A longtime icon of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz has been featured in countless books, movies, and TV shows as the ultimate prison fortress. The name itself is synonymous with an impenetrable fortress, but there was more to the island than the famed penitentiary. These are 5 facts you may not have known about Alcatraz Prison.
It was more than a prison
Alcatraz Island, which gave the penitentiary its name, was first claimed by the Mexican governor Pio Pico in 1846 as the site of a lighthouse to illuminate the bay. It was later developed as a military outpost due to its strategic defensive location and was later converted to a military prison in 1861. After holding prisoners of war and enemy combatants (including Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War era), the prison was converted to a Federal Penitentiary and brought in its first federal inmates in 1934.
The “Birdman of Alcatraz”
Among the famous names of Alcatraz, the gangsters and robbers, was the legendary “Birdman of Alcatraz,” convicted murderer Robert Stroud. Sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, Stroud turned from scoundrel to scientist, becoming a self-taught ornithologist after raising hundreds of birds in his cell and throughout the prison. His book on canaries, smuggled out of his cell, was published in 1933. Uneasy administrators had him transferred to Alcatraz, where he was forbidden from raising his canaries, but the nickname had already been set in stone. He eventually transferred to a hospital for prisoners in Missouri, where he died of natural causes.
No prisoner ever escaped, but more than a few tried
Perhaps the most famous aspect of Alcatraz’ history is that no inmate ever successfully escaped. 31 of the 36 attempts ended when the prisoners were recovered, but the most famous escapees were never seen again. Brothers John and Clarence Anglin, along with co-conspirator Frank Morris, pulled off an elaborate scheme that included a raft made of stolen raincoats, and dummy heads to fool guards into thinking they were in bed asleep. Their possessions were found in the bay, but the men themselves had vanished. It may never be certain whether they survived and made it to the mainland, but their exploits did inspire a 1979 movie, “Escape From Alcatraz,” ensuring that the story of their jailbreak would live on even if they hadn’t.
It wasn’t as miserable as portrayed in Hollywood
While home to the federal prison system’s most problematic inmates as well as famous names like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, the truth was that Alcatraz offered much more favorable accommodations than other prisons at the time. Each prisoner had their own cell to himself, enjoyed higher-quality food than most prisons had, and could earn privileges like movie nights and magazine subscriptions. Even still, the high level of security and status as a landing place for problematic prisoners meant that it wasn’t a pleasant place by any stretch. However, the legend of Alcatraz prison certainly has overshadowed the reality of the place in the years since it closed in 1963.
Today, it’s full of natural splendor
Frequently referred to as “the rock,” Alcatraz Island, in fact, features more than just stone outcroppings and concrete walls. During the time when guards used to live on the island, their families sought to make it a more aesthetically pleasing place to live and planted lush gardens to enliven the barren island. The plants thrived, and are sustained today thanks to the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The island also hosts a menagerie of nesting seabirds like double-breasted cormorants, western gulls, snowy egrets, and more.