It’s June 11th, 1962 at Alcatraz, the maximum security prison in San Francisco Bay.
35-year-old prisoner Frank Morris grips the bars of his cell and listens as the prison guards make their final rounds for the night. Then one of the guards barks, “lights out!”
The moment the cell block is plunged into darkness, Frank leaps into action. He slips out of bed and crouches by the sink on the back wall.
As his eyes adjust to the darkness, Frank runs his fingers along the bricks till he finds a small grate under the sink. Then, just to the side, he pushes his hand through the wall. It’s not brick – it’s cardboard painted like bricks.
Hidden behind it is a small hole, just large enough for a man to squeeze through.
On his hands and knees, Frank crawls into the tunnel that runs behind the cells. It’s a dusty utility corridor, dominated by a maze of ancient pipework that spider-webs up the walls to the ceiling 30 feet above.
Frank quickly scales the pipes, twisting his body past the rusting metal, up toward a ventilator cover on the ceiling.
As he reaches the top, he can feel a breeze blowing in off the ocean. He can see the stars in the night sky above.
And with one big heave... Frank pushes the cover aside.
He freezes for a moment as the sound echoes through the corridor beneath him. But no guards shout, no alarms blare. All is quiet. So Frank pulls himself up through the hole.
Frank Morris will be joined in his escape attempt by two other prisoners. The men have spent months preparing. They’ve chiseled out holes in their cells. They’ve made a raft from stolen raincoats to cross the vicious waters that surround the island prison. They’ve even fashioned dummy heads from toilet paper and soap to put in their beds to conceal their absence from the guards.
Their prison break will not be discovered until the following morning. And by then, it will be too late. The three prisoners will never be seen again. And their escape will have consequences for the old prison, which for decades has housed some of America’s most dangerous criminals. Soon, many will call for Alcatraz to be shut down, claiming it's not secure enough. And then finally, the following year, the famed prison will close on March 21st, 1963.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 21st: The End of Alcatraz.
Act One: Construction
It’s 1853, more than a century before Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closes its doors.
First Lieutenant Zealous Bates Tower clambers up the steep rocks of Alcatraz Island. Tower can feel the wind from the sea on his face. He can taste the salt in the air. And on the summit above him, scaffolding surrounds a new lighthouse under construction. But Tower, a 34-year-old lieutenant in the US Army’s Corps of Engineers, is not on the island to build the lighthouse. He’s been sent here to turn the island into a fortress.
The territory of California was part of Mexico until five years ago when in 1848, the region was ceded to the US following the Mexican-American War. Soon afterward, the discovery of gold led tens of thousands of people to descend on the newly acquired land in search of their fortune. In just a few years, the dusty town of San Francisco expanded from just a few hundred residents to a boomtown with almost 40,000.
And the American government is keen to protect its lucrative new land acquisition and has tasked the US Army with building up San Francisco’s defenses. A survey of the area has identified the unoccupied Alcatraz Island as a prime position for a fort.
Reaching the island’s craggy summit, First Lieutenant Tower looks out across the water. It’s obvious why his superiors have chosen Alcatraz - it’s in a commanding spot, right opposite the Golden Gate, the channel linking San Francisco Bay to the ocean. Still, the young engineer is skeptical. Kneeling, he picks through the thin crust of soil for a hunk of the rock that lies beneath. He shakes his head as the brittle sandstone crumbles in his hands. He knows that building a fort here, one made of stone, granite, concrete, and brick will not be fast or easy.
And indeed, the project takes six years. A proper dock is blasted out of the rock at the water’s edge. And at the summit, nestled beneath the 50-foot-tall lighthouse, a reinforced citadel is built, ringed with 129 cannons.
But almost as soon as the US Army Corps of Engineers finishes Fort Alcatraz, America is plunged into Civil War. The rapid development of military technology over the following years renders the fort obsolete. And after the huge investment in this stronghold, the US Government tries to find a new purpose for Alcatraz.
It’s June 1918, more than 60 years after the US Army began construction on Alcatraz Island.
A small government boat cuts through the misty waters of San Francisco Bay. On deck, chained and shackled together in pairs, sit a large group of men. Among them is a 28-year-old Ukrainian named Philip Grosser.
Grosser chafes at the irons at his wrists and ankles as he peers out across the water. The port of San Francisco is already disappearing into the fog behind him. Hiding somewhere out in the murk of the bay is his destination – Alcatraz.
Like the other men on board the boat, Grosser is a conscientious objector; a pacifist; on principle, he’s refused to join the US Army and fight in the First World War. For this, Grosser was court-martialed and eventually dispatched to Alcatraz.
The island is no longer the cornerstone of the defenses for the city of San Francisco. Instead, it’s been converted into a detention center for military prisoners. The first were Confederate soldiers captured by the Union Army during the American Civil War.
And over the following decades, the prison population grew. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were almost five hundred prisoners on the island. And in 1912, the aging jailhouse was replaced with a gigantic new cellblock. The prison was now the largest concrete structure in the world - 500 feet long and three stories high. It was completed shortly before the First World War – just in time to house conscientious objectors like Philip Grosser.
On his arrival at Alcatraz, Grosser refuses to recognize the authority of the military. He won’t stand in formation, he won’t do any work. Eventually, he’s sent to solitary confinement.
There, Grosser spends 14 days in a damp and pitch-black dungeon, surviving on bread and water alone. But upon his release, Grosser is once again insubordinate, and once again, he’s sent back to the dungeon. But the endless days in the dark don’t break the man’s resolve, so authorities devise a new kind of torture. A cage just 23 inches wide and 12 deep is constructed in Grosser’s cell. He is forced to stand in it for eight hours at a time.
Grosser will endure this punishment for two months before he finally cracks and submits to the military’s authority and discipline. He will spend another two years on Alcatraz. And finally, in December 1920, long after the end of the First World War, he and the other objectors are released.
But they will not be the last prisoners on Alcatraz. As a vicious crime wave spreads across America in the 1920s, the US government will look for a new place to house its most dangerous criminals; a prison that will inspire dread among lawbreakers, where confinement is brutal, and escape, all but impossible.
Act Two: The Prison
It’s August 22nd, 1934, 29 years before Alcatraz Prison closes.
In a basement room of the island’s cellblock, the flash of a camera illuminates the smirking face of a 35-year-old Italian American.
Every prisoner who steps foot in Alcatraz gets his mugshot taken. But this convict, number 85, is one of the most infamous gangsters in American history. He’s stocky and balding, with long scars that slice along his left cheek earning him a notorious nickname – Scarface.
Al Capone is a symbol of America’s recent descent into lawlessness. The Chicago gangster became rich and powerful during the Prohibition Era in the 1920s when alcohol was banned and organized crime flourished on the trade of bootlegged booze. As the government fought back against this violent crime wave, Al Capone became public enemy number one. A five-year undercover investigation finally led to his conviction on charges of tax evasion in 1931. Capone was sentenced to eleven years in prison.
For a time, he was able to use his wealth and influence to secure preferential treatment. At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his cell was equipped with a radio, carpet, house plants, and expensive antique furniture. But earlier this year, the authorities clamped down. Capone was transferred away from his plush cell to the brutal conditions of the newly opened Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. The prison has been renovated and modernized. Guard towers now dot the landscape and the cells have been reinforced, making escape authorities claim impossible.
By transferring Capone to Alcatraz, the government is sending a clear message to America’s crime world: lawbreakers will be locked away, no matter who, how powerful, or how wealthy they are, and they will serve every minute of their sentence.
After Capone’s mugshot is taken, the guards strip and search him. The doctors give him a brief medical examination. Then Capone is hosed down and marched naked through the corridors of Alcatraz carrying his dark prison-issue clothes. Capone’s new quarters, cell B-181, do not have the comforts Capone has grown used to. There are no rugs on the hard concrete floor, no antiques, and no potted plants. The only furniture is a stiff bed and a cold metal table.
Capone steps inside the cell. As the thick steel bars slam shut behind him, the gangster is not smirking anymore. During the four long years, he spends at Alcatraz, Capone will try to bribe the guards and corrupt the warden, but his efforts will be in vain. To many, the staff at Alcatraz seem incorruptible. And their steadfastness will help Alcatraz earn a reputation as the toughest in America.
It’s May 2nd, 1946, twelve years after Alcatraz first opened as a maximum-security federal prison.
In the main cell block on the island, a 46-year-old convict named Bernard Coy is sweeping the floor. Other prisoners cook in the kitchens or do manual labor in the workshops. Bernard’s assignment is to keep the cellblock tidy.
Bernard works his way to the far end of the cells. There, he sees a Prison Officer patting down a fellow convict, Marvin Hubbard. Marvin’s just returned from cleaning duties in the kitchen and the Officer is searching him to make sure he hasn’t stolen anything.
But with the prison guard distracted, Bernard makes a move. He drops his broom, grabs hold of the Officer, and pins his arms back while Marvin unleashes a barrage of blows. Soon, the Officer slumps to the floor meekly groaning.
Bernard and Marvin drag him into an empty cell. They take his keys, lock him up and go release some other inmates.
Bernard, Marvin, and their accomplices have been planning this escape for months. They’ve been watching the guards closely, studying their routines, and identifying weak points in their security regimen. In the twelve years, the prison has been open, there have been nine escape attempts. None have succeeded. But that hasn’t stopped men like Bernard Coy from dreaming of slipping away from their concrete cells and reaching freedom across the waters of San Francisco Bay.
After springing the other inmates, Bernard and Marvin make their way to the gun gallery. There, the convicts quickly overpower the lone guard and load up with arms and ammunition. Next, they release more prisoners and capture more guards before moving on to the final phase of their plan: using these hostages to seize the prison boat and get off the island.
But soon, the plan goes sideways. In order to get outside, the convicts need to open the locked door to the outdoor recreation area. But when they search their hostages, none of the guards seem to have the key they need. By now, the authorities have learned of their escape attempt. Sirens blare as two platoons of US Marines are dispatched from a nearby base with orders to storm the cellblock.
For two nights, the besieged prisoners will hold off their attackers. But eventually, on the morning of May 4th, 1946, the Marines will push inside, killing Bernard Coy, Marvin Hubbard, and one other prisoner.
Bernard’s plan failed. But the “Battle of Alcatraz”, as this violent incident is known, does little to stave off future escape attempts. Just a few years after Bernard’s death, a bank robber named Frank Morris will be sentenced to 14 years for armed robbery. Eventually, he will end up on Alcatraz Island. Once there, he will succeed where Bernard Coy failed, and his daring escape will lead the authorities to close Alcatraz for good.
Act Three: The End
It’s March 21st, 1963, at the dock on Alcatraz Island.
Dozens of journalists and photographers watch as a line of shackled prisoners waits to board a prison boat that bobs up and down on the water. These guests have been invited here to witness the last day of Alcatraz Prison.
Alcatraz is three times more expensive to run than any other prison in America. The remote island surrounded by water once seemed an ideal location to house criminals. But exposure to the high winds and salt spray from the ocean meant the buildings required constant maintenance. And over time, the prison began to deteriorate. By the early 1960s, most engineers considered it beyond repair.
Then in 1962, Frank Morris and his accomplices exploited the dilapidated state of the structure and escaped the prison. Though many believe the men drowned in the waters of San Francisco Bay, no bodies were ever found and the suspicion lingered that the once-inescapable prison was no longer. Before long, a decision was made to close Alcatraz for good.
So on the morning of March 21st, the last 27 men incarcerated there lined up as normal for their breakfast at 6:55 AM. The strict regulations that had governed life on the island for decades continued right until the end. After breakfast, the men were taken back to their cells, handcuffed, shackled, and made ready to leave the prison for the last time.
At the dock, under the watchful eyes of guards, the inmates board the boat one by one. Last in line is 25-year-old Frank Weatherman; inmate number 1576; the last official prisoner of Alcatraz.
As Weatherman waits his turn to shuffle onto the gangway, a journalist shouts out a question. He asks Weatherman about his feelings today and what he makes of the prison that has been his home for so long. Weatherman turns to look at him and says, in a low voice: “Alcatraz was never good for anybody”. Then the last prisoner of the island steps onto the boat.
Alcatraz will go on to become a popular tourist attraction. Every year, thousands of visitors will mimic the journey once taken by hardened criminals like Frank Morris, Bernard Coy, and Al Capone. These travelers board a boat in San Francisco, crossing the waters to the rocky island out in the bay, drawn by the notorious prison and its story that came to an end on March 21st, 1963.
Next on History Daily.March 22nd, 1622. Years of hostility between English colonists and Native Americans erupt into violence when Powhatan Indians massacre 347 colonists in Jamestown, Virginia.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.