The incinerator was perhaps the worst job a man could pull at Alcatraz. All the garbage from the Rock came to this small building a little to the north of the Road Tower, which was midway down the west side of the island. The fenced yard overlooked the Bay on two sides: neither drop was inviting. A worker here spent his day unloading refuse, throwing it in the oven, scraping out the ashes, shoving them down a concrete chute that led to the ocean, and breathing the cinders that descended from the smokestack. After Bowers received his full privileges back, including the right to work, Associate Warden Shuttleworth assigned him to this station.
Mixed in with the paper and other burnables, Bowers used to find leftover food from the kitchen. The tasty bits attracted seagulls, familiar to Bay Area residents as frequent habitues of landfills and dump sites, which swept down from the sky to filch goodies from the still to be burned trash. They played games with Bowers, who grew to prefer their company to that of the guards and his fellow prisoners.
On April 27, 1936, as the gulls came to steal and bicker over morsels, Joe Bowers took some empty garbage cans, upended them, and stacked them so he could reach the top of the fence on the seaward side of the incinerator. Henry Larry happened to be standing in the doorway of the Plumbing Shop as Bowers finished this self-assigned task:
Then he climbed up on them, stood there looking over the high fence, fished around in his pockets and began throwing crumbs of food to the seagulls. He had been standing there four or five minutes when the first shot was fired from a gun tower.(1)
Officer E.F. Chandler was manning the Road Tower when he turned to see Bowers on the top of the fence. From where he stood, he thought that Bowers was going over. Chandler claims that he yelled several times to Bowers to get down, but Bowers ignored him and continued to climb over or remain atop the fence.
I fired two shots low and waited a few seconds to see the results. He starded down the far side of the fence and I fired one more shot, aiming at his legs. Bowers was hanging on the fence with his hands but his feet were pointing down toward the cement ledge. After my third shot I called the Armory and reported the matter. When I returned from 'phoning the body dropped into the bay.(2)
Several other guards saw the shooting. None reported hearing Chandler shouting his warning. Most were alerted by the sound of gunfire. Joe Steere was in the space between the Mat Factory and the Blacksmith Shop when he heard the shots. He ran towards the sound and saw Mr. Chandler pointing his rifle. Steere following Chandler's line of sight, "expecting to see a boat", but saw Bowers mounting the fence instead. Chandler fired two more times. Steere kept running towards the incinerator, momentarilly losing sight of Bowers. When he arrived at the incinerator, Bowers had already fallen.(3)
Officer A.R. Archer heard two shots from his station in the Hill Tower. As his fellow guard, Earl C. Starr rushed along the catwalk towards the recreation yard, Archer ran to the door where he saw Bowers
standing on the ledge outside the fence by the incinerator. Mr. Chandler was standing outside the Road Tower on the edge of the platform nearest the incinerator, rifle in hand. As I watched, #210 started climbing the fence, apparently trying to get back inside the yard. He succeeded in getting an arm and one leg over the topmost strands of barbed wire when a third shot sounded. His body stiffened and hung there for a few seconds, when he fell backwards, out of my sight, over the cliff.(4)
Steere raced up to the cliff's edge and looked down over the bars over the concrete chute. Bowers laid on his back, held by the rocks and being repeatedly washed by the waves. Steere attempted to descend at the order of Deputy Warden Shuttleworth, who had rushed to the Road Tower, but found the path too treacherous. In a few minutes, trucks showed up with slings and ropes. Mr. Curry went down, secured the body, and waited for the prison launch, General McDowell, to arrive and remove the body. Bowers had fallen sixty feet.
The launch brought Dr. Hess, who waded ashore and performed a cursory examination. Guards loaded the limp body onto the General McDowell, and brought it back to the main dock on the east side of the island. Hess had Bowers brought up to the hospital where he examined him more closely and declared him dead. At first, Hess thought that Bowers had broken his neck. He later attended the post-mortem conducted by the City Autopsy Surgeon. Together they found that the man's neck was not broken. In addition they noted:
A bullet wound into the right chest posteriorly just lateral to the scapula and penetrating the right lung. Upon opening the chest cavity it was found that the bullet had transversed the chest cavity and had emerged from the left chest just below the clavicle leaving a ragged wound about 2 inches in length. As the bullet emerged from the chest it fractured the 2nd rib on the left side. There was also found a bullet wound of the right buttock and right thigh. These wound were made by fragments of a bullet and no whole bullet was found. No other bones of the body were fractured....The cause of death as reported by the city Autopsy Surgeon....Shock and pulmonary hemorrhage from a gunshot wound of the chest.(5)
Only one of Chandler's first two shots appeared to hit Bowers and only after richocheting off the incinerator wall or the concrete ledge and breaking into two or more fragments. These had either thrown Bowers off balance from his fencetop perch or had failed to deter him from going further. Bowers either fell on his feet atop the concrete ledge, then started to climb back up, or dangled from the top of the fence when Chandler's third shot found his back. The shock of this sudden rupture caused him to lose his hold and fall sixty feet to the shoreline. Perhaps an incoming wave cushioned his fall.
The question remained: what was Bowers doing? The official version, of course, was that he was trying to escape. If so, he may have changed his mind and tried to get back into the compound if Archer's report was correct. Others speculated that he had given up and was trying to commit suicide. The blue suicide theory explains why he ignored Chandler's warnings (if Chandler made them) and kept going even after shots were fired.
The account of Henry Larry, however, suggested that Bowers was completely unaware what he was doing. Supporting Larry's view that Bowers had gone out of his mind was the fact that Bowers probably suffered from hypothyroidism. One symptom was that other prisoners and guards often found him standing with a blank expression on his face, unaware of where he was. For a moment, (we can guess) Bowers blanked out. The brilliant white wings of the seagulls caught his eyes. He'd seen them for weeks. He who had no friends on the Rock wanted to make friends with the birds. Forgetting completely where he was and what could happen to him, he started erecting a tower so that he might reach them. He climbed and sat atop the fence, oblivious to Chandler's shouts. The wind in his ears may have made it impossible for him to hear him anyways. As he reached into his pocket and started throwing crumbs to the birds, Chandler's first shot whizzed by him. Then the second. One of these hit the concrete pavement and shattered into bits. Two of these fragments caught him in the right thigh and buttock. He fell, but caught himself either by grabbing the fence or landing on his feet just outside the wall. Bowers remembered where he was and started to climb back into the compound. As he did, Chandler's third bullet entered his back and tore the life out of him.
Bowers died for attempting to practice ornithology.
Inmates at Alcatraz speculated that Warden Johnston had a shoot to kill policy for anyone who tried to escape. Evidence for the belief mounted: in 1938, Officer Stites shot Thomas Limmerick as he and his partners, Rufus Franklin and Jimmy Lucas, pummeled his guard station with stones and pieces of metal. Arthur "Doc" Barker, who might have watched the commotion from the Mat Shop, died in 1939 as he ran into the fog, hoping to elude the guards who suddenly landed from the General McDowell on a dim January night. Others who died included James Boarman, whose body sank as soon as he was shot. And in 1946, three convicts and two guards would die in the Blast-Out. Two others convicts would follow these dead by entering San Quentin's gas chamber late in 1948.
Joe Bowers became a symbol of the absurd cruelty of Alcatraz for those who found themselves encased in the Cell House's walls. Because there was no one to claim him, Johnston arranged for his burial in Olivet's Cosmos Plot, an overgrown field of unmarked graves located in Colma, California. Barker would join him two years later. Sixty one years following his death, this researcher would find the following note, presumably written after his 1935 suicide attempt:
An Familes Ebner
Dear Father Brother Sister:
Forgive me for not having been a better Son and Brother than I have been. I am sorry of this day. I am lying in bed, sick and sending you a last few words. to say good bye. and please, pray for me. Good bye.