Last updated: April 28, 2012 12:59 am

First Person: George DeVincenzi

‘I played checkers with the Birdman of Alcatraz’

On my first day as a guard at Alcatraz, I arrived at 9am and, by 9.30am, I had witnessed my first murder. It was in the barbershop, and one inmate, Freddy Lee Thomas, was giving another – his lover – a haircut. All of a sudden Thomas went after the other guy, Joseph Barsock, with a big pair of shears. He got him in the heart and lungs. Like a damn fool, I rushed in to separate them. We spun around, knocked a table over and down we went. Barsock died on the spot. Then a strange thing happened. Thomas leaned down and kissed Barsock and said: “I love you.” That was my introduction to Alcatraz, in 1950. They went to electric clippers after that day.

I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life. When I was a teenager, I would put nickels in the telescopes at Fisherman’s Wharf to look at Alcatraz. Not in a million years did I ever imagine I’d wind up working there. During the second world war, I joined the navy but after I was discharged, in 1946, it was difficult to get a job. Eventually, though, I interviewed for Alcatraz and they hired me. I was paid $3,000 a year.

I witnessed my second murder five years later. I brought an inmate from the segregation unit to the clothing room to get a new uniform. It just so happened that a prisoner who was after him was working there that day. He had a shiv [knife] stashed somewhere and, bingo, that was the end of him.

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At first, I lived in the bachelor quarters on the island. I had a beautiful view of San Francisco. Rent was $9 a month. About 60 families lived on Alcatraz. We had a social hall, two bowling alleys, a billiards hall. There were card games, dances, Christmas parties. But it’s a weird place to be at night, a little eerie, especially being up in the tower when the fog rolled in. After a year, I moved back to the city.

I knew “the Birdman of Alcatraz”, Robert Stroud, very well. He was probably the most famous prisoner there, but he was a psychopath and a murderer. I hate to admit it, but I used to play checkers with him through the cell bars. He was very good. I don’t think I ever beat him. George “Machine Gun” Kelly, the kidnapper, was a model prisoner. I knew Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, former Public Enemy #1 and Morton Sobell, who was a spy for the Soviet Union.

You never had to worry about the so-called famous prisoners. You had to worry about the uneducated ones. For instance, a guy named Billy Cook, who had killed 11 or 12 people and was doing 300 years. He was a nasty fellow. He spat in my face once. When he was executed at San Quentin, I went to watch him get it. I enjoyed seeing him meet his demise.

There was one escape attempt while I was there. The inmate didn’t make it far. He hid in a cave all night before he gave himself up. The water was a serious deterrent. They didn’t get anything right in that Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz. It’s all Hollywood. When Eastwood arrives on the island, they strip him naked and walk him down Broadway, the alley separating the cell blocks – that was unheard of.

As for the actual Frank Lee Morris who Eastwood portrayed, and who escaped in 1962, he’s shark bait. Remember, the closest these guys ever got to water was a weekly shower. You take an inmate who hasn’t touched water in 10, 15, 20 years, put him in that cold bay, a mile from the mainland, and with that strong current? No way.

I left Alcatraz in 1957 for a better job. It’s hard to say I disliked it, but I was glad to leave. I still give tours of the island about once a month. There’s only 10 or 12 of us former guards left. An ex-convict named Robert “Cold-Blue” Luke works with me sometimes. He was at Alcatraz for bank robbery while I was a guard. Now we’re pretty good friends.

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