Henri Young

Young and McCain

Rufus McCain and Henri Young were quick to quarrel after the failed escape. Young continued to receive the ill attentions of the guards when he took part in a hunger strike in July, 1939. The official record shows that on July 8, 1939, Young tested his keepers by leading a night of vociferation against the rules against smoking and the limited yard privileges of the men in isolation. Officer Dennison found him thrashing a pillow against the bars at 10:50 P.M. After Henri had beaten the pillow into shreds, he seized the frame of his bed and, yelling and cursing all the while, telegraphed the clang of metal on metal to the entire Cell House. When Officer Hurst stopped by Henri's cell to investigate, Young blustered

"Go on you bastard I don't want to talk to you". I did not move on quickly enough to suit him and he said "You god damned bastard I will throw water on you", he got his cup and started filling it with water as I walked on.

Any patience the guards had with Young attenuated until it grew so thin that they resolved to put a physical end to his auditory terrorism. The official record notes "He became abusive and combative, striking and kicking the officers sent to bring him from his cell."(1) At Young's 1941 murder trial, fellow prisoner James Groves (158-AZ) claimed that the officers went beyond mere subdual:

Four men -- guards -- went into Young's cell and pulled him out. I didn't recognize any of the guards but I recognized Deputy Warden Miller. Young was thrown down the steps and landed down at the bottom and the deputy jumped on his face with both feet--that's the reason he hasn't any teeth now. At the door of the cell I saw the guards with their saps -- their clubs -- hitting him -- hitting him on all parts of his body.(2)

A new stretch in solitary followed by a stint in the "A" Block isolation unit gave Young plenty of time to theorize about why things had turned out so badly for him at Alcatraz. He selected his former co-conspirator Rufus McCain as his object of wrath.

McCain had come to Alcatraz after a dubious career which included a stint in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for robbing an Indian grave and in the Arkansas State Penitentiary for robbery and assault to kill. In April 1935, he made a break from the latter prison. He and Samuel Marion Day robbed the Idabel National Bank in Oklahoma a short time later. The pair took two bank employees as hostages and netted $2600 from the caper. Police caught up with the robbers and Day was killed in the ensuing gun battle, leaving McCain to face federal charges alone.

On July 11, 1935, McCain arrived at Leavenworth's "Big Top". Here the classification committee decided to send him to Alcatraz because of his past record, his escape from the Arkansas prison, and the violence that had capped his present offense. McCain came on the same train of prisoners which brought Arthur "Doc" Barker to the Rock. It is likely that he'd known Barker at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary while McCain was serving time for "interference with the place of burial" and Barker was counting the days for a murder he insisted he didn't commit.

Barker and McCain arrived together in 1935. By 1937, Barker had established himself as the de facto boss of the mat shop by cowing the inmate instructor. The trustee, Frank Gouker (157-AZ), named McCain as a conspirator in the mat shop plots in January 1938. McCain functioned as a go-between for Barker and the black prisoners who worked in the shop. Gouker related that McCain spent much time priming the black prisoners' egoes so that they could be used as foils for Barker and the other white inmates. In May 1938, McCain pulled a brass shiv on Ralph Sullivan (292-AZ), a petty felon who was in for assault and receiving stolen property. Quick intervention by the guards, perhaps coupled with some well-timed hesitation by McCain, saved Sullivan from harm.(3) Seven months later, McCain, Barker, Young, Stamphill, and Martin would make their break from the supposedly impregnable isolation unit where all had been sent to cool off after their various petty assaults and aggravations.

If Young's recollection of the escape is correct, then McCain's sudden revelation that he could not swim cost the convicts at least forty five minutes of time, during which they might have made it to shore. This, of itself, gave Young ample room for bitterness, but McCain seems to have done even more to earn Henri's enmity. While Young languished in solitary and "A"-Block isolation, McCain earned the trust of the guards who gave him the job of orderly in isolation. He was delivering Young his supper on August 29, 1939 when Young suddenly reached out and attempted to stab him. Officer Joe Steere witnessed the attack and moved quickly to slam the cell door shut and lock it. Before Steere could confiscate Young's weapon, Young bent it in two and flushed it down the toilet. Young refused to say why he tried to kill McCain.(4)

A later search of Young's cell (December 15, 1939) turned up a brass shiv. Officer M.A. Amende found the weapon hidden in Young's mattress. The shiv had been fashioned from a piece of the toilet plunger mechanism. Young had removed it from the toilet, jerry-rigged the plunger so it would continue to flush, and then honed the metal on the concrete floor and the walls until it had a sharp edge. This time Young went to solitary for four days.(5)

Young's official conduct report, compiled at one time from the now-discarded misconduct slips and disciplinary reports, shows that he was never sent to solitary during 1940 and, on November 11, 1940, was released to the general population with all privileges restored. San Francisco postal robber Harry C. Kelly (190-AZ) later testified that Young spent much of 1940 in solitary confinement. Kelly said that when Young came out

He didn't look to me like the same person....He paced his cell at night, talked to himself, passed up his food. Once he started to the dining hall without remembering to put on his trousers.(6)

The return of Henri Young to the main Cell House revived his conflict with McCain. Auto thief Carl Hood (427-AZ), who himself had killed a fellow inmate at Leavenworth, recollected a conversation in which he claimed "McCain told me that when the trouble was over between him and Young there would be only one of them left on the island." James Harris, a robber from the District of Columbia, told the jury that McCain warned him not to play handball with Young. A few days later, McCain walked up to Harris. Reaching into his coat pocket, he repeated the warning. Harris said he "made a break" for McCain, but friends held him back. "It was all over the penitentiary what McCain was going to do to Young -- everybody knew it." (7)

One of the most damning pieces of testimony that would emerge against McCain came from William Dainard (477-AZ), Harmon Waley's accomplice in the Weyerhauser kidnapping. Dainard worked as a janitor. He told the jury:

McCain had a dust pan in his cell, and he refused to give it back to me. I let him keep it for about two hours, then I needed it, and went and got it. Then I saw that a piece of metal had been taken off it. It was a piece of from that was gone, sharp on both ends....I asked McCain for the knife off the dust pan and he said he was going to kill Young. I told him that if he used the knife, it would involve me, and he said he was going to kill him anyway.

Dainard hid the shiv, revealing its location only when asked to do so at Young's trial. Kidnapper Frank Delmar (241-AZ) reported that McCain asked him to make him a knife, but "I told him I couldn't".(8)

On December 1, 1941, McCain struck up a conversation with Dallas, Texas pusher George Miller (488-AZ). McCain, Miller said, had just received word that he had forfeited from thirty to thirty-five years of good-time credit:

He was plenty mad. He said that if it hadn't been for that yellow punk--, Young, he would have been out of there by that time. He said he had waited for a long time to get Young and he said "I'll get him now and it won't be long."(9)

On the morning of December 3, Henri Young said he was eating his breakfast in the dining room. Young looked over to McCain. He thought the bank robber and killer sneered at him and drew a line across his throat. "I chilled," he testified, "and felt as if a cold, clammy snake had been placed next to my skin. My head was spinning." The young bank robber went up back to his cell after breakfast to get his hat and coat. On the way down the stairs, he met McCain. McCain, said Young, called him a "mother fucker", causing him to pause and just look at McCain for a long moment. At this moment, he later claimed, he blacked out.(10)

Harry Kelly saw Henri Young in the yard after this confrontation. Young, Kelly thought, seemed nervous and pale. He did not appear to Kelly to be in full possession of his faculties. The inmates lined up for their work assignments and marched out to the industries. They entered the Model Industries Building and went to work. At 10 a.m. Officer Spencer made a routine count and discovered that everyone, including Henri Young, was present. Spencer turned his attention to the stock room, where he had a monthly inventory to conduct.

While Spencer counted, Young pulled out two sharpened planer knives which were secreted under a lathe near his work station, slipped out of the Model Shop, walked down a flight of stairs, and entered the Tailor Shop where McCain worked. He ran up to McCain. With his right hand, he forced and twisted the blade into McCain's gut.

Officer Frank Mach was breaking in a probationer guard, Wesley Hicks, when the two of them heard a commotion. Mach turned and saw Young standing next to a wash sink, holding a knife in his right hand. The guard rushed over, seized Young by the wrist and threw his other arm around Young's waist. The convict offered no resistance.

Hicks took the weapon from Young's hand. The knife was about five inches long. The handle was wrapped with tape. Hicks searched Young and found a second such knife hidden under his belt. The dazed Young was then delivered to the care of Officers Rose and Spencer, who had coming running at the sound of Mach's whistle. Then they turned their attentions to the injured McCain.(11)

His wounds were serious. The guards bore him to the hospital. McCain clutched his abdomen, trying to keep his guts from falling out. Dr. Romney Ritchey sent a note to Warden Johnston describing the wound:

....he was suffering from an extensive wound of the right side of the abdomen. This wound was about five inches in length and entirely through the abdominal wall. The omentum was exposed and partly protruding. There was considerable oozing of blood from several points on the omentum. He was suffering also from shock....It was found that no viscus was cut through but there were many bleeding points found in the region of the Hepatic flexure of the colon, in which neighborhood there was a hematone.(12)

McCain struggled for six hours. Dr. G.H. Hunt came over from the U.S. Marine Hospital at Dr. Ritchey's request to assist. At 2:00 P.M. Ritchey thought he saw some improvement in McCain's condition and wrote a guarded note to Johnston. McCain, however, worsened at 3:00 P.M. About 3:30 P.M., he died, with Ritchey and Associate Warden E.J. Miller looking on. "The cause of death was surgical shock caused by a penetrating wound of the abdomen with internal injuries to the Omentum," Ritchey wrote the next day.(13)

Henri Young found himself being interrogated. A guard was telling him about the murder. Deputy Warden E.J. Miller came to him and asked him why he did it. Young said he could not remember anything.

Meanwhile, Johnston was contacting every official in the Justice Department who might take an interest in the stabbing. The warden promptly notified Assistant BOP Director W.T. Hammack, U.S. District Attorney Frank Hennessy, the F.B.I., and the coroner of the murder. He also sent out a statement to the San Francisco papers and news associations. BOP Director James Bennett reviewed all the information and sent Johnston the following telegram:


Henri Young was to go on trial for his life. But Alcatraz's warden would find his prison's reputation on trial.


(1)Conduct Report for Henri Young, pp. 4-5. [Return]

(2)The Examiner, April 24, 1941. James Groves was named in a September 1935 letter [Click here to view the document] which had appeared in the San Francisco News. The letter claimed that he had been driven crazy by excessive solitary confinement, a report which was also made by Henry Larry in his series for The Examiner. Groves was an African American army prisoner who was serving time for Attempted Rape, Attempted Murder & Murder. Shortly after the abuse story hit the San Francisco dailies, Grove was transferred to Leavenworth, but returned to Alcatraz in 1939. He would murder Ben McMiller on March 20, 1946. He committed suicide on August 11, 1961 at Leavenworth. Re: Young's teeth: Dental records show that he was missing only three teeth. [Return]

(3)Frank Loveland, Memo to Mr. Bennett Re: Rufus Roy McCain, #267-Az; Henry Young, #244-Az, December 4, 1940; Frank Gouker, Letter to Warden Johnston, January 1938 (Frank Gouker 156-AZ file, NARA). McCain's "attempt" on Sullivan was probably intended for no other purpose than to get him into solitary confinement where he could scope out the possibilities for escape and, maybe, recruit other prisoners for the breakout. [Return]

(4)Conduct Report for Young, p. 5. [Return]

(5)Ibid, p. 5. [Return]

(6)The Chronicle, April 24, 1941. [Return]

(7)Ibid. [Return]

(8)Ibid; The Examiner, April 24, 1941. [Return]

(9)Ibid. The Chronicle reported that Harry Kelly made the same claim. [Return]

(10)The Chronicle, April 28, 1941. The Chronicle, of course, does not quote Young exactly like this. Instead, it says "McCain, Young replied, made 'an incestuous reference to conduct with my mother.'" [Return]

(11)Sources for this account of the murder of Rufus McCain include The Chronicle, April 17, 1941; The Chronicle, April 24, 1941; The Chronicle, April 28, 1941; Conduct Report for Henry Young, p. 5; and James A. Johnston, Memo to Director, Bureau of Prisons Re: Mc Cain, Rufus R. #267-Az Stabbed by Young, Henry #244-Az, December 4, 1940 [Click here to view the document]. [Return]

(12)Romney N. Ritchey, Memorandum to the Warden Re: 267-AZ, McCain, December 3, 1940. (Henry Young file, NARA) [Return]

(13)Romney N. Ritchey, Memorandum to the Warden Re: 267-AZ, McCain, Rufus (Deceased), December 3, 1940. (Henry Young file, NARA) [Click here to view Ritchey's final report] [Return]

(14)James V. Bennett, Telegram to James A. Johnston, December 4, 1940. (Henry Young File, NARA). [Return]

Alcatraz on Trial