Alcatraz Island, just 2 kilometres off the coast of San Francisco, is an infamous sight in the bay. This military prison, turned federal penitentiary, housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals. 1,576 inmates did time on The Rock from 1934 until the 1960s. Here’s our list of the sinister six - Alcatraz’s most dangerous inmates:
An official public enemy number one and part of a formidable 1930s crime gang of robbers, hijackers and kidnappers, Karpis was the group’s leader with a photographic memory. Legend says he was captured by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself and sentenced to life imprisonment on Alcatraz for ten murders, six kidnappings and a robbery. He was the last of the depression-era criminals to be caught and served the longest sentence - 26 years - of any Alcatraz prisoner. Arthur Barker, another member of the gang, was also in Alcatraz and was part of a disastrous break out, during which he was shot and killed.
Canadian-born criminal of Lithuanian descent, known for being the leader of the Barker–Karpis gang.
Capone was involved in crime from a young age and later became an infamous gangster and criminal mastermind. At the same time he had political connections and was known for helping the poor and needy. However, public opinion turned against him after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and his capture became a priority for the new President Hoover. Five years later he was sent to Atlanta Jail where he manipulated the system, bribing the guards to receive home comforts. He was later transferred to Alcatraz where he led a very different and harsher existence.
Alphonse Gabriel Capone circa 1930 - Also known by the nickname 'Scarface'.
George 'Machine Gun' Kelly
A prohibition gangster, Kelly became a bootlegger in an effort to avoid financial hardship. He then met and fell in love with another outlaw, Kathryn Thorne, and under her influence he became increasingly notorious and earned his 'Machine Gun' moniker. His downfall was the kidnap and ransom of an oil tycoon, for which he and other gang members received life sentences. When he was sent to prison, he told the press that he would escape and break out his wife in time for Christmas. The authorities took him seriously and he was sent to Alcatraz instead. He didn’t make it home for Christmas.
The 1933 kidnap and ransom of oil tycoon, Charles F. Urschel, secured Kelly and his gang $200,000.
The Birdman of Alcatraz
Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, was surely the prison’s most famous inmate. He even had a film made about him, which earned Burt Lancaster an Oscar nomination. Stroud was imprisoned for murdering a bartender who had allegedly owed money to a prostitute that Stroud was pimping. When jailed, he was a violent prisoner, eventually stabbing a prison guard. Whilst on death row his sentence was commuted. He was put into solitary confinement where he developed an interest in canaries, having found one injured on the prison grounds. He later bred and studied them, eventually publishing books on the subject. He found his way to Alcatraz after guards from his previous prison found some of his ornithological equipment was being used to brew alcohol. He spent 17 years there – six in segregation – without his birds, spending his time writing and illustrating books.
Burt Lancaster received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Stroud in the 1962 film 'Birdman of Alcatraz'.
A notorious criminal who was as well known for his success at breaking out of jail, the eventual reason he found himself transferred to Alatraz in the first place. He escaped from McNeil Island prison in the 1920s, was recaptured and sent to Atlanta, where he continued to hatch plans to escape before being transferred to Alcatraz. He never escaped from The Rock, and later penned an autobiography titled Hellcatraz.
"Smiling Bandit", and the "King of the Escape Artists" - A couple of the names used by West Coast newspapers to describe Gardner. (Image: Alcatrazhistory.com)
Frank Lee Morris
Following a life of crime sprees, Frank Morris was transferred to Alcatraz in 1960. He began plotting his escape with four others. They stole tools, which they used to dig out. They built a raft and dummies for their cell beds. They escaped on June 11, 1962 and, although the raft and some personal items were found, the men never were. It was presumed that they had drowned in the strong current, but no bodies were ever found. So, no one is really sure whether the group escaped or died trying.
Frank Lee Morris's record card. His IQ was thought to be 133; borderline genius! (Image: Alcatrazhistory.com)
Alcatraz Island - Home to the Famous Federal Penitentiary.
Alcatraz, Hellcatraz, The Rock – it’s an infamous and foreboding sight, home to many notorious characters.
Check out Alcatraz with Gray Line San Francisco
Alcatraz is an intriguing story and a phenomenal sight in San Francisco Bay. If you are planning to visit San Francisco, it’s definitely one of the places to build into your trip. To help you do that, get in touch with Gray Line San Francisco at graylineofsanfrancisco.com
Our tours around Alcatraz are very popular – check out our TripAdvisor pages to find out what our previous guests thought of them – including Mother Y from Chester, England who described our City Tour and Escape from the Rock combination as being a “fab tour” and “well worth the money”. This tour will take you around Alcatraz Island where you’ll hear all about this famous island and its inmates.
Want to stop off on Alcatraz Island and explore the prison itself? We also offer packages which include tickets and a live guided tour (in English). Click here for more information on one of these fantastic packages.
We’d love to welcome you to this most beautiful part of the USA.
If you want to see more content from San Francisco follow us on social media;