Mug Shots, Menus & More – An Alcatraz History Review

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Alcatraz history and famous inmates make for interesting research and a rich past.
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 Historical documents and accounts from both the confined and officers and employees recount an orderly, fair and decent prison system.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.

Escape attempts

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.

Famous inmates

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.

Alphabetical Index of Former Inmates of U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz, 1934-63 from Records of the Bureau of Prisons (RG 129)

U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, Alcatraz mug shots

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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.

FBI cases involving Alcatraz inmates

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.

Alcatraz officer’s 1927 Thanksgiving Day menu

A Thanksgiving menu shows Alcatraz history for its officers.

A Thanksgiving menu shows Alcatraz history for its officers.

Alcatraz inmate menu 1946

Alcatraz history further defined by 1946 menu for inmates.

Learn more about Alcatraz

The sale of Alcatraz that was rescinded

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.

Photo credit: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco | Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916) via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Sarah Hartshorn is a marketing, public relations and social media professional with Vuze. She blogs about content, torrents, social media and a number of other tech topics. Sarah has been involved with traditional and digital marketing since 1998.