The Rock, Hellcatraz, Uncle Sam’s Devil Island, or simply Alcatraz is the place where America’s incorrigible badass gangsters were sent away to be tamed. A total of 1,576 violent and dangerous criminals who did not comply to the rules or detention walked through its gates. Alcatraz was the prison of the prison system, the school of the hard-knocks. The monotonous and highly structured daily routine was meant to make inmates follow regulations. Prisoners had only four rights: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Anything besides these were considered a great privilege that had to be earned through hard work.
The name of the island was given by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named the rocky outcrop “la Isla de los Alcatraces,” meaning ‘the island of the pelicans.” The windswept island in the San Francisco Bay was originally an army fort whose small prison in the basement below the guard house was used to incarcerate protestors and objectors during the Civil War and World War 1. It served as a federal prison between 1934 and 1963, and saw some of America’s most infamous public enemies, ruthless criminals, and legendary monsters locked behind its bars. Despite legends, Alcatraz wasn’t exactly escape-proof, and 36 inmates can testify to this. Out of these, 23 were captured, six were shot, two drowned, and five are recorded as “missing and presumed drowned.” So who are the most notorious inmates of Alcatraz? Take a peek at this list and see for yourself.
10. Inmate #714: Clarence Victor “The Choctaw Kid” Carnes
The youngest inmate ever to walk through the gates of Alcatraz, Clarence Victor Carnes, better known as “The Choctaw Kid,” was only 18 when he arrived on the island prison. At just 16 years old, he was sentenced to life in prison for killing a garage attendant during a holdup. Shortly after arriving at Alcatraz in 1945, he began plotting an escape. He and six other inmates captured the cell block’s guards and what followed was a two-day bloody mess known as The Battle of Alcatraz, that claimed the lives of three prisoners and two guards. His accomplices were sentenced to death, and Clarence was sentenced to 99 additional years in prison, which brought his sentence to 203 years in prison.
9. Inmate #268: Arthur R. “Doc” Barker
A gang member of the Ma Barker-Karpis Gang, Arthur “Doc” Barker was the son of Ma Barker, another Public Enemy No. 1, so it was only natural that crime run through his veins. Sentenced to life in prison for murder and kidnapping, he arrived at Alcatraz in 1936. On January 13, 1939, “Doc” Barker and fellow inmates Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henri Young, and Rufus McCain attempted to escape from Alcatraz by busting out of an isolation unit. The prison break was a disaster. The men were caught on the shoreline of the island. Three of them surrendered, but Barker and Stamphill refused to give up and were shot down. Barker died because of his wounds.
8. Inmate # 1141: Frank Morris
Starting with juvenile delinquencies, runaways, breaking and entering, burglary, narcotics, armed robbery, unlawful fights, and bank robberies, did this guy ever do anything legal? Frank Morris was transferred to Alcatraz in 1960. Within a year, he began plotting his escape. Four men were involved in the prison break: Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, and Allen West. The latter is said to have been the mastermind behind the whole scheme, but he couldn’t remove his vent grill in time and got stuck inside while the others were carrying out the plan. The escape took two years to plan, the four men stole tools to dig with, build a raft and life-size dummies. On June 11, 1962, the men placed the dummies on their cell beds, and broke out through the vents at the back of their cells to the utility corridor. They continued onto the roof and reached the bay where they boarded on the raft and disappeared. The raft was found the next day, together with some of the Anglin brothers’ personal effects. Authorities were certain the men drowned, yet no bodies were ever found. Mysterious sightings of the three were reported, but nothing solid. Could they have pulled off the perfect escape?
7. Inmate #1518: Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen
Gangster and member of the Jewish Mafia, Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen was a professional boxer who ran with Chicago’s most ruthless mobsters, working for the Mafia’s gambling rackets. He was an enforcer for the Chicago Outfit and worked with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in setting up the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Twice convicted for tax income evasion, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison and arrived at Alcatraz in 1961. During his time here, he was nearly killed by another inmate who attacked him with a lead pipe, partially paralyzing him. When Alcatraz shut down its doors, “Mickey” Cohen was transferred to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. In 1972, when he was discovered with stomach cancer, he was released. He died a year later in his sleep.
6. Inmate # 1428: James “Whitey” Bulger
An organized-crime personality, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger Jr. was first arrested in 1943 for larceny. He soon moved on to more serious things, like assault, battery, forgery, and armed robbery. According to local folklore, Whitey Bulger was a modern-day Robin Hood, a social bandit who would go to any length to protect his neighborhood. In 1956, he was convicted for bank robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. After two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he and 18 other inmates volunteered for the MK-ULTRA, a CIA program in which the men were given LSD and other mind control drugs, he arrived at Alcatraz in 1959. He left in 1962 and was released in 1965, but his old habits caught up with him, becoming the leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang. Whitey Bulger was captured by the FBI in 2011. He had a $2 million bounty on his head.
5. Inmate #110: Roy “The Smiling Bandit” Gardner
One of America’s most famous prison escapees and one of the most ruthless criminals in history, Roy G. Gardner is considered Alcatraz’ most charming inmate, which earned him the nickname of “The Smiling Bandit.” Using his charisma and good luck, he robbed numerous mail trucks and trains, becoming a handful for the authorities. Also known as the “King of the Escape Artists,” he escaped from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in 1921 and became the most hunted man on the West Coast. He was recaptured the same year and was imprisoned in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he had numerous other escape attempts before being transferred to Alcatraz in 1934, which he described as “the toughest, hardest place in the world. ” In 1938, his petition for clemency was granted and he walked out of the island prison a free man. Before committing suicide in 1940, he wrote an autobiography entitled Hellcatraz.
4. Inmate #325: Alvin “Creepy” Karpis
When your fellow gangsters, murderers, robbers, and rapists call you “Creepy,” it makes a clear statement about who you are. One of the three leaders of the infamous Ma Barker-Karpis Gang during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, Alvin Karpis got his nickname from his sinister smile. He was America’s last Public Enemy No. 1, personally taken down by J. Edgar Hoover. Alvin even mocked the director of the FBI for not being able to capture him. Accused with ten murders, six kidnappings, and bank robbery, he was sentenced to life in prison, and that’s not the only record he holds. Alvin “Creepy” Karpis is the inmate who spent the most time within the walls of Alcatraz, walking through its gates in 1936, and leaving in 1962 when he was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary.
3. Inmate # 117: George “Machine Gun” Kelly
George Kelly Barnes, better known as Machine Gun Kelly, was one of the Prohibition Era’s most notorious gangsters. He got his nickname from his favorite weapon, a Thompson machine gun, and it seems it was his wife who created the image for him. Machine Gun Kelly became famous when he kidnapped Charles F. Urschel, an oil tycoon and businessman, collecting a $200,000 ransom. He immediately became FBI’s Public Enemy No. 1. When the FBI raided his hideout, he was caught without a weapon, still in his pajamas, and he surrendered without a fight, crying out “Don’t shoot, G-men,” an appellation that became a synonym for FBI agents. Machine Gun Kelly arrived at Alcatraz in 1934. The guards considered him a model inmate during the 17 years he spent here. He did not act tough, did not get into any fights, worked in the laundry, and even took a job as an altar boy in the prison chapel. In 1951, he was transferred to Leavenworth. He died in prison due to a heart attack in 1954, on his 59th birthday.
2. Inmate No. #594: Robert “The Birdman” Stroud
Alcatraz’ most feared inmate was Robert Stroud, better known to the public as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing a bartender in a bar during a drunken brawl, he was incarcerated in McNeil Island Federal Prison, where he attacked a hospital orderly and stabbed an inmate, and later at Leavenworth, where he lethally stabbed a guard after being told his brother could not visit. President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence from death by hanging to life in solitary confinement, and Birdman Stroud walked into Alcatraz in 1942.
A self-taught ornithologist, his nickname can be traced back to his days at Leavenworth, where he kept canaries and other birds. However, during his 17 years in Alcatraz, he was not allowed any cellmates, human or animal, and instead began writing and illustrating two books. His Digest on the Diseases of Birds, published in 1943, is considered a classic in the field of ornithology. He spent six years in the D block in solitary confinement and a whole term in the prison hospital. He was the inmate everyone feared, as one of the guards clearly pointed “Stroud loves birds and hates men.”
1. Inmate #85: Al Capone
Perhaps the most resonant name on the American Mafia scene, the Chicago mob boss was one of the first convicts to step through Alcatraz’s gates when it opened in 1934. Inmate #85, Alphonse Gabriel Capone, “Scarface Al,” “Big Al,” or simply Al Capone was a king of the underworld during the Prohibition Era. He ran the Chicago Outfit, a crime syndicate commonly known as the Capones that smuggled and bottled liquor from the early 1920’s through 1931. Out of the many crimes Al Capon was guilty of, it was only income tax evasion that landed him in prison. He was sentenced to 11 years, and arrived at Alcatraz in 1934.
While he had been previously incarcerated at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he managed to manipulate and buy off the guards, running his illegal businesses from behind bars. When he was transferred to Alcatraz, officials made it clear he would not be receiving any special treatment. It was indeed hard for Big Al, as he himself admitted “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.” He spent four and a half years at Alcatraz, during which he held numerous jobs, got into a fight in the recreation yard and was placed in isolation for eight days, and was stabbed by another inmate with a pair of shears. However, he did learn to cooperate, and was allowed to play the banjo with the Alcatraz prison band, the Rock Islanders, giving regular concerts for other inmates. When he began showing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and mental problems, he was transferred at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles in 1938, and was released the following year.