Thursday, January 11, 2007

Leon "Whitey" Thompson, "Last Train to Alcatraz."(1988)

I've always enjoyed the stories of men/women in desperate circumstances. When you pare away all the artifice of a social personality, what do you have left? These are the situations in which one's expressed values find their true test. Whether the story be about extreme poverty, crime, disaster or war... I believe we can access a truer part of humanity by examining people's actions in crisis. A devastating form of extended crisis is being placed within a prison. The conditions and dangers of incarceration seem to elicit the rawest behaviors from a person's core. Inmates are stripped of almost everything but their will and their word.

Over the years I've read some of the classics in the prison genre. There are several quality works written by those outside the system, including Pete Early's Hot House (Leavenworth) and Daniel Bergner's God of the Rodeo (Angola). Others were written by people with experience inside prisons. To write New Jack, Ted Conover went undercover and worked as a C.O. for a year at Sing Sing. There are plenty of works about foreign prisons- Slavomir Rawicz's Long Walk details his escape from a Siberian prison circa WWII. And there is even a handy "How To" book by Jeffrey Ian Ross (Behind Bars), which provides strategy tips in order to enhance your survival chances should you land in prison. Ultimately memoirs of actual convicts seem to have the most authenticity. From the convict's perspective, I enjoyed Jimmy Lerner's book You've Got Nothing Coming and the classic Belly of the Beast, by Jack Abbot.

I decided to continue my exploration of first-hand accounts with Leon "Whitey" Thompson's book Last Train to Alcatraz. I was pleased to find a signed copy of the work on a back shelf at Half Price Books for $3. Thompson was able to commit over 30 successful bank robberies during the 1940's, before a prospective partner-in-crime dropped a dime on him. He received a 15 year sentence, of which he spent ten years at McNeill Federal Penitentiary in Washington. Having developed an incorrigible reputation, he was eventually ensnared in a conflict with a guard. He was transferred to the most infamous prison in the federal system... "The Rock"- Alcatraz.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to describing the routines of daily life in prison, both at McNeill and Alcatraz. Whitey was generally regarded as one of the meanest inhabitants of the cell block. He participated in an extortion racket, and generally built a shell of hate around himself. He was always on the lookout to exact revenge on his fellow inmates, for any perceived slight. After his transfer to "The Rock" Whitey began to experience a slow change in his character. His legendary recalcitrance began to recede... and he developed better relations with his fellow inmates. He even softened a bit toward a couple of the guards. One of the main causes of this transformation was his discovery of painting. It's clear that Whitey would have had a hard time not extending his stay without that diversion.

In fact Thompson's release at the end of this segment in his life, along with his noble efforts in creating a post-incarceration existence for himself, are nothing short of amazing. Whitey includes a basic outline of some of the formative events of his youth... and the overall tale is quite harrowing. He was completely without family support, and left to fend for himself during the difficult years of the depression. Even his experiences in the Navy during WWII suggest that he was fated for self-destruction. The negotiation of the specific mores and interrelationships of prison life honed his character to a sharp edge, and presented significant challenges to his readjustment into society. There is obviously much more to read about Whitey Thompson. In fact, he wrote several more books throughout his lifetime. I'm aware that he made a return trip to prison after Alcatraz. But Last Train to Alcatraz gives us a full plate- with grit, horror, and ultimately... redemption.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, when Mr. Thompson died last year, somebody finally got around to going to San Bruno and looking up his record in the archives. Turns out he was no bank robber at all...his book, sadly for those who lionized him at Alcatraz, is mostly hooey.

Sorry

1:42 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I'm all ears anonymous. Who is your source, and what did they find out? Thompson's dead... and you can post the information anonymously... so go ahead... tell us what you know.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew Leon in 1957. I was
his girl friend at the time He went to McNeil Island because he had robbed the Eagles Nest up on Hiway 49 near Jackson. I did not know he had done that. If
you want more on that check
the Sacramento City Library
Archives for April or May
1957. He told me he was from Lodi. He was 35, I was
5 months away from being 18. There's a lot more to
this story, but I won't go
into it. I don't believe
he robbed 33 banks. HA!. He
did tell me to not wait
around for he was he had three strikers. I don't believe that either. He was no lady's may either. It is not true no one wrote to him. I did at Mc Neil, he never replied even though
he had give me his things to keep for him. When I went to Alcatraz and heard that I got really angry. He had the poor me syndrome. He in actually did me a favor. I loved him. I am wondering about his books now. I picked up Merry-Go-Round and wonder what is true there. He left me out, the people he robbed the Eagles nest out on Jackson Rd. with Little Mike, Margaret a gal,she was my friend or so I thought, & Larry. I was put on three years Federal Probation because of being with them when they were on their way to do it again with a sawed off shotgun. I prayed to God to get out of that & if Whitey & Larry hadn't of got into a fight over ME. I don't know what would have happened. Yes, Larry turned him in, but in doing so he got caught as well. He did me a favor and I wrote an thanked him & forgave him for messing around with me,which was our only way out. More, but check the archives
My picture & name is in there, I got tricked into letting my picture be taken.
The F.B.I. said I'd get a
lighter sentence so the News Paper man said. I got three years Federal Probation and was released in two when I got married.
I'm sorry, but I'm sure his
wife didn't have a good time
of it. Ck April or May 1957
to find out about that little job which was no
bank robbery.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

anon,

Thanks a lot for posting your information. I found it very interesting.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Adding to my previous comments made about Leon Whitey Thompson & the
Eagles Nest, which is still
there. I'm sure since the
crime was so old it won't be found in the court house files, but maybe. It might
be on the fish in the room
to the right on the first floor. The Sacramento Bee, I forgot to mention, is the paper that wrote up the artices. So if you go to the Sacramento State Library not the City Library as I formerly said, up town on 900 N Street, 2nd Floor, that is where the Archieves are and they do have the year 1957.
I was told anyone going to
look through the fish should
take lots of quarters. He
duped lots of people and
they should learn the truth.
I haven't finished reading
the Merry Go Round as yet
but I think it is more fiction than anything else. He never served any 24 years. In 1957 Whitey Thompson road with the then Sacramento Chapter of the Hells Angels. He was not one of them, but he came out of no-where and started riding with them. He rode a Norton. We all went up to Daily City sometimes and hung out with the bike club called the MoFoes. The Sacramento Chapter did not mix with the Oakland branch because they, the Oakland branch, were just to mean. We had a vice-president that ran the Angels here. All the Angels did here, was drink and party, most of them contruction workers. We partied in Vallejo a couple of times with a bike crowd there, I can't remember their name and Helvicia Park. I had run away from home, the conditions there were so bad for me. I think a lot of what Whitey put into his books were what other people went through. He
lied in his books to look
look big & bad. Not any of that I ever thought he was until he pulled that Armed Robbery. I saw a different man than what he wanted himself to look to be. He was quiet and alof.Well, anyone who wants to find the real truth why he went to McNeil Island can certainly do that
now. He got 15 years alright, five counts each
for whatever I can't remember now. He was not
in jail in 1957 when I road
with him until he pulled
that Armed Robbery. How stupid was that. I never even knew he had a sawed off shotgun. It was
hidden under the front seat.
I really think that Larry,
I can't remember his name
for sure, really wanted out
or he could see how distraugt I was.why would
he have started messing around with me. If he had
robbed any banks before I
knew him he sure would have
gotten more than 9 years,
because 1948 to 1957 is only
that. Five years at between
McNeil & Alcatraz and maybe
a few more after that, to me doesn't add up to 24 years. You can figure it out yourself if you write the dates down and the time between when he wasn't in prison. He has done a lot of good I suppose, and I was glad to see he was living a good life in 1986 or 87 when I saw him on T.V. Whitey was his own
worse enemy. I,m Glad whoever you are that you put that up about him never being a bank robber. So I could people the truth. My name is Carole. Oh! Whitey
was 34 and not 35.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Like I said before, I really appreciate the fact that you are willing to share your memories, and provide an alternate view. Please feel free to share more anecdotes if you think of them. I know I find them interesting, and I'm sure that anybody else who arrives at this post through Google would be interested as well.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We went to Alcatraz some ten years ago and met Whitey, bought this book he signed it and I really enjoyed it, I'd like to know the rest of his life what happened in later years?

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Regardless of whether or not Whitey's story is completely factual I still count it as one of the best reads - ever.

The followup book "Alcatraz Merry Go Round" is equally riveting, and I was looking forward to the book he was writing before he died.

I am visiting the Bay Area tomorrow from New Zealand, and might just have to go check out some records for myself and find out what really happened.

5:49 PM  
Blogger bill said...

I met Whitey years ago and bought his book and signed it; I actually intimidated him to the point he got so scared he wrote "Best Bill" instead of Best wishes. He was pretty much a Punk!

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know whether Whitey had any particular tatoo on his back or shoulder area? this one would be unique.

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes it was of an unfinished electric chair that was started by another prisioner which i dont know the name of. i went to alcatraz on 3 different occasions and actually saw it on my last visit.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous and Bill... simply said ..BITE ME >>>HELEN AND WHITEY.. the ex girlfriend sounds like a woman scorned and bill you can only aspire to be the man whitey was. I was his neighbor ..I attended his and helens funeral..they both loved my fried chicken. And whitey did have 4 wolves ..By the by I met them too/. Dick

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People DON'T go to prison for NO reason. SHAME ON YOU FOR TALKING ABOUT A DEAD MAN!!!!!!!!!!

2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bill yer a punk and a pussy...whitey woulda kicked yer head in if he was younger..go fuck yerself.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I CAN SAY THAT UNTIL I READ THIS BLOG, I THOUGHT THE LAST TRAIN TO ALCATRAZ WAS A TRUE STORY. I FEEL REALLY STUPID FOR BELIEVING IT AND FEEL LIKE I WAS A LITTLE DECIEVED. I DO WANT TO THANK EVERYONE FOR ALL THEIR COMMENTS(EXCEPT FOR ALL THE NEGATIVE ONES ABOUT LEON BEING INTIMIDATED) DO ES ANYONE KNOW WHERE I CAN BY BOTH MERRY GO ROUND AND LAST TRIN TO ALCATRAZ?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Terry Trent said...

Scorned? She sounds like she was there every step of the way.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seemed a nice guy turned his life around and his words where he was putting into society what he had taken out , book was a good read .

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He seemed to be a punk,didn't he say in one book he had sex and partied with a female minor

5:06 PM  

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