Federal prisoners land on Alcatraz

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A group of federal prisoners classified as “most dangerous” arrives at Alcatraz Island, a 22-acre rocky outcrop situated 1.5 miles offshore in San Francisco Bay, on this day in 1934. The convicts–the first civilian prisoners to be housed in the new high-security penitentiary–joined a few dozen military prisoners left over from the island’s days as a U.S. military prison.
Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven when it was explored by Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces, or “Island of the Pelicans.” Fortified by the Spanish, Alcatraz was sold to the United States in 1849. In 1854, it had the distinction of housing the first lighthouse on the coast of California. Beginning in 1859, a U.S. Army detachment was garrisoned there, and from 1868 Alcatraz was used to house military criminals. In addition to recalcitrant U.S. soldiers, prisoners included rebellious Indian scouts, American soldiers fighting in the Philippines who had deserted to the Filipino cause, and Chinese civilians who resisted the U.S. Army during the Boxer Rebellion. In 1907, Alcatraz was designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.
In 1934, Alcatraz was fortified into a high-security federal penitentiary designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners in the U.S. penal system, especially those with a penchant for escape attempts. The first shipment of civilian prisoners arrived on August 11, 1934. Later that month, more shiploads arrived, featuring, among other convicts, infamous mobster Al Capone. In September, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, another luminary of organized crime, landed on Alcatraz.
In the 1940s, a famous Alcatraz prisoner was Richard Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” A convicted murderer, Stroud wrote an important study on birds while being held in solitary confinement in Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.
Regarded as extremely dangerous because of his 1916 murder of a guard at Leavenworth, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. Stroud was not allowed to continue his avian research at Alcatraz.

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