Joe Bowers (Josef Ebner)

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

The Bug

The other prisoners noticed that there was something funny about Joe Bowers. They called him a "bug", meaning that they realized that he'd lost his wits. The first convict to write about life on Alcatraz, Henry Larry, blamed Bower's mental condition on the treatment he received at Alcatraz and he was obtusely right.(1) Bowers came to Alcatraz a sick man, but the prison's doctor, Dr. George Hess, saw his complaints and behavior as malingering. Following the Chief Medical Officer's recommendations, the guards and the wardens responded to Bowers' symptoms and complaints by treating them as misbehavior.

Hess examined Bowers shortly after the latter's arrival on the Rock. His comments on that report reflect his shallow understanding of his patient:

He claims that he is being annoyed by the other prisoners, they are plotting against him because he can hear them talking about him at night. He has apparently attempted suicide by slashing his throat with a razor blade but the attempt was not quite determined enough to be successful, the wound being very superficial and it could have been much worse if it had been done by one who was sincere and really commit suicide. He is supposed to be an epileptic but has not had any seizures since his incarceration at this penitentiary. He is also supposed to have hallucinations of hearing voices at night in his cell which he claims causes him much fear and to do things which he doesn't understand even himself. He is continually asking to see the Doctor and to be admitted to the hospital where he will be protected and after he is admitted to the hospital he wants to be discharged. It is the opinion of the examiner that this man is of extremely low mentality upon which is superimposed an extremely ugly disposition, he is a custodial problem and will probably have to be dealt with by firm measures.(2)

Three days later, Hess completed a more extensive medical examination. He noted that Bowers had had syphilis in 1914, that he was missing all his teeth, that the date of his war wound was 1918, and he was still experiencing some nervous excitement after his thyroidectomy. Hess decided to call in a psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Twitchell.(3)

Twitchell interviewed Bowers on the Rock early in October, 1934. The psychiatrist concluded that he was "evidentally [G]erman in birth as evidenced by his appearance and speech" and that the rest of his history was unknowable. Bowers further obscured his life history by claiming to have served in both the French Foreign Legion and the Russian Army. Twitchell found these claims "not much more audible than his tale of shipwreck and cannibalism." Alcatraz's Man of Mystery revealed to Twitchell more scars on his back which Twitchell surmised were shrapnel wounds. The doctor guessed that the "sullenness and the seclusiveness of the patient may well be due to epilepsy" and prescribed a course of luminal. He also warned that Bowers should not be allowed to work "where a fit might be a danger to him or to others".(4). Neither Twichell nor Hess suspected Bowers' thyroid.

As the doctors started their erroneous treatment regime, Immigration officials changed their mind about Bowers. Just after Bowers' transfer to Alcatraz, they informed Leavenworth's Warden Zerbst that they were instituting deportation proceedings against him. Zerbst redirected the inspectors to Alcatraz and Bowers' case was transferred to District 19. Late in October, they notified Warden Johnston that they held a warrant for Bowers' arrest, to be served on his release from Alcatraz.(5)

Johnston perfunctorilly promised to notify Immigration officials thirty days before Bowers' release and forgot about Bowers until January, 1935. On the Fourth, Bowers staged a one man sit down strike in the laundry room.(6) Officer I.B. Faulk charged him with refusal to work and Associate Warden Shuttleworth had him locked up in solitary for six days. The incident led Johnston to ask about the convict's health. Hess replied that he could find nothing physically wrong with Bowers (despite the thyroidectomy) and noted that that Twitchell diagnosis of epilepsy. He added "It is thought that he is a pathological liar." The Chief Medical Officer concluded that Bowers would not unduly suffer from further imprisonment on the Rock.(7)

Bowers continued to receive visits from Dr. Twitchell. In late February, Twitchell left the following memorandum in Bowers' medical file:

During his examination, while recounting the manner in which he has been persecuted and tormented both while in his cell at night, and during the day when taking his bath, etc. the tears are streaming down his face. There is a strong temptation to believe this man is truly psychotic, but one must be on one's guard, as he has something to gain if he can induce us to believe that he is insane.(8)

On March 7, 1935, Joe Bowers broke his eye glasses and used a jagged piece to slash his throat. The wound was minor. Twitchell reevaluated Bowers two weeks later. He abandoned his previous diagnosis of epilepsy because Bowers had had no fits and told Dr. Hess that "while [Bowers is] an abnormal individual, [he] is not truly insane...and is pretending a mental disturbance for some purpose."(9) Hess concurred with Twitchell's findings. Assistant Bureau of Prisons Director F. Lovell Bixby thought it prudent to keep a watch over Bowers anyways, so Johnston had the prisoner placed in a B-Block Cell where the guards could keep an eye on him while performing their regular duties.

Officers Mickelson and Haboush caught Bowers bumping his head on his cell door on April 27, 1935. They took Bowers to the prison's hospital where he was treated for a small cut. On June 1, 1935, Bowers started shouting in the work line: "Put me in the dungeon. I do not want to work." Shuttleworth obliged him but kept the solitary door open. This incident led the prison's staff to ask Dr. Hess and Dr. Twichell to reconsider their diagnosis. Neither changed his opinion.(10)

During the summer of 1935, Bowers repeatedly annoyed and confronted the guards. Officer Kleinschmidt caught him wasting food and ignoring repeated warnings to finish what he had on his tray. The inmate developed a habit of dawdling at mess. He would play with his food until the others had finished and then eat. Officer Royal Cline wrote him up on July 25 for failing to push his cup to the end of the table when he was ordered to do so. At the end of August, Bowers slapped Officer Haboush in the face while the latter was speaking with Lt. Culver. Culver and Haboush grabbed the unresisting Bowers instantly and placed him in his cell. Acting Deputy Warden E.J. Miller put him in solitary for five days. After his release, he continued to act up in the mess hall by talking or wasting food.(11)

His odd behavior did not escape the notice of the other prisoners. The Chronicle received a note which charged that Bowers was one of several prisoners driven to mental breakdown by prison conditions. Warden Johnston refused to discuss the individual cases mentioned in the note, but said: "The cry of brutality is a convict's time-worn means of 'turning the heat' on a prison....there is no semblance of truth to the charge."(12)

A month after the note appeared, Bowers picked a fight with Samuel Berlin, a robber from the District of Columbia. Guards Cline and Haboush stepped in to stop the brawl. Shuttleworth ordered Bowers taken to Solitary. As Haboush marched Bowers to Solitary, the inmate suddenly turned and started pummeling the guard with his fists. Another guard came to Haboush's aid and Bowers was subdued.

His conduct record noted October 26, 1935 as the start of his confinement in solitary. The next entry, Jan. 20, 1936, read: "Bowers now in Isolation will be fed three meals a day, starting this date."(13) Presumably, Bowers spent the interval between these two records in the dungeon!

Time spent in Alcatraz's dungeons unnerved the best of men. Henry Larry told The Examiner of his own experience, when he was charged with fighting by Associate Warden Shuttleworth. As he listened to his neighbor, Edgar Lewis (48-Az), imitating the squeaks of the mice and rats which scurried across the floor of the old fort, Larry found himself contending with the darkness and the silence. He tried to cope by sleeping, but found his slumber disrupted every hour of the day and night by guards who turned on the light for the counts. A prison trustee (or "stool pigeon" as Larry called them) brought him his meals of water and four slices of bread each day. As the trustee shoved the scant meal under the barred door, the guards smoked and stood out of reach of the entombed prisoner. Larry found their smoking especially tormenting:

They'd stand in the corridor and blow smoke your way. You'd get a tantalizing whiff of tobacco when your whole system was craving for it so badly that you'd have given ten years off your life for just one drag. Every fifth day you get a regular hot meal -- just one. Life down there becomes a hell punctuated by those meals. You'd have to go through it to understand what I mean.(14)

Joe Bowers spent perhaps as long as three months in that hell. The dungeons, like other treatments prescribed by the Alcatraz staff, did nothing to relieve his malaise which was probably hypothyroidism. Before his thyroid operation, Leavenworth's doctors had noticed that he was often very nervous and anxious. Bowers might have mistaken his rapid heartbeat and trembling hands for the epileptic fits which he reported to Hess and Twichell. As Bowers walked slowly around the Rock, lethargically doing his chores, he found himself unable to concentrate. He undoubtably felt tired and preferred more sleep to working. Cramps and numbness in his arms and legs added to the unpleasantness which he had to endure daily. His blood pressure soared. Larry would later write of his lapses of memory. Often, Larry said, Bowers "would just stand around with a vacant look on his face."(15) All these symptoms pointed to hypothyroidism, which was due to Joe Bowers' lack of a thyroid to produce the hormones which regulated his metabolism.(16)

Larry blamed Alcatraz's routine and modes of punishment for Bowers' blankness. Time in the dungeon and the stress of coping with the rigorous daily routine didn't help Bowers feel better or put a stop to his outrages against the guards. Frustrated by his inability to concentrate and constant tiredness, Bowers would try to increase his metabolism by picking fights or engaging in some repetitive movement like banging his head against the cell door. The man had no idea why he felt so sluggish and depressed. His suicide attempts may have been calculated to draw attention and treatment for a condition which Hess and Twitchell never considered. His doctors thought him a malingerer. The inability of the Alcatraz medical staff to see beyond their paranoia brought Joe Bowers to a end provoked by his suffering.


(1)Henry Larry, "Inside Alcatraz", series, The Examiner, September 24, 1936. [Return]

(2)U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Medical Record for BOWERS, Joseph, Social History, September 4, 1934. Hess's insensitivity towards prisoners can also be witnessed in a note he sent while he was at Terminal Island Penitentiary and treating Al Capone for cataracts. In a note to the Bureau of Prisons, he began "I have the honor of informing you..." as if he were delighted to see the mighty Capone deteriorate under his care. [Return]

(3)U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Medical Record for BOWERS, Joseph, Primary Physical Examination, September 7, 1934. [Return]

(4)Edward W. Twitchell, File Memorandum, October 4, 1934. [Return]

(5)Bowers did attempt to contact the family of Josef Ebner and apparently they wrote back to him. His letters to them stand as a unique contribution to linguistics, written as they are in a language which resembles a poorly contrived attempt by a speaker of English to forge a note in German. He might have been trying to both fill the need to communicate with his loved ones and meet the requirement of writing in his letters in a language his censors could understand. Or, given that the letter suggests that the family of Josef Ebner did not keep up the correspondence, it could be more evidence that the case of who Joe Bowers really was was never resolved. (Click here to view the letter) [Return]

(6)U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Conduct Report for Bowers, Joe, No. 210. [Return]

(7)George W. Hess, Memorandum to Warden, January 17, 1935. [Return]

(8)Twitchell, File Memorandum, February 28, 1935. [Return]

(9)Twitchell, Letter to Dr. George Hess re: Joe Bower, March 22, 1935. [Return]

(10)C.C. Mickelson and P.A. Haboush, Memorandum to C.J. Shuttleworth, April 27, 1935.; also Conduct Report; Hess, Memorandum to Warden, June 10, 1935; Twitchell, File Memorandum, June 18, 1935. [Return]

(11)Conduct Report. [Return]

(12)The Chronicle, September 20, 1935. (Click here to view the letter) The others named were Edgar Lewis (described as being in worse shape than Bowers), James Groves, and John Standig. Three others were said to have attempted suicide. [Return]

(13)Conduct Report. [Return]

(14)Larry, September 23, 1936. [Return]

(15)Larry, September 24, 1936. [Return]

(16)For more information on diseases of the thyroid, visit The Thyroid Society. [Return]

Attempted Ornithology