Doc Barker’s Last Escape

Arthur "Doc" Barker, courtesy FBI
Arthur “Doc” Barker, courtesy FBI

As gangster era criminals went, Doc Barker wasn’t the coldest beer in the fridge.  Some outright called him the dumbest. Author Tim Mahoney described him thus:

“Doc was a dimwit and a drunk, but he was family and could be counted on. He was the same height as his younger brother [Fred], five foot three, but huskier. He answered to the nickname “Shorty.” A stone-eyed killer and compulsive gambler, Doc was the only Barker gangster who generally abjured female company. Said one woman who knew him, “Doc has been in the pen so much he does not associate with women.”[i]

But Doc possessed a brute sort of tenacity that came in valuable during the Karpis-Barker gang’s crimes.  He killed at least two police officers during his career. You could study the dynamics of the gang and say that Karpis was the brains, Fred Barker the heart, and Doc Barker the muscle. After his arrest, Melvin Purvis tried to interview Barker. “His eyes told the story of an innate savagery,” Purvis wrote in his autobiography American Agent.

Barker made a lot of mistakes during his criminal career. A list of his notable gaffes included:

  • As they were driving through Wisconsin in February 1934 to release kidnap victim Edward Bremer, the gang raced down a prearranged back road. There, in the ditch, was a gas can they had left. Barker lifted the can to pour it into the gas tank. It was freezing outside and he was wearing gloves. The can slipped and Barker inadvertently poured gas inside one of his gloves. He took it off and kept pouring, not realizing he was leaving fingerprints on the can. His fingerprints would be one of the vital clues used to break the case and implicate him and others.
  • He kept a Florida road map in his apartment with the area circled where Ma and Fred were hiding in the winter of 1934-35. FBI agents used the map to find and kill his mother and brother.

But nothing summarized his futile life of crime more than his attempt to escape from Alcatraz in 1939.

Doc Gets Arrested

Barker's photo taken at Alcatraz
Barker’s photo taken at Alcatraz

The Barkers hid out in Florida in the fall and winter of 1934-35. Doc made a road trip to visit Ma and Fred over New Years.  He was excited about a planned bank robbery in Ohio.  When he returned home, he penned a letter that was the “go ahead” signal for the gang.   The letter would make grammar school teachers shiver in turtlenecks:

“Hello ever one how is that old sunshine down there fine I hope.  Boy it is not so hot up here, for we are haveing some winter.  I Bet you and Buff are not catching no fish now for I think I caught then all when I was down there.  I took care of that Buisness for you Boys it was done Just as good as if you had did it your self.  I an Just like the standard oil always at your service ha ha.  tell, Bo, you know the Boy with the rosey cheek that Moxey is up here looking for hin and if it is alright to send hin down.  I have not seen chuck yet I have Been Busy on that other he was perrty hard to locate.  But will see hin right away, and see if he wants come down there.  tell mother that deer was mighty fine and I said hello and her and the sqaw had Better not let you Bums Beat then in catching fish ha ha well I will close for this tine as ever your Big Bud

B.L. Barnes [sic]”46

Unfortunately for him, the very next day he was arrested.

Doc was walking a street just off Lake Michigan in Chicago. FBI agents had been watching his apartment. They moved up to arrest him. He tried running, slipped on the icy sidewalk, and fell. “Where’s your gun, Doc?” the agent asked him. “Home, and ain’t that a hell of a place for it?” he allegedly said.

In custody, Doc refused to talk.  There were rumors that FBI agents used telephone books to hit Barker over the head.  There also were rumors he gave up his mother and brother.  There’s no evidence in FBI files that either rumor was true. Agents found his road map, though, with a penciled circle around a chain of lakes southeast of Ocala, Florida and did the detective work from there to find Ma and Fred.

Doc was convicted for his role in the Bremer kidnappings.  He was sent to Leavenworth, then to the newest federal penitentiary in California: Alcatraz.  J. Edgar Hoover wanted the public to believe that Alcatraz was impenetrable. The worst of the worst criminals would be sent here, to a place they could not escape from. In reality, like any other prison, there were internal politics with the guards and administrators. Guards looked the other way and did prisoners favors to keep them compliant and on good behavior. The prison itself was an old military building whose exterior walls had faced the exposure to the San Francisco bay climate for years (the main building had been a military prison).

The Plans

The Rock, courtesy D. Ramey Logan (2013)
The Rock, courtesy D. Ramey Logan (2013)

Doc had broken out of prison once before in 1920. It was rumored that he was the “mastermind” behind several of the early escape attempts at Alcatraz. In 1939, the prison was only five years old, but there had already been three previous escape attempts. One man climbed a chain link fence, was shot, and fell 50 feet to the shore. In 1937, two men filed through the flat iron bars on a window. They disappeared into San Francisco Bay and were never seen again, presumed to be dead. In 1938, three inmates attacked a guard, climbed to the roof and tried to disarm a guard in the roof tower. The guard shot two of them.

Barker was rumored to be in on all of these, though not a participant. His time came in 1939. He was 40 years old, older than most of the prisoners in Alcatraz at the time. In the machine shop, prisoners cut saw blades from copper. Copper was undetectable in the prison’s devices to scan for metal objects. Then, they were glued into what appeared to be harmonicas. Barker had another inmate, Dale Stamphill smuggle in small saw blades into the isolation ward. Stamphill had escaped from the Oklahoma state reformatory in 1935, killed a guard, robbed a bank after he got on the outside, and kidnapping a man and brought him into Texas. The kidnapping across state lines violated the Lindbergh Law and got him sent to federal prison.

After making the saw blades, Stamphill intentionally left a knife in his cell. The infraction caused him to be sent to the isolation ward where Barker was. The D Block, the isolation ward, was seen not as a bad place to be, but the opposite. Prisoners wanted to be sent there. It had the best ventilation, they had reading material and overall had the best cells on the island. Guards allowed prisoners to choose their cells, as long as they behaved. Barker had already lined up three other inmates to participate in his scheme: Rufus “Roy” McCain, Henry “Casey” Young, and William Martin. Most men were in their 20s and had committed bank robberies and murder. Barker inhabited cell number 528, Young 529, McCain 530, Martin 531, and Stamphill 532.

Over a period of time, the five prisoners used the saws to cut through the flat bars of their cell doors. The bars were flat pieces of iron bolted to cross pieces. They cut them just above or below those connection points so the bars would rotate open on the bolt, leaving a V shaped hole for them to crawl through. The prisoners worked on it when they had a chance, both at day and night. How this distinct noise was never discovered by guards is unfathomable. Whenever a guard approached, one of the men would “cluck” to give the others notice. They covered up the cuts with floor wax mixed with paint.

The window on the outside wall had similar bars, along with an iron cage outside that was bolted into the stone exterior of the building. Once they’d cut through their cells, the five took turns sawing through the window bars as well. When they had finished, they threw the blades into a toilet. Then, they waited.

Barker wanted the perfect foggy night. The plan was that once they escaped their cells, they would sneak over to the window on the wall. Using a tool they had fashioned, a “screwjack,” they would pop the exterior iron bars and sneak out the window. From there, they would run down to the shore, construct a raft out of driftwood, and float away.

On the night of January 12th, they had it their perfect night. The weather report from the Alcatraz Lighthouse would read:

1/12/39 continuous fog started and horn blowing north end 10:15pm – south end at 10:25pm, blowing continuously until 11AM 1/13/39, when north end was shut down – 11:40am – south end shut down. Visibility very bad, practically nil.

During the nights at Alcatraz, there were three prisoner checks, Midnight, 3am and 6am. A guard walked up and down D block and checked each cell. Through the early morning hours, Barker, Stamphill, Martin, McCain and Young passed notes back and forth. At first, they were concerned about the shifting Bay Area fog. Their windows faced toward San Francisco:

“That stuff sure comes and goes fast. Now I can’t see the lights in Frisco. Dale told me yesterday that he had a sure way of telling. Can you see the light out front?”

Barker wrote back: “There is nothing for it yet for I can see the Frisco light. We couldn’t get a break on the time like this anyway.”

Barker must have tired of watching the fog out the windows. He passed a note to Young, a 28-year old bank robber from Washington State, in the cell next to him: “Henery I have lost so much sleep I can’t stay awake but have shoes on and clothes like fire man it will take just one minute so will sleep but if things get right just touch me there look like a lot of fog out there if O.K. clear your throat.”

Another of the prisoners wrote to Young: “Casey I hear some one moving is it you. Doc wasn’t asleep all night so he is getting some now. He said that if it gets good enough to go punch him awake as he got all his clothes on. Casey is casing it to tell when it good enough to go. I can’t tell from where I am. I was leaving it up to Doc.”

Barker apparently woke up and passed a note to find out what was going on: “Henery how many round did the Bull make while I was trying to sleep if it like it is not let take it next round he make give him time to git out good for he may walk right back.”

Young wrote back. “That was his second, he is staying out longer tonight than last night.”

Barker’s unique style of spelling and capitalization was on full display. “Well Be Ready we will leave here ore git hit the next round give the Bull a minute to leave from around here. The nuts are going to rank this thing pointing.”

Then, as the 3am check approached, the fog thickened outside the windows. The lights of San Francisco faded into the darkness. The island lights were difficult to see. It was time. Doc spread the word to Martin, Stamphill, and McClain: “We are going to take it next round. Take one of your sheets along the best one roll it up tight as we may need a rope to go down the cliff. It wont take but a minute to go out that hole so that bull in the cage would have to be mighty restless to wheel back so quick.”

The Escape

Escape route

Junior Officer Criss Hurst walked through D Block around 3:10AM for a count of prisoners in the solitary and isolation ward. Hurst reported, “everything was all right and nothing unusual was found.” He walked through a door, locked it, and went back to his desk and sat down. A little after 3:30am, he heard a noise like a steam radiator or a steam kettle made. It didn’t happen again, so he decided to ignore it. Another officer heard it, compared it to the sound of a pillow against the bars, which prisoners did to stop other inmates from snoring. It happened once. It was followed by the normal sounds of toilets flushing, drink cups clinking against the floor, nothing else out of the ordinary for life in the prison.

After the guards made their 3AM rounds, the prisoners went to work. They pulled apart their cell bars, pushed themselves through 10”x16” openings, and pulled their bed sheets with them. They crossed the 16 feet of hallway to the exterior wall of the prison that faced the city and the Golden Gate Bridge (just completed two years before). They pushed open the bar they’d sawed, then used the screw jack to break the exterior grate. It made a loud pop – the noise that Hurst had heard. They feared being discovered and, one by one, quickly climbed through the narrow opening and dropped 8 feet to the ground. Barker and Stamphill headed down to an alcove to collect driftwood. The other three headed to the dock where they planned to collect lumber (there were construction projects on the island and the materials were left in the open). They traversed a steep grade of lawns, rock, and shrubbery to reach the water. The men took off their shirts and pants to keep them dry, bundled them up, and the ripped their bed sheets into long strips to tie the driftwood and lumber together.

Whether it was a guard’s intuition, or more likely, to investigate the noise he’d heard, Junior Officer Hurst decided to walk through D block again. At 3:37am he walked past Stamphill’s cell. Hurst said, “I caught sight of the bars in the lower portion of the door of cell No. 532, occupied by Stamphill, [prisoner] No 435, noticing that these were out at the lower section of the first horizontal bar and bent out. A blanket was folded up laying in front of the opening.” Not bothering to check further, Hurst ran out of the isolation wing and told another guard a prisoner had escaped his cell and to cover the outer walls. Then he ran to the telephone and called the armory. “Locate Lieutenant Weinhold as quickly as possible and tell him to come into the Cell House,” he said. Next, he called the Road Tower and told the guard there, “keep a close watch on the outer wall of the Cell House, as there was a man loose in the D block.” Finally he called the gun gallery and told them to watch the aisle between C and D blocks.

Weinhold arrived a few minutes later. He and Hurst checked all the cells, one by one. Hurst’s fear grew as they found four more cells with bars cut and opened the same as Stamphills. They were all in a row, from Stamphill to Barker. Hurst kicked himself for not checking more of the cells before he sounded the alarm. He had no idea if the other four men escaped before or after he found Stamphill’s cell.

Weinhold telephoned the Associate Warden Edward Miler, the power house, and the armory and sounded a general alarm at 4:01am. As Martin and more guards arrived, they armed themselves and prepared to protect themselves against prisoners who were hiding somewhere inside the cell block. Then, they went inside D block. They searched the radiator ventilators and entrances. A quick search revealed the window in the outside wall that had a portion of the bar removed and a portion of the window frame cut through. It was large enough for a man to slip through.

Associate Warden Miller took control. He told Weinhold to post men on the beaches. Miller told Officer Clifford Ditmar to take a machine gun from the armory and go to the road below the Road Tower and check on the cove on the beach beneath the Tower.

With Miller in control as ranking officer, Lieutenant Weinhold went to the Armory, procured a .45 automatic pistol, and walked down the road toward the Road Tower. As he saw officers approach him, he told them to cover the beaches outside of the work area. Lieutenant Isaac Faulk walked with him on the Upper Road for a few minutes. Just as they entered the Upper Road Gate under the Road Tower, they heard shots.

The End

Alcatraz, courest Getty Images
Alcatraz, courest Getty Images

Barker and Stamphill had clambered down the rocks to the cove below the Road Tower. They waited for the others to bring the raft. McCain, Young, and Martin cobbled together a crude raft and were making their way toward the cove. The prisoners heard the siren and alarms go off and realized they had little time left. Neither group knew where the others were, if they had been caught, or what they should do.

Lieutenants Weinhold and Faulk walked along the road on the southeast end of the island. Faulk wanted to get down to the water. They stopped at a seawall and searched the rocks and water. Just off shore, they saw the lights of a boat. As the fog cleared, they recognized it as the island launch, the McDowell, that had driven around the corner of the island. The boat had its searchlight trained on the beaches. Weinhold saw something floating in the water, bobbing up and down on the waves. It was a raft.

As the McDowell moved up the west side of the island, they saw something unusual and fired two warning shots. Weinhold shone his flashlight on the beach. He spotted two men, one wearing underwear and the other naked. “Surrender!” He yelled. The men came around the ledge of the rock with their hands in the air. It was Rufus McCain and Casey Young. Weinhold and Faulk took them up to the dock office and left them in the care of other officers. He gave orders to have Associate Warden Miller notified that two of the five were had been captured.

Then, they went back to the area where the men had been found. Weinhold and Faulk waded waist-deep in the waters of the San Francisco Bay. The tide was in, almost up to the base of the cliff, and it was the only way they could quickly circumnavigate the island. Weinhold shone his flashlight along the rocks of the shore and Faulk followed behind him with his pistol aimed at the shore.

“There he is!” Faulk yelled suddenly over Weinhold’s shoulder. There was a tumble of rocks and then a splash in the water. A man had struck the rocky bank on his way down the embankment and now was about thirty feet out in the water, “floundering about,” trying to stand up on some slippery rocks. “I give up, I give up!” the man yelled. Weinhold waded out to him and grabbed him. It was William Martin. They marched him out of the water and saw he was naked except for a pair of socks. They grabbed a pair of overalls that was on the raft and covered him up.   Martin was sent took to the hospital for treatment.

While Weinhold and Faulk were sending Martin back to the prison, Officer Ditmar reached the armory. He checked out a Thompson submachine gun and walked from the northwest side of the island to the southeast, approaching the Road Tower. He scanned the beach for any sign of movement. The fog prevented him from seeing much. The wind picked up, cleared some of the fog away and gave him a glimpse of the shore, then the fog crept back in and erased his view. He couldn’t even see the water at times, though he could always hear it.

Around 4:10 a.m., the fog cleared, Ditmar saw two white figures down by the water. “I knew they were men by the way they were moving.” He was about 75 feet above them. He yelled at them to stop. He fired five warning shots into the water in case they did not hear his voice over the wind and water. It didn’t stop them. Both men kept moving toward the water. Ditmar considered them warned.

Weinhold and Faulk had started canvassing the shore again, this time by the lower road. They stood on a point of rock overlooking the cove and beach. Weinhold saw “some faintly white shadows” and not waiting to discern if they were guards, officers, or the prisoners, fired several shots at them. Ditmar stood opposite them and did the same.

Doc Barker got hit first, in the leg. He straightened up to relieve the pain in his legs and then another bullet hit him in the head and he fell to the ground. Stamphill got hit in the leg and dropped down. “[W]hen I finished firing the last shot they were both down,” Ditmar said, “so I quit firing.” By that time, Ditmar heard Weinhold and Faulk shooting down into the cove as well.

Weinhold told the officer in charge of the Road Tower to turn his light on the cove. “After more light had been brought to bear on the water edge in the cove two pairs of legs could be distinguished.”

Inside D Block, Associate Warden Miller inspected the window where the men had escaped. He heard the shots from the cove and immediately thought of his orders to Officer Ditmar. He ran out to the Lower Road and saw the Road Tower light was turned down into the cove. He saw two white bodies, one lying down and the other sitting up. The McDowell came into view just offshore. From the road vantage, it was difficult to see down into the cove. Miller yelled out to the boat and asked how many men they saw. Two, was the reply.

The McDowell launched a rowboat. Two officers climbed a rope down the steep embankment. Neither Doc Barker nor Dale Stamphill resisted arrested. One officer noticed Barker wearing underwear, and not taking any precautions, started to frisk him. “He hasn’t got a knife,” Stamphill said. When the rowboat arrived, they loaded the prisoners into the rowboat. They rowed back to the McDowell and the officers reboarded the launch. The waters were choppy and they had difficulty getting back on board. They left Barker and Stamphill together in the rowboat and towed it back to the dock. Both men complained about the cold.

The onshore group followed the launch around to the dock and helped tie it up. Barker was bloody and wet and nearly slipped out of the guards’ hands as they tried to lift him on shore. Stamphill was next. He asked the guard to be careful because his leg was fractured. Both prisoners lay on stretchers and were placed in a bus that would take them up to the hospital. Associate Warden Miller went with them and met Dr. Richey. Stamphill groaned as nurses began to give him first aid. Barker was conscious but mumbling his words. At one point, Miller heard him say, “I’m all shot to hell.” Someone else heard him say, “I was a fool to try it.”

Stamphill suffered from shock and multiple bullet wounds to his legs. His femur was fractured. The doctors dressed his wounds and kept him in bed. Several hours later, Stamphill complained of pain in his leg. It was swelling from a hemorrhage into the muscles. A tourniquet was tied to his leg to staunch the flow of venous blood.

Martin was covered with bruises and abrasions from his fall down the embankment. None of the wounds were serious. His feet, back, and neck hurt him. He was given medication for the pain and left to recover in bed.

Barker had it the worst. His left femur had been fractured. The bullet to his head entered just below his right ear and exited out his right eye, which was swollen shut.   He was bleeding from his right ear, indicating that his skull had been fractured. His body was covered with abrasions, from clambering down the embankment, including one deep laceration on his left buttocks. When he was alert – which wasn’t often – he complained of the pain in his leg and feeling cold.

None of the men talked. Martin, however, immediately after arriving in the hospital, spoke to Associate Warden Miler. Perhaps he felt by confessing and cooperating his punishment would be reduced. Martin told Miller how they had first sawed out of their cells, then took turns sliding out to go saw on the window. They knew when guards were due back and would slide back into their cells, adjust the bars, and then wait for the next opportunity.

Barker slipped into unconsciousness. Around 5 p.m., his pulse stopped and Dr. Richey pronounced him dead.   News of the escape attempt traveled quickly.  It bolstered Alcatraz’s reputation as the ideal location for a prison for the “worst of the worst” of the 1930s eras criminals.

Next up: The Death of John Hamilton


[i] Mahoney, Tim (2013). Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang. Minnesota Historical Society Press. Pg 60.

Much of the above information is taken from the FBI’s Arthur R. “Doc” Barker file, 76-4175, which is available to the public online via FOIPA.

Bryan Burrough, PUBLIC ENEMIES is also a great resource to recap the Barker family’s notorious crimes.