Notorious Criminals of Alcatraz Island

When the word “Alcatraz” is mentioned, images of a dark, foreboding concrete fortress can’t help but spring to mind. Nicknamed “The Rock,” Alcatraz was designed to be inescapable and was erected in the middle of San Francisco Bay for that exact purpose. Despite the facility’s reputation, prisoners of Alcatraz nevertheless made several highly publicized escape attempts over the years. Only three men, who disappeared on June 12, 1962, were never caught or accounted for. Today, the empty prison is maintained as a park by the United States and is used to host art shows, but in the 1930s and ’40s, it served as a repository for some of the most notorious criminals of the time.

Alcatraz was built back in the 1850s, when a presidential order reserved the island for use as a military fortress. When it was originally built, Alcatraz was protected by more than 100 cannons, a figurehead in the defense of San Francisco Bay. Shortly after its completion, Alcatraz began housing military prisoners. In 1909, the military fortress was razed to the basement levels, and the prisoners began building a new army barracks facility, which was completed in 1911. In 1933, the island was given to the U.S. Department of Justice to be used as a prison. Alcatraz was to be used as a maximum-security, minimal-privilege punishment example against the rambunctious crime wave of the 1920s and ’30s.

In 1934, Al “Scarface” Capone, arguably the most famous resident of Alcatraz, was transferred there after two years in federal prison in Atlanta. Al Capone’s criminal history started when he was only 20 years old. In 1919, he was charged with disorderly conduct, a charge that was ultimately dismissed. Quietly, Capone began working his way up the ranks of the Chicago mob, where he became an equally feared and revered figure. For every person who claimed he’d ordered a death, there was another who pointed out the large cash donations he gave to charity. It was tax evasion that eventually brought Capone down. In 1931, he was convicted and given a ten-year prison sentence. He spent only five years in Alcatraz before being transferred to Terminal Island due to rapidly declining health.

Not all residents of Alcatraz were placed there for running from the IRS. Some had made it to the number one spot on the FBI’s list of public enemies, like George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Kelly’s criminal past began innocently enough with bootlegging whiskey during the Prohibition Era of the 1920s. Spurred on by his wife Kathryn, who wanted him to become the most notorious criminal in the country, Kelly began committing public holdups, waving a machine gun in the air. He even sent signed photographs to newspapers for inclusion with their stories about him. In 1933, Kelly and his wife were caught and sentenced for the kidnapping of oil tycoon Charles Urschel. He served 17 years at Alcatraz, where he was noted for being a model inmate.

“The Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, was held there for 17 years while serving a charge for murder. He arrived in 1942 after being convicted of the murder of a prison guard, escaping a death penalty thanks only to the intervention of his mother with the first lady. Stroud was kept in solitary confinement for six years in Alcatraz, and ironically, his nickname did not arise from his time on the island. Before being transferred to Alcatraz, Stroud spent time in solitary confinement at Leavenworth Penitentiary. It was there that he discovered two small sparrows trying to fly while he was outside exercising. Unable to locate their nest, he brought the two birds back with him to his cell and cared for them. He began studying and breeding birds and eventually wrote a book on bird diseases. He was forbidden to own birds or any other animal in Alcatraz.

Through the years, inmates tried to escape by every means possible, whether by filing through window bars, as was the case with Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, or by stowing away on an army launch, as John Giles attempted. Only five men were never accounted for, and three of them performed the last escape attempt from Alcatraz. John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris painstakingly constructed fake heads from plaster to fool the night guards and escaped into a homemade raft. They were presumed dead, given the frigid temperature of the bay and the unforgiving water currents, but no bodies, alive or dead, have ever been found.

By Ted Burgess