John Paul Chase

Dedicated to the Interpretative Staff
and Volunteers in the Park
of Alcatraz
who work together to preserve
this unique bit of our national heritage

Every day the public enemies lined up in the yard, waited for a whistle to blow, and walked down to the industries area. For a few minutes at a time, they got a glimpse of the free world, laying across the blue-green water of the San Francisco Bay. The pleasure boats and passenger liners going in and out of the port, the smell of the chocolate factory, the sound of the cars on the Golden Gate Bridge or sometimes even the sound of a woman's laugh that bounced off the waves until it reached the convicts' ears reminded the men that there was this thing called freedom -- the ability to go where you pleased, eat what you wanted, sleep when you desired -- that still existed beyond Alcatraz.

One man knew the very things you could get on the distant blocks and streets of San Francisco. John Paul Chase was a murderer who'd grown up not far from his cell on the Rock's "Seedy Street". In 1934, he and his partner Lester Gillis, better known as George "Baby-Face" Nelson, killed two FBI agents in a Wisconsin ambush. The G-Men fatally wounded Nelson and the next day Chase and Nelson's wife dumped the body on a deserted road and went their separate ways. The Government caught up with Chase in California, brought him back East to be tried, and handed him a life sentence, plenty of time to reflect on his misdeeds and think about the things he could no longer do.

He dreamed of being able to cross that water he saw for a few minutes every day, dreamed of getting in a boat and heading home to Sausalito, just three miles away beneath the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Chase found he could fill the empty hours of the evening by painting. What inspired him was the view he saw every day on the way to work. Alcatraz guards would not allow him to go outside and set up his easel where he could draw from nature, so Chase memorized the details of the shoreline and, when he came home at night, filled in another piece of the illustration board he kept in his cell. His depiction of the San Francisco skyline wasn't perfect -- some of the hilltop skyscrapers he drew existed only in his imagination. Perhaps as he worked, he closed his eyes and dreamed of walking in his paintings, looking back and thinking about how he might draw Alcatraz, alone out in the Bay. When he finished his work, he signed his name on the last panel, on a boat headed for home....

The paintings featured in this gallery form a 180 degree panorama of the view to the south, the west, and the northwest of Alcatraz. They are oil on illustration board. These images are made from direct copies on display at Alcatraz Island. The originals are in the care of the J. Porter Shaw Library of the National Maritime Museum and may not be viewed by the general public owing to their fragile condition.

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