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Top 10 Alcatraz Trivia

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Located in the San Francisco Bay, Alctraz Island has been used for a number of different things throughout the years. Starting off as the site of a lighthouse to a fortress to an American federal prison, The Rock has also become a popular setting for various books, movies, TV shows and video games. Thanks to its rich history and fierce reputation, it is now a National Historic Landmark. Join as we explore ten pieces of trivia you should know about Alcatraz.

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Its nickname is Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island. Welcome to, and today we’ll be exploring ten pieces of trivia you should know about Alcatraz.

#10 – Housing for Prison Staff and Families

Kicking off our trivia list is a factoid about the Rock as a family-friendly living space. Alcatraz was America’s harshest prison, but that didn’t stop families of Bureau of Prisons employees from living on the island. Aside from accommodations like the Building 64 apartment-block, the workers had access to a bar, dining room, dance floor, bowling alley and more in the Social Hall club.

#9 – Alcatraz in Pop Culture

Thanks to its history and legendary reputation, Alcatraz has often been the subject of movies, television shows, books, songs and video games. Notable movies about famous inmates include “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and “Murder in the First.” The prison has also been used as a setting on multiple occasions, like in the TV show “Alcatraz” and films like “The Rock,” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

#8 – American Civil War

Due to its isolated location off San Francisco’s coast, Alcatraz Island was deemed an ideal spot to build a fortress. During the American Civil War, it housed multiple cannons and served as a base for firearm and ammunition storage. Though no attacking shots were ever fired from The Rock, the Island was used to imprison Civil War enemies, Confederate supporters and those who embraced President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

#7 – Occupation of Alcatraz

Between 1969 and 1971, an American Indian group called the Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island in an effort to reclaim that land to build facilities for Native Americans, since it was no longer being used by the federal government. Included in this group was a young Benjamin Bratt and his family. Though the occupation was ultimately ended by the Nixon administration, it influenced the president’s decision to make self-determination an official policy and shaped Indian activism in the future.

#6 – 28 Deaths in 29 Years

During the prison’s 29-year run, 28 inmate and prison guard deaths were recorded, most of which resulted from violent altercations that occurred during the 1939 and 1946 escape attempts. Aside from five suicides and fifteen natural deaths, the remaining eight were murders: for example, prisoner Henri Young murdered fellow inmate Rufus McCain with a spoon, as loosely documented in the film “Murder in the First.”

#5 – It’s Haunted

Bizarre sounds, apparitions and extreme cold have all been detected in the cell blocks where several guards and inmates were killed during the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz. And while Al Capone didn’t die at Alcatraz, his banjo-playing has been heard in the shower room. Despite a reputation as the most haunted prison in America, or perhaps because of it, the penitentiary-turned-museum is now one of San Francisco’s biggest tourist draws.

#4 – Most Expensive American Prison

With operating expenses running three times higher than similar institutions at the time, and a $5 million bill to repair buildings eroded by salt water, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was undoubtedly the country’s most expensive prison. Add the general population’s growing dislike of the Rock to the mix and Alcatraz was closed for good on March 21st, 1963.

#3 – No Escapes

Alcatraz officially maintains that no one ever successfully broke out of the maximum security prison. In fact, out of the 14 escape attempts by 36 inmates, most were captured or shot. However, five inmates did reach the San Francisco Bay’s freezing waters during two separate attempts, but their bodies were never found and they were presumed dead.

#2 – Notorious Criminals

From gangsters to burglars, murderers to racketeers, escape artists to political activists, Alcatraz held them all. During its heyday, America’s toughest prison housed some of history’s most infamous criminals: Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Bumpy Johnson, Creepy Karpis, Henri Young, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Birdman of Alcatraz.

#1 – The Great Escape

Taking the top spot on our trivia list is a factoid about one of the most famous and complex prison escape attempts ever. On June 11th, 1962, after months of preparation, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin planted handmade dummy heads in their beds and crawled to freedom through holes they had dug in their cell walls. To brave the waters surrounding the Rock, they crafted life jackets and rafts from raincoats. Though the three men probably drowned, later investigations – as well as the 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz” – suggested they could have survived.

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