Unusual Tourist Sites: Alcatraz Island Prison San Francisco, California Part 2

About the unusual tourist site of Alcatraz Island Prison in San Francisco, California, history and information.

San Francisco, California

Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1934 in response to the rising crime rate of the Depression and Prohibition years. As new Federal laws against bank robbing and kidnapping brought the "G-Men" increasingly into action, more and more of those on the "Most Wanted" list filled the country's jails and did their best to break out of them. The answer was a new escape-proof prison and Alcatraz seemed the perfect choice. James A. Johnston, a leading penologist and the 1st of 4 wardens, was dispatched to convert the island into the world's tightest cage. White-haired and soft-spoken, Johnston was nevertheless one of the toughest men on Alcatraz. It was his custom to allow prisoners to approach him from the rear, double file, as they marched from the dining hall. Only once did an inmate take advantage of that--severely beating the warden, and getting a few knocks himself from the guards--but Johnston soon returned to his post and no one laid a hand on him again.

One of the 1st and coolest escapes from Alcatraz was in 1903, during the military prison days, when 4 inmates forged themselves pardons, bribed a guard to mail them to the commander, and walked out free. Hitting the shore, 3 of them did the most likely thing. They headed for the nearest bar and soon after were picked up dead drunk. The 4th was smart enough to do his drinking farther afield and was never caught. Such stratagems had no chance in the new Alcatraz. The handpicked staff was incorruptible and in addition to the high walls, machine-gun-carrying guards, and double-locked doors, the cold waters of the bay were a further deterrent to escape. Only George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and John Paul Scott are known to have escaped by swimming, the 1st 2 in the movies. Scott made it in real life but was soon found, exhausted, on the shore. Of 26 would-be escapees, 8 were shot or drowned, 13 were captured, and 5 remained unaccounted for. Officials presumed them dead.

The number of prisoners was kept low--about 250 at any one time--and in its 30 years Alcatraz held a total of only a little over 1,000 men. Best-known among them were the "Big Four": Al Capone; kidnapper and bank robber Alvin Karpis (both Karpis and Capone were once listed as Public Enemy No. 1), George "Machine Gun" Kelly; and "Doc" Barker, who, in his own words, was "shot to hell" during an escape attempt. In later years both gangster Mickey Cohen and the shadowy Frank Carbo, who once controlled organized boxing, did time there. Another famous inmate, for different reasons, was Robert Stroud, "the Bird Man of Alcatraz," who was the author of highly respected scientific books on bird diseases.

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