Everybody knows about Alcatraz. The now-former prison sits a little more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) offshore from the city of San Francisco, right in the middle of the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay. In the mid-19th century, Californians recognized the island’s potential as a strategic stronghold. So they developed it as a lighthouse lookout point. Then, it became a military fortification. Soon enough, due to its isolated nature in the middle of open water, it was used as a military prison.
In 1934, during the Great Depression, the federal government converted Alcatraz into a prison. Officially, it became Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. In addition to the tiny cells and bars surrounding the island, the bay’s strong currents and frigid water temperatures were the perfect deterrent to potential escapes. All that combined to make it the most notorious and feared prison in the United States. And that’s how it operated for nearly thirty full years before its closure in 1963.
Today, Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most famous tourist attractions. Visitors from all over the world travel to see its tiny prison cells and stunning remnants of the place everyone knew as “The Rock.” But what do you really know about Alcatraz? The prison holds many more stories than what the average person realizes. And in this list, we’ll take a look at ten of them! Here’s a handful of Alcatraz facts that you might not know.
Related: Top 10 Prisoner Riots and Revolutions in History
10 What’s in a Name?
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Most people don’t realize that Alcatraz gets its name from the pelican! Way back when, long before the Americans moved west and settled the San Francisco Bay area, the island was home to a massive colony of brown pelicans. In fact, the first-known European visitor to the area couldn’t help but notice the outcropping covered in birds (and, theoretically, bird excrement) when he sailed through. In 1775, Spanish naval lieutenant and seafaring explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala swung through the bay. He was the first known European to visit that specific area. So he had dibs on naming pretty much whatever he wanted to, as was the custom at the time.
When he came across the pelican-covered island that would one day years later become a prison colony, he decided to honor the birds with its moniker. Ayala appropriately called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates directly into “Island of the Pelicans.” Makes sense! And the name stuck as the Spanish moved about in the region, and—at least for a while—the pelicans kept their claim on that rocky outcropping.
Eventually, as the Americans conquered the area over the next half-century and the Spanish (and Mexicans) receded from the far west, the name was anglicized. Soon enough, it became just “Alcatraz” instead of, you know, “Pelican Island” or something. But Alcatraz sounds way cooler! Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering, in the modern era, it’s mostly seagulls and cormorants who make the island their home. But “Gull Island” isn’t nearly as catchy as Alcatraz, so here we are!
9 Military Moves
The infamous California Gold Rush of the 1840s made the region a must-see place, and it influenced a generation of adventurous young men to strike out westward. In turn, San Francisco soon became a gold rush town. Then, through the 1850s, the population of San Fran and the Bay Area around it began to explode—especially compared to the relative lack of civilization that had been in the area before it. So, the U.S. government quickly moved to set up their own facilities around town, too. By the early 1850s, that meant putting up military installations around San Francisco. By the mid-1850s, they needed a military prison to deal with deserters and ne’er-do-wells who had enlisted.
Just before the Civil War, the U.S. Army began officially housing deserters and other military prisoners on the island. Then, when the Civil War broke out, the military prison became a place to hold Confederate sympathizers. It’s hard to imagine that the Civil War—often thought of as being fought in far-off places like Gettysburg and the Appomattox Courthouse—could lead all the way to Alcatraz, but it did. For the war years of the 1860s, the island was locked down as a military penal colony.
After the war, the cells remained in use, though not for now-vanquished Confederate crusaders. Instead, the feds chose to imprison Native American activists there. These Indian-born men and women had been fighting the government on land disputes, sometimes for decades, and the U.S. was tired of the problem. So, instead of negotiating further, they jailed the most active combatants.
By the turn of the 20th century, they also used Alcatraz for two other groups: American soldiers who deserted the nation’s regiments during the Spanish-American War and Chinese civilians who had resisted army activity during the infamous Boxer Rebellion. Thus, while Alcatraz didn’t become a traditional prison housing standard-fare criminals for the first century-ish of its existence, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well-versed in incarceration even early on.
8 Lighthouse Lookouts, Too
Because of Alcatraz’s unique location in the middle of San Francisco Bay, it was a natural spot to use as a lighthouse point. In 1854, the first small lighthouse was constructed on the very top of a rocky outcropping on a prominent point on the island. In fact, that lighthouse was made so long ago that it became the first lighthouse to be built and used along the entire west coast. For the next five decades, even though the site was used as an aforementioned military prison and specialty penal colony, the lighthouse remained in operation and was left to do its own thing.
Then, at the very turn of the 20th century, the U.S. Army built a new cell block to house even more prisoners on the island. There was just one problem with the new prison building’s construction: It completely blocked the lighthouse’s open lookout into the ocean. Sadly, the 1854 lighthouse quickly became obsolete and eventually forgotten.
For the next few years, there was no lighthouse on the island. Sailing ships had to rely on other landmarks as they passed through the bay with as much care as they could muster. But Alcatraz’s strategic geographical advantage was too strong to ignore forever. Before the decade was out, in 1909, a new, taller lighthouse was constructed on the island and put back into work as a foolproof way to direct boats into and out of the bay.
7 Nobody Escaped…
In 1934, Alcatraz officially became a federal penitentiary. It was touted as “inescapable,” but that didn’t stop the inmates from trying. So you might be surprised to know that nobody ever escaped from Alcatraz. Now, we’re talking about actual, confirmed, successful escapes.
Over the decades it was in use, a few dozen people did make it off Alcatraz Island, but most were captured, several were shot to death, and several more were confirmed to have drowned. But an infamous few were never seen again and thought to have drowned. There was one successful escapee who made his way all the way to the land just underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, but he was quickly caught—and we’ll talk more about him in a second. Back to the failed escapes first.
The most infamous Alcatraz escape occurred in 1962. It involved three inmates—Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin—and was later memorialized in the cult classic 1979 Hollywood flick Escape from Alcatraz. For months, the three spent time slowly and quietly chipping away at the cinder blocks in their cells with stolen and sharpened spoons. Then, when the time was right, they put decoys in their beds and made their move together in the dead of night. They jumped from the island and set off to swim across the icy cold, choppy, and shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay.
Only they never made it. Okay, we’re pretty sure they never made it—but we’re not 100% certain. Days after their escape was made known, with no sign of the three men turning up anywhere on land, their stolen-away prison possessions began washing up on shore. With proof that the men had been in the water but no proof of the whereabouts of the actual men themselves, it’s now commonly accepted that the trio drowned (or were attacked by sharks along the way) and never made it to freedom. Conspiracy theorists claim at least one of the men survived, and maybe he did. Then again, maybe Bigfoot exists, DB Cooper survived, and Elvis is still alive, too…
6 But It WAS Technically Possible
While Morris and the Anglin brothers admittedly got very far in their escape attempt, they didn’t get the furthest from the island (well, we’re pretty sure). That distinction actually goes to an inmate named John Paul Scott. He was a career criminal who was shipped to Alcatraz in the late 1950s and set to serve out a long sentence there. And he was on the island in June of 1962 when Morris and the Anglin brothers did their thing and (at least) got off the island and away from guards. So, Scott had watched keenly as those three men took their shot before him. And in December 1962, he was ready to take his own turn.
Along with another inmate, Scott busted out of his spot during kitchen duty very early one morning. He and the other inmate, Darl Parker, were able to bend a key set of window bars and climb down onto the lowest rocky outcroppings at the outer portion of the island. While jumping down there before swimming away, Parker broke his ankle. Upon entering the water, he knew he was injured badly and could only swim as far as Little Alcatraz Island, which was a little more than 100 yards (91.4 meters) away from the main prison island. Prison officials quickly recaptured him there.
As for John Paul Scott, he had a special set of gloves that he’d stolen and fashioned into makeshift inflatables. He used those to swim all the way across the bay. The very strong currents kept pushing him along, too, badly exhausting the prisoner as he tried in vain to swim against them. Hours later, he’d reached a point at the very foot of the Golden Gate Bridge—but he was barely conscious. As he washed up onto the sandy shores, Scott was nearly dead and suffering from exhaustion and hypothermia. A group of teenagers found him and called the cops. He was quickly rearrested, hospitalized, and then sent back to Alcatraz.
Even though his escape attempt may not have successfully secured his freedom, Scott’s swim to the shoreline proved it was theoretically possible for inmates to make it across the treacherous bay and onto the mainland. Today, that is proven possible every year when the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon holds events of swimming from the former prison island to the shores of San Francisco. But back then, Scott’s journey was truly one of a kind.
5 Controversial Criminal Concerns
If you haven’t figured it out by these last couple of stories, the men shipped off to Alcatraz went there for a reason: They were the worst of the worst. That’s not to say they were all horrible murderers or anything like that. No, it’s not that they committed the worst crimes that landed them in the federal prison system’s most notorious outpost. It was more about these inmates being the worst and most grave escape risks that got them shipped off to that tiny spit of land in the San Francisco Bay.
As was the case with Morris, the Anglin brothers, and John Paul Scott—and many, many more—Alcatraz was the final stop after a long line of unsuccessful stints at other federal prisons all throughout the country. Most of the inmates who called Alcatraz home during its heyday in the middle of the 20th century were men who had previously been caught trying to escape other federal prisons, most notably the one in Leavenworth, Kansas, several major facilities across Florida, and the federal penitentiary that still stands in Atlanta.
For all the prisoners who came through Alcatraz, the imposing island was meant to send a message: This is the end of the line. Long sentences were often the norm, and the difficult, rocky locale made it so that prisoners were meant to be disheartened. Escape was impossible, as we’ve learned (or maybe not so impossible if John Paul Scott had anything to say about it!). It was far better to fall in line with the federal government’s expectations for prison life than to continue acting up in other facilities around the country—or something like that.
4 Everybody Wanted In
Even though the system’s toughest and most escape-prone inmates may have been targeted for a transfer to Alcatraz, pretty much the entire federal prison system wanted to get in at one point or another. It’s not because the prison was seen as soft, or the time there easy. And the island location certainly didn’t give any prospective inmates good vibes regarding some beachside paradise. Far from it! But the reality is that the Alcatraz of the real world was a much less difficult place to serve time than how it’s been portrayed in popular culture.
A big part of the reasoning behind that is the island’s one-man-per-cell policy. The cells were very tiny, but because they were so small, each one could only hold one person. Inmates loved that because it meant they could let their guard down when alone. Locked up in solitary every night and for most of the day, they never had to worry about attacks from other inmates. Having to never keep a proverbial watch behind their back all the time allowed them to finally rest. That relaxation alone was worth the price of admission to the foreboding place.
That’s not the only reason Alcatraz was popular, though. The first warden of the prison was a man named James A. Johnston, and he believed one thing: Most prison riots were caused by poor food being fed to the inmates. To keep unrest at a minimum, he insisted on feeding prisoners good, quality food. He also allowed them to return for seconds and thirds as they pleased. That alone kept inmates satiated and satisfied. Couple that with solitary cells for safety, and suddenly, life is looking pretty good. You know, relatively speaking.
There were other perks to living on Alcatraz, as well. Warden Johnston and several subsequent wardens also saw that the library was stocked with thousands of books and dozens of popular magazine subscriptions. Inmates who liked to read would find no shortage of entertainment in every single genre and area. With those options to pass the time, inmates could coast (again, relatively speaking) through their sentences at Alcatraz compared to some notably more difficult prisons elsewhere across the country.
3 Rockin’ with Capone
Among one of the very first crops of prison inmates to be transferred into Alcatraz was none other than the notorious gangster Al Capone. He got into The Rock less than a year after it was repurposed into becoming a federal penitentiary. Of course, the notorious mobster was serving a tax-evasion prison sentence down at USP Atlanta. But the feds wanted to make a statement that Alcatraz was going to be where all the baddest of the bad dudes went, and Capone was a natural choice to be transferred there. Besides, he had reportedly been bribing guards in Atlanta for preferential treatment on the inside, and the feds were sick of the gangster having such an easy life when he was supposed to be doing hard time.
So, off to Alcatraz he went in August 1934. Judging by all public accounts of the convict’s time served there, it seems the transfer worked. Capone’s stay on the island was, by all accounts, exceedingly difficult. In one infamous exchange with the warden a few months after he arrived on the hard-scrabble rock, Capone—who was given Convict Number 85 for his stay—is reputed to have said, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”
The San Francisco island prison may have indeed worn him down a bit, but it didn’t totally wear him out. The prison had an inmate band that was allowed to play concerts for the rest of the islander inmates every Sunday. Capone eventually became so docile and cooperative with guards on The Rock that the warden actually allowed him to play in that band as a sign of goodwill. Every weekend, then, a curiously calm Capone picked up his banjo and set up along with the rest of the inmate band for a musical show. Now, decades later, his ghost is said to haunt the halls of the prison—with banjo in hand!
2 Birdman Blues
Everybody knows about the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” But what few don’t realize is that he never actually had any birds in the prison. The infamous inmate’s name was Robert Stroud, and he was first sentenced to prison decades earlier on a manslaughter charge after killing a bartender during a brawl. Then, in 1916, he killed a prison guard at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas and was sentenced to death. Eventually, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to a lifelong term. He ordered Stroud sent to solitary confinement for it all. That, the feds intended, would be how he played out the rest of his shackled existence.
With plenty of time on his hands and no human contact to help him get by, Stroud began to study birds in his Kansas prison cell. He started raising canaries and other birds as he was able to convince guards to procure them for him, too. Over the 1920s, he became notorious within Leavenworth’s walls for his deep, encyclopedic knowledge of birds. From avian behavior to diseases, breeding, and more, he knew more about birds than nearly anyone in the nation. He even wrote and illustrated two books on how to raise canaries.
Then, in 1931, it all ended. Federal officials ordered him to completely give up his birds in 1931. Then, about a decade later, he was transferred to Alcatraz. There, he was banned from having any contact with birds whatsoever. His “Birdman” name, then, simply followed him to the island based on the reputation he’d earned in Kansas years before. But there was no bird-raising or interaction for Stroud on The Rock. And while the on-screen portrayal Burt Lancaster offered up on Stroud for the 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz may have earned the actor an Academy Award nomination, it was totally phony.
1 Activist Occupation
After The Rock shut down in 1963, it lay dormant and unused for the better part of six years. That all changed in November 1969, though—and not by the government’s hand, either. That month, a group of almost 100 Native American activists sailed out to the island and took it over. They claimed the land as their own in an interesting and original way. Their leader, Mohawk Richard Oakes, cited an 1868 treaty that the U.S. government had signed with native tribes granting them access to unoccupied federal land.
Arguing that Alcatraz had been unoccupied since it had been left unused and abandoned for more than half a decade, Oakes’s group staked their claim to the land. In turn, they demanded the official legal deed to Alcatraz. By controlling the land, their long-term intention was to open a Native American-led university and cultural center on the small piece of land. They even offered to purchase the island outright from the feds for “$24 in glass beads and red cloth.” Of course, that was the famous purchase price that Dutch settlers allegedly paid for the island of Manhattan way back in 1626. It was a clever and controversial flip of that ages-old sale that drew even more attention to this 1969 cause.
Over the next two years, federal officials negotiated with the protestors and attempted to move them off the island. It took months to get everybody involved away from Alcatraz, but by June 1971, the island was finally clear again. Some graffiti still remains from the protest, but little else was altered that hadn’t already been in disarray before the activists arrived, considering the island was all but abandoned.