Alcatraz was a penitentiary on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay designed to house irredeemable prisoners. Some of these criminals gained fame after sentencing, such as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Several of the Rock's prisoners were already famous when they arrived.
1930s and Al Capone
The majority of Alcatraz's famous criminals were sentenced in the 1930s. The most notorious among them, prisoner AZ-85, also known as Al Capone, arrived in 1934. Capone had been serving out an 11-year sentence in Atlanta. However, his ability to control the warden and guards with cash -- he had a carpeted cell and his own radio -- led to his transfer to Alcatraz, where authorities were much less sympathetic. He remained there until 1938 before transferring to Terminal Island because of syphilis. Prisoners AZ-325 and AZ-268 also arrived in the 1930s. Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz and Arthur "Doc" Barker, members of the Barker-Karpis gang, were sentenced to Alcatraz for kidnapping. Barker was killed by prison guards in 1939 while trying to escape; Karpis was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1962. In 1934, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, prisoner AZ-117, arrived to serve 16 years of a life sentence for kidnapping, before transferring to Leavenworth.
"The Owl" in the 1940s
Arriving at Alcatraz in the 1940s, Basil "The Owl" Banghart was known not only for his association with the larcenous Touhy Gang and for his involvement in a hoax mafia kidnapping, but for his remarkable ability to escape from prison. He escaped from Joliet in 1942 with seven other prisoners, evading capture for nearly three months. After a stint in solitary, he was transferred with a guard of 18 U.S. deputy marshals to Alcatraz, where he worked in the prison bakery with Alvin Karpis. He left the Rock in 1959.
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson was a mob boss and bookie based out of Harlem. He had connections to the Genovese crime family, as well as Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz. In 1952, the law caught up with him. He was convicted for selling drugs and sent to Alcatraz, where he became prisoner AZ-1117. Made famous by news stories in "Jet" magazine, his release from prison 11 years later was met with a parade in the streets of Harlem. Numerous portrayals based on Johnson have appeared in films, including "American Gangster" and "Hoodlum."
Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen, prisoner 1518-AZ, was sentenced to Alcatraz during the prison's last years. Arriving in 1961, he was placed in block B-226, a row of cells nicknamed Michigan Avenue. He worked in the clothing room and was known for keeping a tidy cell, reading voraciously and attending Jewish services. Cohen spent only one year of his 15-year sentence for tax evasion on the Rock, leaving in 1962 for the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
- Alcatraz History: Al Capone at Alcatraz
- Oklahoma State University: Oklahoma Historical Society of Oklahoma History and Culture
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Stories: A Byte Out of History Closing in on the Barker/Karpis Gang
- American Mafia: The Owl
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Famous Cases and Criminals: Roger "The Terrible" Touhy's Gang
- Indiana University: Black Film Center/Archive
- St. Olaf College: Manitou Messenger: "Gangster" energizes crime genre
- Villanova University Falvey Memorial Library: Excerpt: Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life
- Alcatraz History: Mickey Cohen
- Alcatraz Alumni Association: Bad Guys: Mickey Cohen
- Peter Ginter/Photodisc/Getty Images