A list of Alcatraz Federal Prison’s most renowned inmates reads like a who’s who of 20th century criminals. They range from Prohibition Era thugs like Al “Scarface” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly to 1970s Boston Mafia boss James “Whitey” Bulger and Harlem drug lord Ellsworth Raymond ” Bumpy “Johnson. But not all of the 15,000 prisoners held over the years on the island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay area were not violent criminals. Here are some of the infamous and less famous inmates who spent time on the Rock.
The nineteen hopi
In 1894, while Alcatraz was still serving as a military prison, the US government arrested 19 Hopi men for refusing to send their children to American assimilation boarding schools nearly 1,000 miles from their reservation in Oraibi, Arizona. .
From the late 19th century to the 20th century, the federal government, following a “save man, kill the Indian” policy, demanded that indigenous families send their children to remote residential schools designed to erase their cultural heritage. and spiritual. To “Americanize” the young people, the authorities cut their hair, dress them in Anglo clothes, give them American names and forbid them to speak their mother tongue or to practice their faith. Children were often forced to work, abused and abused.
To ensure compliance in indigenous communities, the government has used corruption, coercion and force. One tactic was to set up agents to report uncooperative parents. The 19 Hopi men arrested for refusing to abandon their children spent a year at Alcatraz in squalid conditions, in part to send a message to others about the disrespect. The media of the day sided with the government, leaning into racial stereotypes and downplaying the ordeal of Hopi men. A San Francisco newspaper called them murderers and “cunning redskins” who refused the “civilized ways of white men.” Another described their days as quiet and compared their meals to “any ordinary second class hotel”. Adding insult to injury, when the Hopi were released, officials told them they wouldn’t need to send their children to assimilation schools after all – a deal the government ultimately made. disowned.
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Frank Lucas Bolt
Little has been documented about Alcatraz’s LGBTQ + prisoners, but gay men played a role in the infamous prison. In fact, it was a queer man, Frank Lucas Bolt, who served as the prison’s first official inmate. Bolt was serving in the US military in Panama when he was convicted of sodomy in 1932 and sent to serve his sentence in a military prison in the Pacific region. Then, in June 1934, Lucas was sent to the new Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, two months before the prison officially opened on August 11.
Perhaps the most staunch supporter of Alcatraz, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover signed Bolt’s official admission papers as Alcatraz Inmate No. 1. Hoover wanted Alcatraz to be seen not only as a prison for America’s most dangerous gangsters and criminals, but also as a symbol of intolerance and the US prosecution of homosexuality and what he saw as “Unwanted lifestyles”.
For famed Chicago-based gangster Al Capone, getting through rough times before Alcatraz was rarely so difficult. During previous stays in Atlanta and other prisons, Capone had recruited guards to work on his payroll and enjoyed special privileges, ranging from home-cooked meals and plush bedding to unlimited access to the director.
It all came to a halt when Capone arrived at Alcatraz in 1934 for a four-year stay. As one of the first prisoners sent to the Rock (he was on Inmate 85’s list), Capone was denied his usual lavish amenities and was no longer immune to violence and chaos. of prison life. However, he got into music and founded a prison group.
READ MORE: How Al Capone spent his time at Alcatraz
Robert Stroud, aka “Bird Man” from Alcatraz
By the time Robert Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, he had already established himself as one of America’s most dangerous – and notorious – prisoners, with an already decades-long track record.
Stroud first entered the prison system more than 30 years earlier, in 1909, when he was convicted of murder and jailed in Washington state. After being transferred to Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, he experienced a series of hostile and violent episodes, culminating in 1916, when Stroud stabbed a prison guard to death in front of 1,100 inmates. Stroud received a death sentence for stabbing, but ended up having it commuted by then-president Woodrow Wilson to life in prison without parole.
Over the next 30 years, often relegated to seclusion, Stroud became a self-taught ornithologist, studying canary drawing and breeding. His hobby became so addicting that Stroud was allowed to breed birds and maintain a laboratory inside his cell. In this “lab,” Stroud wrote two books on canaries and contributed observational research that would later benefit the overall study of the bird.
By the time Stroud arrived at Alcatraz in 1942, he was already known as the “Birdman”. In 1962, its fascinating history was the subject of a major film. Alcatraz Birdman came out, starring Hollywood star Burt Lancaster. Stroud was never allowed to see the film, which earned Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Stroud died in 1963.
At the height of the Cold War, Morton Sobell is sent to Alcatraz after being convicted, alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union. Although nailed for conspiracy, Sobell was not convicted of providing the Soviet Union with stolen nuclear secrets like the Rosenbergs. Yet FBI Director Hoover called Sobell’s offense “the crime of the century.”
According to The New York Times, Sobell downplayed the secrets he gave to the Soviets as only “defensive radar and artillery devices” rather than “stuff that could be used to attack our country.” But some military experts believe that a specific radar he mentioned was used against Americans in Korea and Vietnam.
Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1951, while the Rosenbergs were put to death via the electric chair. After the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953, Sobell was returned to Alcatraz, where he served 18 years of his sentence before being paroled in 1969.
WATCH: Inside Alcatraz: Legends of the Rock on HISTORY Vault.
By the time Robert Lipscomb arrived at Alcatraz in 1954, the African American from Cleveland had spent most of his adult life in Midwestern prisons on charges of auto theft and forgery. Suffering from paranoia, depression and an abusive childhood, Lipscomb was declared psychotic and institutionalized at the age of nine. A psychiatric evaluation, however, revealed that Lipscomb actually possessed an extraordinarily high intellect.
His fellow inmates saw this intellect firsthand when, while a prisoner in Michigan and Leavenworth, Lipscomb taught them art, Spanish, French and music and helped organize black inmates to protest against segregation inside the prison. Seen as a troublemaker to his organization, Lipscomb was transferred to Alcatraz, where he continued to pioneer the desegregation of American prisons. These efforts have earned him near constant punishment in the already notoriously harsh prison, including a number of times in solitary confinement.
Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson
Notorious Harlem crime boss Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was another of the many often overlooked black inmates housed on the rock. Johnson arrived at Alcatraz in 1952, at the height of his reign as the so-called “Godfather of Harlem,” after being sentenced to 15 years for a drug conspiracy conviction. Johnson served the majority of that sentence at Alcatraz, before being paroled in 1963. He went on to claim that before leaving, Bumpy Johnson had played a little-known role in one of the most successful escape attempts. famous Alcatraz.
Although his account remains officially unconfirmed, Clarence Carnes, a notorious full-fledged Alcatraz inmate, has claimed in interviews that Bumpy helped the Anglin brothers during their infamous 1962 escape, providing the boat the brothers took. used with Frank Morris to escape the island. The fate of the escapees remains unknown.