Nearly 100 years ago today, Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, received solitary confinement to life. But, what was life like on The Rock for one of America’s most notorious criminals? How can we separate fact from fiction regarding Alcatraz? Access to online resources make answering this question a bit easier and they also make for an intriguing historical adventure to research. For more than 29 years, Alcatraz operated as a Federal prison that housed criminals who typically refused to conform to the rules and regulations at other Federal institutions. These prisoners were violent, dangerous and considered to be escape risks. Alcatraz was facility with a highly structured routine that was used to teach inmates to follow rules and regulations regardless of where they were incarcerated. Unfortunately, Hollywood has often inaccurately portrayed Alcatraz and depicted it as a place of no return, or hell on Earth. Historical documents and accounts from both the confined and officers and employees recount an orderly, fair and decent prison system. Whether you’re a history buff or not, Alcatraz is a fascinating place that continues to attract tourists and visitors from around the world.
Alcatraz history & facts
Origin of the name
In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala mapped the San Francisco Bay and named the island Alcatraces. It was later Anglicized to Alcatraz. Its actual meaning is debated, but a close translation is pelican or strange bird.
36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. In total, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed and two drowned. Five escapees were never found, and although they are presumed dead, the U.S. Marshall’s office will leave case files open until the men reach their 100th birthdays.
Several well-known criminals were incarcerated in Alcatraz, including Al Capone, Arthur “Doc” Barker, Alvin Karpis (the original public enemy #1), George “Machine-Gun” Kelly and James “Whitey” Bulger. At 84 years old, the recently (again) convicted Bulger is one of the few remaining inmates from Alcatraz known to be alive.
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, Alcatraz mug shots
Population – prisoners & officers
Maximum capacity was set at 336, but the average population was only around 260 – 275 inmates. Alcatraz held less than one percent of the total Federal prison population.
If you know what to look for the FBI vault has tons of information available to the public, such as court transcripts and case files. One of the more interesting document batches features Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American citizens who were convicted and later executed for conspiracy to commit espionage, relating to passing information to the Soviet Union about the Atomic Bomb. Implicated in the same spy ring was Alcatraz prisoner Morton Sobell, a former American engineer for General Electric.
Learn more about Alcatraz
All works shared are believed to be in the public domain or shared under various Creative Commons type licenses.
What are some of the historical resources you’ve found helpful in researching Alcatraz’s past? Tell us about them below.
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