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 1969, Alcatraz was briefly seized by 14 college students, who argued that the land should be returned to the Sioux Nation under a treaty set in 1868.
- Guards on Alcatraz worked 40 hours each week and rotated between three shifts.
- In addition to functioning as a military fortress and prison, Alcatraz served as the first working lighthouse on the West Coast.
- During the Civil War, Alcatraz was known as “the Citadel” and was designed to protect San Francisco against Confederate forces.
- Both the Alcatraz of history and the historical museum today house beautiful gardens. Convicts would tend the gardens as a way of seeking solace from the harshness of prison life. Today, the gardens are maintained by the Garden Conservancy.
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.
- In addition to donating to charity, Capone opened soup kitchens and made daily trips to City Hall.
- While serving time in Alcatraz, Capone refused to participate in prisoner strikes or rebellions in order to earn time off for his model behavior.
- Capone’s business plan for his bootlegging operation was simple. Competition would be killed off, employees would be threatened with death, and customers who switched “brand loyalty” to another provider would be eliminated. At one point, Capone’s payroll included the mayor of Chicago.
- Members of the jury in Capone’s trial had to be replaced because it was rumored that Capone had been able to bribe them.
- Capone was almost knifed in prison after cutting into a line for haircuts.
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.
- Kelly and his partner, Albert Bates, received a payout of $200,000 for kidnapping Charles Urschel.
- Before he became infamous, Kelly was a fairly normal teenager. He attended Mississippi A&M College and married Geneva Ramsey, with whom he had two sons before they divorced.
- Kidnapping was a profitable crime, and before 1933, it wasn’t a federal offense. The Lindbergh Law, passed after Charles Lindbergh’s baby was abducted and killed, was put into effect that same year, and the new crackdown on kidnapping helped elevate Kelly’s crime to the forefront of public awareness.
- Kelly was notorious for hiding his money in the ground. After his arrest, federal agents discovered $73,250 of the Urschel ransom money buried in a cotton patch.
- It was the testimony of 12-year-old Geraldine Arnold that finally led to Kelly’s arrest. She’d been “borrowed” by the pair to help them stay undercover.
“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.
- Stroud wrote two other books while in prison. One was an autobiography and the other an account of the prison system and his experience within it.
- Before beginning his life as a criminal, Stroud worked as a riveter, a waiter, a cook, and a peanut vendor.
- A movie about Stroud’s life was produced in 1962, and his two books on prison life are being posthumously published.
- Stroud committed his first murder after a bartender abused his friend, Kitty. He was only 19 years old at the time.
- Despite having a movie created about his life story, Stroud died without ever seeing it.
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.
- One of the most tenacious escape attempts has to be credited to John Bayless. After failing to escape Alcatraz while on garbage duty, he tried again while in court.
- Fabricating plaster heads was only one part of the Anglins’ escape. They also had to saw holes in the backs of their cells and create paddles, all under the noses of the guards.
- In 1907, a military prisoner named August Stillke tried to escape from Alcatraz on a plank. He was hit by a ferry and had to be hauled aboard, after which he was returned to the island.
- The Anglin brothers were nonviolent bank robbers. They had only been transferred to Alcatraz because they persistently broke out of other prisons.
- After the Anglin brothers’ escape attempt, their mother received flowers, delivered anonymously, for several years. There are also rumors that the brothers attended her funeral dressed in women’s clothing.
- TV personalities Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, also known as the Mythbusters, re-created the raft that the Anglin brothers might have used and tested whether or not it could survive the evening currents of San Francisco Bay.
- One of the men who attempted to escape from Alcatraz, James “Tex” Lucas, also attacked Al Capone in the showers with half of a pair of scissors.
- In 1946, six inmates initiated an uprising that lasted three days and resulted in the deaths of two guards and three inmates. The Marine Corps had to be called in to restore order.
By Ted Burgess