Alcatraz Assailed Again, this Time in Drama about a 1941 Murder

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Murder in the First
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th Street
New York, NY

In the summer of 1990, I was on vacation with my family in San Francisco. We took a ride on the fabled cable car, toured Napa Valley, had dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf and did all the other things tourists do in the romantic, alabaster city overlooking the bay.

And then we went to Alcatraz.

Alcatraz, "The Rock,’ the imposing, foreboding prison that sits on an island in San Francisco Bay, became a tourist attraction a few years after the federal government closed it in 1963. We visited on a late afternoon. It was windy, chilly and a light rain pelted the island. It was grim. We heard the stories of famous inmates, such as Al Capone, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, the ‘birdman’ of Alcatraz. We were taken down the old cell blocks and, for fun, put inside some of them.

I was scared to death.

I had that same feeling as I sat in a New York theater a few days ago and saw Murder in the First, a scorching crime drama about Alcatraz by Dan Gordon that was based on the true story of an inmate there. It is a play in which Alcatraz, and the entire U.S. penal system, is put on trial along with Willie Moore, charged with killing a guard after Moore emerged from three years in solitary confinement, “the hole.” His lawyer charged that Alcatraz’ officials were guilty of psychological abuse of Moore and that turned him into a killer.

In the play, set in 1941, Moore’s young public defender befriends him and makes the trial a national sensation. There are numerous subplots, but the real story is the attorney’s and defendant’s efforts to blame the overly harsh discipline of Alcatraz on the crime.

Director Michael Parva does a fine job of making the play run along at an electric pace and smoothly incorporating the subplots into the main story. This prevents the story from remaining just a courtroom drama, which is hard to keep entertaining over two hours.

Parva receives an emotional, gut-wrenching performance from Chad Kimball as Moore (who starred in the history play Memphis last year), originally put in prison for stealing $5 to feed himself and his kid sister. The innocent man then became a hardened convict at “The Rock.” Director Parva gets a frenetic, highly charged performance from Guy Burnet as Moore’s lawyer, Henry Davidson. Davidson, scurrying about the stage, battles the penal system, the court system, and his own older brother to defend Moore, constantly arguing and venting his anger in a superb performance.

The deep question of the play is how much punishment is enough for one man. What can one possibly do to deserve three years in solitary? Does solitary make one a better prisoner? Do prisons really rehabilitate those sent there?

In the play, Davidson calls to the stand a guard who beat Moore and prison officials who ordered the beatings. Warden Harold Humson, played well by Robert Hogan, refuses to budge from his lifelong theory that strong punishment makes good prisoners and that strong punishment is needed for people like Moore, tossed into the hole for trying to escape. He brags that nobody ever escaped from Alcatraz.

In the end, after a fiery courtroom finale, it is suggested that the result of the 1941 case was one of the reasons that the federal government shut down Alcatraz in 1963.

There has always been something about prisons that has attracted filmmakers and playwrights, from the 1930s films of James Cagney to the contemporary series Oz and Prison Break and stage dramas such as Murder in the First. Many of the prison films have been set at Alcatraz, such as Clint Eastwood's Escape from Alcatraz, Burt Lancaster's The Birdman of Alcatraz, and who could forget Sean Connery in The Rock? (Not a prison film, admittedly, but it does take place on Alcatraz). Last spring there was a much hyped, eerie television series, Alcatraz, that suggested the prisoners disappeared from the island the night it was shut down and have started to reappear in San Francisco, with a vengeance.

All of this helped to make Alcatraz the most famous and notorious prison in the world, and now Murder in the First is adding to that reputation.

For historians, Murder in the First is a good look at Alcatraz and criminal justice in 1941. There are nice historical touches, such as discussions about baseball in that year and radio broadcasts of World War II, raging in Europe (the U.S. had not entered it yet).

There is one big problem, and that is the true history of the story. The story is based on incidents in the life of Henry Young, an inmate at Alcatraz in the late 1930s. He did spent three years in solitary and he did kill a guard, but the similarities to the story end there. The real Young was a hardened criminal who had committed a murder and spent time in two prisons by the time he wound up at Alcatraz, not the innocent boy depicted on stage and in the film. The end of the play, and what happened to Young, is wildly different from the end of the play and movie. The personality of the real Young -- a cynical tough guy -- was quite different from Willie Moore’s.

The theater makes it clear that this is a work of fiction based on a real story. Like all Hollywood and theater stories it is pretty exaggerated, but, even so, Murder in the First, real or a little imagined, is a powerful show and a must see for theater lovers.

Ironically, as a shuttered prison Alcatraz is as much a part of the national landscape as it was when open. The government turned the prison into a museum and it is mobbed with tourists every day of the year. Tourists crowd on to boats at a wharf in San Francisco and ride out to the island for guided prison tours. On the wharf there is a large, popular gift shop that sells books, posters. hats, towels and even official "Alcatraz" baby clothes.

The success of Alcatraz as a prison museum spurred other states to turn their closed jails and prisons into museums, too, and most of them have been quite popular with visitors. There are more than three dozen converted jails and prison in the U.S., and more all over the world, that have become museums and tourist attractions. They are old and foreboding. The Eastern State Pennsylvania Prison, in Philadelphia, over 100 years old, matches Alcatraz in sending shivers down the backs of those who visit. Some other prisons turned museums in America are the Burlington County Prison in New Jersey, Ohio State Penitentiary, Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Old Newgate Prison in Connecticut, and the Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona (yes, the one featured in all the western movies). There are many smaller jails that have been turned into prisons. Some jails have become restaurants, too (there are no metal files in the cakes there).

Perhaps plays like Murder in the First and the spotlight they shine on the history of prison deficiencies will help to hasten the reforms in the entire U.S. penal system.

PRODUCTION Producers: The Directors Company, Chase Mishkin, Barbara and Buddy Freitag, Invictus Theater Company; Sets: Mark Nayden; Lighting: David Castaneda; Music & Sound: Quentin Chiappetta; Costumes: Tristan Raines.

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