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7 Infamous Inmates of Alcatraz

These Are the Famous Inmates Who Ended Up in Alcatraz:

If you mention the name “The Rock” nowadays, we instantly think about Dwayne Johnson. However, if we had this conversation 80 years ago, the only existing “Rock” back then was Alcatraz, a maximum-security prison placed on a tiny island in San Francisco Bay.

For more than 30 years, Alcatraz was seen as the ultimate destination for the worst criminals in America. Prisoners who couldn’t be “tamed” in any other penal institution found their place in the severe life at Alcatraz, as all the restless inmates who constantly tried to break out of prison had nowhere to run in Alcatraz.

More than 40 people tried, but no one really succeeded to escape the citadel that was perched on the rock in the bay. Even if nowadays Alcatraz is nothing but a tourist attraction, its weird location and well-known history made the place a magnet for visitors. Here are some of the most notorious criminals that “visited” Alcatraz:

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Al “Scarface” Capone

When Al Capone arrived at Alcatraz, he was already known as a crime kingpin. He received a sentence of 11 years in 1931, after many long court cases that were more focused on his forged declaration of income rather than his reputation as a bootlegger and criminal.

He was instantly found guilty of tax evasion and sent to Atlanta prison. However, surprisingly or not, what he received there was unprecedented favoritism, both from his fellow inmates and the staff, which made the authorities transfer him to Alcatraz.

When he was locked in Atlanta, he had everything he might have wished for in prison: furnishings in his own cell, a lot of visitors, and easy-to-bribe guardians. However, at Alcatraz, he had only two options: follow the rules or face solitary confinement.

Roy Gardner

Alcatraz was transformed from a military prison to a general federal prison, to become the ideal place for people like Roy G. Gardner, who was also known as the “King of the Escape Artists”. Gardner was always known as an outlaw.

Mobs and organizations were never suited for him, as he always preferred working alone as a famous bandit. He was very good at robbing trains. However, his biggest mistake was to rob the U.S. mail trains and trucks, as it made him the most wanted man in the entire country. The first time he was caught and sentenced to 25 years in prison, they sent him to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, but he managed to escape.

He was caught only a year later, but somehow he managed to escape again. Needless to say, he had two more successful escaping attempts and other unsuccessful ones. Obviously, Alcatraz became the only solution for an inmate like Gardner.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly

Not many famous criminals came from a good background, but Machine Gun Kelly did. He was actually raised in a rich family in Memphis, and he even attended college for a while. In fact, what made him drop this lifestyle was his marriage with Kathryn Thorne, who taught him everything “he knew”.

Thorne is the one that groomed him into becoming the successful criminal that he was, as she bought him a machine gun and taught him how to shoot with it. The two of them had a Bonnie and Clyde lifestyle together, robbing banks and killing innocent people.

What threw them in prison was kidnapping an Oklahoma oil tycoon, Charles Urschel, which caught the attention of the FBI. Kelly bragged that no prison could ever hold him until they sent him to Alcatraz. What’s really interesting is that the minute he arrived there, he completely changed. He was extremely well-behaved, worked in the office, and even served as an altar boy. He regretted his criminal choices his entire life.

Photo by Michael Cola from Shutterstock

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis

Just like “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin saw kidnapping as a more efficient way of making a lot of money than bank robbing. His fellow gang members used to call him “Creepy” because of his weird grin. Creepy Alvin soon became the puppet master behind the Barker family, who was a famous bank-robbing gang.

However, everything went down for Creepy Alvin the minute he started kidnapping a couple of well-known bankers, out of which one, in particular, had friends in high places, like J. Edgar Hoover from the FBI. Hoover made it his personal business to find the offenders and lock them up for a long time.

The Barkers were murdered, but Karpis escaped. Karpis is the longest-serving inmate at Alcatraz, as he received a life sentence. He was locked up for such a long time, he even outlasted the prison itself, and he finished his time in another prison.

Robert “Birdman” Stroud

Birdman must be the most famous inmate from Alcatraz. He was also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, thanks to a very famous movie based on his life. The title of the film made room for a couple of misconceptions, such as the fact that Stroud raised birds during his time at Alcatraz.

But the prison didn’t allow animals inside its walls. In reality, Stroud conducted his tests on canaries while he was serving time at Leavenworth. He was initially sent to McNeil Island after he stabbed a bartender at 21 years old.

Soon after, Stroud was seen as extremely unruly and dangerous. He attacked many other prisoners and even stabbed a guard to death while doing time at Leavenworth. That’s when the authorities decided to transfer him to Alcatraz.

Photo by Miguel Sanchez Perez from Shutterstock

James “Whitey” Bulger

Bulger did his first serious prison time in Atlanta. In his three years there, he offered to volunteer in the C.I.A.’s MK-Ultra program, which was an experimental “mind control” operation that involved hypnosis, various hallucinogenic drugs, and abuse.

Bulger deeply regretted he attended these experiments, and he was happy to leave the program and go to Alcatraz in 1959. You can imagine how traumatized he was, as he oftentimes said that Alcatraz was one of the best prison experiences he ever had.

He was released in 1965, and he became deeply involved in Boston’s Irish mob. He soon became one of the most dangerous crime bosses in the city, dominating the entire region for more than 20 years with his gambling, bookmaking, and drug racketing businesses. For 16 years he was seen as a fugitive on the F.B.I. “Most Wanted” list.

Meyer “Mickey” Cohen

Cohen had a very interesting time in Alcatraz. He was convicted of tax evasion two times in 10 years and was sent to Alcatraz on two separate occasions. He was the only prisoner that was released from that prison, thanks to his connections with John F. Kennedy’s administration.

While it might seem surprising that such a high senior official would jump to help a famous gangster, this only stands as proof of how far-reaching was Cohen when it came to political circles. He was involved in many illegal businesses. Ultimately, Chone’s financial indiscretions are what caught the FBI’s attention.

He was sent up to Alcatraz, which he referred to as a “crumbling dungeon”. After Alcatraz closed, Cohen was transferred to Atlanta, where he was brutally injured by a fellow inmate. He apparently had a grudge against Cohen, so he smashed his skull with a lead pipe. He was never able to walk unassisted again and eventually died of stomach cancer.

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