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Alcatraz's Ten Most Notorious Inmates

Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Al Capone, Robert "The Birdman" Stroud, Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, Morton Sobell, George Machine Gun Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Roy Gardner, Frank Morris and Whitey Bulger are Alcatraz's most notorious inmates.

Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. During that time the island prison in San Francisco Bay housed many of America's most notorious inmates. Here they are, a rogues' gallery of Alcatraz's ten most infamous prisoners...

Alphonse Gabriel "Al" Capone (1899-1947)

Al Capone, czar of the Chicago underworld, arrived on Alcatraz in 1934 to continue his 11-year sentence for income tax evasion. The island prison was definitely not to Capone's liking, as he later told Warden James A. Johnston, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked." Capone left Alcatraz in 1938, serving the rest of his time at the Federal Correction Institution at Terminal Island, California. Released from prison in November 1939, Capone later died from complications of neurosyphilis at his Palm Island, Florida, home on January 25, 1947. Alcatraz prison number: 85.

Al Capone, Alcatraz prison number 85 (U.S. Department of Justice)

Robert Franklin "Birdman" Stroud (1890-1963)

Known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz," Robert Stroud arrived on Alcatraz in 1942, continuing a sentence of life without parole for the murder of a prison guard. While incarcerated at Leavenworth, Stroud began nurturing and studying birds, eventually writing two text books on the subject of bird diseases. In 1959, the ailing Stroud departed "The Rock," transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri. Stroud, who despite his famous nickname was never allowed to keep birds on Alcatraz, died of natural causes on November 21, 1963 – one day before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Alcatraz prison number: 594.

Robert Stroud, Alcatraz prison number 594 (U.S. Department of Justice)

Alvin Francis Karpis (1907-1979)

Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz, a member of the notorious Karpis-Barker Gang of the Great Depression 1930s, arrived on Alcatraz in 1936, doing a life sentence for murder and kidnapping. Karpis departed Alcatraz in April 1962 as the island prison was preparing to close its iron doors for good. Transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State, Karpis won parole in 1969, later dying in Spain on August 26, 1979, of what authorities ruled natural causes. Alcatraz prison number: 325.

Arthur R. "Doc" Barker (1899-1939)

One of Alvin Karpis' fellow gang members, the homicidal Doc Barker arrived on Alcatraz in 1936 doing a life stretch for murder and kidnapping. On the night of January 13, 1939, Barker along with fellow inmates Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henri Young and Rufus McCain, busted out of an isolation unit on Alcatraz. Their escape attempt ended in disaster at the shoreline on the island prison's west side. Martin, Young and McCain wisely surrendered, while Barker and Stamphill refused to give up and were shot by guards. Barker died of his wounds. Alcatraz prison number: 268.

Wanted poster for Doc Barker, Alcatraz prison number 268 (U.S. Department of Justice)

Morton Sobell (1917-)

Morton Sobell, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in the famous Ethel and Julius Rosenberg atomic bomb espionage case in 1951, arrived on Alcatraz in 1952 doing a 30-year sentence. He spent five years on "The Rock," finishing his sentence at various federal penitentiaries. Released from prison in 1969, Sobell later moved to San Francisco where he could once again experience Alcatraz – this time from the mainland. Alcatraz prison number: 996.

George "Machine Gun" Kelly (1895-1954)

George Kelly Barnes – a.k.a. "Machine Gun" Kelly – made his criminal mark in the Depression Era 1930s, engaging in bootlegging, armed robbery and kidnapping. It was Kathryn Thorne, Kelly's wife, who purchased her husband's first Thompson submachine gun, giving rise to his famous moniker. Kelly and his spouse were later convicted of kidnapping wealthy Oklahoma City oil magnate Charles F. Urschel, earning them life sentences. Machine Gun Kelly, along with two other accomplices in the kidnapping scheme, Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey, arrived on Alcatraz in 1934. Here Kelly served as an altar boy in the prison chapel and worked in the laundry. Kelly was later returned to Leavenworth federal penitentiary in 1951, where he died of a heart attack on July 18, 1954 – his 59th birthday. Alcatraz prison number: 117.

George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alcatraz prison number 117 (Memphis Police Department)

Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen (1913-1976)

A member of the Jewish Mafia, Mickey Cohen had once worked as an enforcer for the Chicago Outfit. He later worked with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, helping to set up the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas where he ran its sports betting operation. Twice convicted for income tax evasion and handed a 15-year sentence for his latest financial faux pas, Cohen arrived on Alcatraz in 1961, where he was nearly killed when another inmate waylaid him with a lead pipe. Later transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta following Alcatraz's closing, Cohen won his release in 1972, where it was discovered that he was suffering from stomach cancer. Cohen died in his sleep in Los Angeles on July 29, 1976. Alcatraz prison number: 1518.

Mickey Cohen on the town in Los Angeles, Alcatraz prison number 1518 (Wikipedia)

Roy G. Gardner (1884-1940)

A U.S. Army deserter, Roy Gardner made his criminal mark during the Roaring Twenties, robbing banks and knocking over mail trains. Dubbed the "Smiling Bandit," the "Mail Train Bandit" and the "King of the Escape Artists," Gardner proved to be a handful for prison authorities, escaping McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in September 1921 where he became the most hunted man on the West Coast. Eventually recaptured that same year, Gardner engaged in more escape attempts at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Gardner arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, which he described as "the toughest, hardest place in the world." In 1938, Gardner's petition for clemency was granted, and he walked out of Alcatraz a free man, later penning an autobiography titled Hellcatraz. Roy Gardner committed suicide on January 10, 1940, the victim of cyanide fumes and tear gas. Alcatraz prison number: 110.

Roy Gardner, Alcatraz prison number 110 (U.S. Department of Justice)

Frank Lee Morris (1926-1962?)

New York City-born Frank Morris committed his first crime at age 13, eventually compiling a rap sheet for offenses ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery. Morris arrived on Alcatraz in January 1960, reportedly planning his escape within a year of his incarceration on "The Rock." Following two years of meticulous planning, Morris along with the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, busted out of Alcatraz on the night of June 11, 1962, leaving papier-mache dummies in their cells in order to fool the guards and making their way onto the roof and down to the shoreline. Here, using a homemade raft fashioned from stolen raincoats, the three men waded into icy San Francisco Bay, never to be heard from again. Although no bodies were ever recovered, prison authorities assumed the trio had drowned. On December 31, 1979, the FBI closed the book on the case, concluding that "no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive". But there are those who beg to differ, including psychic Kenny Kingston, who reported that the three men made it to the mainland where they lived in anonymity. Frank Morris was played by Clint Eastwood in the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz. Alcatraz prison number: 1441.

James Joseph "Whitey" Bulger Jr. (1929-)

Whitey Bulger garnered his first arrest in 1943 for larceny, eventually graduating to assault and battery, forgery and armed robbery. Following a stint in a juvenile reformatory and a tumultuous two-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force, Bulger returned to his native Boston where he continued his criminal activities. In 1956, Bulger was convicted of bank robbery, receiving a 25-year prison sentence. While confined at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Bulger and 18 other inmates reportedly volunteered for the CIA's MK-ULTRA program, in which they were given LSD and other mind-control drugs. Bulger arrived on Alcatraz on November 2, 1959, later leaving "The Rock" in 1962 and finishing out his sentence at Leavenworth and Lewisburg federal penitentiaries. Upon his release from prison in 1965, Bulger returned to a life of crime, eventually leading Boston's notorious Winter Hill Gang. Whitey Bulger was captured by the FBI in Santa Monica, California, on June 22, 2011. At the time, Bulger had a $2 million reward on his head. 

Ten More Notorious Alcatraz Inmates

  • Henri Theodore Young (1918-)/played by Kevin Bacon in the movie Murder in the First (1995)/Alcatraz prison number: 244
  • Clarence Victor "The Choctaw Kid" Carnes (1927-1988)/at age 18 youngest inmate sentenced to Alcatraz and participant in the infamous 1946 Battle of Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 714
  • Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson (1905-1968)/Harlem godfather of the 1930s a.k.a."The Black Al Capone"/Alcatraz number: 1117
  • Clarence Anglin (1931-1962?)/fellow escapee with Frank Morris in 1962/Alcatraz prison number: 1485
  • John William Anglin (1930-1962?)/fellow escapee with Frank Morris in 1962/Alcatraz prison number: 1476
  • Bernard Paul Coy (1901-1946)/planner of the May 2, 1946, escape attempt which culminated in the bloody Battle of Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 415
  • Richard Sam Shockley Jr. (1909-1948)/participant in the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 462
  • Miran Edgar Thompson (1917-1948)/participant in the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 729
  • Joseph Paul Cretzer (1911-1946)/participant in the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 548
  • William Isaac "Willie" Radkay (1911-2006)/notorious Kansas City bank robber and author of A Devil Incarnate: From Altar Boy to Alcatraz/Alcatraz prison number: 666  

Wanted poster for John Anglin, Alcatraz prison number 1476 (U.S. Department of Justice)

Copyright © 2012-2013 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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Comments (8)
Ranked #44 in History

What an infamous lineup. Nice job. I've been on "The Rock." As a visitor.

Ranked #1 in History

Fascinating rogues gallery.

This is really something! I've heard of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Good work on this post.

Ranked #41 in History

A list of the rock's most famous and dangerous henchmen. Thumbs up, William.

alexis grice

i think the people in alcatraz are absolutly insane they can kill people with no remorse!!! ythat just makes me wonder what there childhood trama????

Excellent. Sorry, I'm out of votes

Update: Former Alcatraz inmate Whitey Bulger captured by the FBI in Santa Monica, California, on June 22, 2011. Wonder if anyone will collect the $2 million reward.

That was very insightful and interesting reading. Would like more posts like this on infamous inmates.

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