CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ WAS ALLOWED NO BIRDS ON THE ROCK.
Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) offshore from San Francisco, California. Often referred to as The Rock, the small island early on served as a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison until 1963. Later, in 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received landmarking designations in 1976 and 1986.
Today, the island is a historic site operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. In 2008 the nation's first hybrid propulsion ferry started serving the island. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics, and games.
The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is one Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846 with the understanding that the former would build a lighthouse on it.
Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple.
In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fremont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Fremont nothing. Fremont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s.
Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay.
In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island's first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannons, arrived at the end of that year. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in case mates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Southern sympathizers.
Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.
Due to its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861.
Following the war, in 1866 the army determined that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so called "parade ground" on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation.
In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868 Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.
In 1898, the Spanish-American war increased the prison population from 26 to over 450. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. By 1912 there was a large cell house, and in the 1920s a large 3-story structure was nearly at full capacity.
On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915.
In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island's dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry "moat") to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
During World War I the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled 'Uncle Sam's Devil's Island' about his experiences.
• United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz Island , Location San Francisco Bay, California, Coordinates 37°49′36″N 122°25′24″W / 37.8266°N 122.4233°W / 37.8266; -122.4233.
• Status Closed (museum)
• Security class Maximum
• Capacity 312
• Opened January 1, 1934
• Closed March 21, 1963
• Managed by Federal Bureau of Prisons, Department of Justice
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison in August 1934.
During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held such notable criminals as:
• Al Capone
• Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz)
• George "Machine Gun" Kelly
• James "Whitey" Bulger
• Bumpy Johnson
• Mickey Cohen
• Arthur R. "Doc" Barker
• Alvin Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate)
• And of course the notorious Leon (Whitey) Thompson -- an inmate who wrote the book Last Train to Alcatraz.
It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prison staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoners had ever successfully escaped. 36 prisoners were involved in 14 attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three were lost at sea and never found.
The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the so-called Battle of Alcatraz.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin successfully carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot (0.91 m) wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and their progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route then led up through a fan vent; the fan and motor had been removed and replaced with a steel grille, leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners had removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells with stolen human hair from the barbershop for hair, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m.
The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who also was part of the escapees' group but was left behind (West's false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers (John and Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he did his companions were gone).
Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were located on nearby Angel Island, and the official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay.
The TV show MythBusters investigated the myth, concluding such an escape was plausible.
The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz with screenplay by Richard Tuggle; directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin and Fred Ward as John Anglin.
Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He spent the next seventeen years on "the Rock" — six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri (MCFP Springfield).
Although called "The Birdman of Alcatraz," Stroud was not allowed to keep birds while incarcerated there.
When Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, prison officials made it clear that he would not be receiving any preferential treatment. While serving his time in Alcatraz, Capone, a master manipulator, had continued running his rackets from behind bars by buying off guards. "Big Al" generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly arrived on September 4, 1934. At Alcatraz, Kelly was constantly boasting about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Although this was said to be an apparent point of frustration for several fellow prisoners, Warden Johnson considered him a model inmate. Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951.
Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz arrived in 1936. He was not a model inmate, constantly fighting with other inmates. He also spent the longest time on Alcatraz island, serving nearly 26 years. He was sent to Alcatraz on convictions for worse crimes than any other inmate, though surprisingly he never once attempted an escape.
James “Whitey” Bulger spent 3 years on Alcatraz (1959–1962) while serving a sentence for bank robbery. While there, he became close to Clarence Carnes, also known as the Choctaw Kid.
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem, an African-American gangster, numbers operator, racketeer, and bootlegger in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in the early 20th century. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1954 and was imprisoned until 1963. It is believed that he was involved in the famous escape that became legend involving Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin.
Mickey Cohen worked for the Mafia’s gambling rackets and was charged with tax evasion and sentenced to 15 years in Alcatraz Island. Two years into his sentence an inmate clobbered Mickey with a lead pipe, partially paralyzing the mobster. On his release in 1972, Mickey returned to live a quiet life with his old friends.
Arthur R. "Doc" Barker the son of Ma Barker and a member of the Barker-Karpis gang along with Alvin Karpis. In 1935, Barker was sent to Alcatraz Island on conspiracy to kidnap charges. On the night of January 13, 1939, Barker with Henri Young and Rufus McCain attempted escape from Alcatraz. The attempt failed and Barker was shot and killed by the guards.
Post prison years
By decision of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the penitentiary was closed on March 21, 1963. It was closed because it was far more expensive to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, and the bay was being badly polluted by the sewage from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. The United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a traditional land-bound prison, opened that same year to serve as a replacement for Alcatraz.
Native American occupation
Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans from many different tribes occupied the island, and proposed an education center, ecology center and cultural center. According to the occupants, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux included provisions to return all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal land to the Native people from whom it was acquired.
(Note: The Treaty of 1868 stated that all abandoned or unused federal land adjacent to the Sioux Reservation could be reclaimed by descendants of the Sioux Nation.)
With the clarification, Indians of All Tribes abandoned the Sioux treaty as the basis of their occupation and claimed Alcatraz Island by "Right of Discovery". Begun by urban Indians in San Francisco, some of whom were descended from people who relocated there under the Federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1934), the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) activists from Minneapolis.
The Native Americans demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands which were taken from so many tribes.
As part of the Right of Discovery, the historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, that indigenous peoples knew about Alcatraz at least 10,000 years before any European knew about any part of North America.
An example of policies which Native Americans objected to was pressure put on the Moqui Hopi in 1895, when they were one of the largest Indian groups being held as military prisoners by the US. The U.S. government offered to release them if they agreed to send their children to U.S. Indian schools. The Hopi refused, believing this would cause their culture to deteriorate and force assimilation. The effect of the policy was to break any positive relations the Hopi may have built with the U.S. government.
During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation, several buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the Warden's home. The origins of the fires are unknown. The U.S. government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended.
Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.
During the occupation, the Indian termination policy, designed to end federal recognition of tribes, was rescinded by President Richard Nixon. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
The results of Alcatraz inspired other political actions: the Trail of Broken Treaties and the Longest Walk in 1985. The occupation of Alcatraz played a large role in changing self-perception for many Native Americans. It is defined as a key movement in their struggle for what some felt was rightfully theirs. Following a succession of demands at Alcatraz, the U.S. government returned excess, unused land to the Taos, Yakama, Navajo and Washoe tribes.
Landmarking and development
The entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the amount of Alcatraz accessible to the public to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life, such as the California slender salamander.
Today American Indian groups such as the International Indian Treaty Council hold ceremonies on the island, most notably, their "Sunrise Gatherings" every Columbus and Thanksgiving Day.
Proposed peace center
The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. During the previous year, supporters collected 10,350 signatures that placed it on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan was estimated at $1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have had to have taken Alcatraz out of the National Park Service.
Critics of the plan said that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.
This Guide was assembled by The Bookstore with Too Many Details. If there are any errors, they are probably mine, and for these I apologize.