By Stan Barker
My father, George Barker, was born in Chicago one hundred years ago in 1911. Smart, cocky, rebellious, he grew up a wild teenager in Lakeview and Uptown in the Roaring Twenties. He and his friends began committing petty burglaries– grocery stores, barber shops– for kicks. He got caught at age 17 and was sent to the Reformatory at Pontiac, IL for 2 years.
When he got out he tried to go straight. He got a job. He met a girl. But it was the Depression now, and he lost his job. Then the father of his girl found out about his record, and wouldn’t let her see him any more. My dad became depressed and thought, “What’s the use?” One night he and an acquaintance burglarized another grocery store. There was no money so they took two cartons of cigarettes, which cost then $1.25 each. They got caught.
Thomas J. Courtney was the State’s Attorney then. Courtney was ambitious. He wanted to be Mayor. He wanted to be Governor. He needed to build a record of successful convictions. One way he did it was through heavy use of the “Hab” Act. The Illinois Habitual Criminal Act stated that if you were convicted a second time of the same offense, you could be given the maximum sentence for that offense. So, for two cartons of cigarettes-- $2.50– my father was given the maximum sentence for burglary...
Life in prison. With no hope for parole.
Just 22, he was sent to Joliet/Stateville, thrown in with murderers, psychopaths and sadistic guards. He learned to survive by recognizing and accepting each man for who-- and what– he was.
While incarcerated, he kept a written record of life in Joliet/Stateville, from the 1930s to the 1950s– the brutal, inhumane conditions of the time, the warden who ruled with an iron fist, the men– good and bad– who were his brothers behind bars. These writings form a historical record, never before published. Only parts of his manuscript still survive. I have filled in the missing pieces and am currently looking for a publisher for My Father’s Story.
My father was in the Old Prison on Collins Street in Joliet when Richard Loeb was murdered  in the new prison, Stateville, by fellow inmate James Day. My father wrote:
I was in the Hole in the Old Prison when they brought over Jimmy Day. Comments had already seeped into Solitary that some kind of blow-up had occurred at the New Joint. Day was afraid, shaking and mumbling to himself. He wanted to whisper about it but was evasive on the details. I got out of the Hole the next morning. Back at work, the screw on duty, knowing I’d been in Solitary with Day, quietly said to me, “They’ll never convict him; this town hates Loeb and Leopold.”
It was Johnny Dorf, “Little Duke”, who sparked my curiosity about what really happened. Johnny had been over to the New Prison a month before, and having associated with Dick and Nate at Jewish holidays he knew a bit of the inside details. He said Loeb made the mistake of telling Day he was an intellectual equal. Though records belied this– Loeb had access to Day’s psychiatric and punishment reports from the Boy’s School at St. Charles– it was what he wanted Day to think. Instead of saying “I’ll take care of you,” he pulled the equality pitch. Loeb liked to play cat and mouse. It was not unlike the game he had played with the police before they knew who killed Bobby Franks.
What began as “Good morning, Dick”, and “Hi, Jimmy”, became “Good morning, Dick”... and no answer. The love affair was over and a forlorn Jimmy didn’t know where to turn.
That’s where fellow inmate George Bliss came in. His agitation simmered a long time. Strangely, it wasn’t Loeb that Bliss hated as much as he hated Leopold, nicknaming him “The Leper” and sneering at Nate’s IQ. It was a personality clash that smoldered a long time. Bliss adroitly fed the flames.
Official reports say Jimmy walked into the shower room where Loeb, lathered up, was waiting. Loeb is said to have pulled a razor and swung on Jimmy, who wrestled the razor away from Loeb and slashed him to death.
That was Jimmy Day’s defense... an innocent young man, protecting his virginity! So they acquitted Day and that wound up the case...Or did it? Think this over...
Loeb was about 5 foot 9 inches tall, athletic, exercised daily, and could box. Day was about 5'6", frail and could not box. Now, a 5'6", skinny kid walks in on a man 5' 9", waiting with a razor in his hand. The taller, more athletic man lunges with the razor; the skinny, shorter kid takes it away without a cut on himself and kills his attacker!
Pictures of Loeb after death went to the prison Bureau of Identification; I saw them when I worked there in later years. Noticeable were the slashes... 58 of them!
Who first said, “Hell hath no fury...”?
The murder of Dick Loeb brought on another round of ‘reforms’ at the old and new prisons. Rules were changed. Prisoners were shifted from one place to the other.
In 1938, four years into his sentence, my dad was transferred from the Old Joint to the new prison, Stateville, four miles away.
One of the friends he made there, a cellmate, was Joe Majczek, the wrongly-convicted man whose story became the Jimmy Stewart film Call Northside 777. Another was the infamous Nathan Leopold.
From My Father’s Story:
When he first told me this, I couldn’t understand it. How could my dad have been friends with one of the most notorious murderers of the Twentieth Century... one of the”thrill killers” of a 14 year old boy? My dad tried to explain it to me.
In prison,” he said, “you learn to accept people for the way they are ‘now’, in the present. Not for what they did in the past. Everyone in prison did something wrong in their past, sometimes something horrible. The question becomes: Is he an okay guy now? Nate was.”
My father believed Leopold when he said that he, at least, never intended to murder Bobby Franks. “Nate always said the plan was to just kidnap him . He was driving the car while Loeb was in the backseat with the boy. According to Nate, Loeb suddenly decided to kill Bobby Franks, and did it before Nate could do anything to stop him.
“From that point on, Nate was an accomplice, as guilty of the murder as Loeb. Loeb was the dominant personality of the two, and had always bossed Nate around. Nate came into his own as a person in the joint after Loeb was killed.”
Why did my dad befriend Nathan Leopold? The main reason was intelligence. My father had always been intellectual. Now he was stuck in a world where the majority of men-- cons and screws alike-- were “dese, dems, and dohs”. He hungered for intelligent conversation, mental stimulation... a life of the mind that could lift him beyond the limitations of his life behind bars. Leopold had scored between 205 and 210 on the Army Alpha IQ Tests. My father had scored 192. It was water seeking its own level.
They shared a love of books, and especially, languages. Leopold taught school at Stateville. My dad did not teach or attend but he and Leopold discussed books and ideas and studied languages together.
The terrible thrill killer may well have saved my father’s life by giving him an mental equal to relate to in the nightmare world of prison.
Leopold tried to help my dad get his manuscript published. From My Father's Story:
One day early in 1943, my dad was at his job when Father [Eligius] Weir (Stateville’s Catholic chaplain, a friend to both my dad and Leopold) walked in along with a well-tanned man in a expensive suit. Weir came over to my dad and said, “George, I want you to meet someone. This is Bryan Foy, from Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Hollywood.”
My father knew, of course, who Foy was. The son of vaudeville legend Eddie Foy, as a child Bryan Foy and his brothers and sisters had made up the famous “Seven Little Foys” musical comedy act. He went on to become a movie producer, first at Warner Bros., now at Fox. The prison had been buzzing for some time with the news that Foy was making a new picture, “Roger Touhy, Gangster,” [released 1944] based on the Touhy-Banghart escape, and had come to Stateville to interview Touhy and scout locations. But he had something else on his mind as he shook my dad’s hand.
“I’ve been talking with Father Weir,” said Foy, “and earlier I spoke with Nathan Leopold. Both of them told me you’ve written quite a prison book. I’d like to read it. Maybe we can do something with it.”
As my father recalled it all:
Before World War II, newspapers and radio liked to depict us inmates as simians of the lowest order. As an angry young man, I wrote a book in dissent. Doing that, of course, was an infraction of the rules. So from the outset, caution was priority. The shadow of the Hole loomed over every line, every page.
“Meatball” [the prisoners’ nickname for Warden Joseph Ragen] often boasted, “When three convicts talk together, two of them are mine.” His fifth column of rats functioned well, but what he forgot was– we had the third man! In a community of several thousand men, that gave us a working minority. Beating “Meatball’s” system was easy if one was careful.
Notes were made in triplicate in case of discovery or loss. They were hidden throughout the prison in office files, stock rooms and tool cribs, library shelves and general store canisters, power house recesses, chapel offices, the soap factory, even the office for the Hole. [A further precaution– copies were written in six different languages my father knew.]
Doctor Donald Clemmer, the prison psychologist, read it and believed in its message. He was a bit of a stormy character himself, later becoming a controversial Director of Federal Corrections in Washington, D.C. (In talks and papers he referred to me as a “Jean Valjean of America”.) He smuggled the manuscript out for me and got it to my father.
Bryan Foy, studio executive who came to the prison to make a movie about Roger Touhy, learned about the book, contacted my father, and took the manuscript back to Hollywood for critique. Hedda Hopper, Sid Skolsky and Nate Gross, entertainment reporters of the time, all mentioned it in their columns...
Hedda Hopper was the queen of Hollywood columnists in those days, syndicated in newspapers all over the country. My father had told me many times that she had written about him, but it wasn’t until I started work on this book that I found the actual column:
“LOOKING AT HOLLYWOOD“ By Hedda Hopper
“Hollywood, Cal., Feb. 26 – When Producer Brynie Foy went to interview Roger Touhy about his life story and take some pictures at Joliet prison, he found Touhy in the hospital, after 16 days in solitary confinement (but they’re no longer solitary– it’s two men to a cell.) While there, Brynie saw Leopold, of the Loeb and Leopold case, who asked that his name be taken off the cell when it was photographed. Leopold got bored being a trusty in the library, so was washing windows.
“Brynie was handed 17 different stories written by inmates. One he thinks is a magnificent yarn, called ‘Lords of the Lamps’, written by William Barker [sic], age 31, who’s already served 11 years. Barker has learned eight languages at Joliet. He’s starting now on Japanese. The book’s so good Foy is trying to have it published for him.”
Although my dad told me many times about Hopper’s column, he never mentioned that she got his name wrong. I imagine the mistake occurred because his manuscript had my grandfather Will’s name and return address on it– naturally, my father didn’t want a publisher writing directly to him at Stateville, where “Meatball’s” censors would open and read the letter first. Sadly though, Foy was unable to get the book published or filmed. As my dad wrote:
It wasn’t the blood and guts type of book that would have made the typical prison film. It was too philosophical and too pedantic... too anxious to show the world that we convicts were not all morons. In that day, that’s not what producers or publishers were looking for. The rejection letter from one New York literary agent gave all of us cons a good laugh. His advice? “Why don’t you write on a subject you know?”
“Lords of the Lamps” was the original title of my dad’s book. What it referred to– something from the Bible? The Arabian Nights?– I don’t know. After its initial rejection my father decided to rework it, and in our talks, he always referred to it by the second working title he gave it, “Compassion, Compression, Compatriot.” As I came to understand more about my dad, I found it a very apt title, reflecting the main sentiment he learned behind bars (Compassion), the terrible restriction of freedom he faced (Compression), and the way he came to accept his fellow inmates, despite whatever they had done, as men the same as him (Compatriots). Again, though... hardly the typical ‘Bang Bang’ crime story title.
The manuscript itself went through quite a lot over the years... it was typed and retyped, hidden and smuggled, and later, moved with our family from house to house, and from Chicago to downstate Illinois and back again, at least twice. Unfortunately– but not surprisingly, given all that– parts of it were lost over the years. The fragments that are left are what I’m using here.
When America entered World War II, my father found a possible way to get out of prison. Again, Nate Leopold was part of the story:
Nate Leopold was working in the prison hospital when Warden Ragen came in with a visitor. He introduced the man as Dr. Alf S. Alving of the University of Chicago Medical School. Ragen told Leopold and the other six inmates working at the Hospital to step into the Hospital office, that Dr. Alving wanted to speak to them.
Alving told the inmates that the U.S. government needed human ‘guinea pigs’ to test new, experimental drugs being developed to try and cure malaria. Malaria was “the number-one medical problem of the war in the Pacific.” An estimated 85% of our forces there were coming down with the disease. According to the doctor, we were losing “more men to malaria than to enemy bullets.”
The government felt that the prisoners at Stateville might be willing to volunteer to be infected with malaria and test the as-yet untried drugs. Alving asked the inmate hospital workers whether they thought enough men would volunteer.
Leopold asked, “How many will you need?” Alving said perhaps as many as two hundred. Leopold thought a moment, then said, “You’ll get two or three times that many.”
Leopold told my dad about the project when he got off work that day. The drugs might prove to be toxic– perhaps fatally so. And there were no promises of anything in return for volunteering. But Leopold remembered reading about Dr. Walter Reed and the volunteers in the fight against yellow fever. The nation had considered them heroes. He thought this new project might change public opinion about convicts.
He told my father, “George– if they ever shorten our sentences, it could just be for this.”
Of course, there was the chance they might die instead... But if they didn’t volunteer, with Life sentences they were sure to die in prison anyway.
Nearly five hundred inmates volunteered the day the project was announced, my dad and Leopold among them. Every man was tested to make sure he was in good health, physically fit to be subjected to the drugs. Forty men were selected to be the first subjects. To my dad’s disappointment, he was not part of that first group. Leopold wasn’t either, but he was working in the hospital with the doctors from the University of Chicago and the Army medical corps. “Be patient, George,” he counseled my father. “You’ll get your chance.”
Originally, the project was only intended to test the toxicity of the new drugs. But by March, 1945, the scope of the experiments expanded. The entire third floor of the prison hospital was given over to the project. Laboratories were set up. Army and University personnel increased... and now included women– nurses and lab technicians.
( Nate Leopold noted: “Many of the fellows had not been that close to a woman for years, and everybody felt a little shy and strange. But the girls themselves soon put everybody at ease. They were so genuinely friendly, while at the same time keeping their dignity...” Yet, even so... as part of the program, each volunteer’s blood pressure was tested every week. “The first week the nurses were present, everyone’s blood pressure rose... (an average) twenty points.”)
With the laboratories installed and operational, the doctors could now begin the most dangerous part of the project– actually infecting the inmates with malaria, to test how well the new drugs worked.
My dad was chosen for the second group of test subjects, the 45th man in the group to be bitten and infected with malaria. The group he was in was to test a family of drugs known as 8-amino quinolines. A previously tested drug of this type had proved to be highly toxic, causing violent side reactions. The new versions tested now on my dad and the other volunteers would be unpredictable, but no less dangerous.
My father soon was suffering the usual symptoms of malaria. Chills that made his body shake and his teeth chatter uncontrollably. Then the opposite– so hot he was burning up, drenching his hospital bed with his sweat despite applications of ice packs. Some men had it so bad they were placed in tubs of ice. Seeing this, my dad couldn’t help but think about the mustard gas victims of the last war, those poor bastards he’d seen up in Canada as a boy, submerged in tubs of water to ease the burning of their skin...
He had a fever for thirty days, with temperatures of 106. That wasn’t that bad. Some men hit 108. He was racked with blinding headaches, so severe they felt like your head was going to split in two. When the headaches subsided, they left him dazed, not quite all there, not sure if he was dreaming or awake.
A month after he was released from the hospital, he had a relapse. He expected it– the doctors had warned him he could be in for as many as four relapses. This time the doctors needed volunteers to carry the strain of malaria. It meant going through the fever without any drugs for 14 days, so mosquitoes could bite him, feed on him, and get the malarial strain. My dad volunteered, one of 4 or 5 men at Stateville to carry the strain. He wrote:
Conway was doubled up over a pillow; it was his sixth day with crystallized urine. Most of us were either shivering under blankets in summer heat or running a temp’ of 106 degrees or better.
Last night the Army nurses had to fight with “Red” Cohen to get him into a tub filled with ice cubes. It wasn’t a prolonged fight... “Red”, like most of us, was susceptible to women. The thing was, despite his temp’ of 108.2, he had just bid seven no trump in Bridge on his partner’s Smith bid. To hell with the fever... four cartons of smokes (prison “money”) were riding on the game!
That night Nielsen went into a coma. Who was next was an unanswerable question. Some of the guys turned blue for a while from the untested drugs... but pulled through.
In those early days of volunteerism, while the War was still going on, the men kidded and scoffed and made light of the deal but each man was proud of what he was doing. No cure was yet known; no reward was promised, but down deep inside we gambled on maybe...
Leopold said to me, “George, if ever it can happen, this is it.” So... we bet our lives.
The gamble paid off. For his participation in the medical experiments, and working with Leopold on measuring other subjects’ blood counts, Governor Dwight Green commuted my father’s sentence to 45 years. This made him eligible for a parole, which he received in 1949.
He met the girl who would become my mother, a professional musician who played nightclubs in the Loop and the Chicken Basket in Willowbrook on Route 66. They fell in love, and made plans to marry.
Then, for sneaking into Chicago to see her, the State threw my father back into prison for violation of parole. This time he fought back in court. And after serving twenty years for two cartons of cigarettes, my father won a complete release from prison.
(Above: Happier times. George Barker and his wife, Jeannette, in 1953.)
One month after his release, my father and mother were married. In November 1956, I was born. My dad wanted his friend Nate, still in prison, to be my godfather, but Leopold told him,
“I’m too notorious, George. You don’t want to saddle the boy with the ‘thrill-killer’ for a godfather.”
[Nathan Leopold was released from prison in 1958. He died in Puerto Rico in 1971]
STAN BARKER is a former Contributing Editor for The Artist’s Magazine, sister publication to Writer’s Digest, and has written for Chicago History Magazine and The Encyclopedia of Chicago.He may be contacted via email: StanBrkr at aol dot com
Copyright 2011 Stan Barker; no portion of this article may be reprinted without the express permission of the author.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: My dad is not mentioned in Leopold’s book, Life Plus 99 Years, because— according to my father– when the book was being published and Leopold was being paroled in 1958, he told my dad, “You have a family and a business now. You don’t need me dredging up your past.” However proof of my father’s friendship with Nathan Leopold– their studying languages together and working on measuring the malaria subjects’ blood counts– can be found in Parole Board documents in my father’s file.
"Nathan Leopold and Chicago Criminology" by Laurel Duchowny
George Barker, Chicago Tribune, Feb. 25, 1929
Photo of James Day: TruTV.com
"Roger Touhy: Last of the Gangsters" poster: Tuohy's of the World
Nathan Leopold (Wikipedia)
George Barker and his wife, Jeannette photo provided by the author