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Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary 1934


March 21,1963, the federal prison, Alcatraz, closed its doors.  Known as “The Rock” and “America’s Devil Island”, the maximum high-security prison was built on a tiny, 12 acre island in San Francisco Bay.  It originated as a military prison in 1910, but was acquired by the US Department of Justice in 1933 during the Prohibition Years and a period of every-increasing organized crime.  It was designed to hold prisoners who were considered high-escape risks and who continuously caused trouble in other federal prisons.

During it’s heyday, it housed some 1,576 of American’s most ruthless criminals including Al Capone, Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz), Machine Gun Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Whitey Bulger and Creepy Karpis.  The three-story prison included A-Block, B-Block, C-Block, and D-Block.  D-Block housed the worst inmates and five cells at the end of it were used for extreme punishment for badly behaving inmates and was called “The Hole”.

By the 1950s, the federal government determined that the upkeep and maintenance was too expensive and with the repeal of Prohibition and the increased control of crime by the FBI, Alcatraz was slated for gradual shut-down.  Many stories-some true, some not-surround the Alcatraz Prison.  From escapes, to tales of cruelty and poignant ‘injustice’, the notoriety of Alcatraz will live on for generations.

George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes was convicted in 1933 of the Charles Urschel kidnapping and extortion and sentenced to life in prison.  He was transferred from Leavenworth Federal Prison to Alcatraz, arriving on September 4, 1934 after Federal officials overhead Kelly bragging about how he was going to escape and break out his wife, Kathryn (who was also serving a life sentence) so they could be together for Christmas.  Kelly and his accomplices, Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey were some of the first prisoners to be transferred to Alcatraz.  Kelly’s prison number was “AZ#117”.

Though Kelly was a constant braggart and was said to be the cause of frustration for many fellow prisoners, he was considered a model prisoner.  He served in different capacities during his Alcatraz time serving as an altar boy in chapel, working in the laundry room and other administrative duties in the offices.  One of his wardens expressed the fact that Kelly would become depressed when he received mail from family and eventually felt remorse for his crimes.  He always felt guilty that his wife and other family members who also received federal sentences as accomplices to his crimes were treat too harshly.  Kelly apparently wrote several remorseful letters to Urschel pleading his family’s case, but Urschel never responded.

In 1951, George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes was transferred back to Leavenworth where he died of a heart attack on July 18, 1954, his 59th birthday.  None of Kelly’s family members would accept custody of his body for burial, so accomplice Boss Shannon of Paradise, Texas, who had been pardoned for his part in the kidnapping crime, had Kelly’s body returned to Wise County….the place where Urschel was held prisoner for 10 days.  Shannon had Kelly buried in his own family plot at the Cottondale Cemetery.  Thousands of curiosity seekers attended the gravesite services.

Alcatraz was eventually added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is now open for tourism.