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Alcatraz Facts & Mysteries You May Not Know

November 17, 2012 By CityPASS

"You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." - Number 5, Alcatraz Prison Rules and Regulations, 1934

If the bare minimum necessities sound rough by today's standards, it's because life inside the U.S. Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was no picnic. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons.

One of the world's most notorious and best known prisons, over the years, Alcatraz housed some 1,545 of America's most ruthless criminals including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz"), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, James "Whitey" Bulger, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate).

In 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin tried to swim away from the island, using raincoats as flotation devices, but were never seen again…presumed drowned.

Alcatraz Island is in the heart of San Francisco Bay, just a mile and a quarter from one of the world's most beautiful cities. The mysteries and past darkness that surround Alcatraz settle like the Bay's notorious fog, but the truth lies somewhere in between.

Alcatraz was a lonely island for thousands of years, occasionally visited by Ohlone and Miwok Indians. Between the time the Spanish settled the Bay area in 1776 and the Yankees took over from the Mexicans in 1846, the island was noted on maps, but otherwise unused.

The last Mexican governor of California planned to erect a lighthouse on Alcatraz, but before it could be built, California was annexed by the United States. It was ultimately the Gold Rush that spurred the building of the lighthouse with construction beginning in 1853.

Before Alcatraz was a federal prison from 1933-63, it was used as a fort, a lighthouse and a military prison (1868). And in 1969, "The Rock" was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans who were part of native activism across the country through the 1970s.

In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Today, it is one of the national parks at the Golden Gate, and the National Park Service works to make it accessible to visitors, preserve its buildings, protect its birds and other wildlife, and interpret its history.

Alcatraz has a long, rich history, which is why more than 1.3 million people visit each year.

Other cool Alcatraz facts:*

  • The Alcatraz lighthouse was the first on the Pacific Coast and has been in operation since 1854. The only service interruption happened in 1970, when fire destroyed the lighthouse keepers' quarters and disrupted power to light.
  • After the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, 176 prisoners from San Francisco jails were temporarily housed on Alcatraz.
  • The exact location of Al Capone's cell is unknown. Part of his four and half years on Alcatraz were spent in a hospital isolation cell.
  • Robert Stroud, "the Birdman of Alcatraz," had canaries at Leavenworth Penitentiary but never had birds at Alcatraz. His real nickname was "Bird Doctor of Leavenworth."
  • The cellhouse was filled to capacity. The average number of prisoners was 260 and the maximum was 302. There were 336 remodeled cells available.
  • There were no executions on Alcatraz, although there were five suicides and eight murders.
  • Prisoners remained on Alcatraz until they were no longer considered to be disruptive or incorrigible – an average of 8 to 10 years.
  • There were no female correctional officers or prisoners on Alcatraz. Women prisoners could not be declared "incorrigible" until 1969, six years after the closure of Alcatraz. The only females on the island were visitors and the correctional officers' wives and daughters.
  • During the island's federal penitentiary days, the families who lived there rarely locked their doors.
  • Alcatraz has one of the largest western gull colonies on the northern California coast.
  • The only land mammal on Alcatraz -aside from human visitors- is the deer mouse, and the California slender salamander is the only amphibian.
  • The sharks that swim in San Francisco Bay and around the island are not "man-eaters"; sand sharks are among the most common.

*From "Discover Alcatraz: A Tour of the Rock" published by Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

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