Selections from the Big Bustout of 1935… Introduction
by Kurt True

Emperor Joshua Norton I

Emperor Joshua Norton I, born in London in 1818 or 1819.

Emperor Joshua Norton I
Emperor Joshua Norton I, born in London in 1818 or 1819.

I'm from San Francisco. I didn't move there from someplace else. I was born there. Not that I harbor any prejudice against people who moved there from someplace else. After all, some the most celebrated and beloved of San Franciscans were born someplace else: Emperor Norton, Sam Clemens, Lotta Crabtree, Herb Caen, Melvin Beli, Janis Joplin, Harvey Milk, Johnny Mathis, Willie Mays.

But I was born in San Francisco, so naturally, I grew up hearing stories, both historical and apocryphal, about the State Penitentiary in San Quentin, San Quentin being only about a 45-minute drive (depending on traffic) from the very spot where they slapped my glistening fanny and tied off my belly button (24th and Valencia, for the record) in the twilight of the Eisenhower Administration.

Not until after I had graduated from college and settled into comfortable underemployment, however, did I ever hear the name Clyde Stevens, or learn of the bumbling prison break that he and his gang attempted on January 16, 1935.

My dad told me about it. We were driving back from the dump. It was November, 1998. My grandmother had just died. That's why we had to go to the dump.

Grandma was kind of a packrat. After she died, I found a styrofoam hat from Shakey's Pizza Parlor in her closet. I recognized the styrofoam hat as one that I had bitten a chunk out of in 1972. 1972 was before I had braces, so there was no mistaking the distinctive gouge that my overbite had left in the hat's spongy brim.

Grandma Rita and Tippy

Grandma Rita and Tippy, San Francisco, 1972.

Grandma Rita and Tippy
Grandma Rita and Tippy, San Francisco, 1972.

Anyway, the story my dad told me about the San Quentin breakout ignited in me a desire to know more about this little known episode from the Bay Area's sordid true crime past, and eventually I got around to reading Kenneth Lamott's San Quentin Chronicles and two of Clinton Duffy's books. (Clinton Duffy, San Quentin's Assistant Warden, when the breakout took place, became Warden in 1940.)

Soon I became so obsessed with Clyde Stevens and his revolving cast of henchmen, that I started researching their story at the California State Archive and the San Francisco Hall of Justice, and in the microfilm room at Berkeley's Doe Library. Many years of sorting through my grandmother's crap had honed within me the skills of a dogged and patient archivist.

After a couple years of research, I thought I had enough source material for a book, so I started writing one.

I said "Well, I've written blogs before. That's kind of like a book. I'll start writing a blog and eventually it'll turn into a book."

Turns out that's a terrible way to write a book. For me anyway. Writing a book isn't exactly a linear process. Sometimes, depending on what your research has turned up, you, the writer, need to skip ahead a few chapters. Maybe you're working on 1931, but you just found out something important that happened in 1938, and you have to hurry up and write it down before you forget where you put your notes. And, naturally, sometimes you need to revise things, flip passages around, straighten out a tangled clause, tone down an irreverent modifying phrase, correct the occasional factual error.

So I'm going to stop trying to write the book as a blog. What I'm going to do is publish short excerpts from the book here on and then one day, when I have all my passages flipped and flopped into the correct arrangement, all my clauses untangled and my facts checked, I'll publish The Big Bustout of 1935 as an ebook.

Or my heirs will. My little sister's a librarian, and she's twenty-three years younger than I am. If I kick the bucket before the manuscript is ready, she'll know what to do.

In case you're wondering, I still have the styrofoam hat. I couldn't bring myself to throw it away, and a good styrofoam hat can last 100,000 years.

The Big Bustout of 1935's introductory passage (revised somewhat from its original form) appears below the break.


Conlon Point

Looking west from Conlon Point, Wildcat Canyon.

Conlon Point
Looking west from Conlon Point, Wildcat Canyon.

There's an odd little quirk of human nature so widespread that I think there must be some neurological basis for it, and if there's a neurological basis for it, then i suppose it must serve some evolutionary purpose. Not having much expertise in neurology or evolutionary biology, I don't think I can explain how the quirk evolved or what purpose it serves, but I can tell you what the quirk is. It is the expectation that we can travel backwards in time.

I don't mean get in a time machine or travel at the speed of light in a rocket ship or anything as technologically advanced as that. I mean you get in your car or you get on a plane and you go to Tombstone or Deadwood or Sparta or Tahiti with the expectation that you're going to see the same Tombstone that Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp saw, or the same Deadwood that General Custer and Wild Bill Hickock saw, or you're going to see the Sparta you read about in Thucydides or the Tahiti you know from Gaugin's paintings.

Every summer from 1978 to 1987, I used to run into European tourists who had come to Chicago with every expectation of seeing Pierce Arrows and Nash coupes driving down Michigan Avenue with tommy-gun toting gangsters perched on the running boards. They'd wander into bars on Rush Street thinking they were going to meet flappers who drank bathtub gin and danced the Charleston.

Then I moved to Berkeley, and teenagers would get off the BART station downtown and ask me for directions to People's Park. I never understood why, until a coworker explained to me that People's Park was where hippies congregated in the 1960s and pursued all the sorts of hippy activities-- love-ins, sitar concerts, anti-war protests.

Well, naturally, by the time I got to Berkeley, there were no love-ins or anti-war protests or hippies in People's Park or anywhere else for that matter, and hardly anybody played the sitar. People's Park was a dangerous, garbage strewn, vermin infested stretch of blight, where drug addicts camped out in filthy makeshift shelters. I never went near the place.

But, of course, the teenagers didn't think that they were going to see that People's Park. They thought that the BART ride from Walnut Creek to Berkeley had transported them backwards through time, and they were going to go see the People's Park of 1967. They thought they were going to see people in bell bottoms and floppy hats sitting in circles singing folk music.

So don't come to Berkeley or San Francisco thinking you're going to see the Bay Area of the Stevens Gang. That Bay Area is gone forever. You'll find pieces of it here and there. The building where Rudolph Straight pulled his last bank job in 1930 is still there on College and Alcatraz in Berkeley, but it's not a bank anymore. There's a corner grocery store where the bank used to be. The Whitcomb Hotel, scene of the Stevens' Gang's most technically ambitious robbery, still stands on Market Street in San Francisco not far from City Hall, but there's no bank there anymore either. The hideout in the Western Addition where Clyde Stevens, Albert Kessell and Dominick Parella plotted their shocking crime wave was demolished decades ago. In fact the whole neighborhood is gone, a casualty of a vast post-war urban renewal project.

If you want to get a sense of what that world was like, I think the best thing you can do is go climb on top of a peak where you can get a good look across the bay. I'd recommend the Conlon Trail in Wildcat Canyon. You can stand on the peak there, and if you concentrate, you can get a picture in your mind of what this area looked like when our story began, back when there was no Bay Bridge, or Golden Gate Bridge, or Sutro Tower, or Treasure Island, when the skyline was shorter, and the neighborhood on Twin Peaks didn't exist yet, and trains hauled freight down the Embarcadero, and there were foghorns.

I'm old enough that I can remember the foghorns. You could hear them just about anywhere in San Francisco when I was a boy, so I suppose you could hear them all over the Bay Area-- Berkeley, Marin County, the Delta. I suggest then that we imagine our whole story punctuated with the long, deep bellow of distant foghorns, from beginning to end-- from Rudolph Straight's botched stick up on College and Alcatraz on January 15, 1930, to the day almost nine years later, when Ed Davis, the last survivor of Clyde Stevens' last desperate criminal plot took his last few steps.

Turning to a prison guard, Davis said "Quite a congregation. Hope they get their money's worth."

Then the guard escorted him into San Quentin's gas chamber.

Kurt True
17 apr 2017