On this day in 1934, the first federal prisoners arrived on Alcatraz Island
By Katie Dowd Thursday, August 11, 2016
Eighty-two years ago today, Alcatraz went from a rock to The Rock.
On Aug. 11, 1934, the first boat loads of federal inmates arrived at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, entering American lore in the process.
Alcatraz had been a military prison since the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until 1933 that it was purchased by the Department of Justice to serve as a maximum security facility for America’s worst criminals. It was, officials and newspapers declared, utterly escape-proof.
Most of the first inmates were transferred from Leavenworth in Kansas. They were bank robbers, murderers and counterfeiters. “Although the total population of Uncle Sam’s new fortress for incorrigibles will run into the hundreds, the 47 now ‘on hand’ will be sufficient to give Attorney General Homer S. Cummings an idea of the situation,” the Chronicle wrote upon their arrival.
Among the first shipment of prisoners was “Red” Kerr, a Chicago gangster who stole over $200,000 from a Sacramento post office and John M. Stadig, a “counterfeiter and escaper.” Its most famous inmate, unbeknownst to him, was being prepared for a similar move.
“Unusual precautions, it was learned, will be taken to safeguard several nationally known figures in the world of crime from Atlanta and Leavenworth penitentiaries to the prison in San Francisco bay,” the Chronicle revealed.
Nationally known was an understatement: On Aug. 20, the Chronicle found out that none other than Al Capone was on a heavily guarded train from Atlanta.
Capone had been secretly packed onto a custom steel-barred train car in the dead of the night, but word quickly spread that the Chicago mobster was traveling across the country.
The Chronicle reported that an onlooker called out to the other prisoners, asking if Capone was on the train. Another inmate pointed to a coach window. “The man in that window, who resembled Capone, grinned when asked whether he was Capone,” wrote the Chronicle.
Early on the morning of the 23rd, the train arrived in San Francisco. Capone and 52 other convicts were loaded onto a barge in Tiburon. Accompanied by an armed Coast Guard cutter, they sailed to Alcatraz.
“Al Capone, who iron nerve he boasted would never break, quailed when he viewed the escape proof ramparts of Alcatraz yesterday,” proclaimed the Chronicle.
Indeed, Capone never attempted an escape from Alcatraz. His health declining, he spent much of his last year in the prison hospital. He finished his sentence at Alcatraz on Jan. 6, 1939. READ MORE.