. Starting in Illinois and running as far south as Georgia, Earl bought US Government sub-machine guns from needy supply sergeants. He hauled the weapons to an alley behind a Chicago flower shop and unloaded them in rose boxes. His business made it as far as 1937 before the bottom dropped out. In August, Earl Johnson was charged with two counts of stolen government property. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in the custody of the Attorney General. At this point in history, without his full knowledge and none of his consent, Earl Johnson’s life began in earnest.
Between 1937 and 1973, Earl Johnson has been convicted of nine felonies and sentenced to 30 years in the penitentiary. Some of the sentences ran on top of each other and others ran end to end. All told, with good time taken into account, Earl spent better than 21 of the last 36 years in prisons. During those two decades, Earl Johnson was known by 12 different names. His first five were 4724, 6393, 56139, 58972 and 62268. On each of 21 Christmases, a guard gave him a paper sack full of hard candy, just like the sisters used to at the St. Peter home. Earl received his first letter at a Leavenworth mail call in late 1949. He got his first visit for half an hour in 1962.
Those years show all over Earl Johnson. He’s 63 now and drags bronchial asthma, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis and a case of diabetes with him wherever he goes. He figures to die soon. Earl remembers a lot of things, but they’re all framed in concrete with a gun tower on each corner. It’s not a lot to show for the time spent, but Earl Johnson will be the first to tell you that it’s all he ended up with. “I lost,” he says. “It’s like I was bound to from the start. I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time and never changed. I’m what you call a victim of circumstances.”
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