Vaughn Hardacker here: In my last post I wrote about Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia. I’d like once again to cover a true crime case, this one much closer to home. I’d like to introduce you to The Alcatraz Eel.
Who was the ALCATRAZ EEL ?
John Millage Stadig – a young man from northern Maine – who, through his own genius and daring, became a folk hero and legend in a decade of criminals comprising the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde, Roy Gardner and Machine Gun Kelly.
John Stadig was born in Jemptland (about two miles from where I live) near Caribou in northern Maine in December 1908, Stadig moved to St. Francis with his family and later across the St. John River to St. Francis, New Brunswick. In his rather short life, he had also taken up residence in Bradbury and Bangor, Maine as well as Boston, Massachusetts; Indianapolis, Indiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Washington state, and Kansas.
Stadig came from a long line of mechanically inclined people. He also worked on log drives, keeping motors going on boats, and worked the shore, where his name is carved in a rock at “The Ledge” along the St. John River. He tinkered with electricity and was a store clerk, but never stayed at one job too long. Dead at 28, he spent many years in prison.
John Stadig’s early life was calm. From an affluent family, he could have been educated or gone on to do anything he wanted but during the Depression years he found his own way to make money, using plates and printing presses to print counterfeit money. That part of his life brought him to several federal prisons, including McNeil Island in Washington, Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and Leavenworth, Kansas.
His early crimes included motor vehicle crimes, petty larceny, larceny and violation of the Dyer Act, the national motor vehicle act that made interstate transportation of stolen vehicles a federal crime. His first prison term began in Boston in June 1927 when he was 19 years old.
It was in New Brunswick that he was first arrested for making counterfeit money. That was June 1930. He served some time in Canadian jails, but his notoriety increased when he was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada in November 1931 and he began his first term in a federal prison.
He and four other men were arrested for making $100,000 in $5, $10 and $20 bills. He testified against the others and was sentenced to 18 months in the Nevada State Prison.
Within 10 months, he was arrested again for counterfeiting, this time in Chicago. He escaped from federal marshals on his way to court, only to be arrested again two months later for counterfeiting in San Francisco.
Stadig did time in several federal prisons, including McNeil Island in Washington, Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and Leavenworth, Kansas, where he ended his life by cutting his jugular vein. Sentenced to six years in prison, he was sent to McNeil Island, from which he escaped within one month. Recaptured, he was sentenced to two more years in prison.
Stadig was among the first 50 civilians jailed at Alcatraz, which was built as a military fortress in 1853 and used as a Civil War prison in 1861. Closed by the military in 1934, it became a notorious jail. He was taken to Alcatraz in August 1934. Two months later, he was taken to Oregon to be tried on counterfeiting charges. Convicted again, he escaped from federal marshals by jumping from a moving train while en route to Alcatraz. Having slipped by his guards on two different occasions, he was given his nickname: The Alcatraz Eel.
Recaptured seven days later, he was returned to Alcatraz where he was confined in the dungeon cells below the prison’s main cell blocks, where problem prisoners were kept in darkness and solitary confinement. Dungeon prisoners have described their time there: “There’s no light. It’s wet. You’re in shackles. You’re naked. It’s horribly cold. There are rats and bugs.” One prisoner, Henri Young, (portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the movie: Murder in the First) whose original arrest was stealing $5.00‡ from a store that was also a post office–which made it a federal offense–spent three years in the dungeons. Standig spent nowhere near that much time in the dungeon, but still went mad. During the ensuing two years he attempted suicide four times. In September 1936 he was transferred to the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, where three days later, on Sept. 24, 1936, he slashed his throat, killing himself.
His body was returned by train to Fort Kent. He was buried in the Congregational Cemetery in St. Francis.
‡ A March 16, 1994 letter to The New York Times from the Federal Bureau of Prisons points out that Henri Young went to Alcatraz after serving time in two state prisons for burglary and robbery. His subsequent Federal crime was bank robbery, not theft from a post office. He did not commit suicide at Alcatraz in the 1940’s; he completed his sentence there in 1954, then served a term in Washington State Penitentiary for murder. He was paroled there in 1972, and it is not known where he is or whether he is alive. This correction was delayed by checking at The Times.