Whether you’re a rock star, movie star or criminal, fame is fleeting. One day, you’re in the front-page headlines; the next, you’re yesterday’s news.
This was the sad story of Roy Gardner. For two years, Gardner, known as “King of the Escape Artists,” was the most admired criminal in America. His good looks, daring ways and open disposition charmed even his victims.
Born in 1886, Gardner craved adventure from a young age. In 1905, after two years in the army, he became a soldier of fortune and tried to smuggle guns to the rebels during the Mexican revolution. Unfortunately, Gardner was captured by government forces and sentenced to death. He escaped, using a knife to saw through a wooden door in his cell, and made his way back to the U.S.
For the next few years, Gardner traveled around the west, boxing under the name of “Young Fitzsimmons” and performing other odd jobs. In 1911, out of funds and in San Francisco, he committed his first crime: He snatched a tray of diamond rings from a jeweler on Market Street and bolted.
Gardner was soon captured in front of John’s Grill and was sentenced to five years at San Quentin State Prison. During a prison riot, he saved the life of a guard and, as a result, received an early parole in 1913. Given a second chance, Gardner became a skilled welder, got married and had a child.
Like Joseph in Egypt, seven years of abundance followed: By 1920, Gardner had saved more than $2,000, enough to buy a house. To celebrate, he decided to take his family to Tijuana for a vacation.
Within two days, Gardner lost all his money at the racetrack and became desperate. While at the post office in San Diego, he learned that $30,000 in cash would be sent by mail to Los Angeles. He commandeered the mail truck after it left the station, stole the mail bags and returned to a room he had rented on Front Street. Inside the bags, Gardner found $131,000 in cash and Canadian bonds. He stuffed the money into his clothes, went out on the town and checked into a room at San Diego’s Redding Hotel.
At breakfast the next day, Gardner was shocked to see his name in the headlines as the mail bandit. Police had discovered the empty mailbags and a suitcase with his name on it in his Front Street room. Gardner fled to Del Mar, where he was captured the next day, and all the money was recovered.
Gardner was convicted of armed mail robbery and sentenced to 25 years at Washington’s McNeil Island prison.
On June 5, 1920, as a train drove through the rugged country in Oregon, Gardner distracted the guard, disarmed him and leapt from the train. Using a stolen motorboat, motorcycle and car as his escape vehicles, he traveled to Iowa, where he got a job as a welding inspector. But he missed his family, and in April 1921, he returned to California, snuck past the police watching the house and had a brief reunion with his wife and daughter.
Returning to crime, Gardner robbed a Southern Pacific mail train of $100,000 and made his way to Roseville, Calif. Ever the gambler, he joined a poker game in the back room of the Porter House hotel. He was so intent on the game that he didn’t notice the detectives surrounding him until he was arrested. Gardner pled guilty in San Francisco and 25 years were added to his sentence.
Gardner was again put on a train to prison, this time guarded by two deputies and chained to another convict. During the trip, Garnder retrieved a hidden gun, got the drop on his guards and escaped. As rain poured down, he hid in the underbrush in Castle Rock Wash.. After three days, Gardner, starving and weak, hopped a train to Centralia, Ore., where he was recaptured and taken to McNeil Island.
Gardner’s escapes had made him famous, and his devoted wife Dolly and 3-year-old daughter Jean made good copy for the newspapers. In June 1921, Dolly wrote a column for the San Francisco Call:
“I have set beside my own sense of judgment and criticism for I know in my heart that Roy is just a great reckless boy. He has always been crazy about adventure … I am quite sure I will wait for him even for fifty years because he is the love of my life …”
On Sept. 5, 1921, while everyone was watching a prison baseball game at McNeil Island, Gardner and two other men made a break for the fence. Guards fired, killing one of the other men and severely wounding the other. Gardner was shot twice, but made it over the fence and hid in the thick brush while guards searched around him. During the night, he slipped back inside the gates and hid in the prison barn, drinking milk from the cows while authorities frantically searched outside the walls. Two nights later, Gardner swam three miles to neighboring Fox Island and escaped the area.
On Sept. 26, 1921, the San Francisco Bulletin published a letter Gardner sent to them in which he expressed his regret and vowed to reform. He even wrote to President Warren Harding, asking for clemency. “Please, Mr. Harding. Just one more chance,” he begged.
On Nov. 15, 1921, an unreformed Gardner tried to rob a mail train as it left Phoenix, Ariz., but this time the result was different: Herbert Inderlied, the postal clerk, fought back and overpowered Gardner.
Gardner was convicted and sent to Leavenworth Prison. He spent 13 years in Leavenworth. Then, in 1934, with the kind of bad judgment that marked his career, Gardner volunteered to go to Alcatraz to be closer to his family. Alcatraz was by far the toughest prison in the United States, and when Gardner was released in 1936, he was a broken man. After 15 years of waiting, Dolly had divorced him and remarried.
Gardner wrote an autobiography, “Hellcatraz,” which detailed his life and his time in at the prison, but the public had forgotten him. In 1940, broke and in bad health, Roy Gardner dropped a pellet of cyanide in a cup in the bathroom of his Turk Street room, inhaled the fumes and died.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit to www.crookstour.com.