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On the 40th anniversary of the Memphis Three’s escape from a Tennessee jail, Warden Roy “Fireman” Farrow finally got to meet his tormentors. He was the last warden to leave Alcatraz in a long-tailed boat.
Fireman Farrow, now approaching his 75th birthday— so called for once dousing an inmate who was in the process of self-immolation — and living in a quiet apartment block near Soi Buakhao, never thought he would experience the moment when he would relive his time with the Memphis Three, the escapees that had dramatically changed his life and lost him his job.
In an interview with the press last year, Fireman Farrow reminisced: “The closing of the jail was abrupt and final. The inmates, dressed in traditional prison garb for the occasion, were taken by long-tail boat in two trips from the island. Other guards — some like me who had been on the island for as long as they could remember — went in a third boat to San Francisco Bay. It was a sad day.”
Watching Christopher “Moose” Flanagan, Craig “Boyztown” Rippenhof and Johnnie “Slydog” Sullieman leave on the second boat gave Warden Farrow a sense that “justice had yet to be served”. Known later as the Memphis Three, little did he know that forty years later, the men who had left such an indelible mark on his life and career at “the Rock” and then in a new high-security jail in Memphis, would by chance meet again.
Warden Farrow was the guard who gave the newsmen their final tour of Alcatraz prison. He recalls that at one point he stopped and chipped away at the plaster of Moose Flanagan’s cell walls with his bare hands to show one of the reasons why the facility needed to be closed.
“It seems sinful that this famous prison, the impenetrable Rock which stood in defiance of such men as Al Capone, should die such a slow death,” he is reported to have lamented to the Tribune at the time.
The main reason Alcatraz was closed was financial: the prison had always been an expensive proposition as it was located on an island and all provisions had to be delivered by boat. One congressman claimed that it would have cost less to house the inmates at the Waldorf Astoria with room service than it cost the taxpayers to keep them at Alcatraz.
Further, an engineering survey performed in 1961 found that the buildings on Alcatraz were in highly precarious condition, and estimated the cost of repair at five million dollars: Alcatraz was subjected to saltwater being blown onto it incessantly, and the metal reinforcements within the concrete had rusted and corroded. Alongside the crumbling concrete and rusting steel, electrical and water conduits were also rusting through.
Alcatraz became a civilian prison in 1934 and during its 29 years of service there was never a successful escape. Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin dug their way out but their bodies were never found. It was assumed that they had drowned in the bay. Only John Paul Scott made it, but having swum to the shore he was so exhausted he was found unconscious and near death.
Following the closure of Alcatraz, the Memphis Three, as they were collectively known at the time, were relocated to a Tennessee maximum-security jail along with Warden Farrow. They successfully escaped on 18th March 1971.
The three men carried out an elaborate scheme and managed to escape Tennessee’s maximum-security state prison using several well-planned ploys: the convicts managed to first drug then overpower and gag Warden Farrow, stole his clothing, his credit cards and identification. They then made their way onto the roof, where they were flown off by helicopter, never to be seen again.
Warden Farrow, borrowing a famous quote from Calvin Coolidge said of the escape: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; genius will not: unrewarded genius is almost a proverb; education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
The mastermind of the escape, Craig “Boyztown” Rippenhof, a clandestine Dutch operative and colonist, was best remembered for being a laddies’ man. And, in 1971, after gaining a reputation for debauchery and deviancy, he and his fellow escapees drugged Warden Farrow and fled to safety.
Rippenhof would later write about the escape in his popular memoirs, and though many have speculated that his story was wildly embellished, evidence from scene of the jailbreak seems to back up his account.
Rippenhof’s memoirs suggest that the Memphis Three were lifted off the jailhouse roof by four masked accomplices who had hijacked a chopper from a nearby airport by threatening to kill the pilot. After landing near the Ohio River, the pilot was released, and Rippenhof and his accomplices disappeared without trace. The fugitives have ever since remained on the lam.
To nobody’s surprise, prison administrators started to look for a scapegoat on whom to heap the blame for the escape. The finger was squarely pointed at Warden Farrow for his mistakes during the breakout: the failure to heed an alarm tripped by other guards being held hostage by the inmates, and for misplacing the keys to the medical laboratory, from which they stole the chloroform that was used to drug him.
Farrow recalled the event when he spoke to the Memphis Daily Examiner six months after the escape: “I think I was clearly held back to be used in the cover-up. Following the breakout, I had not even been interviewed about this case. It has became a never-ending nightmare and its revelations are truly Kafkaesque.”
The prison guard union said that the prison was short of 22 staff members at the time of the escape, and that was the real reason behind it. After a series of intense and acrimonious interrogations that followed, Farrow finally tossed his security badge at prison officials, saying they were “scapegoating” him.
Despite police roadblocks and aid from the FBI, all three escapees evaded capture. Farrow was subsequently fired and transferred to a Beaumont prison for “reckless endangerment”. He never got over the trauma and later retired from the service altogether.
Then, by a curious coincidence, after forty years of harbouring lingering psychotic hostility towards the Memphis Three, they met again, this time in far more convivial surroundings than Alcatraz, California.
Today, they are all the best of friends and can be seen from time to time propping up the bar into the early hours at Alcatraz GoGo Bar in Pattaya, although Rippenhof’s regular early departures are regarded by the remaining three as highly suspect.