Alcatraz Library, circa 1960
NARA-San Bruno

Prisoner Accounts

Audett, James Henry (Blackie, Rap Sheet: My Life Story, New York: William Sloane Associates, 1954.

One is tempted to include this as a work of fiction. Blackie claims to have been partners with nearly every major organized crime figure including "Johnny" Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson. He freely steals experiences from other Alcatraz prisoners and glorifies his own role in the 1946 Blast-Out attempt. Here and there, if one looks carefully, one can find a snippet of truth.

Conway, Bryan and T.H. Alexander, "20 Months in Alcatraz", Saturday Evening Post, February 19, 1938.

Conway's story covers the period from 1934 to 1937 when he was transferred to Alcatraz after refusing to testify against a fellow convict. He speaks about the "island grapevine" by which prisoners got the news of the day, the "snitch boxes", rules and regulations, and the sit down strikes of 1937. He also speaks poorly of Al Capone.

Davis, A.W. and Douglas Hicks, "Alcatraz: The story from the inside", series, San Francisco Call-Bulletin, June 1937.

A.W. Davis didn't spend much time on the Rock nor does he explain just why he was transferred from a minimum security conservation camp to America's most secure prison (he set fire to some buildings), but this series shows a prisoner coping with the daily routine. It also gives a very human and affectionate portrait of Al Capone.

Karpis (Karpowicz), Alvin and Robert Livesey, On the Rock: Twenty-five years in Alcatraz, New York: Beaufort Books, 1980.

Karpis's autobiography qualifies as light reading, though it provides some otherwise unavailable glimpses into the lives of other prominent Alcatraz inmates. One should read his strings of anecdotes critically -- he often mixes jailhouse folklore with fact. When discussing his personal experiences, however, Karpis does not seem to lie. His accounts of how and why he was punished closely resemble official accounts.

Larry, Henry, "No Escape from Here", series, San Francisco Examiner, September 1936.

Larry describes the dungeons beneath the prison (he mistakes them for being of Spanish construction), talks about the 1936 general strike, names several men who he believes were driven mad by Alcatraz, and tells what he saw of the shooting of Joseph Bowers.

Quillen, Jim, Alcatraz from inside, San Francisco: Golden Gate National Park Association, 1991.

Quillen's is probably the least romanticized and least vindictive of the prison memoirs to come off the Rock. Covering the years from 1942 to 1952 it is an especially valuable resource about the 1946 Blast-Out. Unlike other prison memoirists (with the exception of Karpis), Quillen is frank about the crimes that brought him to Alcatraz. (He is not above saying "This was a stupid thing I did.") The author has been careful (unlike Alvin Karpis) to root out prison folklore and remember the essential humanity of everyone from the Warden on down at Alcatraz. He makes a strong case for prison rehabilitation programs as he condemns the extreme restrictiveness of Alcatraz. A fascinating story of fall and redemption.

Reed, Pet, "Alcatraz is Hell", series, San Francisco Examiner, November 1938.

The released counterfeiter's account of life under Warden Johnston is a mixed bag: on one hand, Reed speaks compassionately for the victims of mental illness, believed by him to have been driven mad by Alcatraz; on the other hand, he spitefully belittles many of the Rock's big names, calling Al Capone "Phoney Caponey" and Arthur Doc Barker "a little Hitler". Some of his facts are not borne out by prison records.
Guard Accounts

Babyak, Jolene, Alcatraz: True stories of families who lived on THE ROCK, Berkeley: Ariel Vamp Press, 1988. Revised 1996.

Babyak's works cover a largely unresearched area of life on Alcatraz: the stories of the families who lived there. Her stories and anecdotes provide a different angle on the human comedy and drama on the Rock. She is not afraid to include pictures of herself in goofy hats. Her particular passion is the 1962 Morris-Anglin breakout. The acting Warden on that day was Arthur Dollison, Babyak's father. The last two chapters of this book talk about the escape and point the finger at Warden Blackwell who, unlike her father, was not blamed for the breakout simply because he happened to be on vacation. Babyak is among those researchers whose efforts to establish the truth have been hampered by lack of access to Alcatraz files.

Bennett, James V., I Chose Prison, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Bennett was Director of the Bureau of Prisons almost as long (1937 to 1964) as Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary (1934 to 1963). While one should treat the hindsight of great men with caution, scholars and students will value this book as an vigorous defense of liberal prison policies; as a fascinating glimpse into the growth of the Bureau of Prisons; and as a memorable autobiography of a man who chose to devote his life to prison management and reform. Bennett gives a whole chapter to Alcatraz, reflecting on his growing unease managing what he calls "an American Siberia".

Heaney, Frank and Gay Marchado, Inside the Walls of Alcatraz, Palo Alto: Bull Publishing Company, 1987.

A mostly honest account by the man who was the youngest guard at Alcatraz. Heaney admits, among other things, that illegal blackjacks were used by many of the senior officers to "subdue" suspects. He also demonstrates compassion for the men under his care and provides personal glimpses of figures such as Robert Stroud, Basil Banghart, Alvin Karpis, Harmon Waley, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and others.

Hoover, John Edgar, Persons in Hiding, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1938.

Hoover's obsession with portraying criminals and leftists (who he hardly distinguished) as inhuman monsters was legendary and this book will be no disappointment to fans of that school of thought. Objective historians will find this useful as an expression of the man's views and self-mythology. They will also learn the official FBI version of the crimes and capture of many notable Alcatraz inmates including Arthur "Doc" Barker, Alvin Karpis, Edward Doll, Eddie Bentz, Machine Gun Kelly, and several others.

Johnston, James A., Alcatraz: Island Prison: and the men who live there, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949.

Johnston's apologia can seem cold at times, but it remains a valuable source for those who want to understand him and the running of the prison from 1933 to 1948. Almost as interesting as his stories are the facts he leaves out: for example, he makes no mention of the 1941 Henri Young jury's call for an investigation of conditions.

Johnston, James A.,Prison Life is Different, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937.

This is Johnston's account of his early experiences as a warden of San Quentin and Folsom. As in his Alcatraz book, he talks about some of the prisoners he knew and, more interestingly, the progressive changes he made, changes which were copied throughout the nation.

Contemporary Accounts

Clarvoe, Frank A., "Debunking Alcatraz", series, San Francisco Call-Bulletin, August 1941.

This two part series gives the impression that the author went on a walking tour with the Warden and came back to write a press release for the official view. The articles argue for Alcatraz's humanity.

Cummings, Homer, "Why Alcatraz is a Success", Colliers, July 29, 1939.

A article by a former Attorney General which explains why he pushed to have Alcatraz built. Cummings describes the refitting of the island after the 1933 BOP takeover and defends Alcatraz against charges of abuse.

Gaddis, Thomas, The Birdman of Alcatraz, 1955.

The Hollywood film romanticizes Stroud more than this book does. Gaddis is a long time proponent of dignified treatment for prisoners, often questioning how prisons tend to create violent criminals. This is the intellectual Stroud, the scientist, prison historian, and philosopher: Stroud the pornographer and selfish incindiery who was detested by guard and inmate alike does not appear in this account. See Jolene Babyak's "Bird Man" (below). Unfortunately, many people know Alcatraz from this one book, written by a man who had never met the subject of the volume when he wrote it. Gaddis also never visited Alcatraz until after it had been opened as a National Park. Critics (including many ex-convicts) have said that he acted as little more than a publicist for Stroud. A positive effect of the book's publication has been a careful re-examination of the Rock's history by historians and penologists.

Gaddis, Thomas, Unknown Men of Alcatraz, 1977.

Good luck finding this rare volume, which was self-published by Gaddis and his wife and later picked up for a limited run by Amereon Press. The book tells the story of seven "unknown men" of Alcatraz. In one chapter, Gaddis makes a case against force-feeding or "alimentary rape". This book, like Birdman, suffers from Gaddis's failure to check out stories, especially those of the notorious liar Theodore "Blackie" Audette.

Taylor, Frank J., "Trouble House", Colliers, July 26, 1936.

An upbeat defense of the New Deal's response to the Depression era crime wave. Discusses Johnston's contribution to California and national penitentiary management. Gives a semi-fictional account of Al Capone's life at Alcatraz, describing his arrival and inclusion in the prison routine.

Turano, Anthony M., "America's Torture Chamber", The American Mercury, September 1938.

An infamous polemic against the Roosevelt Administration's home for the incorrigible. Turano describes Turano as the Rock's "duly-constituted Torquemada" and quotes extensively from prisoner accounts in an attempt to defame the New Deal.
Babyak, Jolene, Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud, Berkeley: Ariel Vamp Press, 1994.

Robert Stroud was no saint. Guards and other prisons describe him as a cynic, a manipulator, and a pedophile whose contributions to avian medicine seem limited. Babyak investigates the legend of the Bird Man and reveals an angry man who sprang from abusive roots into the national conscience as an emblem of the possibilities of rehabilitation for some. The book contains an evaluation of Stroud's oft touted contributions to avian medicine and aviculture.

Delgado, James P., Alcatraz: Island of Change, San Francisco: Golden Gate National Park Association, 1991.

This slim volume, intended as a casual tourist guide to the Rock, claims that the Rock wasn't such a bad place after all and that Hellcatraz stories were exagerrated.

Gaddis, Thomas, Killer

A better book in many ways than his Birdman, in that Gaddis unhesitatingly presents his subject, Carl Panzram, as a vengeful murderer and then makes a case for compassion for such individuals. Though this book is not about Alcatraz, it will be of interest to those wanting to understand the prisoner viewpoint of the 20s and 30s.

Keve, Paul W., Prisons and the American Conscience: A History of U.S. Federal Corrections, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

A history of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Of particular interest is Chapter 9, "Prisons of Last Resort", which compares Alcatraz with its successor, the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois.

Martini, John A., Fortress Alcatraz: Guardian of the Golden Gate, Kailua, Hawaii: Pacific Monograph, 1990.

Before Alcatraz became the home of Al Capone and other notorious gangsters, it served as a fort and as a military detention barracks. Ranger John Martini has pored over newspaper clippings, old photographs (including some lost until recently), army records, blueprints, diaries, and other records to recreate the military history of The Rock. Martini successfully evokes life on the Rock during the army days, with its engineering marvels, its long hours of boredom for both prisoner and soldier, and its moments of sheer terror for those pursued by "wolves".

Ruth, David E., Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

A fascinating glimpse at the media cult of the gangster during the 1920s and 1930s. A valuable book for understanding the background in which Alcatraz came to be.

Thompson, Erwin N., The Rock: A history of Alcatraz Island, 1847-1972, historic resource study, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, Denver: National Park Service, 1972.

When the Park Service has a question about the island, this is the first book to which they refer. Thompson's work focuses on the entire period of Alcatraz history, from barren rock to military fortification to army detention barracks to federal penitentiary to Indian university to National Park.

Toland, John, Dillinger Days, New York: Random House, 1963.

Toland's definitive work was written before FBI and BOP records became available, so he makes some mistakes, most notably recounting the legend of Ma Barker as fact. The book remains, however, a good resource for those trying to understand the Midwestern crime wave which involved so many of the more notorious public enemies to spend time on Alcatraz.

See also:
Links to other prison sites
Archival Sources
Notes on San Francisco Genealogy
Return to Researching Alcatraz