Located in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island was originally explored by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, a Spaniard, who named the island Isla de los Alcatraces, meaning ‘island of the pelicans’.
In the 1850s, the U.S army built a fortress to protect the San Franciscans from war, but it was never used, and instead became a military prison. In 1909, the fortress was pulled down and the new prison was built was by prisoners from the military penitentiary.
The government took control of the new prison in 1933, and ‘The Rock’ became a federal penitentiary for the most dangerous prisoners. Because the prison was on an island, it was near impossible to escape from, and therefore housed several notorious criminals from the outset.
Al Capone was a crime boss for just seven years before he was sent to prison. Born in 1899 in New York City, he joined the Five Points Gang when he was a teenager and became a bouncer at the gang’s brothels and nightclubs.
In 1917, Capone insulted a woman in the Harvard Inn on Coney Island. Her brother reacted badly to the insult and left Capone with his infamous scars. Capone hated the nickname that was given to him by the press, ‘Scarface’, and would always try to hide them in photographs. He was also known as ‘Big Fellow’ and ‘Snorky’.
He moved to Chicago in his twenties and became Johnny Torrio’s sidekick. Torrio was the head of a crime syndicate, supplying alcohol throughout the city. He retired after he and Capone were almost killed by one of George ‘Bugs’ Moran’s gunman.
Capone took over the business and expanded the simple bootlegging dealing into a multi-million dollar operation, with prostitution and gambling. He was making between $60 and $100 million a year.
On the 14th February 1929, seven men linked with ‘Bugs’ Moran were seized in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood and shot dead. This act would become known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre and shocked America. Authorities were adamant that Capone was to blame for the shooting, but he was in Florida on vacation at the time and was never charged. The authorities became determined to put Capone in prison, and newspapers dubbed him as ‘Public Enemy №1’.
In 1931, Capone was finally prosecuted for tax evasion. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and given a $50,000 fine, the most severe sentence given for tax fraud up to this point. He was incarcerated at Atlanta Penitentiary, where he was diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhoea.
In 1934, he was transported to Alcatraz Island, where his job at the prison was to stitch soles on to shoes. He had begun to suffer from his health and showed signs of dementia, a side effect of syphilis he contracted when he was younger.
Five years later, Capone was released from prison and was treated at Baltimore hospital for syphilis. He was now entirely out of the spotlight that he had seen himself in for many years. He spent his days playing cards and fishing in Florida, where he now resided in a mansion he had bought in the ’20s. In 1947, he suffered a stroke and eventually died from pneumonia at home on the 25th of January.
Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was a Canadian gangster born in 1907, who began his career in crime at the age of 10, by selling pornography and being a messenger boy for gamblers and pimps.
In 1926, he was sentenced to 10 years for attempted burglary, where he was sent to the State Industrial Reformatory in Kansas. He escaped from the prison with Lawrence De Vol, a bank robber, and together they spent the next year committing various crimes. Karpis was eventually caught trying to steal a car and was sent to Kansas State prison.
The Bloody Barkers
It was there that he met Fred Barker, who was a member of the ‘Bloody Barkers’, a notorious gang, ran by his mother, Ma Barker. The Barker-Karpis Gang became one of the most dangerous gangs in the 1930s, killing anyone who got in their way.
In 1933, the gang kidnapped William Hamm, a millionaire brewer from Minnesota. Once the gang was paid $100,000, they released Hamm. Shortly after, they kidnapped Edward Bremer, a banker who was a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once the $200,000 was paid to release Bremer, the FBI and police began to target gangs and other criminals to stop these offences from happening.
The Flying Squads
Shortly after President Roosevelt heard about the kidnappings, the Flying Squads were assembled and consisted of specialist agents who targeted gang members. In 1934, the squad brought down the likes of John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. However, Karpis managed to stay hidden and by the final kidnapping of Edward Bremer, the gang has disbanded.
In 1935, with Ma and Fred Barker dead from a shootout with the FBI, Karpis was nearly killed by the FBI in a separate altercation. He allegedly sent word to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, telling him that he planned to kill Hoover the way Hoover had killed the Barkers.
The next year, the FBI was on Karpis’ trail and Hoover flew to New Orleans to be personally in charge of the arrest. When the FBI captured Karpis, none of the agents had handcuffs on them, so they were forced to tie his hands with a necktie.
Karpis was sentenced to life in prison and was sent to Alcatraz in August 1936, where he worked primarily in the bakery. When Alcatraz was in the process of closing, Karpis was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary, where he met Charles Manson. In passing, Manson asked him to help him get a job playing the guitar in Las Vegas, due to Karpis’ contacts in the business, but nothing ever came of this.
Alvin Karpis was released from prison in 1969 and deported to Canada. The issue was that Karpis didn't have any fingerprints, which was part of the application process for a passport. He eventually settled in Spain in 1973, and on the 26th August 1979, he was found dead with his death ruled as a suicide. Some who were closer to Karpis believe that he was murdered, as he wasn’t the type to kill himself, and was a ‘survivor’.
George Kelly Barnes
Also known as ‘Machine Gun Kelly’, Barnes was born in 1895 to a wealthy family, living in Memphis, Tennessee. He had a traditional upbringing and wanted for nothing during this childhood.
In 1917, Barnes went to study agriculture at Mississippi State University, where his highest grade was given for good hygiene, rather than academia. Whilst studying, Barnes met Geneva Ramsey, who he fell in love with. He left university and married Geneva. He got a job as a cab driver in Memphis, but with their two children, the family was struggling financially. At 19 years old, Barnes was without a job and had separated from his wife.
Success and notoriety
To make ends meet, Barnes worked as a bootlegger during the prohibition. He was beginning to see financial success and notoriety within the criminal world and with that came arrests and numerous confrontations with the local police. As not to embarrass his family he changed his name to George R. Kelly and left town with his new girlfriend.
In 1928, he was arrested for smuggling liquor in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sentenced to three years for the crime, he was remanded at Leavenworth Penitentiary, where he was a model prisoner and was released early for good behaviour.
In 1930, he married Kathryn Thorne, who was a felon herself, with a rap sheet of charges from prostitution and bootlegging.
Her marriage to Kelly would be her third, with her last husband allegedly shooting himself. Kathryn had been heard telling a gas station attendant that she was going to “kill that god-damned Charlie Thorne”, just days before his apparent suicide.
It was Kathryn who bought Kelly his first machine gun, despite his lack of interest or knowledge of the weapon. She also made sure that Kelly’s name was known in the crime syndicate, which her family was a part of.
Kathryn was essentially Kelly’s publicist and was believed to be the mastermind behind his notoriety. She boasted about his skills with weaponry around the underground clubs and passed around the spent cartridges from his shooting practise.
The kidnap plot
In 1933, Kathryn, Kelly, Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey concocted a plan to kidnap oil magnate Charles Urschel from his home. The gang demanded a ransom of $200,000 and kept Charles for eight days in a ranch, until the money, which was paid in traceable bills, was delivered to a hotel in Kansas City.
Charles was released unharmed but had made sure to touch surfaces and remember the number of steps to and from the places he was kept during his capture, helping the FBI’s investigation later on.
Once the ransom money was divided up between the Kellys and their collaborators, the couple began to travel around the country. Soon after, one of the accomplices was captured at the ranch where they kept Charles, and the search intensified to find the Kellys.
The couple reached Chicago and decided to stay there until the hunt for them had relaxed. They dyed their hair and began to enjoy their money, which was enough to give them an extravagant lifestyle.
However, they soon grew tired of hiding out, so Kathryn and Kelly travelled back to Memphis several weeks later, to stay with a friend.
On the morning of the 26th September 1933, local police and FBI agents stormed the friend’s home and captured Kathryn and Kelly. She was still asleep in bed and he was hungover from the night before, still wearing his pyjamas.
The couple were taken to Oklahoma to stand trial, with both receiving life sentences for their crimes, alongside four others who were involved with the kidnapping of Charles Urschel. Kathryn was sent to a prison in Cincinnati and Kelly was transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Because of his arrogant claims that he would break himself and Kathryn out of prison, to be home for Christmas, prison officials decided that he would be better secured in another prison.
In August 1934, Kelly, Bates and Bailey were sent to Alcatraz on the train. During his stay on the island, Kelly boasted about his crimes, even some he hadn’t committed, which annoyed other prisoners.
Largely, Kelly had a quiet stay on the Rock, assisting as an altar boy at the chapel, working in administration and in the laundry department. He wrote many letters to friends and family and appeared to feel remorseful for the crimes he had committed.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly was transferred back to Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1951 and died three years later from a heart attack on his 59th birthday.
Kathryn Kelly was released from prison in Cincinnati in 1958 and moved in with her mother, Ora. Kathryn worked as a bookkeeper in Oklahoma hospital and led a quiet life. She died in 1985, five years after her mother.