For over 150 years, the name has given the innocent chills and the guilty cold sweats.
Over the decades, it’s been the nation’s first military prison, a forbidding maximum-security penitentiary and disputed territory between Native American activists and the FBI.
It all started innocently enough back in 1775, when Spanish lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed the San Carlos past the 22-acre island he called Isla de Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). In 1859 a new post on Alcatraz became the first US West Coast fort, and soon proved handy as a holding pen for Civil War deserters, insubordinates and those who had been court-martialed. Among the prisoners were Native American scouts and ‘unfriendlies,’ including 19 Hopis who refused to send their children to government boarding schools where speaking Hopi and practicing their religion were punishable by beatings.
By 1902 the four cell blocks of wooden cages were rotting, unsanitary and otherwise ill-equipped for the influx of US soldiers convicted of war crimes in the Philippines. The army began building a new concrete military prison in 1909, but upkeep was expensive and the US soon had other things to worry about: WWI, financial ruin and flappers.