If you’re reading through the stories here at Sword and Scale then you’re probably getting your true crime fix, same as if you were reading a true crime book or watching a movie based on a real criminal and their crimes. Speaking of crime, criminals and Hollywood’s portrayal thereof, let’s take a shining example of just how far film-makers can stretch the phrase “Inspired by a true story”.
“Murder in the First”, released in 1995 and starring Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon, is “Inspired by a true story”. It’s just that the Hollywood version of Henry Young’s life and crimes is about as genuine as laser-printed copy of the Mona Lisa.
In the movie, Young kills a fellow-convict, Rufus McCain, after having been driven mad by his punishment for taking part in an escape attempt with McCain. He comes straight out of a freezing cold, soaking wet, pitch dark solitary confinement cell, has a shower, then he’s taken to the dining hall where he has an epic psychotic episode and rips out McCain’s throat with a spoon. He’s put on trial for capital murder (with a young, inexperienced and naïve lawyer, naturally) who (equally naturally) proves beyond all doubt that the regime and staff at Alcatraz are the real killers because their treatment of Young turns him into a psychotic animal. The Associate Warden at Alcatraz is portrayed as a sadistic brute who likes to spend his evenings beating inmates and cripples Young for life by slashing his Achilles tendon with a straight razor. The Warden himself is portrayed as a blundering, inept oaf with seemingly no day-to-day knowledge of the prison routine or the convict mentality, the guards mostly stand around watching Young’s suffering or joining in the beatings and Young himself, according to the movie was unjustly imprisoned on Alcatraz for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister. So, let’s take this epic that was “Inspired by a true story” and see just how true
Hollywood’s idea of this classic case actually is. We’ll start with its portrayal of Henry Young himself.
Henry Young, according to his criminal record and prison conduct papers, was exactly the kind of inmate Alcatraz was designed for. He arrived at Alcatraz after escaping from the Washington State Prison and being recaptured, having already racked up convictions for burglary, robbery, assault with intent, attempted murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. His conduct reports at his various prisons are equally glowing with fulsome praise for his charming nature. At every prison he’d ever been to, including Alcatraz, he was in and out of solitary as though solitary had a revolving door. He incited strikes among prison workers, insulted prison staff, assaulted prison staff, threatened other inmates, feuded with other inmates, made a number of escape attempts even before landing on the Rock and escaped successfully once. The armed robbery resulting in his murder conviction was committed while he was on parole from a sentence for armed robbery. Not exactly a petty criminal, harshly treated by a brutal and overbearing penal system.
After arriving at Alcatraz Young racked up even more solitary time, insulting and assaulting prison officers tends to have that effect, before his unsuccessful escape attempt with Rufus McCain and others. He gave at least one guard a Bronx cheer, damaged his cell, damaged prison-issue clothes, brawled with several other guards and developed a simmering feud with McCain that pre-dated their escape attempt. McCain wasn’t even supposed to be involved in the escape, but managed to horn his way in by threatening to snitch to the Associate Warden if he wasn’t included by the others.
After the escape, which the movie claims cost the lives of every inmate involved by Young and McCain (it didn’t, only one of the 5 escapees was killed), Hollywood would have you believe that Young was confined in the wet, cold, pitch-dark solitary cells for over 3 years with only 30 minutes of light and fresh air. Hollywood’s version also claims that Young was regularly beaten in his cell and that the Associate Warden ‘Milton Glenn’ (actually E.J. Miller on Alcatraz) deliberately hung him from prison bars in shackles and prevented further escapes by hamstringing Young with a razor. Young never acquired any such crippling injury and the only testimony that he was in what Alcatraz inmates called the ‘Dark Hole’ comes from Young himself and fellow-inmates testifying in his defense. That isn’t to say that Alcatraz guards never mistreated inmates, it’s proven that some of them did, but the word of convicts is always debatable, especially when they were crooked enough to end up on Alcatraz.
According to the movie Young went straight from the Hole to the dining hall via ten minutes under a shower and a quick haircut. While he was there he stabbed Rufus McCain through the throat with an ordinary dessert spoon. Hardly a practical thing to stab anyone with. It wasn’t a dessert spoon and it wasn’t in the dining hall. Come to that, he hadn’t just come straight out of 3 years in a dungeon, either.
Young and McCain had been out of solitary for months before the murder. Young was back at work in the furniture workshop and McCain was in the tailor’s shop making uniforms for the staff. Young managed to obtain not one prison-made knife, but two, slipped out of the furniture shop and stabbed McCain in the belly in the tailor’s shop. He wasn’t ranting, raving or otherwise showing signs of mental distress and, once guards had restrained him and confiscated both his blades, he said loudly “I hope I killed the b*****d.” He had, and it looked like San Quentin’s gas chamber would be his next port of call.
According to the movie Young was assigned single court-appointed lawyer to defend him. He wasn’t. He got two experienced trial lawyers, Sol Abrams and James Macinnis instead. Young himself, oddly for a supposed catatonic caveman, had the wit to ask for novice lawyers with no reputation for winning either acquittals or hung juries. He stated openly that they probably wouldn’t do him any good, but they might make good use of the experience. Federal Judge Michael Roche, presiding, overruled him and appointed Abrams and Macinnis instead.
The trial is beautifully played by the actors, beautifully shot by the cameraman and about as genuine as a Rolex watch from a Bangkok market stall. ‘Warden Humson’ (actually Warden James Jonston) is portrayed as blundering oaf in charge of three prisons at the same time who seldom seems to know what day it is. Warden James Johnston was actually a distinguished and experienced Warden, having previously run Folsom and San Quentin at different times and is credited with doing a lot to bring Folsom out its previously-medieval brutality. Hardly somebody who didn’t understand either the penal profession or the convict mentality.
Associate Warden Glenn is, according to the movie, a blustering sadist. He likes employing brutality as a first option, regularly mistreats his inmates at every opportunity, hates convicts indiscriminately and has little to separate him from the convicts themselves. The movie also claims he was dismissed after an investigation revealed his habitual brutality and never worked in the prison system again. The actual Associate Warden, E.J. Miller, certainly had a reputation for running a prison along firm lines and there’s more than one allegation of his having beaten prisoners if he had a mind to. But he’s also documented as having saved the life of at least one inmate, Lefty Egan after Egan fell off the main cell-house wall while touching up the paintwork. He did this at some injury to himself. He wasn’t disciplined for his work at Alcatraz, nor was he thrown out of the prison system. E.J. Miller was actually later promoted to Warden of the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth instead.
Young himself, far from being an inarticulate creature barely able to string a sentence together, was very different at the actual trial. His evidence was delivered articulately and calmly. He adopted a moderate, reasonable demeanor throughout apart from occasionally being cocky or sarcastic. No reporter present at Young’s trial (and there were a great many) saw him as being in any way functionally impaired by his prison experiences. He was what many lawyers would have considered the perfect witness, other than his criminal history.
None of this is to say that the Alcatraz regime was overly comfortable or even healthy for its inmates. The Rock was a prison of maximum security and minimal privileges. Even a job where a prisoner could earn a couple of cents an hour was a privilege that had to be earned by good conduct. Until 1938 the ‘silent system’ made a spell in solitary certain for any inmate who uttered so much as ‘Good Morning’ without a guard’s permission. Guards did sometimes mistreat inmates. The food was monotonous. The daily routine was unvarying each and every day. Letters were always censored and visitors could only actually visit if they passed a background check courtesy of the FBI. Everything about the Rock was purpose-built to crush rebellious ideas and enforce, sometimes by the harshest means, a meek, sheep-like conformity from the prisoners. In its own way, Alcatraz was designed to be as painful as any medieval dungeon and to break the will of its convicts. But it wasn’t the unrelenting hell on Earth portrayed in the movie. One former inmate even described it as the best prison he’d ever been in out of the dozen or so he’d passed through during his long, violent and undistinguished criminal career.
Don’t get me wrong. ‘Murder in the First’ is a great piece of cinema. Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater are superb and the supporting actors (Gary Oldman and R. Lee Ermey (the drill instructor from ‘Full Metal Jacket’) are every bit as good. The cinematography is excellent. If you didn’t know (or never found out) just how far away it was from the actual facts, you might be forgiven for thinking you were watching an accurate true-to-life movie “Inspired by a true story.” It’s a movie, certainly, but that’s about as close the true story as it ever actually gets