In the annals of American crime, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary—aka “The Rock”—is the quintessential maximum-security prison. A fortress on an island amidst the cold churning waters of San Francisco Bay, it was the de facto destination for America’s most dangerous convicts.
But if you fill a prison fortress with the nation’s most dangerous people, that prison—naturally—will be a dangerous place. And even with Alcatraz’s notoriously strong security, those people occasionally strike with sensational violence.
A&E Real Crime looks at some of the most gruesome murders that took place at the hands of Alcatraz inmates.
Officer Royal C. Cline (1938)
Although there were no confirmed successful escapes from Alcatraz, plenty of inmates tried. And when they did, the skirmishes that followed were often lethal. On May 22, 1938, corrections officer Royal Cline was supervising the prison’s wood workshop when he made the fatal mistake of turning his attention away from the prisoners briefly to take inventory of supplies. According to David Ward’s book Gangsters of Alcatraz, inmates Thomas Limerick, James Lucas and Rufus “Whitey” Franklin attempted to break out of the workshop by climbing through a window while Cline was in an adjacent office. When the officer returned mid-escape, Franklin bludgeoned him with a hammer. Cline never regained consciousness.
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The men made it onto the roof, where they were confronted by prison guard Harold Stites. They threw scrap metal they’d gathered from the workshop at the guard while he returned fire. Two of the men were shot—Limerick fatally—and the escape was put down. The surviving prisoners were given life sentences for Cline’s murder.
Rufus McCain (1940)
Like Cline’s murder, the killing of Rufus McCain traces back to an Alcatraz escape attempt. But whereas Cline was a guard, McCain was an inmate. He’d tried to escape Alcatraz with two other inmates on January 13, 1939—but as with all Alcatraz escape efforts, the plan failed and one of his co-conspirators (Arthur Barker) was shot and killed by guards during the attempt.
Less than a year later, the other surviving escapee—Henri Young—fatally stabbed McCain with a sharpened spoon. He never explained his motive.
In 1995, McCain’s murder (and Young’s subsequent trial) became the premise for Murder in the First, a film starring Christian Slater. According to author David Ward, Young’s defense team attempted to claim that the conditions at Alcatraz were so inhumane that they drove him to murder.
They “put the institution on trial,” Ward says, both “in that case and subsequent cases.” In Young’s case, that defense failed: He was convicted of manslaughter.
Maurice Herring (1942)
Other Alcatraz murderers found more sympathetic juries. One noteworthy case involved the murder of Maurice Herring, who fought in the showers with inmate Cecil Snow. According to witnesses, Herring—the stronger of the two—had knocked Snow to the floor and was straddling him and hitting him in the head when Snow, brandishing a knife, stabbed his assailant in the chest and thigh, the latter injury resulting in a severed artery.
Bleeding profusely, Herring stumbled away and collapsed from loss of blood. Within a half hour, he was pronounced dead in the prison hospital.
In federal court, inmates testified on Snow’s behalf, claiming that Herring had been a hot-tempered assailant and had made numerous threats. Snow was acquitted of the murder, but was nonetheless punished by the prison staff with nearly three years of disciplinary segregation.
“The jury bought it,” says Ward of the verdict. As for disciplinary segregation—also referred to as “isolation”—Ward says that prison officials took a lot of criticism from people who saw the conditions as inhumane.
“It’s a cell with nothing in it, and a barred door,” Ward says. “When they got criticized, they began calling it the ‘behavior modification unit.’”
Claude Branch (1945)
Like Herring and McCain, Claude Branch was a prisoner murdered by a fellow inmate—Ralph Greene, who delivered the fatal blow with a metal stand in the prison barbershop. Unlike the previously listed victims, Branch looked at first as though he might survive, only succumbing to his injuries after two days. But during his moments of consciousness, he was so unwilling to rat someone out to the government—even his own killer—he denied to Alcatraz officials that the fight took place.
Ward sees Branch’s refusal as emblematic of the “convict code” of behavior that was the norm of Alcatraz.
Ward explains the tenets of that code: “You don’t do anything to interfere with some other inmates’ game or activity. You never do anything to help the staff. You keep quiet and to yourself. And you don’t ‘roll-over’: give up information on other inmates.”
After Branch’s murder, inmates defended his killer by claiming that Branch was homosexual and regularly tried to rape fellow inmates such as Greene. As in the case of Herring, a jury found Greene “not guilty,” after which the prison staff sent him to isolation for four and a half years.
Officers William Miller and Harold Stites (May 1946)
It was the bloodiest confrontation between officers and prisoners in Alcatraz’s history: the Battle of Alcatraz, a three-day incident in which Alcatraz inmates held prison guards hostage in prison cells and exchanged lengthy gunfire with a rescue team.
The takeover attempt was masterminded by bank robber Bernard Coy, who—working with other inmates—overpowered one guard and then quickly gained access to the prison’s supply of guns and ammunition, allowing them to effectively take over the prison.
The plan, as originally devised, required using a key to get out of the cell block and out to the docks, where prisoners would have taken a boat to San Francisco—and freedom. Officer Miller, who was being held hostage, hid that key from the prisoners in the holding cell toilet.
Miller and several other prison guards were shot and tortured by inmates in the pursuit of that key. Miller succumbed to his injuries, but not before positively identifying his killer as inmate Joseph Cretzer.
Officer Harold Stites—who had helped neutralize the escape attempt that took Officer Royal Cline’s life—was fatally shot in the gunfire between guards and convicts. Coy was also killed, along with two other inmates. Three surviving conspirators were tried and convicted for the murders—after which they attempted to escape again.