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Alcatraz Administration Building, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser.
The routine was
unyielding, day after day, year after year. As quickly as privileges were
earned they could be revoked for the slightest infraction of the rules.
The only "redeeming”
qualities of the prison were the private cells and quality of food served
at the prison. These too had their reasons. The first was to further
isolate these hardened criminals, while the second was to prevent riots
that were often known to start in other prisons because of the poor
quality of food.
Though the vast majority of
prisoners were never seen on a wanted poster, other notorious criminals
held at the prison over the years included two members of the Ma Barker
Gang – Arthur "Doc” Barker, the last surviving son, and Alvin "Creepy"
Karpis, who was in a partnership with Ma Barker.
Other notorious criminals
included Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz"
Stroud, and Floyd Hamilton, a gang member and driver for Bonnie and Clyde.
While members of Ma
Barker’s gang of hoodlums, Doc Barker and Alvin "Creepy” Karpis,
terrorized the Midwest between 1931 and 1936. Their many crimes
included murder, bank robbery, kidnapping, and train robbery. Karpis’
flamboyant style had earned him the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover and soon
found himself with the infamous distinction of being "Public Enemy No.
Doc Barker was
arrested in January, 1935 and later sent to Alcatraz
Leavenworth. He was killed in an escape attempt from Alcatraz
in 1939. Carpis, who was arrested in New Orleans in May, 1936, found
himself in Alcatraz just a few months later. He spent the next 26 years
on the "Rock” before being transferred to McNeil Island in April,
1962. In 1969, he was released and deported to his homeland of Canada. Carpis died in 1979.
Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz,
received very little notoriety until he gained attention in the 1962
movie "The Birdman of Alcatraz.” Stroud, who was convicted of manslaughter in 1909, was initially sent
to McNeil Island to serve a 12 year sentence. While there, he
was difficult to manage and after attacking an orderly, he was sent to
Leavenworth. After less than four years at the
prison, he killed a guard, and was later sentenced to hang. After his
mother appealed to President Wilson, the sentence was commuted to life. It was during Stroud’s thirty years as a
Leavenworth that he began to study birds, which gained him
international attention. When Stroud began to openly violate
prison rules to continue his birding experiments and communications
with bird breeders, he was sent to Alcatraz
in 1942, where he never again was permitted to continue his avian
The "Birdman” occupied a cell in D Block for approximately six years,
before he was moved to the prison hospital in 1948, for the purpose of
segregating him from the rest of the population. After he genuinely
became ill, he was transferred to a Federal Medical Facility in
in 1959. Four years later, Stroud died of natural causes.
Though the prison was heavily fortified
and it was assumed that the "treacherous waters” of the San Francisco Bay would prevent any escape, several attempts were made throughout
From a total of 1,545 prisoners that spent time at the federal prison, 36 men
attempted to escape in fourteen 14 separate attempts. Of those, 20 were
captured, seven were shot and killed, two drowned, and five were never
found, assumed by prison authorities to have drowned.
Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were the first to disappear from
December 16, 1937. While working in one of the workshops, Cole and
Roe had, over a period of time, filed their way through the flat iron bars
on a window. After climbing through the window, they made their way
to the water’s edge and disappeared into San Francisco Bay. Prison
authorities declared them to have drowned but four years later, a San
Francisco Chronicle reporter reported the men were alive and well in South
The bloodiest escape
attempt occurred over a three day period on May 2-4, 1946. In this
incident, known as the "Battle of Alcatraz,”
six men by the names of Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley,
Clarence Carnes, Marvin Hubbard and Miran Thompson, took control of the
cell house. Overpowering officers and gaining access to weapons and
keys, they planned to escape through the recreation yard door. However, when they found they didn’t have the key to the outside door,
they decided to fight rather than giving up. During the next couple
of days, the prisoners killed two of the guards they had taken hostage. Eventually Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, but
Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard continued to fight.
The U.S. Marines were
eventually called out to assist and the escape attempt ended. In the
melee, Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were killed, and 17 guards and one
prisoner were wounded. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes later stood
trial for the death of the officers; Shockley and Thompson received the
death penalty and were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in
December 1948. Carnes, just 19 years old at the time, received a second
July 11, 1962, Clarence Anglin, his brother John, and Frank Morris also
disappeared from Alcatraz. Their escape was made famous by Clint Eastwood's movie, "Escape From
The three escapees, along with another man by the name of Alan (Clayton)
West, made plaster heads with real hair swept from the barber shop floor. On the night of the escape, they left the heads on their beds and crept
through the ventilators in their cells, which had been widened with stolen
spoons from the kitchen, into the utility corridor. West could not fit
through his hole and remained behind. From there, they made their way to
the roof, then down to the water’s edge. Though prison authorities
believed the men had drowned, no bodies were ever recovered.
During the last escape
on December 12, 1962, John Paul Scott, 35-years old, swam from the island
to Fort Point, under the southern part of the Golden Gate Bridge, proving
that it could be done. Along with another prisoner named Darl Parker, the
pair bent the bars of a kitchen window in the cell house basement and
Parker was discovered on a small outcropping
of rock a short distance from the island. However, Scott, a better
swimmer, made it to Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Collapsing from exhaustion and hypothermia, he was soon found by two
teenage boys who called for help. He was then taken to the military
hospital at the Presidio Army base. After being treated for shock
and hypothermia, he was returned to Alcatraz.
Scars from the "Battle of
can still be seen on
the floor, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser.
One of the heads used in the escape of the Anglin brothers and Frank
is still on display in a cell, July, 2009,
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