Alcatraz. “The Rock.” One of the world’s most famous prisons, located in the middle of the choppy but beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, California, was home to some of the most infamous prisoners in US history from 1934 until it closed in 1963. We visited the island last week and were transported back in time by the imposing sights of the prison itself as well as the voices and sounds presented in the impeccably crafted audio tour. Before I continue with our experience, here is some information on The Rock’s most famous prisoners as well as The Great Escape (click on the links below for more information).
Famous Inmates: The most infamous inmates on The Rock included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz), just to name a few.
Al Capone, otherwise known as Scarface, was of course the famous Italian-American gangster who rose to notoriety in the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was a violent bootlegger with a profitable relationship with Chicago’s mayor, which gave him protection from the law. Until 7 rival gang members were killed in public during the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, at which point he became “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Capone was eventually captured, tried, and sent to Atlanta US Penitentiary at the age of 32 in 1933. He suffered from syphilis and cocaine withdrawal. After rumors of special treatment there, he was subsequently sent to Alcatraz, where he would serve 4 1/2 years.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly. This is the guy I think of when the picture of a Prohibition era gangster, tommy gun in hand, comes to mind. At the age of 19, Kelly was married with 2 children, but found himself unable to support his family on his meager taxi cab driver wages. He split from his wife and started down the path to his bootlegging career. By 1927 he’d already begun to earn a reputation as a tough underground gangster, but it was Kathryn Thorne, who he met and then married in 1930, who is believed to be the true mastermind behind his reputation.
It was Thorne who gave Kelly his signature tommy gun, and she masterfully marketed her husband by passing out the spent cartridges and calling her husband “Machine Gun” at every opportunity. His crime sprees, while small time before Thorne entered the picture, soon rocketed him to the status of “Public Enemy No. 1.”
Eventually Kelly was caught and imprisoned in Leavenworth, but he bragged that he would escape and break his wife out of prison as well. These boasts were taken seriously, and led to his transfer to Alcatraz in 1934, where he remained until 1951.
Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz. In 1909, Stroud murdered a bartender who didn’t pay for the services of one of Stroud’s prostitutes, then raided his wallet to pay the girl and take his own cut. After being tried and convicted, he was known as a violent and unruly prisoner, and he eventually stabbed a prison guard to death in front of over a thousand other prisoners in the mess hall. After this incident, he was kept in solitary confinement.
While at Leavenworth, he developed an interest in canaries, and he was allowed to research them during his 30 years at the prison. In 1942, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next 17 years.
The Great Escape: The worst of the worst were sent to Alcatraz because it was believed to be impossible to escape from The Rock. Even if a prisoner could get out of a locked cell and escape the prison walls, how would anyone be able to swim the frigid, rough waters and manage the swift currents of the San Francisco Bay? Still, several escape attempts were made in the history of Alcatraz.
Frank Lee Morris masterminded Alcatraz’s most famous escape alongside accomplices Allen West and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The complex plan included lifelike dummies made from concrete blocks, paint from prison art kits, and even human hair from the barbershop. When prison guards passed by to do head counts after lights out, these dummies were good enough to fool them into thinking the prisoners were still in their cells. Additionally, over 50 raincoats were used to fashion life preservers and a life raft for the escapees.
On June 11, 1962, after lights out, Morris placed the dummies on the bunks, and along with the Anglin brothers, climbed 30 feet of plumbing to the roof, made the way precariously over 100 feet of rooftop, then climbed down 50 feet of piping to the ground. West was left behind. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again.
Alcatraz is a national park now, and we visited on July 7th, 2017. Our family went with my brother and his wife and children. I loved it. The kids loved it. We all loved it. All four of the little ones were all in for the entire event. Here’s a shot of us during the audio tour:
We got up that morning, ate a light breakfast, and then we drove a mile to the ferry dock. The ferry ride was about 25 minutes to San Francisco, and this is how my brother commutes daily. He rides his bike the mile to the ferry, rides the boat over the gorgeous bay, and then bikes the last 5 miles to work. The ferry ride to San Francisco was a big event for my kids. They loved it. And really, all of us seemed to enjoy it. Here are the kids on the ferry:
Overall, an excellent experience, and another item to cross of of my bucket list! Photographs courtesy of my talented sister in law, Jen Huff, from Jen Huff Photography.