Rufe Persful (May 25, 1906 – May 16, 1991) was an American criminal, convicted for murder, kidnapping and robbery. He was considered one of the most dangerous and psychotic criminals of his era by the authorities. Convicted with the murder and robbery of an elderly man at the age of 18, he was sentenced to 15 years in Arkansas State Penitentiary, but unlike a standard prison, it involved farm labour. He was given the task of shooting fellow inmates with a shotgun if they attempted to escape. He killed and disabled many prisoners during his time at the Arkansas Penitentiary, punctuated by periods of parole as a reward for his prison protection, and then re-offending and being sent back to resume his role.
In December 1934, Persful was convicted for kidnapping and robbery in Paragould, Arkansas and sentenced to 20 years, after which he was transferred to United States Penitentiary, Atlanta. Two inmates recognized him from Arkansas and word spread of his killing of fellow inmates and he began being severely abused. He was transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary a year later but was recognized and continued to be tortured by his inmates because of his past offenses. In 1937, it was Persful who attempted to cut off his hands in sheer desperation of his experiences at Alcatraz and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was eventually sent to McNeil Island Penitentiary where he was again recognized and suffered much abuse from his fellow inmates, despite being heavily watched over by the prison staff. He was released in April 1948 and moved in with a relative in Gary, Indiana, never to be convicted of a crime again.
At the age of 18, he was convicted with the murder and robbery of an elderly man, and was sentenced to 15 years in Arkansas State Penitentiary, farm labor rather than prison; at Tucker Prison Farm, he was given the duty of "high power", shooting fellow inmates if they attempted to flee from the fields. After shooting a prisoner who tried to escape, his sentence was reduced to 9 years but he was almost immediately released on parole. About 18 months later, he was indicted for shooting a woman in the back with a shotgun but was never tried for attempted murder. Back at the prison farm, he resumed his position and shot another prisoner attempting to escape and was paroled again as a reward. After several months, he committed an armed robbery and was sentenced to 5 years in the penitentiary, but again resumed his "high power" position, during which he killed one and permanently crippled three others who attempted to flee. A circuit judge refused him parole but after he killed four prisoners attempting to escape in October 1933, he was released on parole for a fourth time 8 months later.
In December 1934, Persful was convicted for the kidnapping of a nightwatchman in Paragould, Arkansas and robbing the Schug Brothers of some $1000 with his companion Riley Gunn before being caught in Osceola, Missouri. He was sent to United States Penitentiary, Atlanta to serve twenty years. Despite Atlanta's reputation as a prison where inmates stuck together, two convicts knew Persful from the Arkansas penitentiary and word spread of his killing and maiming of fellow prisoners and of his shooting a woman in the back, and he began being severely beaten and bullied by his fellow inmates. The Atlanta prison officials eventually learned of the frequent abuse and violence facing Persful, and in December 1935 sent him to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. However, he continued to be unpopular with the inmates, many of whom had transferred to Alcatraz from Atlanta and knew of his history.
Once he was shifted to the Alcatraz prison, his heinous crime in Tucker, Arkansas of murdering a female prisoner who was pregnant, to camouflage rape, was also exposed. Once his misdeed was exposed by the prison doctor, the issue became a widely publicized national scandal involving murders of inmates by other inmates and this brought Homer Stille Cummings, the US Attorney General and J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Director to Alcatraz twice to verify the issue and cross check with Carl Janaway who was also his inmate at Tucker and had been attacked by Rufe Persful.
He was involved in a brutal fight with Francis Keating, a former inmate of Atlanta who called him a "shotgun son of a bitch" and Persful was sent to solitary confinement in D-Block. Persful became one of the most guarded inmates of Alcatraz due to his reputation and was carefully watched during dining to ensure he was not assaulted by his fellow inmates. Nonetheless, Persful continued to be heavily abused and in fear of his life, in September 1936 he sent a letter to James A. Johnston, the prison warden, informing him of what was common knowledge in the prison of his past exploits and why the fellow inmates resented him, asking for a transfer to McNeil Island. His request was rejected.
Rufe’s paranoia, while in Alcatraz, was also due the strict silence enforced there by Warden Johnston; the silence rule was resented by many other inmates also. As a result, some nine months later (after his request for transfer to McNeil Island was rejected) during the course of duties when he was working in the garage area to sweep and clean trash he took out an axe from a fire truck parked in the building and cut off four fingers of the left hand to seek attention and get transferred to the medical center in Springfield, Missouri on grounds of insanity. The guard and another inmate took away the hatchet from Rufes and put a tourniquet on his wrist to stop the bleeding. He was said to have grinned maniacally as he sliced his four fingers off. Persful was taken to the prison hospital, where he had to be forcibly restrained as the staff treated him, as he had a desire to cut off his other hand and his feet. However the sequence of this incident is disputed as it is also mentioned that Persful's fingers were cut off due to his hand getting jammed while closing the workshop door.
In the 1979, Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz, Persful's hand mutilation was enacted in the movie. This scene is disputed due to the fact that the lead up to the June 1962 escape from Alcatraz actually took place nearly 15 years later, and neither Frank Morris or Clarence and John Anglin were imprisoned at Alcatraz when the Persful incident occurred. Following this incident a policy change (one of the very few made during the history of the prison) in the prison rules of Alcatraz regarding silence was made for the good. As the incident received publicity in the news media, James V. Bennett, the then Director of the Bureau of Prisons, clarified that the incident was of mental derangement of Rufes.
In the months following the mutilation incident, Persful's mental health continued to decline; he would frequently complain of there being an alligator living in his cell and he attempted to make nooses out of bed linen and towels to hang himself. He was assessed by the prison psychiatrist to be suffering from Dementia praecox, hebephrenic type and in January 1938 he was sent to Springfield Medical Centre via Fort Leavenworth. He was also called the most “wanton killer” as his killings covered six men, his wife and child and probably many more. It is also conjectured that he killed three men purposely as they were black prisoners.
He was transferred then to McNeil where he was heavily booed in the dining hall just days after arriving as the word quickly got out of his history amongst inmates. He was closely monitored by guards at McNeil Island, and his job was to clean the cells after the inmates had departed on their own tasks to avoid confrontation with them. In November 1941, the warden of McNeil requested a transfer back to Alcatraz in confinement in D-Block, but it was declined due to him likely becoming insane again. Several months later attempts were made to place him in a group cell at McNeil but his cell mates warned staff that they would murder him, so he was sent back to his single cell. Persful was beaten 18 months later when a fellow prisoner was given access to his cell during his cleaning duties, after which Persful requested permanent locking inside his cell for the rest of the duration of his sentence. The warden declined his request and he was beaten a further two times when security relapsed before being released from prison in April 1948.
After release from prison, Persful moved in with a relative in Gary, Indiana, and, scarred both emotionally and physically by his torturous prison experiences, was never convicted of a crime for the rest of his life. He died in 1991.
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