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Famous Alcatraz Inmates

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Alcatraz has gone down in history as one the world's most infamous prisons and its legends and inmate escape attempts are explored in Alcatraz: Search for the Truth and Inside Alcatraz: Legends of the Rock.

Designed to keep prisoners that had caused problems or attempted to escape from other federal penitentiaries, it housed some of America's most dangerous and notorious criminals.

Here we take a look at ten of Alcatraz's most famous inmates:

1. Inmate #85: Al “Scarface” Capone

Conviction: Tax evasion

Time Served at Alcatraz: 5 years (1934–1939)

Post-Term: Mental illness, death from syphilis

Legendary gangster and mafia boss Al Capone entered Alcatraz a mere 10 days after it opened. Having already served several years at an Atlanta prison, he was transferred to Alcatraz after being found to have been bribing and receiving favoritism from prison guards and inmates. Due to the strict nature of Alcatraz he received little preferential treatment and was forced to maintain several jobs during his time there. He was given permission to own a banjo and played in the Alcatraz prison band. In recent years prison guards have reported hearing banjo sounds from the prison showers, where he used to practice. While he was not involved in any known prison escape attempts he did get involved in a fight, spent some time in seclusion and was stabbed by another inmate with a pair of sheers.

His time at Alcatraz was plagued with ill health, having contracted syphilis many years before when he worked as a bouncer in a Chicago brothel. He spent his last year of his Alcatraz sentence in the prison's hospital and would go on to live another 8 years in seclusion at his Floridian mansion.

2. Inmate #1518: Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen

Conviction: Tax evasion

Time Served at Alcatraz: About a year, on and off (1961–1963)

Post-Term: Prison pipe attack, natural death

Jewish mafia honcho Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen served two years on and off at Alcatraz, as he was let out on bail for six months - the only inmate to ever do so. Serving time for tax evasion, he was there for the last year that Alcatraz served as a functioning prison, and referred to it as a "crumbling dungeon."

When the prison closed in 1963, he was transferred to an Atlanta prison where he was smashed in the skull with a lead pipe by another inmate (some say another former Alcatraz inmate). He was left partially paralysed and was unable to walk unassisted again. During his last year in this prison he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and would later die of it.

3. Inmate #1141: Frank Morris

Conviction: Posession of narcotics, armed robbery

Time Served at Alcatraz: 2 years (1960-1962)

Post-Term: Escaped from Alcatraz, destination and death unknown

Frank Morris had a long history of being in out of jail, mainly for possession of narcotics and armed robbery, and was sentenced to 14 years in 1960 and shipped to Alcatraz soon after. With an IQ of 133 (placing him in the top 3%) he quickly began plotting an elaborate escape with fellow inmates Allen West and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. Spanning several years in the making, they eventually attempted their escape in 1962, with all but Allen West successfully escaping.

They were able to escape by placing paper mache lifelike heads (with real hair attached) on their beds and crawling out through their ventilator grills. Allen West failed to escape as he wasn't able to remove his vent in time to join the others. While there are various conspiracies on where Frank Morris went after leaving the island, his body was never recovered nor were there any reliable leads as to him being seen alive again. While he may have drowned, some believe he successfully made it to the mainland and his whereabouts is still considered an open case by The United States Marshals Service.

4 & 5. John and Clarence Anglin

Inmate #1476: John Anglin

Inmate #1485: Clarence Anglin

Conviction: Armed robbery, attempted escapes from prison

Time Served at Alcatraz: Around a year and a half, (John October 1960-June 1062 and Clarence January 1961-June 1962)

Post-Term: Escaped from Alcatraz, destinations and causes of deaths unknown

John and Clarence Anglin were brothers previously convicted of robbing banks with toy guns. After several failed prison escapes at previous prisons they were sent to Alcatraz - believed to be the most secure prison in America. Guards were warned that they should be kept separate due to their previous escape attempts, but as the prison was believed to be so secure, they were placed next to one another. Soon upon their arrival they began plotting their escape with fellow inmates Allen West and Frank Morris.

As part of their escape plan, they learned to paint and took jobs at the prison barbors so that they could create lifelike paper mache heads with real hair attached. On June 11 1962 they successfully escaped the prison with Frank Morris, and as with Morris their bodies were never found. There are various theories as to what became of them - one being that they simply drowned and another that they created a new life for themselves in rural Brazil.

6. Inmate #594: Robert Stroud

Conviction: Murder

Time Served at Alcatraz: 17 years (1942–1959)

Post-Term: Death by natural causes in jail

Perhaps the most famous of all Alcatraz inmates is Robert Stroud, often remembered for his portrayal in the 1962 movie "Birdman of Alcatraz". He was convicted of murder in 1909 after shooting a man at point-blank range. The victim was reportedly a client of a prostitute Stroud was pimping and had refused to pay her. Stroud turned himself in and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. His time in jail was a rocky one from the get to go. He was violent and diagnosed by prison psychiatrists as a psychopath. He would eventually stab a prison guard to death, with his sentence altered to life as a result.

Despite his violent tendencies, Stroud went on to be regarded as a prisoner rehabilitation success story. He took up the study of birds, and was allowed to keep canaries in his jail cell. He produced two successful books on ornithology and became somewhat of a celebrity. However, he was found to be miusing his special privlieges and to be making bootleg liquor in his cell.

He was subsequently transferred to the more secure and strict Alcatraz in 1942. Here he was not allowed to keep birds and instead wrote a book on the history of prisons and studied law. Stroud was kept in segregation for the first six years of his stay and his health was poor throughout. His final eleven years at Alcatraz were spent confined to the hospital wing. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Missouri, where he would die that year.

7. Inmate #1428: James “Whitey” Bulger

Conviction: Armed robbery

Time Served at Alcatraz: 3 years (1959–1962)

Post-Term: Still incarcerated

Although Alcatraz may have closed as a prison many decades ago, there are still former Alcatraz inmates alive today - including convited murderer and Irish American mafia boss James "Whitey" Bulger. Implicated in almost 20 deaths, he was convicted of armed robbery and served his first longterm prison stay in Atlanta, where he volunteered to take part in a controversial "mind control" program which involved various pyschological experiments. Regretting his involvement in the program he allegedly plotted a prison escape and was transferred to Alcatraz in 1959. While he was only there a few years (it closed in 1963) he claims Alcatraz was his best prison experience.

Upon his release in 1965, Bulger returned to his Irish Boston mafia roots and quickly rose to become one of the 20th century's most powerful and notorious mafia bosses. His rise in the ranks and profitable endeavors (including gambling and bookmaking) quickly caught the attention of the FBI and from the mid 1990's he went on the run. It wasn't until 2011 when he was finally tracked down and given two life sentences. He has appealed his sentences claiming them as "unfair" and a "sham" and remains incarcerated in a Florida prison. He is 86 years old.

8. Inmate #325: Alvin “Creepy” Karpis

Conviction: Kidnapping

Time Served at Alcatraz: 26 years (1936–1962)

Post-Term: Author, pill overdose

Alvin "Creepy" Karpis was leader of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, one of the longest-lived and most notorious criminal gangs of the Depression-era. Nicknamed "Creepy" for having a supposedly unsettling grin, his gang's activities ranged from traditional bank robbing to kidnapping several wealthy members of the public in 1933 and holding them at ransom. Raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from their illegal ongoings, it became FBI J. Edgar Hoover's personal mission to track the gang down. The Barkers were killed, but Karpis managed to avoid capture until 1936.

Karpis is the longest serving inmate at Alcatraz and finished his sentence elsewhere once the prison closed. Deported to Canada in 1969, he went on to publish two books on his life of crime and died of an unintentional overdose of sleeping pills in 1979. He was aged 72.

9. Inmate #117: George “Machine Gun” Kelly

Conviction: Kidnapping

Time Served at Alcatraz: 17 years (1934–1951)

Post-Term: Death by heart attack in jail

Many of Alcatraz most famous inmates were from the wrong sides of the tracks but George Kelly or Machine Gun Kelly (as he's gone down in history as), had a fairly privilieged upbringing and even attended university for a few years. It was not until he married established criminal Kathryn Thorne and she introduced him to the capabilities of the machine gun that he began a life of crime. Starting out as a bootlegger, he progressed into robbing banks and then as with Karpis, kidnapping wealthy businessmen. One of his kidnaps proved to be disastrous, as once released on ransom one of the kidnappers was able to provide enough information to the FBI for them to be able to successfully track down and arrest Kelly.

Although he had previously served short term sentences, he was sentenced for life for the kidnapping. Initially sent to a prison in Kansas, he was heard boasting by prison guards that he would escape, and was subsequently sent to Alcatraz. Arriving not soon after Al Capone, his time at Alcatraz was fairly unremarkable. He was reported as being compliant in jail and serving his time by completing jobs such as an altar boy and in the office. He was transferred back to the Kansas jail in 1951, where he would die of a heart attack in 1954.

10. Inmate #110: Roy Gardner

Conviction: Armed robbery

Time Served at Alcatraz: 2 years (1934–1936)

Post-Term: Author, suicide

Roy Gardner was a lone wolf criminal, touring the Midwest as a one man bandit, robbing trains and mail trains. However what he is most known for is his successful prisons escape from McNeil Prison, which was supposed to be the most secure prison in America at the time. He was able to escape by using two unwitting fellow inmates as decoys by convincing them that if all three ran from prison guards they would get away safely. During thier escape attempt all three were shot at, but Gardner was able to get away with only a minor injury to his leg. He then swam to a neighboring island and for the next few months remained at large. Topping the Most Wanted list, he was recaptured several months later while attempting to rob a mail train and was sentenced to an additional 25 years in prison.

He stayed at a further two prisons (both of which he attempted to escape) until finally transferred to Alcatraz in 1934. At Alcatraz he was feared as one of its most hardened inmates, but supposedly took pity on fellow inmate Al Capone when a lead sash was thrown at him and pushed him out of the way to safety. In his final year of prison Gardner planned an escape from Alcatraz with a fellow inmate, but never saw it through as he was released on parole in 1936. He published a book on his life and experiences at Alcatraz but only two years after his release he killed himself in a hotel room.