On the Rock: Alcatraz – Episode 1: The Warden and the Rock

– The Recurring Problem of Crime – Anastasia Scott’s 47 Minute Swim – The Bureau Takes Over the Island – A Kingpin’s V8 and the Cook County Sheriff – Kansas Union Transfer Massacre and Dead Public Enemies – Moving Furniture –

As dusk settled on the era of prohibition, the United States was in the midst of a crime wave that spread across the nation. Would be bootleggers turned their attention to other vice trades including holdups, bank robberies and kidnappings. The introduction of powerful getaway cars and high capacity Thompson submachine guns allowed criminals to outrun and outgun the law.

FDR’s New Deal program created public works projects with the hope they would help move the nation out of the Great Depression that hit the economy in 1929. A part of this program would be to focus on stopping cross-state crimes that were the calling card of the modern gangster and bank robbers. Laws were created for this purpose and their enforcement would be left to a small, then unknown agency, that would eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

As the Federal Prison population swelled and the prisoner’s names became more infamous, there was a clear need for a place to house the worst of the worst from across the nation. The opening of Alcatraz Federal Prison signified a major change in the way the U.S. Government handled mobsters and outlaws. The reign of gangsters bootlegging, running brothels, speakeasies, protection rackets, gambling wires and cold blooded gangland killings were coming to an end. Most of the criminals would not survive being hunted by the law, but many of those that did would find themselves in the state-of-the-art prison: Alcatraz.

Attorney General Homer Cummings. Along with FDR, helped push for the further the power of the FBI by creating a series of new laws that made kidnapping, crossing state lines with stolen goods and bank robbery federal laws. He would come upon Alcatraz in 1933 and convert the island to house the new class of federal inmates.


Alcatraz in 1920, thirteen years prior to being taken over by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Warden James A. Johnston. Warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary from 1933-1948.
After math of the Kansas City Massacre – June 17, 1933.
Al Capone and U.S. Marshall Henry C.W. Laubenheimer playing cards during prison transport from Chicago to Atlanta.
Map of Alcatraz Island.
Mess Hall (1950s) being inspected by a guard before prisoners are brought in.
The chow line in the mess hall of Alcatraz.
Inmates enjoying recreation time on the yard.
A guard looks over the yard.
A cell on Alcatraz

“It was the toilet paper I use first because , after the long trip, I need to sit on the “crapper”. I look across the corridor to see most of the guys doing the same thing. It’s a strange situation for all of us, takin a shit while staring at someone else a few feet away doing likewise, but just one of the things we will have to become used to.” – Alvin Karpis, “On the Rock”

Alcatraz References:


Bergreen, Laurence. Capone: The Man and the Era. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Burrough, Bryan. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. Penguin Book, 2005.

Denevi, Don, and Philip Bergen. Alcatraz ’46;: The Anatomy of a Classic Prison Tragedy. Leswing Press, 1974.

Johnston, Warden James A. Alcatraz Island Prison And The Men Who Live There. C. Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

Karpis, Alvin, and Robert Livesey. On the Rock: Twenty-Five Years in Alcatraz. Musson Book Co., 1980.

Quillen, Jim. Alcatraz from the Inside. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, 1991.

Theme music“Speedy Delta” by Lobo Loco is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0