Henri Young

The True Conversionist

Many hearts hardened against Henri Young. The Catholicism which he practiced brought him into conflict, not only with Warden Johnston and the staff towards whom he directed a righteous vengeance; but also with his fellow prisoners who had heard that he'd confessed his sins. They feared his betrayal. Despite the testimony at the 1941 trial, many prisoners shared Johnston's conviction that Young had pulled a fast one on the jury, that Rufus McCain was the innocent victim of Young's machinations. When Young told a reporter the secret of how the Barker gang had shattered the tool-proof bars, he became a snitch. Those who carried on the Barker gang after the 1939 escape attempt sought to get even with Young for his treason.

Rufus Whitney Franklin (335-AZ), who had survived a 1938 breakout attempt which claimed the lives of fellow convict Thomas Limerick (363-AZ) and Officer Royal Cline, forged a new gang in the Isolation unit. Among his recruits were Joseph Cretzer (548-AZ), Cretzer's brother-in-law Arnold Kyle (547-AZ), and bank robber Willis Coulter (621-AZ). In April 1944, while Johnston fretted that Young might use his Washington trial to make a fool of him again, Henri walked up to Cretzer in the yard during one of their twice-weekly exercise periods. The previous Saturday, Cretzer had called Young a "cock-sucker". Young, who was especially sensitive being called a homosexual, asked Cretzer to take these words back. Cretzer would not and the two began to fight. Kyle jumped to Cretzer's aid, but before anyone could hurt anyone else, Senior Officer J. Comerford pulled the two apart. This was Young's last trip to solitary.(1)

Ten months later, on February 27, 1945, Young was returning from the yard with the other prisoners in isolation when Franklin and Coulter sneaked up behind him. They drew a pair of knives which the kitchen crew had left for them in the yard and leaped on Young. Coulter missed. Franklin plunged his weapon into Young's shoulder.

An exchange of telegrams between Johnston and Bennett resurrected the bureaucrats' anxieties about the press's depiction of Young as the victim of Alcatraz. Bennett's telegram recollected the humiliation that the BOP had suffered during Young's 1941 trial for stabbing McCain. That memory curbed the anger which Bennett held towards Franklin. Bennett told Johnston that he didn't want to prosecute Franklin unless Young happened to die. He did not want "another instance of putting the institution on trial." Against this prospect Bennett held out the earnest hope that Young would survive his wounds. Johnston assured the Director that Young would live.(2)

Johnston blamed Young as well as Franklin and Coulter for the attack. To prevent "feuding" between them, he revoked Young's yard privileges. When Young got out of the hospital, he found himself indefinately confined to his isolation cell.

Henri could not understand why he was treated this way. Not only did Johnston disobey Federal prison regulations by not giving him the stipulated one hour of exercise every day for prisoners in isolation, the warden also refused to transfer him to another institution for his own safety. Henri rightly pointed out that he was the victim of the stabbing, not its perpetrator. Franklin had been his sworn enemy for years. Young doubted that Franklin would soften contempt for him. He did not know Coulter. He had no fear of the other prisoners in D-Block. In his own eyes, he'd become a model of prisoner reform, confessing his sins and seeking his just punishment in an earthly Purgatory which was meant to cleanse him for some greater work which God was preparing for him.

As one seeking conversion, he had set himself the task of conforming to right thinking and right action according to the Catholic way. Young had sworn off aggression, having learned that "he who holds malice hurts himself more than he hurts the fellow towards whom it is directed." He did not claim to be a pacifist. "I retain," he wrote to Bennett, "the fundamental human right of protecting myself against aggression." Because Franklin and Coulter were locked up and because Young knew of no other enemies in the isolation unit, Young felt he needed no special protection, "above all, not this mentally detrimental protection of being locked up in my cell for days on end." Contradictorily he also wanted a transfer because Johnston knew that his life was in danger.(3)

Young began submitting numerous petitions to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco calling for relief of his grievances. Henri sought to obtain Federally mandated recreational yard privileges of one hour a day; to prevent prison censors from reading his mail to his priest and sister, and to secure for himself the right to work in the prison industries. Alcatraz officials saw these writs as a nuisance and, later, Springfield officials considered them as a possible symptom of mental illness.(4)

One of the most unusual petitions presented by Young was a "Writ of Quo Warranto". This document questioned if Dr. Romney Ritchey had forfeited his franchise as Alcatraz's Chief Medical Officer by neglecting his duty to care for the prisoners in Isolation. "The hospital attention [towards these inmates] is discriminatory, foul, inhumane, and callous," Young wrote. "The official reaction to illness....appears to be: 'Die and prove that you are ill."(5)

Ritchey, Young claimed, had treated his wound and then locked him up in "a filthy caged room" which was normally used to house the insane. For the duration of his recuperation, he claimed, he had no heat, no water, no toilet facilities, and no attention from orderlies. The treatment had driven other prisoners to the brink. Johnston's report on the writ mentions the case of William Dunnock who Young contended was driven insane by the treatment given him by Dr. Ritchey.(6)

The petitions went to the District Court in San Francisco where Judge Michael Roche still sat on the bench. Judge Roche declined to "interfere with the prison authorities in the exercise of their discretion" and denied the writ. Johnston was relieved. "Young has submitted total of ten petitions, each of which attempts to express his own ideas of how the penitentiary should be run and inmates treated," he wrote in his report.(7) The wording betrayed Johnston's own feud with Young and his continuing resentment towards the man who had put him on trial.

Special Progress Reports authored under Johnston's direction would continue to resist recommending Young's transfer to another institution. They would make much of his record of fights, instigation of strikes, the McCain stabbing, the escape attempt, wasting food, shouting, and smoking at unauthorized times. Even the very last such report, written more than four years after Young's last brawl with Cretzer, urged that Young "should be retained in D-segregation in view of his assaultive tendencies and past record....Continue present program."(8) None of these reports would mention Young's religious conversion or Franklin's attempt to murder him. Johnston's 1948 book about Alcatraz would mention Young only as a bank robber who had stabbed another inmate and received three years for manslaughter.(9)

Against the obstinancy of the warden and the homicidal vindictiveness of certain of his fellow prisoners, Young continued to struggle. During the 1946 Blast-Out, he received a visit from Joseph Cretzer. Cretzer pointed the rifle he'd taken from the guards at the helpless Young, smiled broadly, and then went to shoot the guards he and his confederates had collected in one of the C-Block cells.(10) Young never saw Cretzer again. He became, along with other D-Block inmates, a target for the grenades and small artillery shells lobbed through the window guards by angry BOP officers and U.S. Marines who imagined that Cretzer, Coy, and the other leaders of the Blast-Out had fortified themselves inside the isolation unit. Young wrote to his Aunt Amelia:

My room is pock-marked with fragments of shells. At first I and another fellow sat on the floor until he got hit in the shoulder. But it wasn't a bad hit. Then we used mattresses and my books for a barricade, and crawled under my steel bunk for protection. And there we stayed until it was all over.

I prayed, slept and talked. Most of the time I prayed for us men, the officers who were held as hostages, and that God would give the officers who were trying to capture those men the courage to do so. Despite the heavy firing, in between my prayers I slept well and warm....

All the radiators and windows are shot out. I am wrapped up here in a blanket trying to get this first letter off to you. I hope that you have read the names of all those who took part in the escape, so that you will know that I had no part in it.(11)

In this letter Young also spelled out his new vision of himself:

When I was a criminal I was a criminal. Now that I know God I mean to do the things of God. That is Truth. Christ died for Truth....And I am yet going to make people very uncomfortable who try to make God after their own image, instead of doing the works of God.(12)

The Alcatraz censors and Warden Johnston undoubtedly shivered when they read these words. But Young's conduct record remained clean until 1947 and then the infractions and the punishments were trivial. Instructor R.R. Baker wrote Young up for trading his Esterbrook fountain pen and five points for auto thief Edwin Sharpe's (689-AZ) brand new Eversharp ball point:

Stated he did not see why he could not swap his pen....When warned he could not do this and could not write in letter to sister that he had made a good trade, became very angry stating what silly rules we had and how dumb the people were that ran this prison from lowest to the highest official. Pens taken up and put in their jacket. 7-18-47 E.J. Miller, Asoc. W.(13)

Two weeks later, Instructor Ordway found a nail and a bit of string concealed in Young's tobacco pouch. Young confessed to using the nail for punching holes in paper and the string for holding up a writing board. E.J. Miller warned him against keeping such contraband and fined him two weeks yard privileges.

It would be Young's last misconduct report on the Rock. A year later, following Johnston's retirement, he would be undergoing tests at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.


(1)Conduct Record for 244-AZ, p. 6 (back). [Return]

(2)Johnston, Telegram to Bennett, February 28, 1945. (Click here to see the document) [Return]

(3)Young, Letter to James B. Bennet [sic], March 18, 1945. (Click here to see the document) [Return]

(4)U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Special Progress Report for Henry Young 244-AZ, September 5, 1945; also Medical Center for Federal Prisoners Springfield, Missouri, First Presentation Progress Report for YOUNG, Henry 6838-H, November 8, 1948, pp. 2-3. [Return]

(5)U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Report on Writ of Quo Warranto, September 11, 1945. (Click here to see the document) [Return]

(6)Ibid. [Return]

(7)Ibid. [Return]

(8)U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz, Special Progress Report for Henry Young 244-AZ, June 2, 1948. [Return]

(9)Johnston, Alcatraz: Island Prison: and the men who live there, New York, 1949. [Return]

(10)William Gaddis, The Birdman of Alcatraz, 1955. [Return]

(11)Young, Letter to Amelia Young, May 13, 1946. [Return]

(12)Ibid. [Return]

(13)Conduct Record for 244-AZ, p. 6 (back). [Return]

The Last of Henri Young