A list of the most renowned inmates at Alcatraz federal prison reads like a who’s who of 20th-century criminals. They range from Prohibition-era gangsters like Al “Scarface” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly to ‘70s Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger and Harlem drug kingpin Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson. But not all of the 15,000 prisoners held over the years on the island in the middle of San Francisco Bay were violent criminals. Here are a few of the infamous and not-so-famous inmates who spent time on the Rock.
The Hopi Nineteen
In 1894, when Alcatraz was still operating as a military prison, the U.S. government arrested 19 Hopi men for refusing to send their children to American assimilation boarding schools almost 1,000 miles away from their reservation in Oraibi, Arizona.
From the late 19th century well into the 20th, the federal government, following a policy of “save the man, kill the Indian,” mandated that Indigenous families ship their children to distant boarding schools designed to erase their cultural and spiritual heritage. To “Americanize” the youngsters, officials cut their hair, dressed them in Anglo clothing, gave them American names and forbade them to speak their native tongues or practice their faiths. Children were often forced into labor, mistreated and abused.
To assure compliance in native communities, the government used bribery, coercion and force. One tactic was to install agents to report noncooperative parents. The 19 Hopi men arrested for refusing to give up their children spent a year at Alcatraz in squalid conditions, in part to send a message to others about noncompliance. News outlets at the time sided with the government, leaning into racial stereotypes and downplaying the Hopi men's ordeal.
One San Francisco paper called them murderers and "crafty redskins" who refused the "civilized ways of the white men." Another described their days as leisurely and likened their meals to those of “any ordinary second-class hotel.” Adding insult to injury, when the Hopi were released, officials told them they wouldn’t need to send their children to the assimilation schools after all—a bargain the government ultimately reneged on.
Frank Lucas Bolt
Little has been documented about Alcatraz’s LGBTQ+ prisoners, but gay men did play a role in the infamous prison. In fact, it was a queer man, Frank Lucas Bolt, who served as the prison’s first official inmate. Bolt was serving in the U.S. Army in Panama when he was convicted of sodomy in 1932 and sent to serve time at a Pacific area military prison. Then, in June 1934, Lucas was shipped to the newly established Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, two months before the prison’s official opening on August 11th.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, perhaps Alcatraz’s staunchest proponent, signed Bolt’s official admission papers as Alcatraz Inmate #1. Hoover wanted Alcatraz seen not only as a prison for America’s most dangerous mobsters and criminals, but also as a symbol of America’s intolerance and prosecution of homosexuality and what he deemed “undesirable lifestyles.”
For notorious Chicago-based mobster Al Capone, doing hard time before Alcatraz was rarely that hard. During earlier stints in Atlanta and other prisons, Capone had recruited guards to work on his payroll and enjoyed special privileges—from home-cooked meals and cushy bedding to unlimited access to the warden.
That all stopped when Capone arrived at Alcatraz in 1934 for a four-year stint. As one of the first prisoners sent to the Rock (he was listed as inmate #85), Capone was denied his usual lavish amenities and was no longer shielded from the violence and chaos of prison life. He did, however, take up music and start a prison band.
Robert Stroud, a.k.a. the 'Bird Man' of Alcatraz
By the time Robert Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942, he had already established himself as one of the most dangerous—and notorious—prisoners in America, with a rap sheet already decades long.
Stroud first entered the penitentiary system more than 30 years earlier, in 1909, when he was convicted of murder and imprisoned in Washington State. After being transferred to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, he had a string of hostile and violent episodes, culminating in 1916, when Stroud stabbed a prison guard to death in front of 1,100 inmates. Stroud received a death sentence for the stabbing, but ended up having that commuted by then-President Woodrow Wilson—to life in prison without parole.
Over the next 30 years, often relegated to solitary, Stroud became a self-taught ornithologist, studying the drawing and breeding of canaries. His hobby became so consuming that Stroud was allowed to breed the birds and maintain a lab inside his cell. In this “lab,” Stroud authored two books on canaries and contributed observational research that would later benefit the overall study of the bird.
By the time Stroud came to Alcatraz in 1942, he was already known as the "Bird Man.” In 1962, his fascinating story became the subject of a major motion picture. In 1962, Birdman of Alcatraz was released, starring Hollywood star Burt Lancaster. Stroud was never permitted to see the movie—which earned Lancaster a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Stroud died in 1963.
At the height of the Cold War, Morton Sobell was sent to Alcatraz after being convicted, alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Though nailed for conspiracy, Sobell wasn’t convicted of providing the Soviet Union with stolen nuclear secrets like the Rosenbergs. Still, FBI Director Hoover called Sobell’s offense the “crime of the century.”
According to The New York Times, Sobell downplayed the secrets he gave the Soviets as only “defensive radar and artillery devices” rather than “stuff that could be used to attack our country.” But some military experts believe one specific radar device he mentioned was used against Americans in Korea and Vietnam.
Sobell received a 30-year prison sentence in 1951, while the Rosenbergs were put to death via the electric chair. After the Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953, Sobell was remanded to Alcatraz, where he spent 18 years of his sentence before being released on parole in 1969.
By the time Robert Lipscomb arrived at Alcatraz in 1954, the African American Cleveland native had spent most of his adult life in midwestern prisons for auto theft and counterfeiting. Suffering from paranoia, depression and an abusive childhood, Lipscomb was declared psychotic and institutionalized by the age of nine. A psychiatric evaluation, however, revealed Lipscomb to actually possess an extraordinarily high intellect.
His fellow inmates saw this intellect firsthand when, while a prisoner in Michigan and Leavenworth, Lipscomb taught them art, Spanish, French and music and helped organize Black inmates to protest segregation inside the prison. Labeled a troublemaker for his organizing, Lipscomb was transferred to Alcatraz, where he continued to pioneer efforts to desegregate America’s prisons. Those efforts earned him near-constant punishment at the already notoriously tough prison, including a number of stints in solitary confinement.
Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson
Infamous Harlem crime boss Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was another of the many oft-overlooked Black inmates housed on the Rock. Johnson came to Alcatraz in 1952, at the height of his reign as the so-called “Godfather of Harlem,” after he was sentenced to a 15-year stint for a drug conspiracy conviction. Johnson served the majority of that sentence at Alcatraz, before being released on parole in 1963. He later claimed that before he left, Bumpy Johnson played a little-known role in one of Alcatraz’s most famous escape attempt.
Though his account remains officially unconfirmed, Clarence Carnes, a notorious Alcatraz inmate in his own right, claimed in interviews that Bumpy helped the Anglin Brothers during their infamous 1962 escape, providing the boat the brothers used along with Frank Morris to escape the island. The escapees' fates remain unknown.