5 Things You Didn’t Know About Alcatraz

You know it’s a forbidding, isolated fortress, and you know it once held Al Capone as an inmate. But here are some lesser-known revelations about the Rock.

Alcatraz island prison

Native Americans were among the earliest prisoners

Long before Al Capone ended up on the Rock, Alcatraz was a military barracks and prison. From 1873 onwards, several Native American activists and protesters were incarcerated there. Four Modoc men were hanged there in 1873, though the reasons for their execution remain unknown. The largest and best-known group of Native American prisoners were the nineteen Hopi protesters, who arrived in Alcatraz in 1895, after an enforced journey to San Francisco, which took more than a month.

Alcatraz Clip

Frank Morris and the Anglin’s have eluded the law enforcement for several decade.

The reason for their imprisonment? Defending their rights to practise their own language, maintain their communal land, and educate their children in accordance with Hopi culture. They had protested against the compulsory education of their children in government-run boarding schools, where they were beaten if they spoke Hopi, and against the redistribution of their land into small, private plots. Imprisonment on Alcatraz was intended as a method to get the Hopi to comply with US law, but after their release it appears they continued their resistance for as long as possible.

No prisoner ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz

Tales of escape from Alcatraz have long fascinated and excited us, but while numerous inmates tried to engineer an escape from the prison and the island, none is confirmed to have succeeded (emphasis on confirmed: watch Surviving Alcatraz for more on this). Most were captured or shot before getting very far; others are presumed to have drowned. One seriously determined prisoner named John Paul Scott managed to make it all the way to San Francisco in 1962. He escaped from his cell by covering himself in lard and squeezing through the bars of his cell, then miraculously swam to San Francisco. He was found exhausted and unconscious and immediately returned to the Rock, but it was still a shock to authorities who'd assumed nobody could ever swim through the cold, turbulent waters to the shore.

Alcatraz is named for the birds which inhabit it

Nowadays, people flock to Alcatraz in order to get up close to hundreds of thousands of seabirds which use this rocky outcrop as a nesting ground. In fact, Alcatraz is the Spanish word for seabird, and long before it was settled by the US military and became a prison, it was known by the early Spanish explorers as "La Isla de los Alcatraces", named for the colonies of pelicans which inhabited the Rock. Today, snowy egrets and orange-footed guillemots are among the birds that count as a top sighting for visitors to the island.

Alcatraz island in San Fransisco bay.

Alcatraz island in San Fransisco bay.

Flowers on Alcatraz were planted by prisoners and officers

Alcatraz was once a barren island devoid of colourful plant life, but with little else to do while imprisoned or stationed on the island, the prison community set to the task of creating gardens. Hardy plants able to withstand the harsh conditions of the island had to be selected, and it was something of a process of trial and error to get things to grow there, but over the years, prison officers and their families, along with the inmates themselves, created a verdant landscape around the prison which flourishes to this day. The sight of so much colourful plant life to this day, is surprising evidence of the nurturing side of life on Alcatraz, even in its most hostile days.

Al Capone played the banjo in the shower

During Al Capone's incarceration in Alcatraz, one of his main pastimes was participating in the inmates' band, in which he played the banjo, and the band regularly put on performances for the other prisoners. He also composed his own songs, including a love ditty called Madonna Mia. One of his favourite places to find inspiration for his music was in the shower room, where he could often be heard strumming his banjo. It was there that he was attacked with a pair of scissors by another inmate, James Lucas, in 1936. Today, some visitors to Alcatraz say that Al Capone still haunts the old shower room, and that ghostly strains of the banjo can be heard.