Born in rural Alabama on January 15, 1916, Rufus William ‘Whitey’ Franklin is one of America’s forgotten desperadoes. As incorrigible a criminal as they come, he started small, grew big, and then virtually disappeared into obscurity, forgotten by almost everybody except true crime devotees.
His career in crime started both small and early. Aged only 14 he was arrested on September 25, 1929 in Mississippi. The charge was trespassing. Moving on to Florida on November 26 he was arrested again, this time for stealing a car. By June, 1930 he was back in his native Alabama and, again, was arrested. This time the charge was grand larceny. After a stint on a chain gang he was released and, on March 2, 1931, was arrested yet again on a charge of loitering. Back to the chain gang he went.
1932 didn’t improve his behaviour. He was arrested again, this time in Chatanooga, Tennessee on September 5, on a rather more serious charge of being caught carrying a pistol. His career trajectory was heading firmly towards more serious crimes already and it would only get worse from there.
It was in his native Alabama that he really made a name for himself. He was received at the notoriously tough Kilby Prison, then site of Alabama’s Death Row, having been given a life sentence for murder. Given Alabama’s legendary tough attitude towards murderers a life sentence was merciful, considering that he could could so easily have taken a seat in Alabama’s notorious electric chair, a device covered in paint normally used for marking roads and hence given the nickname ‘Yellow Mama.’ The judge had shown him leniency and the Warden at Kilby was to show him even more. Exactly how badly they were rewarded for their good faith rapidly became abundantly apparent.
In early 1936 his mother died and the Warden at Kilby took pity on the young life. He, surprisingly given that Franklin was a murderer, gave him a week’s unescorted furlough to travel home and attend her funeral. So far, so benevolent. Franklin, however, had other ideas. As he was travelling to his late mother’s funeral he passed through a typically nice, pleasant Alabama town. With a typically nice, pleasant Alabama bank.
Which he then robbed at gunpoint.
Again and almost inexplicably, all things considered, when he was caught and tried the judge showed him mercy, in a sense anyway. He didn’t hand down Alabama’s harshest punishment for armed robbery which was a seat in ‘Yellow Mama.’ He did, however, hand down a 30-year sentence to be started only after Franklin’s current life sentence had been served. He also decided that, as Franklin had shown himself to be as incorrigible as incorrigible gets, that he had just the place for him to serve his now mammoth stretch. That place was the newly-opened United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, the most feared and fearsome prison in the country. The dreaded ‘Rock.’
In Spring of 1936 Franklin arrived on The Rock as Alcatraz inmate number 335. If you look at Alcatraz mugshots you’ll notice that, unlike any others in the USA, they contain the name of the prison, the date and the inmate’s number. They don’t include the inmate’s name and that was deliberate. Alcatraz was designed to warehouse the worst of the worst, both to keep them under maximum security and do everything within the law (and sometimes outside it) to break their wills, crush the egos and spirits and generally make the loudest, toughest, most arrogant convict submit to absolutely rigid discipline and routine. And Alcatraz inmates had nothing to gain by observing the myriad of rules. They did, however, lose the very few privileges they were allowed by not obeying them. Even working as prison labour was a privilege that had to be earned with good behaviour. At Kilby he was ‘Whitey’ the feared killer and bank robber. At Alcatraz he number 335 and nothing more.
Unfortunately for the prison authorities, if they thought Whitey could be so easily broken down they were to be very, very disappointed. He lost no time in making contacts and finding two confederates with whom to pursue his all-consuming ambition – escape. It only took him until May 23, 1938 to try and make his ambition a reality by taking part in only the third major escape attempt since Alcatraz had opened in 1934.
His confederates were Thomas Limerick (serving time for armed robberies in Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska) and Texas outlaw James ‘Tex’ Lucas (also serving decades for armed robbery and taking a stolen car across a State, a Federal crime under the Der Act). Lucas, constantly in trouble even at Alcatraz, had already cemented his reputation there for the non-fatal stabbing of another inmate with a pair of barber’s shears. Nothing unusual about that in and of itself, inmate stabbings are regular things at most maximum-security prisons, but for one small detail. The victim was inmate number 85, who had been among the first inmates to arrive on the Rock.
Inmate 85 was Al Capone.
The Al Capone.
When not serving time in solitary for that and a laundry list of other disciplinary infractions, Lucas, like pretty much every other inmate on the island, spent his leisure time dreaming up any even slightly feasible plan for getting off it again. His plan, as it turned out, wasn’t even feasible, let alone successful. But, like his to partners, he had nothing to look forward to except spending the rest of his life behind bars and nothing to lose except his life, which he was prepared to risk for even an infinitesimal chance of escape.
The plan was simple, desperate and doomed. Lucas, Franklin and Limerick would overpower a guard on the top floor of the main cellhouse before cutting through a barred window, crossing the roof, shinning down the side of the building and then heading for the island dock where they would steal a police boat and speed off to freedom. Presumably while hoping that the rest of the island’s hand-picked and specially-trained guards wouldn’t notice or, if they did, would be very poor shots.
They did notice, and one guard in particular (who re-enters Franklin’s story a few years later) proved himself to be a very good shot indeed.
It was on May 23, 1938 that Custodial Officer Royal Cline was attacked and beaten down with a hammer. With Cline safely unconscious with injuries from which he died the next day, the trio went through the window and across the roof of the cellhouse.
All Hell promptly broke loose.
Custodial Officer Harold Stites was in one of the guard towers that day. He saw them, shouted a warning then raised his rifle and opened fire. Thomas Limerick fell mortally wounded with a headshot. Franklin was hit in the arm and Lucas, while unwounded, found himself no match for the swarm of officers alerted by the gunfire. All three were swiftly apprehended and, while Limerick died shortly afterward, Franklin and Lucas found themselves facing a very strong likelihood of joining him. The charge was murder. The likely outcome was a visit to San Quentin’s newly-installed gas chamber.
Again, Fate dealt Whitey Franklin an ace. The judge sent Lucas back to Alcatraz with a life sentence consecutive to the 50 years he was already serving. Whitey returned to the Rock with a record-breaking punishment, a second life sentence for the murder consecutive to his current life sentence and the additional 30 years for having rather spectacularly violated his week’s unescorted parole back in Alabama. Both Lucas and Franklin were immediately lodged in Alcatraz’s dreaded ‘D Block,’ the solitary confinement block reserved only for those who broke the especially rigid rules at Alcatraz. If you broke the rules of society, you went to prison. If you broke the rules of prison, you went to Alcatraz. If you broke the rules of Alcatraz, you went to D Block.
If Alcatraz was a scientifically-designed version of Hell then D Block was the seventh circle thereof. The ordinary solitary cells were standard cells on the upper tier with a barred front door from which inmates were very seldom allowed out. They read, slept, exercised and brooded, all in their cells. The bottom tier, however, was another matter.
Welcome to the ‘Dark Hole’
‘Dark Hole cells had no bed, inmates slept on a bare concrete floor. There was no chair, the toilet consisted of a bucket emptied once every couple of days. The inmates had no tobacco to smoke and pushed into the cells naked. The diet in D Block consisted of a maximum 2100 calories a day, almost starvation rations and deliberately made as tasteless an unappetising as possible. There were no musical instruments to play to relieve the boredom and no books or magazines, either. Not that the absence of reading materials made any difference as the ‘Dark Hole’ cells had an extra element.
There was no light.
The barred door was behind a solid steel door, permitting no light at all and there was no electric light within the cells themselves. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that relieved the blackness and the cold (these cells were deliberately kept cold to weaken a prisoner still further). Nothing to distract or occupy an inmate’s mind other than to sit in severe cold and total darkness for stretches of up to 19 days at a time. The rule setting a 19-day limit was also circumvented by the fact that staff could remove an inmate for a shower, shave, haircut, meal and exercise before putting them straight back into the cell to start another 19 days if they so desired. Provided they were briefly set free on the 19th day they could and sometimes did find themselves starting another 19 days immediately thereafter.
This was Whitey Franklin’s new home. It would remain his home for years.
His only prospect of release from the hole came on May 2, 1946, the start of the legendary ‘Battle of Alcatraz.’ Hard-timers ‘Crazy’ Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Clarence ‘Choctaw Kid’ Carnes, Sam Shockley and Texas cop-killer Miran ‘Buddy’ Thompson banded together with ringleader Bernard Coy to attempt an escape as foolhardy as that of Limerick, Franklin and Lucas.
Only it would turn out to be a great deal bloodier.
Having overpowered one officer and stolen his keys and weapons, the gang proceeded to take seven officers hostage. In the process they entered D Block as Cretzer wanted Franklin to join them. He valued Franklin’s remarkable ability to pick locks and had previously been friendly with him while in D Block himself. Realising that pulling the electric switch to open Franklin’s cell would sound an alarm in the Armory, nerve-centre of the entire prison, the gang decided against it and left him where he was. He later had cause to thank them for doing so.
Escape became impossible as one of the guards had concealed the key needed to open the main cellhouse door leading onto the exercise yard and down to the dock, where the gang thought they could commandeer the island’s launch and escape to the mainland. With that in mind, the gang’s thoughts turned from escape to revenge. Most of them nursed grudges against prison guards in general and some of their hostages in particular. In Cell 402 were the seven officers taken hostage. While Shockley seemed to undergo one of his regular psychotic breakdowns and none of the escapees wanted the hostages free to testify against them later, Cretzer emptied two full clips from a .45 automatic pistol into the cell. Several officers were badly injured and one of them, Officer Miller, died. Thinking all the hostages were dead the gang regrouped away from the cell to discuss their options (or lack thereof), not noticing that one officer had written their names on the cell wall. Cretzer, Coy and Hubbard died with their boots on, spending the rest of the 46-hour insurrection shooting at anybody trying to enter the cellhouse wounding a number of officers and killing one of them.
That officer was Guard Harold Stites, the same officer who had killed Thomas Limerick and wounded Whitey Franklin during the 1938 escape attempt, which probably gave Cretzer (and later Franklin) no small amount of satisfaction. Cretzer wouldn’t enjoy it for very long.
As Cretzer, Coy and Hubbard shot it out with prison officers who were supported by a unit of US Marines sent from the nearby military base at the Presidio, Thompson, Shockley and Carnes hid in cells, not knowing that, back in cell 402, the writing literally was on the wall. They were identified and picked up as soon as the prison staff had re-established control. Carnes received some small measure of mercy owing to his age and that he had disobeyed Cretzer’s order to ensure that all the hostages were dead. He returned to the Rock with a new all-time record for an Alcatraz inmate, facing two life terms and another 99 years, back to back.
Thompson and Shockley weren’t so lucky. They were condemned and shipped a few miles away to San Quentin’s notorious ‘Condemned Row’ where, on December 3, 1948, they died side-by-side in the green-painted two-seater gas chamber known to inmates as the ‘coughing box.’ One of the guard assigned to work the execution came from Alcatraz, Captain Phil Bergin watched impassively as they were seated, strapped in and executed.
For Whitey the years passed slowly. After the 1946 riot he remained on the island until, on March 23, 1963, Alcatraz was closed and its inmates shipped to other prisons. Whitey was sent to Atlanta where he languished until 1974 when he was finally paroled having spent 40 of his 58 years behind bars. He moved to Dayton, Ohio where he died the next year at the age of 59.