Wrastling with the Devil

Neal Cassady Mugshot SFby Jerry Cimino

I was talking with Al Hinkle the other day. He had just turned 91 in September, and we spoke on the phone New Year’s Eve, wishing each other well as 2018 clicked over. Al was a close friend of both Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, and is pseudonymously “Big Ed Dunkel” in On the Road.

One thing that came up during our conversation was the recently unearthed mug shot from Neal’s April 9, 1958 arrest on marijuana charges.

Al was present in the San Francisco courtroom the day Neal was convicted. He’s also the person who, two years later, picked Neal up when he was released from San Quentin State Prison in 1960.

“Neal didn’t want a lawyer,” Al said. “He didn’t have a lot of money, and was feeling guilty over having lost the family fortune—a few years earlier, he had Natalie Jackson forge Carolyn’s signature so he could withdraw all their money from the bank, to place a ‘sure bet’ at the horse races. He lost, of course. He was also haunted by Natalie’s suicide not long after. It seemed he’d resigned himself to his fate, like a good Catholic boy accepting his situation as penance for his sins. He’d been sitting in the county jail in San Bruno awaiting his court date. The day of the trial, he met with the public defender for just fifteen minutes, there in the courtroom. Nothing good in Cassady’s background seemed to sway the judge’s opinion. I doubt neither the public defender nor the judge knew that he was a family man, that he owned a house in Los Gatos, nor that he was beloved by his bosses at the Southern Pacific Railroad, and that he was the one chosen by the SP to accompany President Eisenhower when he took a five car private train from San Francisco to Pebble Beach to play golf, following the 1956 Republican National Convention, held at the Cow Palace.”

On the front cover of Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison 1958-60 is a photograph taken by Carolyn on Easter of 1957, showing Neal with their children, Cathy, Jami, and John, all dressed in their Sunday best, with the family dog, Cayce—the very image of a wholesome 1950s nuclear family. Neal asked Carolyn to submit the photo to the court in an appeal for leniency, but it only seemed to reinforce the judge’s assumption that Neal was of bad character, that he lived a “double life,” and was probably a drug pusher.

According to Hinkle*:

“Neal made the mistake of offering to share a joint with a guy he knew to be an undercover narcotics agent. He was rushing to work at the railroad one day and he offered to split the only remaining portion of a joint he had for a ride to work. Everybody in North Beach knew that these two guys were undercover cops. They would go between various bars in the neighborhood, always nursing a small beer, and asking questions about all the patrons. They stuck out like a couple of sore thumbs and Neal knew who they were. Why he was willing to play their game with them I’ll never know. I guess he figured he could get away with it because he ditched the evidence when he threw the roach out the window just as they arrived at the Southern Pacific Station. He didn’t need to do it. He did it for kicks, I think.

“At first the district attorney couldn’t make the case. The grand jury threw it out for lack of evidence, and after a week in jail, they let Neal go. But they took it to a second grand jury who approved it. The cops who busted him were worried about blowing their cover, and putting pressure on the court. ‘He knows who we are. We won’t be able to work in San Francisco again because he’ll tell everyone our identities. We’ve got to get this guy off the street.’ The second grand jury went forward with the indictment.

“The police searched Neal’s car, they searched his home, they searched his locker at the Southern Pacific. They didn’t find a thing. Neal knew the roach he’d thrown out the window was the last bit of marijuana he had on him. He knew he was clean. But the cops wanted to get him off the street.”

The day after the charges were dropped and Neal was released, the police arrested him again.

“I remember seeing Neal in the courtroom that day, handcuffed to a young merchant marine who was up for rape and murder.

“The trial was over in a blink of an eye. It lasted only a few minutes. I remember the judge saying to him, ‘Mr. Cassady, do you smoke this stuff?’ And of course Neal would not admit to that. ‘No, Your Honor, I do not,’ Neal told him. So the judge said, ‘Then I can only presume you’re a dealer.’ Those words stuck with me,” said Al, “I can remember those words like it was yesterday. Neal got five years to life in San Quentin.

“Neal had a tough time in San Quentin. The only good part is they assigned him a job in the library. He enjoyed that. I visited him a few times while he was incarcerated. They had an approved list, people who were allowed to visit, and people who were allowed to mail him things.

“I drove Carolyn there to visit with him on two occasions. I even drove LuAnne Henderson there once. Allen Ginsberg went to visit him once or twice, and at one point Ginsberg even tried to enlist the lawyer who had won the Howl Trial, Jake Ehrlich, to help get Neal out of prison. Jake was willing to help, as I recall, but this all happened after Neal had already been in for 18 months, and Jake seemed to think Neal would be getting out of San Quentin on parole soon anyway, which is exactly what happened.

“When Neal was finally paroled from San Quentin I drove to pick him up. He was very serious while we were in the car. He told me the last few nights in prison he kept waking up in the middle of the night, twisting and turning like he was physically battling with someone—himself, really. He said, ‘God I’m glad I’m out. What am I going to do with the rest of my life, Al? I’ve been wrastling with the devil, Al. I’ve been wrastling with the devil.’ That’s exactly how he pronounced it. Wrastling. I tried to get Neal to open up about what he meant, but he was never able to elaborate any further.

“The thing about it,” Al said, “The Southern Pacific was an easy railroad to come back to. We’d actually had a kleptomaniac who’d been arrested and fired twice, and he got his job back a third time. I’d already set it up so Neal could have his old job back, if only he’d come in and asked for it. All he had to do was tell them ‘It was only a little weed and I won’t do it again.’ But he was too embarrassed to show his face at the Southern Pacific. He never bothered to come in.”

Telephone conversation between Jerry Cimino and Al Hinkle, December 31, 2017. The following day, January 1, 2018, recreational marijuana became legal in California.

* We’re aware that the details of Al Hinkle’s account differ slightly from the accepted narrative of Neal’s arrest.