Tales of the Country

How Tokyo Rose, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Amelia Earhart are endangered by money-saving moves at the National Archives in San Bruno

After that, Giles spent most of the rest of his life incarcerated for increasingly serious offenses. When he was 20 years old, Giles was imprisoned in Washington state for four years for robbery. Shortly after his release, he was convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff during a robbery that went awry. He served 15 years of a life sentence -- the last eight on limited security for good behavior -- before escaping from an Oregon state prison. (Giles would later tell prison officials that he believed his application for having his sentence commuted had not been given proper consideration because he had no money, so he left to get some.)

Within a year, Giles and another man attempted to rob a mail train in Salt Lake City. They escaped a gunfight on the train without any of the mail, and were immediately captured. That's how Giles found his way to Alcatraz: He'd been deemed a flight risk.

But by all reports after he got there, Giles was a well-behaved, quiet, intelligent man, who devoted a great deal of his time to reading and writing. In fact, he actually sold a few short stories to magazines while doing time. He also filed two patents for inventions he'd designed: a safety razor and something called a "booby trap for Teller mines." The letters documenting his quest for free-lance writing work and his patent applications are in a manila folder in a gray box in the National Archives. So are his writings -- poetry, short stories, and articles discussing prison reform -- and the details of his next adventure.

By 1945, Giles was working in the laundry at Alcatraz, which also handled the U.S. Army's wash. Methodically, over some period of time, Giles stole pieces of clothing until he had created a full U.S. Army technical sergeant's uniform that fit his thin, 5-foot, 10-inch frame. He also managed to find a blank pass left in a pocket.

Shortly before 10 a.m. on that July morning in 1945, Giles donned his uniform, and filled out the blank pass with information matching that of his stolen identification tags. He moved under the dock, where the boats transporting people and laundry came and went, and jumped to the cargo hatch of the steamer Frank H. Coxe. Were it not for two things, the remainder of Giles' life might have been significantly different: The boat was not headed to San Francisco, but to Angel Island. And, by coincidence, a random personnel count was taken on Alcatraz about the same time he left. Giles was noted as missing. All boats were notified.

Giles was apprehended when he reached Angel Island. An hour after he left Alcatraz, John Giles was back, about three more years tacked onto his remaining 25-year sentence. His prison mug shots follow a dark-haired young buck as he turns into a bespectacled, middle-aged man and, finally, an aged, balding convict. Among them are poems and letters from Giles' mother, begging for a chance to visit her son, which was always denied. Giles was transferred to Oregon State Penitentiary in 1952, and paroled in 1955. He went on to work as a technical editor for an Air Force defense contractor.

Joe Sanchez is one of the few people who knows about John Giles. A cheerful, former military man with a friendly face, Sanchez is one of the NARA staff members charged with the care of Alcatraz records since they came into the agency's possession in December 1995. He indexed the files of the more than 1,500 men who passed through the Rock, including those of one of the penitentiary's first residents, George R. "Machine Gun" Kelly. The job has made Sanchez a veritable expert on the stories, mysteries, and myths of Alcatraz residents.

Down in the crowded basement room filled with Alcatraz history, Sanchez screens the files for people who want to see them, taking care not to reveal information on anyone who is still alive. The Bureau of Prisons doesn't consider people dead until 100 years after they were born. However, the National Archives and Records Administration pronounces death after 75 years, unless there is evidence to the contrary. So the Alcatraz records are accessible only because they are now the property of the archives, and most of the Alcatraz prisoners were born more than 75 years ago. (Interestingly enough, three former Alcatraz residents are still incarcerated in federal penitentiaries. Their records remain sealed from the public.)

The files themselves have their own set of problems. For instance, Al Capone's Alcatraz file is missing. The files that accompanied Capone into Alcatraz from other incarcerations are there, but the Alcatraz files -- with mug shots -- never made it into the archives. Similarly, the files of Robert Stroud, who became known as "The Birdman of Alcatraz" for his prison collection of homing pigeons, are photocopies. The originals are nowhere to be found, which is just the sort of thing that sends archivists into a tailspin. Historians consider everything but original records subject to question.

And then there's the lingering controversy around Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin, who apparently escaped by swimming off Alcatraz and were memorialized in a Clint Eastwood movie. Because their bodies have never been found, the U.S. Marshals Service still considers them to be at large.

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