24. Who were these big-shot gangsters who got sent to
Most of the highly publicized gangsters of that lawless era, "Public Enemies" and
notorious gangsters such as "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, "Baby Face"
Nelson, Ma Barker and John Dillinger, were never imprisoned at Alcatraz. These
gang leaders were all hunted down by the law and killed.
The only "names" of Alcatraz inmates you've probably heard of were "Scarface" Al
Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz". Since
most of the best known Depression-era gangsters had been killed, Alcatraz wound
up imprisoning the second tier of gangster luminaries, men such as Louis, Harry
and Sam Fleisher of Detroit's "Purple Gang", Arthur "Doc" (sic) "Dock" Barker and
Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpavicz of Ma Barker's gang, "Baby Face" Nelson's San
Francisco pal John Paul Chase, John Dillinger associates Walton Spark and
Arthur Cherrington, and Basil "The Owl" Banghart of the Touhy gang.
Most of the Alcatraz inmates were regional hoodlums you never heard of, many of
whom committed crimes that reflect the historical period during which they
occurred, such as train robbery, kidnapping for ransom and interstate car theft.
The Alcatraz that America remembers is the Alcatraz of the 1930's and 1940's.
Crimes were different then, criminals were different then, and prisons were
25. Is it true that Al Capone died at Alcatraz?
No, he didn't die in prison, though Al Capone did spend a lot of time in the
Alcatraz hospital. In 1934, Al Capone was transferred to Alcatraz from the Atlanta
Federal Penitentiary, because authorities believed Capone was paying for--and
receiving--special privileges in Atlanta. Newspapers printed lurid accounts from
released Atlanta prisoners, claiming that Al Capone was bribing guards who
brought Capone special meals and allowed Capone to stay in contact with his
gang-land operations from his Atlanta prison cell.
Not at Alcatraz. At Alcatraz he was just 85-Az, another con. At Alcatraz, Al Capone
received no special privileges. He played a little banjo with the prison band and
worked at a series of jobs in the laundry and the library, and as a cellhouse and
recreation yard janitor.
Al Capone tried to stay out of trouble at Alcatraz--with mixed results. One day in
the laundry, Capone got into a scrap with Bill Colyer, for which he was sent to
isolation for eight days. Later, while Capone was working in the shower room,
Jimmy Lucas stabbed him in the back with a pair of barber shears, a wound from
which he quickly recovered.
But Al Capone did not recover from a much more serious medical problem. On
the morning of February 5, 1938, Capone appeared disoriented and confused in
the mess hall at breakfast, wearing his weekend clothes instead of his work
Upon examination, Capone was found to be suffering from paresis, the tertiary
stage of syphilis, a condition he had known about, but for which he had never
been treated. That's why Al Capone ended up spending much of his Alcatraz
sentence in the Alcatraz hospital.
Eventually, having served six years and eight months of his 10-year sentence, with
the remainder of the time taken off as "good time" for good behavior, Capone's
felony tax evasion sentence was completed.
On January 7, 1939, Al Capone was transferred from Alcatraz to Terminal Island, a
federal correctional facility in Southern California, to serve one additional year for
the misdemeanor of failing to file a federal income tax return. Bureau of Prisons
regulations prevented Alcatraz from being used to incarcerate convicts serving
time for misdemeanors.
When his misdemeanor sentence was about to expire, with two months off for
"good time", Al Capone was transferred from Terminal Island to Lewisburg for
release. His family brought him to a private clinic for treatment, then took him to
their new family home in Florida, but Al Capone was never his old self. Al Capone
died on Palm Island, Florida, January 25, 1947, from complications--including
strokes, pneumonia and heart attacks--related to his advanced case of syphilis.
26. Where did the "Birdman of Alcatraz" keep his birds?
Robert Stroud, the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz", never had birds at Alcatraz. At
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, in Kansas, Stroud did some interesting work
with bird diseases, but he was also found with contraband--including weapons--so
he was transferred to Alcatraz. Stroud arrived at Alcatraz in 1942, at the age of 52.
At that point he had already been in prison for 33 years.
Originally, Robert Stroud was in federal prison because he shot and killed a man
in pre-statehood Alaska. At McNeil Island, Stroud stabbed an inmate in a dispute
over drugs; at Leavenworth, he stabbed and killed a correctional officer.
Robert Stroud was one of the most dangerous, feared and hated inmates at
Alcatraz. As then-Attorney General Biddle said, "Stroud loves birds and hates
men". He was a sociopath, said to be eager to kill anyone who gave him the
At Alcatraz, the Birdman never had that opportunity. Reportedly because Robert
Stroud had brutally killed the correctional officer at Leavenworth--then cheated
the hangman with a controversial 11th-hour reprieve from President Wilson--he
was kept in solitary confinement for 44 of the 54 years he served in prison.
Robert Stroud spent his first six Alcatraz years in solitary confinement in D Block,
followed by 11 years in a cell by himself in the hospital, suffering from a kidney
disorder. He was eventually transferred from Alcatraz to the federal prison
system's medical facility in Springfield, Missouri, where Robert Stroud died on
November 21, 1963.
27. Did Machine Gun Kelly ever try to break out of Alcatraz?
No. George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes was a mild-mannered bootlegger, bank
robber and kidnapper, famous for his choice of weaponry and for reportedly
gasping "Don't shoot, G-men" when he was captured.
Machine Gun Kelly's high-profile headline-grabbing reputation, generated in large
part by his nickname, but also from the notoriety of the Urschel kidnapping for
which he had been convicted in 1933, led to Kelly being transferred to Alcatraz in
the first shipment of inmates from Leavenworth.
At Alcatraz, the well-born Barnes/Kelly was said to be more like a bank president
than a bank robber. He served as an altar boy at Catholic services on Sunday
mornings, stayed out of trouble, and was eventually sent back to Leavenworth
Penitentiary, where George "Machine Gun Kelly" Barnes died from heart failure.
28. Who spent the most time as a convict at Alcatraz?
Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpavicz spent more than 25 years on The Rock. "Old
Creepy" Karpis made the mistake of taunting J. Edgar Hoover, mocking the
Director of the FBI for not being able to capture him. Then Hoover captured
Karpis--personally--the only guy Hoover ever arrested. Hoover got the last laugh,
as Karpis was stuck on The Rock for all but four of the years that Alcatraz was a
29. Who was the most feared inmate at Alcatraz?
Some people would say it was Robert Stroud, the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz".
Stroud was considered to be a dangerous sociopath, but the Birdman was in the
hospital for much of the time he was at Alcatraz, and few inmates came into
contact with him.
When it came to out-of-control malevolence, the guy whom most Alcatraz
inmates feared was Jimmy Grove(s). I've heard stories about Grove from inmates
who were in prison with Grove, from guards who had to watch him, even from
relatives of former Alcatraz inmates who returned home from The Rock with wild
stories about Jimmy Grove. He was a mean, vicious guy.
Jimmy Grove was in the first Leavenworth shipment of inmates to Alcatraz
Federal Penitentiary. By then, Grove had spent time locked up in Missouri,
California, Washington, Utah, and Kansas. He was convicted of just about
everything along the way-burglaries and weapons charges at first, then rape and
attempted murder. At Alcatraz, Grove murdered a fellow inmate, Ben McMiller,
then spent most of his Alcatraz time in D Block.