Alcatraz Island, a stony outcrop nicknamed ‘The Rock,’ casts a long shadow over San Francisco Bay. Its history – captivating and chilling in equal measure – captures military might and infamous incarcerations, a symbol of a bygone era in American corrections that has transformed into a bustling tourist destination.


But what are the origins of Alcatraz, and the most fascinating details from its past? From the deadly American Civil War to the mythic escapes of 1962, dive into the story of Alcatraz and its mysteries.

What and where is Alcatraz?

Alcatraz is a former maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island, located around 2km off the coast of San Francisco, California.

The history of Alcatraz as we know it begins in the mid-18th century. Spanish explorers, charmed by the abundance of pelicans, christened it ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces,’ translating into English as ‘Island of the Pelicans’ or ‘strange birds.’

But beyond its position as a home for seabirds, the island’s strategic potential quickly caught the eye of the US military, and by 1854 a lighthouse had been erected and was fully operational; its piercing beam cut through the fog to guide ships through the choppy currents of San Francisco Bay.

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Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

When was Alcatraz Prison built?

The island's isolated position in San Francisco Bay, and the fierce currents of those waters, made it seemingly inescapable, and its history as a prison has long roots. Work began on the most famous incarnation of Alcatraz in 1909, officially opening as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in 1934 – though this wasn’t the first prison on the site.

Less than a decade after the lighthouse was built on the island in 1853, the eruption of the American Civil War made the case for further development and fortification on Alcatraz, and it held captured Confederate soldiers and deserters from the Union cause.

Once the Civil War ended in 1865, Fort Alcatraz – as it was then known – continued to be used as a military prison. Over decades its population of inmates grew, expanding to more than 500 during the Philippine-American War between 1899 and 1902 as it held American soldiers who had committed crimes while fighting Filipino nationalists.

The early 20th century saw the US Bureau of Prisons seeking to expand its number of prisons. Alcatraz, with its existing prison infrastructure and remote situation, was the perfect candidate.

Extensive renovation work on Alcatraz began in 1909, culminating in the creation of a colossal concrete cellblock. It was designed to be the most secure prison in the nation.

In 1934, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary officially opened its doors and became a notorious destination for those deemed too dangerous for other facilities.

The island's isolation, threatening waters, and imposing infrastructure, coupled with strict security measures, fostered the belief that escape was completely impossible.

Alcatraz’s most famous inmates

Throughout its history, Alcatraz became the home of some of the most infamous faces in American crime, including Al Capone.

Portrait of Al Capone
Portrait of Al Capone. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Capone was the most infamous gangster of the Prohibition era. As the boss of the Chicago Outfit, an Italian-American mafia family, Capone orchestrated a vast network of illegal activities, but his downfall came not from violent crimes but from tax evasion.

He was sent to Atlanta US Penitentiary in 1932, but was transferred to Alcatraz in 1934. His health deteriorated due to syphilis and other physical and mental health challenges. He was eventually transferred out of Alcatraz, and released from prison entirely on parole, in 1939 due to his declining health. He died in 1947.

Capone wasn’t the only high-profile criminal to reside in the island’s prison. George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly was notorious for his involvement in the 1933 kidnapping of oil magnate Charles Urschel. Captured and sentenced to life imprisonment that same year, Kelly was sent to Alcatraz in 1934.

Another famous inmate was Robert Stroud, nicknamed the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. Stroud was initially imprisoned for manslaughter in 1909. While serving time, he became an expert on birds. However, his violent behaviour led to his transfer to Alcatraz in 1942, where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement.

Alvin Karpis was a leader of the Barker-Karpis gang, infamous for kidnappings and bank robberies during the Great Depression. Captured by J Edgar Hoover in 1936 and sentenced to life imprisonment, Karpis was transferred to Alcatraz the same year. He spent over 25 years there, becoming one of its longest-serving inmates.

Also of infamy was Roy Gardner, a notorious train robber and escape artist. His numerous escapes earned him widespread infamy before his capture in 1921 and transfer to Alcatraz in 1934. He was released in 1938, and died in 1940.

A police mugshot of Frank Lee Morris
A police mugshot of Frank Lee Morris. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Who escaped from Alcatraz?

Only three people have ever escaped Alcatraz. Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin all broke out on the same night, though their fate remains unclear, and they may have ultimately died in the attempt.

On the night of 11 June 1962 (or perhaps early morning on 12 June) the trio vanished from their cells, leaving behind a trail of cleverly crafted tools, including fake dummy heads (created from a mix of concrete dust, scavenged building materials, and hair clippings) and a makeshift raft. Despite an extensive search, they were never found, and the FBI concluded that they likely died in the waters off the island before reaching the mainland.

But this wasn’t the only time that Alcatraz’s reputation for security had been put to the test.

Failed escape attempts from Alcatraz

In 1937, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe made a desperate attempt to escape the island prison.

On a foggy day, they disappeared from the prison’s mat shop after cutting through the bars of a window. They climbed through the window and made their way to the water’s edge, presumably to swim to freedom. Despite extensive searches, neither was ever seen again, and it was believed they drowned.

In 1939, another significant escape attempt was made by Arthur Barker, William Martin, and Henri Young. The trio, along with two others named Rufus McCain and Dale Stamphill, managed to saw through and bend metal bars on their cells and windows.

However, they were quickly discovered by guards before they could make their way off the island. During the attempt, Barker and Stamphill were shot (Barker died from his injuries), and the others were captured and placed in solitary confinement.

Perhaps the most violent escape attempt occurred in 1946. Six inmates, led by Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, and Marvin Hubbard, initiated a plan to escape by overpowering guards and seizing weapons.

They managed to capture the cellhouse, but their plan unravelled when they failed to obtain the keys to the yard. A bloody two-day standoff ensued, involving US Marines, resulting in the deaths of three inmates and two officers. The surviving inmates, Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson, were later tried for their roles in the escape attempt.

Then, in 1956, a prisoner named Floyd Wilson managed to escape from his work detail in the dock. He evaded capture for several hours by hiding among the rocky shorelines of the island. However, his freedom was short-lived as guards discovered him, exhausted and cold, before he could make a swim for the mainland.

A final notable attempt was made in 1962 by John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker. The pair successfully bent the bars of a kitchen window and made it to the water. Parker was quickly recaptured, but Scott managed to swim to the shores of Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Severely hypothermic, he was found by the public and handed over to authorities.

Alcatraz prison
Alcatraz Penitentiary located in the San Francisco Bay In 1946. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Why and when did Alcatraz close?

Alcatraz was closed in 1963 after a string of problems, including mounting repair costs, logistical challenges, and concerns about prisoner welfare.

Despite its fearsome reputation, Alcatraz faced significant operational hurdles. The unrelenting weather led to constant maintenance issues, and the island's remoteness made both supply deliveries and prisoner transport a logistical nightmare.

As for the inmates themselves, the cramped confinement and lack of natural light was hellish, exacting a heavy toll and raising concerns about the ethical considerations of such brutal confinement.

Faced with these escalating issues, and coupled with growing concerns about the inhumane conditions, Attorney General Robert F Kennedy officially approved the decision to close Alcatraz, with its final day of operation coming on 21 March 1963.

The remaining prisoners were dispersed to other federal facilities, and ‘The Rock’ was – temporarily – abandoned.

What happened to Alcatraz after its closure?

When Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed its doors in 1963, it marked the end of an era for the notorious island prison, and ‘The Rock’ was left to the elements.

Alcatraz remained dormant until a dramatic episode brought it back into the national spotlight.

In 1969, a group of Native American activists, part of the ‘Indians of All Tribes’ movement, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to Indigenous peoples. The activists aimed to reclaim the island under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which they argued entitled them to unused federal land.

Their occupation lasted for 19 months and drew significant media attention, before ending in June 1971 when federal marshals intervened. But the event raised awareness about Native American rights and the occupation remains a significant chapter in American Indian activism.

Alcatraz's transformation from a decaying prison to a national landmark began in earnest in 1972 when it became part of the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The National Park Service undertook efforts to preserve the island's rich history, and by the mid-1970s, Alcatraz was opened to the public, offering tours that highlighted its past as a federal penitentiary and its broader historical significance.

Exhibits and tours now encompass the island's layered history, including its time as a military fort, a federal prison, and a site of Native American protest. The National Park Service has also collaborated with former inmates and guards to collect oral histories, providing a nuanced and personal perspective on life at Alcatraz.


Today, Alcatraz Island is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing over a million visitors annually, all eager to walk the same corridors as Al Capone and Robert Stroud.


James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview