Alcatraz 50th anniversary: The most infamous inmates from America's most mysterious prison

Alcatraz 50th anniversary: The most infamous inmates from America's most mysterious prison - This mysterious island complex – designed so escape would be impossible – was the unwished-for home to some of America’s most notorious criminals between 1934 and 1963.
Fifty years to the day since closing its doors (to prisoners at least), Alcatraz remains a byword for punitive isolation – and it still fascinates us like no other jail.

This mysterious island complex – designed so escape would be impossible – was the unwished-for home to some of America’s most notorious criminals between 1934 and 1963.

No inmate attempting to break out is believed to have survived the 1.5-mile trip across the hazardous waters separating “The Rock” – also known as “Evil Island” by earlier Native Americans who refused to go there - from the city of San Francisco.

Of the 36 prisoners who tried to get out, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five are recorded as “missing and presumed drowned”.

Alcatraz, which had previously served as a military prison prior, has spawned several movies and each year 1.3million tourists flock to the island by ferry.

Below are some of the most infamous inmates, who have helped keep the intrigue and mystery alive since March 21, 1963, when the prison closed.

Alcatraz officially closed in 1963 (PA)

Of the 36 inmates who tried to escape Alcatraz, 23 were caught and the rest died or are missing assumed drowned …


Probably the most famous gangster of all time, Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone was one of the first inmates of Alcatraz.

The Chicago mob boss, who ran a murderous Prohibition-era alcohol bootlegging syndicate, 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”.

Legendary mobster Capone, pictured in 1931, is one of Alcatraz's most famous inmates (AP/PA)

But his fortunes changed while in Alcatraz, where his power was weakened by his isolation and the 1933 repeal of the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting alcohol.

Other inmates, during rare moments where Capone was allowed to mix with them, were also unimpressed by his attempts to rise above the prison order.

Once, another prisoner told him to get to the back of the line when he tried to push into a queue for a haircut and, when Capone asked if he knew who he was, Texas bank robber James Lucas is said to have grabbed a pair of the barber's scissors and, holding them to the former gangster’s neck, answered: “Yeah, I know who you are, greaseball.

“And if you don't get back to the end of that f***ing line, I'm gonna know who you were.”


Robert Stroud, nicknamed the Birdman of Alcatraz because he raised almost 300 canaries while in jail, was one of the most violent inmates in American history.

He began his 54 years of incarceration at age 19 when, in 1909, he shot a man point blank in the head after the victim failed to pay the prostitute he was pimping.

For that crime he handed himself into Alaskan police and so was given a lenient 12-year sentence for manslaughter.

At McNeil Island, in Washington state, he assaulted a hospital orderly and stabbed a fellow inmate.

He was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in 1915, where in March 1916 he stabbed a guard to death after being told his brother could not visit.

Convicted killer Robert Stroud inspired the 1962 film, 'The Birdman of Alcatraz' (PA)

Toruists now flock to Alcatraz to take tours of the famous prison (PA)

He was sentenced to death, but, after several appeals and retrials, then President Woodrow Wilson gave him a stay of execution.

It was at Leavenworth where Stroud, who was assessed as a psychopath with an IQ of 134, raised the birds in his cell, not Alcatraz, where the killer was transferred in 1942.

Stroud, who spent the last 42 years of his life in solitary confinement, petitioned the U.S. government to release him on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment after studying law.

But he failed and, after being transferred to a medical prison in Springfield, Missouri in 1959, he died in 1963 at the age of 73.


Former mob boss James 'Whitey' Bulger served three years in Alcatraz (Reuters)

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger – not to be confused with the murdered British toddler with the same name – is one of America’s most infamous criminal fugitives and former Alcatraz inmates.

The 83-year-old former mob boss, who has been indicted for the alleged murder of 19 people, was at large for 12 years until his most recent arrest in 2011.

He served three years of a nine-year jail term in Alcatraz – between 1959 and 1962 - after being convicted of armed robbery and hijacking in 1956.

He became a close friend of murderer Clarence “Chocktaw Kid” Carnes, the youngest ever inmate of The Rock after being incarcerated there at age 18.

After his release, Bulger is said to have worked as a bookmaker and loanshark with ties to South Boston’s Irish mob boss Donald Killeen.

In 1975, however, he became an FBI informer with the agency allegedly turning a blind eye to Bulger’s own gang’s burgeoning criminal activity.

Bulger went into hiding in 1995 after his FBI handler, who was later convicted of racketeering and obstructing justice, tipped him off about an impending indictment.

He and his “moll”, Catherine Greig, were both arrested in Santa Monica, California – nine years after his last confirmed sighting in London.

Bulger is now awaiting trial for murder.


George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his wife, Kathryn Kelly, in 1933 (AP/PA)

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

The former Prohibition-era bootlegger, who had changed his name to Kelly to avoid the law, was helped by his wife Kathryn Kelly, to successfully extract a $200,000 ransom from Oklahoma oil tycoon Charles F Urschell in July 1933.

Kelly, carrying his trademark Thompson sub-machine gun, abducted Urschell and a male friend in front of their horrified wives during a bridge game.

However, thanks to the businessman’s fastidious eye for detail (although he was kept blindfolded for the entire eight days), the FBI were able to track the Kellys down.

They were both sentenced to life three months later.

While in Alcatraz, George soon had his nickname downgraded to “Pop Gun Kelly” by the other inmates, who mocked him over the bungled kidnap.

They were particularly unimpressed by way he was caught unarmed and allegedly cried, "Don't shoot, G-Men! Don't shoot, G-Men!" as he surrendered to FBI agents.

Kelly, who had previously served only three years for armed robbery after being a model prisoner at another jail, was also well behaved at Alcatraz.

He was transferred to Leavenworth in 1951 and died there in 1954, aged 59, after suffering a heart attack.


larence Anglin (pictured) and his brother made the most audacious escape attempt in Alcatraz history (PA)

Brothers Clarence and John Anglin made the most audacious escape attempt in the history of Alcatraz and, to this day, remain officially missing.

The bank-robbing siblings, along with Frank Morris, left the island on a makeshift raft in June 1962 after burrowing out of their cells.

The trio left behind dummy heads in their beds – fabricated using soap, toilet paper and their own hair – to trick the guards during night-time cell inspections.

They then crawled through holes in the walls, which they had dug with spoons, and then climbed a ventilator shaft on to the roof.

After this they climbed down from the roof, scaled the fence and inflated rafts they had fashioned from the prison's standard-issue raincoats and contact cement.

They left the island at 10pm and haven’t been seen since, although they are presumed to have drowned in the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay.

If alive today, Clarence would be 81 and John 82. Morris would be 86.

Their daring escape inspired the 1979 movie Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

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