On This Day: Alcatraz prison opens

Julian Gavaghan
On This Day: Alcatraz prison opens

AUGUST 11, 1934: Alcatraz prison opened its doors to some of America’s most notorious criminals on this day in 1934.

The island complex – designed so escape would be impossible – housed inmates such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Whitey Bulger during its 29-year history.

No prisoner attempting to flee is believed to have survived the 1.5-mile trip across the hazardous waters separating “The Rock” from the city of San Francisco, California.

Although, in 1962 – a year before closing - three inmates are thought to have come closest in a breakout that inspired the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz.

Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris, who left the island on a makeshift raft after burrowing out of their cells with teaspoons, remain officially missing.

Now Alcatraz, which had previously served as a military prison, annually hosts 1.3million tourists who flock to the island by boats from San Francisco.

Mystery and intrigue have long surrounded Alcatraz, which was known as “Evil Island” by earlier Native Americans who refused to go there.

In early 1963, a British Pathé newsreel provided a fascinating glimpse inside prisoners’ cells and the last 27 inmates boarding a bus to be ferried to the mainland.

The cost of running the prison, which was more expensive than any other federal penitentiary, and salt-water erosion forced the jail to shut down on March 21.


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Also, there was less of a need – and desire - for this kind of fearsome deterrent than when the prison opened at the height of the Great Depression-era crimewave.

Back then the FBI and local police forces were struggling to contain an explosion of crafty criminals amid soaring unemployment and poverty.

The most notorious Alcatraz inmate was murderous Chicago mob boss Al Capone, who was transferred there in August 1934, three years into his 11-year sentence.

His sole conviction - for tax evasion - came after a decade of successfully avoiding jail by bribing police and being regarded by many as a “modern-day Robin Hood”.

But his fortunes changed while in Alcatraz, where his power was weakened by his isolation and end of prohibition, which killed his alcohol bootlegging business.

George Barnes, best known as “Machine Gun Kelly” spent 17 years in Alcatraz after carrying out one of America’s most infamous kidnaps in 1933.

One of the oddest – and violent - inmates was Robert Stroud, who was nicknamed the Birdman of Alcatraz because he raised almost 300 canaries while in jail.

Modern mob boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, 83, who spent 12 years on the run prior to his 2011 arrest, also did time there for crimes committed in the late 1950s.