Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Going Out To Alcatraz

There are some “firsts” which members of the lgbt community are given with pride: the first American woman in space (Sally Ride), or the first woman to reach both North and South Poles (Ann Bancroft).

There are some “firsts” which are not so well received. One of these is the first inmate on Alcatraz – Prisoner Number 1. That “honour” goes to Franklin Lucas Bolt (1908-1966), an American soldier who was convicted as sodomy. While Alcatraz has a legendary reputation as the most brutal and fearful of American prisons housing the nation’s most dangerous criminals Bolt was one of the victims of the pre “Don’t tell, don’t ask” attitude in the US armed forces that saw Bolt and hundreds, if not thousands, of US military personnel being victimised.

Through the total history of Alcatraz as a federal prison from 1933 there were 29 out of 1,576 prisoners who were registered as being convicted for sodomy. Franklin Bolt was the first to be listed and Prisoner 1561 Benson Elgin Paul (1930-2001) who arrived just eleven months before Alcatraz was closed down, was the last.

As with all historical records of sodomy we must be careful not to label all incidents as homosexual. Sodomy was a crime men could commit against women. One example of this is Prisoner 1269 Joseph Dayton Bright (b.1927). He is listed on several lgbt websites as a gay man purely on his being found guilty of sodomy. The facts of his case tell a different story.

Joseph Dayton Bright was a recruit of the 15th Constabulary Squadron of the US army and was stationed in Feussen, Germany. On the night of 14th November 1948 he and fellow Recruit George Carinelli got drunk and raped a German woman. The woman died and the two men were charged with murder and sodomy against her. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. However, the Judge Advocate General of the US Department of the Army held a review of the case against Joseph Bright. He decided on 21st October 1949 that the sentence be reduced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Consequently Bright was sent to the military prison in Atlanta, Georgia. Bright attempted to escape but was caught. It was then decided he should be sent to Alcatraz, and he arrived there on 14th May 1957.

Bearing that in mind we should not assume that all of the prisoners found guilty of sodomy were gay.
Alcatraz
Most of the Alcatraz prisoners convicted of sodomy were from the US armed forces. Alcatraz was originally a military prison from the 1860s to the 1930s. The present familiar silhouette of the concrete structure perched on an island cliff top dates from 1912. It was officially known as the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) Pacific Branch. The army stopped using it in 1933 when it was taken over by the Department of Justice and turned into a maximum security federal prison. A period of conversion and modernisation took place and the new Alcatraz prison was ready to receive new inmates in this month, August, in 1934.

There were some prisoners who had been in the earlier military prison and were left on the island to work in the laundry. Only 32 of the 221 military prisoners remained when Alcatraz became a federal prison. As such they became the first registered prisoners. Of those 32 prisoners 9 were convicted of sodomy while serving in the army. They were not re-registered according to the date of their conviction but in alphabetical order. Franklin Bolt was the first alphabetically, and that’s the reason why he became Alcatraz Prisoner 1. He had been convicted while serving in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone in January 1933.

Other prisoners had been convicted and imprisoned on Alcatraz before Franklin Bolt. We may never have a full list of inmates imprisoned for sodomy during its time as a military prison. But we do know of the 9 who remained when it became a federal prison on 19th June 1934. Here they are :

Prisoner Number and Name                           Date of Conviction
1. Franklin Lucas Bolt (1908-1966)                    24 Jan 1933
4. Joseph Constantine Harrison (1907-1976)    27 Feb 1932
6. Clyde Findell Hicks (1910-1993)                    7 Aug 1931
9. Alan Whitney Hood (1907-1945)                    1 Dec 1932
10. Frederick Lasalle Hulme (1899-1970)          24 Nov 1930
12. Charles Evans Johnson (1910-1972)           28 Nov 1931
20. Angelo George Paris (b.1900)                      8 Jan 1931
21. William G. Payne (b.c.1905)                        16 Nov 1931
23. Leo Prokopf (1907-1976)                             12 Jan 1934

As can be seen, 7 of the 8 other prisoners appear to have been on Alcatraz before Franklin Bolt. What we can now say is that the first inmate in the federal prison on Alcatraz convicted of sodomy was actually not Bolt but Frederick Lasalle Hulme.

The issue of homosexual activity in the military has always been an issue because of the long absences from female company. The majority of the homosexual encounters were due to circumstance and opportunity. The same can be said with prisoners. Life in prison was no help to those with sexual urges. This can be surmised by reading a report written by the Judge Advocate General in 1905 after he visited the Alcatraz military prison. He writes that “obscene practices are of rare occurrence and are severely punished”. Some 15 years earlier in 1890 the army surgeon on Alcatraz recommended that one prisoner should be discharged for his own health because he was being used “as a mujerado by sundry fellow convicts” (mujerado is a derogatory slang term from that period given to a man who takes on the sexual role of a woman). The surgeon described the abused inmate as a “sodomist” but no other information is given.

In the third group of prisoners shipped over to the island on 22nd August 1934 were 3 out of 53 who were convicted of sodomy. This was also the shipment which included the most famous prisoner on Alcatraz, the gangster Al Capone. Another 3 arrived in the 24th September shipment. This made a total of 15 inmates who were convicted of sodomy. Four of these were released on completion of their sentences within a year.

From 1934 there were only 14 other sodomy inmates who arrived, the last one being the above-named Benson Elgin Paul. Alcatraz was closed for good on 21st March 1963.

We may never know how many gay men were incarcerated on Alcatraz throughout its history. The convictions for sodomy merely act as a label for sexual abuse against both men and women and many of them may not have been gay men as we would recognise today. A lot of those on Alcatraz married on their release and had families. That is no indication that they were gay men who attempted to disguise their true sexuality.

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