You can smell the salt in the air, despite the inability to see much around you. That infamous San Francisco Bay Area fog is making it impossible to see even the beautiful golden bridge only a few miles from you. The locals promise you the fog will lift, and the sites will be beautiful, but you can’t imagine any fog this thick clearing in time to see anything, anytime soon. You’re visiting the Golden City in June, and yet it is still ice cold on the water.
Suddenly through the fog, The Rock comes into view. You can see the silhouette of the buildings on Alcatraz Island, and guess many of them are the prison itself. Your first thought is that it looks like a hauntingly twisted replica of France’s Mont-Saint-Michel, with its singular high tower, keeping watch over the rest of the island. Even from afar, the graffiti atop the water tower is glaring. You struggle to read it, and fixate on it. As your ferry pulls into the dock on the island, you get your first real look at the tag on the tower:
Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free. Indian Land.
There are rumors that Alcatraz was originally used as a fishing station by local Indian tribes. According to the first Spaniard to map the island, Juan Manual Diaz, there was no sign anyone ever occupied the isolated island in the middle of the bay, except birds. He deemed it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or “The Island of the Pelicans.” Over the next few years, the Spanish would build several buildings on the island. Interestingly, (Anya if you’re reading this, this one is for you) the origin of the word “alcatraz,” according to a book from 1915, is Arabic. It was often used in reference to alchemy, meaning a “recovery of valuables from a retort” or basically, the process of separating the valuable material from a mineral after a process of purification (The Rock). As the book thoughtfully notes, this is an interesting origin of the word, knowing what Alcatraz Island eventually becomes: a rehabilitation prison.
In 1846, the Mexican government gave the island to William Workman, a settler from (my own home state) Franklin, Missouri. He jumped on a Santa Fe Trail caravan and migrated to what is now New Mexico, where he became a smuggler. He and his family traveled to California, where they landed as one of the original settlers of Los Angeles. Workman was granted Mexican citizenship after his work commanding parts of the Mexican army during the Mexican-American war. He, in turn, gave the island to his son, Francis Temple, who sold it to the future Governor of California, John C. Frémont for the lofty price of $5,000 (upwards of $150,000 in 2018) in the name of the US Government. Frustratingly, Frémont never paid the five grand, and Temple sued, to no avail. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore set the land aside for the US Military. Around this time, the US began studying the stability of the island to be used as protection for the San Fransisco bay. Construction began quickly, and ended in 1858, when the first army battalion arrived.
When talks of secession began to stir around the country, the governor of Oregon feared that California and Oregon would fall to southern sympathizers, and asked President Lincoln for fortification of the West Coast. Immediately, the US Army replaced the commanding officers at Alcatraz, and they turned the island into an arsenal for the US Military. In 1868, through the Spanish-American War, the military began using Alcatraz as long-term prisoner holding. In the seventies, the definition of “long-term prisoner” expanded to include “troublesome Indians” or American Indians that would not submit to involuntary removal from tribal land, or forced assimilation. In the book The Rock, a collection of newspaper articles written in 1915, it describes one particular “troublesome Indian”: “One of these was a boy about sixteen who arrived in full Indian costume. He was taken to the barber shop where his beautiful long hair was cut off…” (August 3). The italics are not in the original. They were added by me for emphasis. These are real people, with a real culture that Americans stripped from them. But I digress… On the podcast, we will discuss (rant about) this issue extensively when we get to Three Day Road.
By the early 1900s the makeshift prison on the island was becoming overcrowded. Mainly at this time, the prisoners were associated with the military; some were deserters, some were civilians that committed crimes as they traveled with the military, and also POWs. Nearly two-hundred prisoners were transported to Alcatraz the night before the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in 1906. Alcatraz itself took little damage; a pipe burst and the original lighthouse was damaged. They later decided to tear down the lighthouse, and rebuild. However, the coastline was severely damaged, and many of the jails around the city, including the famous San Quentin, caught fire. There was an actual discussion of if it would be better to leave the prisoners in their cells to burn to death, or if they should be released. Eventually, the prisoners were evacuated, and wandered homeless for two days before they were transported to Alcatraz Island, where they would wait out the week.
In 1907, The Rock officially became a military prison. This time period was the beginning of the building of the large cell blocks. The cell blocks were completed in 1912, and at the same time the builders demolished the military barracks to the ground level, creating a moat-like defense system on the island. Later, the first floor was incorporated into the cell block, leading to legends that there was a dungeon beneath the prison.
During the First World War, conscientious objectors to the war and draft dodgers were held at Alcatraz. One famous objector, Philip Grosser, highlighted the inhumane treatment in his book Uncle Sam’s Devil Island. There are accusations that the PTSD he obtained from his time in the prison led to his suicide in 1933.
In 1933, the island was turned over to the US Dept. of Justice, and turned into a federal penitentiary. The initial idea of the prison was to hold troublesome prisoners from other penitentiaries around the countries. The first batch of 137 prisoners arrived by railroad on August 11, 1934, pictured below. 60 US Marshals and FBI agents guarded the prisoners as they arrived in handcuffs. The original staff has 155 members, highly trained in security protocol, but not rehabilitation. In the early years of the prison, the US experimented with the newest technology of the day. The prisoners were surrounded by early metal detectors, but they often overheated and had to be turned off. The gun gallery guards were given machine guns, shot guns, hand guns, grenades, and gasses to maintain order in the prison.
Unsurprisingly, the citizens of San Fran were not thrilled with hardened criminals, mainly professional gangsters, being held just off the coast of the city. The police chief cited 17 different cases where military prisoners escaped the island in previous years. A woman’s club protested the prison by organizing separate swims out to the island to prove how easily the swim was achieved. Of course, nothing ever came of the protests, and the island continued to house “the worst of the worst” criminals.
Now for the fun part… Whaaaatttt? It’s already been a fun read! I know. But it is about to get funner. More fun? Anyway…
Alcatraz is more famous for the prisoners it held, than its history. Some of the top names of prisoners that spent much of their lives here are Roy Gardner, the last American train robber; Henri Young, the man who stabbed another prisoner to death with a spoon; Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, the last public enemy to be taken to the island; James “Whitey” Bulger, or the Robin Hood of Boston; George “Machine Gun” Kelly, not the rapper, of course; and Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen, a featherweight boxer arrested for tax evasion with ties to our hometown, Las Vegas. A famous inmate we must talk about is the Birdman. After a tough life and years of imprisonment, he was imprisoned at Leavenworth Prison. While there, he was isolated in solitary confinement, where he began to collect a colony of canaries, and author two books about them and their diseases. He was later transported to Alcatraz where he served the majority of his sentence, before he died in a hospital for prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Of course one of the most famous is Al “Scarface” Capone, enough said. I should mention here that an outrageous number of these inmates had ties to my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, or several miles west in Leavenworth, Kansas and the federal penitentiary, or south to Springfield, Missouri. In short, gangsters come from KC. Fun fact: KC is still full of gangsters. 😉
Speaking of gangsters… Let’s digress from the famous inmates for a minute to talk about history again for a second. Let’s talk about the Battle of Alcatraz. After an unsuccessful escape attempt by bank robber Bernard Paul Coy and five accomplices, overtook the prison. While one man, stationed in the kitchen as the cleaner, called for a guard to let him out to return to his cell, another attacked the guard. They released two other men from their cells. Coy opened some bars in the gun gallery, and with the help of weight loss, squeezed between the bars into the gallery. Armed with clubs, keys, guns, grenades, and gasses, they took block C and D, releasing the prisoners, before securing the yard. They took officers hostage, and attempted to move outside to use them to barter with the boatman at the dock. After all of their hard work, they were finally foiled by a jammed lock, and were forced to shoot it out with the incoming guards. Afraid the guards would testify against them if they surrendered, the inmates open fired on their five officer hostages. While a few of the inmates returned to their cells, the ring leaders decided they would not surrender and continued firing on advancing guards. Finally, the warden cut the electricity. Because of the positioning of the prisoners at the top of the cell block and with the weapons they obtained, it was nearly impossible to attack. The only option? They called in the motha’ fuckin’ US Marines. The Marines came up with a strategy to drive the prisoners into a corner by drilling holes in the roof of the cell block, and drop in live grenades. The prisoners avoided injury by falling into position in the corner of the cell block. Eventually, they sent in armed officers, guns a-blazing. The bodies of the escapees were later recovered in the corridor in which they were cornered.
Another famous inmate includes Frank Lee Morris, known for his multiple escape attempts from other penitentiaries. He was supposedly tested multiple times for his IQ, and was positioned at the top 2% of the country. He used his smarts to aid him in his multiple escape attempts. It was him who convinced the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, and Allen West to attempt an escape of the island. This escape attempt is also the most famous in the history of the island. There is some suggestion that the men had been imprisoned together before, and possibly knew each other. They were assigned adjacent cells in 1961, and worked on their escape plans through the night. Over time, they made the ventilation vent in their cells bigger using a makeshift drill from a broken vacuum, saws they found on the prison grounds, and spoons. They masked the holes by using cardboard and paint, and covered their noise by having Morris play his accordian. I just have a few questions… How in the world were the guards so careless they obtained these materials, and it wasn’t a bit obvious that there was an accordian playing all night? Did the guards not care because the island is inescapable? I. Just. Don’t. Understand.
Anyway… They opened their vents enough to crawl through, to create a work room inside the walls, atop their cells. In the workroom, they fashioned life preserves from raincoats, and made a raft. They used parts of the accordian to inflate the raft. Finally, they climbed through the ventilation system to the grill on the roof, where they would made their escape.
The night of the escape, West had some problems with the grate on his vent. By the time he made it out, the others were gone. He returned to his cell and went back to sleep. In the morning, West cooperated with guards to avoid further punishment. He revealed the escape plans, and preparations. By then, Morris and the Anglins were long gone, and only the papier-mâché heads they made of themselves remained. Guards later revealed that they had, in fact, heard the escape attempt when the grill on the roof crashed to the floor. When they heard no other sound, they did not investigate. I mean… what?! What even is this place?
A full search of the coast was immediately put into place. The coastguard found the remains of a paddle, the raft, and several life preserves, but no bodies were ever recovered. They also found one of the Anglin’s wallet, containing names and addresses of friends and family. The FBI concluded while it was possible one or more of the escapees could have made it to land, it was unlikely, due to the water temperature and the strength of the current in the bay. The FBI website says, “We officially closed our case on December 31, 1979, and turned over responsibility to the U.S. Marshals Service, which continues to investigate in the unlikely event the trio is still alive.” However, the US Marshals still classify it as an open investigation, and as recently as 2009, according to NPR, the Director told NPR that he was still regularly obtaining leads in the case and they are actively pursuing them.
Since then, Mythbusters have tested their escape and found it possible they survived. Evidence was released that the FBI did find footprints on an island nearby where the boat was found. The FBI once said the plan was to steal clothes and a car when they got to land, and there were no cars stolen in the area that night. That was later disputed. Anglin family members suggested they met with their brothers at the prison where they paid off the guards. Family and friends of both the Anglins and Morris claimed they have met with them since the escape. There is suggestion that they all ended up in Brazil. According to this CBS article, John wrote a letter to CBS San Fransisco saying, “My name is John Anglin. I escape from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely!” This led to the FBI reopening the case. The letter also told the paper that Morris died in 2008, and Clarence died in 2011.
Another huge moment for the island came after the prison closed in 1963. In 1964, for four hours, a group of forty Sioux Indians, journalists, photographers, and a lawyer occupied the island. This was a publicity stunt for a movement to increase media attention on the Civil Rights protests already occurring in San Francisco. They claimed the US Government offered them 47 cents per acre when they originally took the island from the Indians, and they were offering to pay the government back in full: $9.40. Under threat of a felony charge, they left. In November 1969, after the loss of the Indian Center in San Francisco, and threat the island would be turned over for commercial use, another symbolic occupation took place. Though only 14 of the attempted 89 occupiers actually landed on the island at first, nearly 400 occupied it at its most populated time. This number came after many friends and family of the occupiers, supported by many artists and interest groups brought supplies to the occupiers. This occupation lasted 19 months before it ended peacefully, and lead to much of the graffiti on the island.
The history of the island was as much for me and my interests as it was for you. My own personal experiences will be continued in next week’s blog post, along with a comparison to the fictional Azkaban.
Thompson, Erwin H. The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island 1847-1972. Department of Interior. Denver, Co.
“Full History.” Alcatraz History, Ocean View, http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/.
“FBI History.” Federal Bureau of Investigation, Rovi Corporation, web.archive.org/web/20080708204018/http://www.fbi.gov/fbihistory.htm.
Sullivan, Laura. “Escape From Alcatraz And A 47-Year Manhunt.” NPR, NPR, 21 Sept. 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112746496&ps=cprs.
“Alcatraz Inmates Survived Infamous 1962 Escape, Letter Suggests.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 24 Jan. 2018, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/alcatraz-inmates-survived-infamous-1962-escape-letter-suggests/.