1302: Audun Hugleiksson, Norwegian nobleman 1591: Four of The Sixteen

1948: Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson, for the Battle of Alcatraz

December 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Sam Shockley and Miran Edgar Thompson were gassed at San Quentin Prison for the failed prison break that led to the Battle of Alcatraz.

One of the bloodiest events to mar the history of that storied penal island, the “battle” began as an attempt by prisoners to break out of C and D Blocks and seize an an imminent afternoon prison ferry.

And like many prison breaks, preparations at once diligent, desperate, and ingenious were foiled by mischance … leaving only a hopeless, deadly shootout.

The revolt, which is narrated blow by blow here, began on May 2, 1946 in C Block, when two prisoners overpowered a guard. One of them, Bernard Coy — destined to die in the following days’ siege — had spent his last weeks on this earth fasting for this very moment: now, he disrobed and, with the help of a contraband bar-spreading gadget, squeezed his emaciated frame through some bars to gain access to a gallery connecting to D Block. The prisoners had the patrol patterns of the guards in the vicinity down to a “T”; the man walking this gallery was in his turn surprised and disarmed by Bernard Coy, who proceeded to lower the guard’s keys and a number of weapons to his accomplices.

Now armed, Coy was able to force his way into D Block where he released more prisoners from locked cells, including accomplices — and the eventual subjects of this day’s post — Shockley and Thompson.

So far, things couldn’t have gone much better. Only one obstacle remained: a locked door to access the yard that would take them to the Alcatraz launch and a rendezvous with their unsuspecting ride to freedom. And this, of course, is where it all went wrong.

Despite capturing a number of guards during the course of their progress, the aspiring escapees realized that they didn’t have the key for the cell house door. The escape siren went up while they were still stuck.

Having taken the trouble to come this far, the inmates did not abandon the enterprise but devolved it into futile violence, firing out of their locked-up redoubt for no better reason than that they had the guns. Patrol boats began to arrive; word soon got around the city — the gunfire was audible to Golden Gate Bridge motorists — and ordinary San Franciscans congregated near the shore to watch while “thousands of rounds of ammunition and tracer bullets split the night sky as thousands watched from hilltops and piers on both sides of the bay.” (From the San Francisco Chronicle‘s coverage; after an initial fusillade, prison officials waited until dark fell on the evening of May 2 to resume the attack.)


Press get as close as they can to the riots.

For Thompson, at least, this was familiar territory: he’d wound up in Alcatraz because, while being transported to jail on a federal kidnapping charge, he had slain an Amarillo, Texas officer making an unsuccessful bid for freedom.

Marines recently hardened in the Pacific theater helped orchestrate the plan of attack: after re-taking the cell blocks — which were found, contrary to worst fears — in relative calm, the trapped escapees were driven by grenades into a corridor where troopers could fire at them. By the morning of May 4, the lifeless bodies of Coy and two others were stretched out in that hall.


From left: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.

Shockley, Thompson, and a 19-year-old Choctaw named Clarence Carnes survived to face capital charges for the two guards killed in the fray. Carnes, already serving a life sentence for murder, enjoyed the mercy of an additional life sentence in this case, owing to his youth, and to testimony that he had disobeyed the orders of his confederates to execute captured guards.* Shockley and Thompson were not so fortunate.

This affair is dramatized in the 1987 TV movie Six Against the Rock.

* Carnes’s burial on Choctaw land after he died in Massachusetts of AIDS in 1988 was financed by crime lord Whitey Bulger, who served time in Alcatraz from 1959 and grew close to Carnes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,History,Murder,U.S. Federal,USA

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