Movies and TV - the look of truth with the content of fiction!

by Sue Joan

TV and the movies have been called a 'seductive medium'.  Unlike books which are processed through the logical left sides of our brains, TV and the movies by-pass our logic circuits, often appealing to our emotional side.  Modern cinematography, large screens, color, background music and superb acting plunge us into another world and often one which is not a positive image.

It has been observed that movies influence all of us.  For example, on my first trips on an airplane, I realized that my sheer fear was a picture in my mind ... one which I traced back to several movies - of the plane's sides blowing out and the passengers falling to their deaths.

Recently I watched a movie called "The Murder of Mary Phagan".  This movie was a dark tale set in the turn of the century, concerning a Jewish manager of a sweatshop employing children, who was blamed for a murder he never committed and eventually lynched by a mob who broke into the prison where he was being kept and kidnapped him.  Although the governor had proven that evidence clearly showed that he did not commit the crime (commuting his sentence of death to life in prison), a press-biased jury had proclaimed him guilty and that was good enough for the townspeople in Atlanta.  In the 1980's, a witness, now in his 80's and close to death, signed a statement that he had seen the real murderer, (not the Jewish manager) drag the body down by himself but the murderer had scared the witness, then an 11 year old boy, that if the boy told what he knew, the murderer would kill the boy.  The factory manager was given a pardon post humously.

Knowing that movies often bend the truth, I looked up the case on the web and found, to my dismay that the movie had been correct in most of the details of the life and death of the Jewish factory manager and had perhaps only forgotten to mention that part of the anger of the people may have been that they felt the manager was exploiting children in the sweatshop while their parents went unemployed (children were cheaper labor).

This set the scene for what happened a few days later. We watched another movie called "Murder in the First" which depicted in a vivid artistic manner, a young man sent to Alcatraz for the sole crime of stealing five dollars and after his attempted escape, his confinement in the dungeon part of Alcatraz (called "the hole") in a 6 x 9 cell with little food and water, no toilet facilities and no light or heat, for a period of 3 years with only 30 minutes of 'exercise' a year. In the movie, Henry Young, the prisoner was beaten and crippled by the cruel warden for no apparent reason and then, when Young was released from solitary, Young stabbed another inmate in the dining room with a spoon. The movie continued in showing a broken frightened Young in court, never remembering the only murder he had committed, and wishing to die rather to return to Alcatraz.  In an emotional scene, testimony by Young questioned by his young attorney, Mr Stamphill, convinced the jury that he was not guilty of the murder and they proclaimed it 'involuntary manslaughter' with a 3 year penalty.  Young was found dead in his cell three months later, stated the narrator,  young attorney Stamphill,  and soon after, Warden Johnson, the sadistic man, was fired and never served in a prison again.

The movie was most upsetting and again, I went to the web to do research, deciding I didn't want to get upset about something which was not true.

Unlike the story in "The Murder of Mary Phagan", there is little truth to the movie, characters were invented (Stamphill was another prisoner and NOT the lawyer, a cute touch) and Young may well be still living - he was released in the 1970's and 'disappeared'.  I made a table comparing the movie's 'facts' with the truth and it's a somber reminder that most of what we see on TV is fiction and we definitely should not use the 'information' we obtain on TV to make any decisions about real life.

Description of the movie, "Murder in the First" from '"

This shocking prison drama was inspired by a true story. In 1938, Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), sentenced to Alcatraz for stealing $5, attempted to escape from prison with three other prisoners. One of the escapees was captured, and to curry favor with Warden Glenn (Gary Oldman), he informed on the others. Young was soon brought back to custody, and was to be punished by spending 19 days in solitary confinement. Nineteen days stretched into three years, in which Young was kept in a pit with no light, no toilet, no furniture, and nothing to read. Young emerged from solitary a vengeful madman, and he quickly murdered the convict who turned him in. Young was put on trial for the killing, and assigned a first-time public defender, James Stamphill (Christian Slater). Stamphill was horrified by Young's tales of the conditions at Alcatraz, and he used them as the basis of his defense for his client, believing that anyone would be driven to madness and murder if they had been treated the same way as Young.

Here is the chart I made:
Movie ("Murder in the First")
What really happened!
Henry Young abandoned by parents at the age of 10 Not abandoned - father alcoholic but not particularly abusive. Young's mother divorced the drunk and remarried and Young did not get along with his stepfather.
No criminal record Had been in prison twice before for larceny. 
Stole because he could not get a job and he wanted food for his starving sister who was under his care. Worked at the Post Office/ store for a couple of years and got tired of working and fighting with his stepfather. Became a hobo by choice, stealing lots in his travels
Sent to The Rock for stealing 5 dollars from PO/store Sent to The Rock for armed robbery which was his third offense - a man was killed at close range i.e. Young shot into his chest. Young suspected of killing was indicted as accessory but considered by his record, as a good candidate for the 'super prison'. Young later confessed and was sentenced for the murder.
Did not provoke guards Was always making trouble, bugging guards, throwing his tray out of his cell etc.
Put into solitary with no warning after first arrived Had several warnings before placed into solitary
Crippled by Warden Johnson Had polio in his youth
Put into solitary after attempted escape Not put into solitary
Was thrown down the stairs for no reason Thrown down the stairs and beaten because was abusive and screaming and destructive in his cell for an entire night and no warnings would deter him. Did things like destroying his bed mattress etc.
Was in the dungeon just before he killed McCain Was in solitary A block which had regular cells and toilets etc
McCain killed in cafeteria with a spoon Mc Cain was stabbed with a knife in the place he worked.  Young was assigned to another place, one floor above
Young mad at McCain for being a stoolie Young mad at McCain because McCain, not being able to swim caused a 45 minute delay in the escape plan.  Also some evidence that Young was mad at McCain because McCain ingratiated himself with the guards and was trusted to serve dinner to the prisoners. 
Young's fatal attack on McCain, a first time Young attacked McCain when McCain brought him dinner in solitary.  Young flushed the knife down the toilet before guard could take it.  Attack was unsuccessful.
Young spent three years in the dungeon Young spent 'most of' 1940 in the dungeon.
Young was against McCain only Mc Cain said he was going to kill Young and said repeatedly that only one of them would leave Alcatraz. Obviously was a feud.
Young stabbed McCain in the dining room Young and McCain exchanged vicious glances in the dining room
When Young came out of the dungeon, he was totally schizo When Young came out of the dungeon, he was somewhat impaired but not totally schizo.  He was described as sloppy at times (once he forgot to pull up his pants) and forgetful.
Young stabbed McCain spontaneously Young planned the murder by stealing knives and sneaking to the taylor shop where McCain worked
Young stabbed McCain in the throat with a spoon Young stabbed McCain in the gut with a knife
Stamphill was the defense attorney Abrams was the defense attorney. Stamphill was one of the prisoners who tried to escape with Young (called the "Barker gang")
Defense was that Young didn't have a clue and was schizo for 3 years in the dungeon Defense was that McCain made homosexual advances toward Young and that Young didn't remember what he did.
Got to the press through the trial Letters from ex-prisoners had been published from time to time. Political enemies of the administration was glad to publish negative things. 
Johnson was the sadistic punisher Johnson didn't know half the stuff which was going on.
Young didn't defend himself at all Young changed his story several times and lied on the stand, first saying that after he had stabbed McCain, he said "Oh, I hope I didn't kill him" amended to "I hope I killed the b---"
Young broken and afraid in court Young described with a "confident smirk" through his trial.
Defense of Young just showed how cruelty had made a murderer out of a petty thief with a first time offense Defense made a media circus to deflect attention from Young's first degree murder to villifying the prisons he had been in, especially Alcatraz
Jury saw Young wasn't guilty and delivered manslaughter charge Jury confused by media circus and didn't see that Young was guilty of pre-meditated murder
Judge was with Young, thinking him innocent victim Judge was disgusted with proceeding and told Young (who was making a statement of thanks) that the only mistake Johnson ever made was releasing him from solitary
Young went back to Alcatraz, knowing he would not die for nothing, a martyr and courageous man Young went back to Alcatraz in a flurry of euphoria for his 'fame' in the press
Young immediately returned to the dungeon for no reason other than that the prison was being investigated. Movie intimates Young was in solitary the rest of his time, 3 months before he died Young sent back to solitary after being interogated by Miller for the riots he was leading - and sneering his answer at Miller. Length of stay, 15 days.  After he was released, he started rioting again and set fire to his cell.
Young found dead in cell three months later  No record of Young's death - may still be living!  Was released from Alcatraz in 1947 to a mental hospital (although suspected of malingering), sent to another prison in 1957 and released from prison in the 1970's (serving for the murder in the armed robbery).
Young kept in solitary for no reason Young cursed at the
guards, threw garbage out of his cell, set more fires, and called upon his fellow inmates to join him. Mr.
Prindle, who came on at midnight, reported that Young filled a cup of water and threw it on a guard.
Young kept in solitary against his will Young requested solitary about 6 months after he had been released from it in Sept 1941 because he complained of suffering 'dizzy spells' and that the other inmates were bothering him.
Young found dead in cell, no cause given Young found in a pool of blood three days after he re-entered the hole - he had broken up his eye glasses and slit his arm.  He was taken to the hospital and cared for but complained that they didn't let him kill himself.
Young died reason unknown in 1941 Not true - converted to Catholicism (raised LDS) and confessed other murder and stood trial. Considered a ruse to get out of the rock. In 1945 was sentenced. In 1947, showed enough mental disturbance to be released to mental institution (under the next warden of Alcatraz) and remained as a quiet but schizoid inmate at Springfield for several years. But observations said that his symptoms were not totally consistant with either personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia and he was suspected of malingering.  In 1957, Young was transferred to the State of Washington to serve out his life sentence for the baker's murder. He was released in the 1970s and disappeared.  i.e. he might be still alive!
Johnson fired as a result of the investigation  Johnson retired in 1947 with a record of good service.
Movie, "Murder in the First" was truth Movie character, Young bore little resemblance to the real thing.

From the historical report on Henry Young, we read the following with reference to the movie:

His name became remembered when the movie Murder in the First was released, but the innocent Henry of the film was not the Henri who'd shot the baker and robbed the Lind National Bank. The film's makers changed the details of the story of his life, even causing him to conveniently die after the trial was over, victorious over the evil associate warden Miller (who they piously saw never worked again in a prison) and the absentee landlord, James A. Johnston. All these characters were fictions, fictions woven out of the legends of Alcatraz and out of a scriptwriter's idea about what should have happened.
So much for Hollywood and the truth of what we see on the screen! The following website has more information and photos of Henry Young:

Alcatraz History site on Henry Young
back to HistoryInfo

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