Little Bits of History

The Rock

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 11, 2010

Aerial view of Alcatraz

August 11, 1934: Alcatraz opens for business as a federal prison. In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala entered San Francisco Bay and named the three islands found there. “Alcatraces” which may refer to “pelican,” “albatross,” or “strange bird” and was eventually Anglicized to Alcatraz.

By 1850, the land was set aside by presidential decree to be used by the US military. It was one of the most heavily fortified military sites in the West and began housing prisoners by the end of the decade. A new military prison was build in 1909 by the prisoners themselves. Ownership was granted to the Federal Prison system in 1933.

Perhaps the most famous prisoner during the 29 years that Alcatraz was a Federal prison was the Birdman of Alcatraz. Robert Stroud raised birds in Leavenworth prison, but never while on The Rock. He wrote two books while incarcerated and pled a case for cruel and unusual punishment due to his lengthy prison term for murdering a guard. Al Capone was also a famous guest of the prison.

There were 14 separate escape attempts involving 36 men. None of them were successful. Five men were never seen again and were listed as “missing and presumed drowned.” The prison closed on March 21, 1963 and became a national park in 1972. It opened, as a park, in 1973 and receives more than a million visitors per year.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Wherever any one is against his will, that is to him a prison.” – Epictetus

“Little islands are all large prisons: one cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow.” Richard Burton

“Alcatraz, the federal prison with a name like the blare of a trombone, is a black molar in the jawbone of the nation’s prison system.” – Thomas E. Gaddis, author of Birdman of Alcatraz

Also on this day, in 1992 the Mall of America opens for business.

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