"MACHINE-GUN Kelly wasn't as tough as his wife and the press made him out to be," said Frank Heaney, squinting his eyes in the bright sun of the Alcatraz exercise yard. "Most of the young cons called him 'Pop-Gun Kelly.' "
As the only National Park Service ranger on Alcatraz Island who was actually a guard for two years when it was a maximum security federal prison for hard-core criminals, Heaney has a host of stories having to do with such "public enemies" as Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the so-called "Birdman of Alcatraz."
Some 600,000 people a year now visit Alcatraz, and during the summer there can be a wait of four to six weeks for reservations on the ferry boats that depart daily from Pier 41 in San Francisco, running from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. in summer and to 3 p.m. the rest of the year.
All of the rangers have been well versed in the history of Alcatraz, but there is an extra element for those lucky enough to get Heaney for a guide. "Robert Stroud was one of the most brilliant men I ever met," he said, "but he was completely crazy. He never had any birds here despite what the movie with Burt Lancaster showed. Most of the time while I was here he was up in the hospital there." And he points to a window high on the grim cell block.
There is a grim fascination to all of Alcatraz right from the moment the ferry edges carefully into the tumultuous water next to the landing platform and you are able to read the original sign that says: United States Penintentiary WARNING! Persons attempting to come inside buoys without permission do so at their peril. KEEP OFF!
In 1775, when Manuel de Ayala first entered the break in the California coast now called the Golden Gate (that's why that famous bridge is the Golden Gate rather than the Orange Gate), he named the bleak little island in the center of the bay La Isla de las Alcatraces (the Island of the Pelicans), which eventually was anglicized to Alcatraz.
When the United States acquired California from Mexico in 1848, it immediately placed fortifications there to protect the growing city of San Francisco.
By 1859, there was a lighthouse on the west coast of the island, barracks for 130 soldiers and ranks of heavy artillery, as many as 154 by 1967. But nobody was foolish enough to put them to the test, and the army began to pull out guns and bring in prisoners, including Paiutes and Apaches from the Indian Wars, and soldiers who didn't measure up in the Spanish American War.
By 1907 all the guns had been withdrawn and the island became a full-time official military prison. The soldiers sentenced there were put to the hardest physical labor, and barges of dirt were brought over from the mainland so that semblances of lawns and gardens could be planted.
The army's reach went far into the Pacific, and that is why the island today is covered with such floral exotics as orange nasturtiums, purple pelargoniums, red fuchsias and lavender lupines. The army also installed a huge laundry on the island even though all the water for it had to be barged over from the mainland.
In 1933 the Depression affected the armed forces as well as the civilian population, and the War Department instituted procedures for abandoning the island. The federal government had been having problems in other prisons with hard cases and escape artists and was looking for an escape-proof bastion for "intractable male offenders." They were also looking for the kind of public relations that would awe the general public and maybe cause the criminal element to think twice (or hopefully even once) about its actions.
Therefore, on June 5, 1934, federal warden James A. Johnston took over the newly-refurbished prison complex (tool-resistant steel bars, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, gun galleries) from the military commander, and new legends were born.
All the prisoners came from other federal prisons, and they were sent to Alcatraz for only one reason: to serve their sentences of whatever length, under total discipline, every second of their lives. There were no rehabilitation programs, no amenities, and each infraction was dealt with severely.
Heaney was only 21 years old when he talked his way into being hired; the warden was worried about his immaturity.
"The warden had a good point," said Heaney, "because it did get to me. After a while you didn't care anymore. Whether you were working here or doing time here, the feeling was the same--you cared only about yourself."
One of Heaney's first experiences was supervising band practice, and when he came into the shower area where the prisoners were seated in a semi-circle of chairs, they stopped playing and just stared at him. This went on for about 15 minutes with Heaney getting more and more nervous until he finally walked out of the area. As soon as he stepped through the gate, the prisoners started playing again. That round went to them.
Another time when a prisoner went crazy in his cell, the lieutenant in charge summoned Heaney and another guard.
"Heaney, you go in first," said the lieutenant.
Unwilling though he was, Heaney obeyed the order and as soon as he entered, the huge prisoner grabbed him and threw him against the wall. But in order to throw Heaney, the prison had to turn his back, and the lieutenant calmly stepped in and belted him on the head, knocking him cold.
"It was a good lesson," said Heaney. "I should have listened to the warden when he tried to talk me out of joining up."
Today the 12 acres of the island reek of shabbiness and decay. In the landing area, a shabby wooden structure with broken windows once housed the prison industries. Walking up a steep roadway through a tunnel that once was part of the army fortification, you pass what were once barracks for the prison staff, an indoor rifle range and the burned-out foundation of the warden's large and elaborate house.
But when you get inside the huge tan cellblock building, the echoes of steel clanging on steel bring the past quickly into focus. The 450 cells, each 9 by 5 feet, seem terribly small when viewed from the long walkways, but each prisoner at least had it to himself, unlike conditions in most prisons today.
Everything is relative, of course, and the open cells in the area that was known as "Broadway" seem luxurious compared to the dungeons of steel in the punishment area.
The ranger will take the time to let those who wish enter these bare steel confines and then close the double door, putting you into complete darkness. Malefactors were stripped of their clothes before being shut in.
"Steel will not retain heat," said Heaney, "and they would crouch on the floor with their bodies resting on their elbows and knees. Once a day we would give them an 'Alcatraz Bloody Mary,' bits of food mixed together in a blender with beet juice as a laxative. The more they yelled the longer they stayed."
The average prisoner's term at Alcatraz was eight years, and there were never more than 250 at any one time, with maybe a hundred in staff to oversee them. Thirty-nine prisoners attempted escapes. Ten died in the attempts--including three in 1946 when two guards were also killed--and 24 were recaptured. The other five are still listed as missing.
The most famous escape attempt, which was dramatized by Clint Eastwood in the movie "Escape From Alcatraz," was tried by Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin in 1962, who tunneled out with sharpened spoons. You can see the two cells that the movie studio fixed up for the prison scenes.
Heaney is convinced that the three died in the treacherous currents and cold water of the bay, even though the movie implied at the end that they did better than that and are probably lolling around somewhere today on a beach in South America. Those who make the ferry trip to Alcatraz will be inclined to agree with the former guard.
In 1963 the government decided the prison was too expensive to maintain, and on March 21 of that year the last 27 prisoners were transferred to other federal institutions.
The island then stagnated for six years until November of 1969, when 85 Indians invaded and took over to call attention to the plight of their people and with the intent of establishing a cultural center there for all Indians.
They assigned cells to the nation's political leaders--"Nixon, Reagan, L.B. Johnson, S. Agnew, David & Julie"--as a symbolic gesture to bolster their case. The buildings had been falling apart and the Indians are believed to have burned others to the ground. Once the publicity ceased and after a child of one of the leaders fell to her death, the enthusiasm died and in June of 1971 the last of the Indians left.
In 1972, the government established the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Alcatraz became part of this 39,000-acre protectorate.
The tours were started in 1973 and have grown each year in popularity.