Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years

by David A. Ward

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Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis, "Dock" Barker—these were just a few of the legendary "public enemies" for whom America's first supermax prison was created. In Alcatraz: The Gangster Years, David Ward brings their stories to life, along with vivid accounts of the lives of other infamous criminals who passed through the penitentiary from 1934 to 1948. Ward, who enjoyed unprecedented access to FBI, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Federal Parole records, conducted interviews with one hundred former Alcatraz convicts, guards, and administrators to produce this definitive history of "The Rock." Alcatraz is the only book with authoritative answers to questions that have swirled about the prison: How did prisoners cope psychologically with the harsh regime? What provoked the protests and strikes? How did security flaws lead to the sensational escape attempts? And what happened when these "habitual, incorrigible" convicts were finally released? By shining a light on the most famous prison in the world, Ward also raises timely questions about today's supermax prisons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520942981
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/19/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 584
Sales rank: 285,795
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David Ward is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor (with Gene Kassebaum) of Prison Treatment and Parole Survival and coeditor (with Kenneth Schoen) of Confinement in Maximum Custody: New Last-Resort Prisons in the United States and Europe. Ward served as consultant to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary for an investigation at Alcatraz's successor, the Federal Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, and is a member of a consultant group investigating prison gang policies in the California Department of Corrections. Gene Kassebaum is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Hawaii and has also coauthored with Ward, Women's Prison: Sex and Social Structure.

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Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-94298-1

Chapter One


Shortly after the First World War many Americans came to believe that rampant crime was a defining element of their society. Attention soon centered on the gangster, the paragon of modern criminality and eventually the subject of innumerable newspaper and magazine articles, scores of novels and plays, and more than a hundred Hollywood movies. The media gangster was an invention, much less an accurate reflection of reality than a projection created from various Americans' beliefs, concerns and ideas about what would sell....

The rhetoric of crime gained a resonant new term in April 1930 when the Chicago Crime Commission released a list of the city's twenty-eight most dangerous "public enemies." Journalists across the country published the list, adopted the term, and dubbed the notorious Al Capone "Public Enemy Number One."

On April 27, 1926, Illinois Assistant State's Attorney William H. McSwiggin was in a Cicero saloon drinking beer with five other men—a former police officer and four gangsters, one of them a man he had unsuccessfully prosecuted for murder a few months earlier. As McSwiggin and the others walked out of the bar, Al Capone and his men opened up with machine guns. Several members of the group jumped to safety behind an automobile but three men, including McSwiggin, were hit. As Capone and his henchmen roared away, the survivors placed the wounded men in an automobile and drove off; later in the evening, McSwiggin's body was dumped along a road outside of town.

The murder and the suspicious associations of the assistant state's attorney created a sensation in the press. While state attorney Robert Crowe and other officials promised a relentless search for the killers, the Chicago Tribune concluded that the perpetrators of McSwiggin's murder would never be identified, citing a "conspiracy of silence among gangsters and intimidation of other witnesses after a murder has been committed." Concerning the latter factor, the paper claimed, "anyone who does aid the public officials by giving facts is very likely to be 'taken for a ride.'"

In response to the Tribune story, Crowe announced that his office had established that Al Capone was not only responsible for the slaying of McSwiggin but had been behind the machine gun used in the assault. Capone and the survivors of the incident had disappeared, but Crowe ordered raids on Capone's speakeasies, clubs, and brothels. Gambling equipment and large quantities of liquor were destroyed, some prostitutes were arrested, and several ledgers were confiscated. Capone was charged with the murder, but when he appeared in court, an assistant state's attorney withdrew the charge due to lack of evidence. The judge then dismissed the case and Capone strolled out of the courtroom. Despite the impaneling of six grand juries, no other arrests were ever made and the case focused public attention on the inefficacy of local and state government.

Chicago in 1926 was in the midst of what has been called "the lawless decade." The great national experiment, Prohibition, had given rise to the bootlegging business, creating an environment in which organized crime could thrive. Rival gangs ran prostitution, gambling, and extortion rackets along with their illegal liquor sales. These enterprises generated vast sums of money, and the gangs battled for control of distribution networks and territory.

At the same time, local government and law enforcement agencies were rife with corruption. Criminal entrepreneurs, emboldened by the presence of police officers, judges, and politicians on their payrolls, made little attempt to hide their activities, and violence spilled over into the streets for all to see. Gangs would abduct victims on the street and take them "for a ride" or drive past targets in their homes or businesses or while they were walking on the street, guns blazing from several cars.

Gang warfare in Chicago had been heightened by the arrival of Capone, a New York thug who took over the leadership of the Johnny Torrio organization and worked to expand its influence. Between 1922 and the end of 1925, gangsters killed 215 other gangsters in Chicago, and police killed 160. In the first ten months of 1926, 96 gangsters died in gang conflicts in and around Chicago, and police killed 60 more. Between 1927 and 1930 more gangsters died, "many of them on city streets."

The public was alarmed by the rise in violence, and aware of widespread official corruption. However, as long as Chicago's gang members were gunning down mostly their own kind, public reaction remained muted.

The significance of the McSwiggin case was that it revealed a link between organized crime and law enforcement at the highest level in the state of Illinois. The public knew that Chicago mayor "Big Bill" Thompson was Al Capone's candidate, but corruption at the state level was more difficult to countenance. And Capone's seeming immunity made the public realize that both local and state government were powerless to prevent, control, or punish criminal wrongdoing.

McSwiggin's murder case represented a turning point in the fight against organized crime. It set into motion a series of events that would involve the federal government much more deeply in the anticrime effort and ultimately lead to the opening of the federal prison on Alcatraz island as a place to securely incarcerate the country's most dangerous felons.

Lawlessness, law enforcement's impotence, and the danger to public safety posed by gangsters and outlaws—both real and perceived—had to worsen, however, before the federal government began to respond with special measures.


During the remainder of 1926, gun battles between the Capone mob and Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran continued. In August two incidents occurred in broad daylight on the crowded streets of downtown Chicago. In both cases, Capone mobsters fired at Weiss from speeding automobiles, smashing windows, and forcing passersby to run for cover. Incidents such as these prompted Charles "Lucky" Luciano, a dominant figure in organized crime in New York City, to remark after a visit to Chicago, "A real goddamn crazy place ... nobody's safe in the streets."

In 1927 Big Bill Thompson ran again for mayor despite condemnation of his candidacy in the press. One newspaper editorial claimed, "Thompson is a buffoon in a Tommyrot factory, but when his crowd gets loose in City Hall, Chicago has more need of Marines than any Nicaraguan town." The Capone organization worked hard for Thompson's election, contributing $260,000 and using every technique to assure a Thompson victory. (It was during this campaign that Capone was said to have advised the citizens of Chicago to "Vote early and vote often.") When Thompson won the election, the last hope civic leaders had for controlling organized crime in the city vanished. Adding to the despair, the ability of gangsters to literally get away with murder was dramatically illustrated again a year later by one of the most notorious episodes of criminal violence in American history.

On February 14, 1929, seven men who worked for Bugs Moran were in a warehouse on North Clark Street in Chicago, waiting for some empty trucks to take to Detroit, where they were planning to pick up smuggled Canadian whiskey. A Cadillac touring car of the type used by detectives pulled up in front of the warehouse. Five men, three in police uniforms, got out and entered the warehouse with drawn guns. The seven occupants were told to line up facing a wall. When they complied they were cut down by machine gun fire. Neighbors, hearing what sounded like pneumatic drills, saw several men come out of the warehouse with their arms raised, followed by men in police uniforms holding guns on those in front of them. The "police" and their captives climbed into the automobile and drove off.

Inside the warehouse a dog owned by one of the victims began to howl. As the howling went on and on, one resident walked over to the warehouse to investigate. He looked inside and began yelling that everyone inside the garage was dead. He was not quite correct; Frank Gusenberg, who had been hit by fourteen machine gun bullets, was miraculously still alive. Rushed to a hospital, he was questioned by a detective with whom he had gone to school. "Frank, in God's name what happened? Who shot you?" "Nobody shot me," Gusenberg replied. The detective told him that his brother Pete was dead, that he was dying, and asked him to reveal the names of the killers. Gusenberg refused, uttering as his last words, "I ain't no copper."

Chicagoans were horrified by the slaughter on North Clark Street. Headlines declared that the incident indicated a "Return to Frontier Lawlessness" and a "Complete Breakdown of Law and Order." One headline stated, "Police Unable to Cope with Mass Daylight Murder" and another asked, "Are We Under Gang Rule?" The public was fascinated by the incident, which went down in American history as the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Newspapers printed close-ups of the corpses upside down "so that readers would not have to turn the page around to identify the victims." The warehouse where the murders took place became a tourist attraction.

There was endless speculation about who was responsible for the killings. Rival gangster Bugs Moran commented, "Only Capone kills like that." The public and the press, who regarded the Chicago police as corrupt, did not seriously question the report that policemen had been involved. Frederick D. Silloway, the local Prohibition administrator, made this announcement:

The murderers were not gangsters. They were Chicago policemen. I believe the killing was the aftermath to the hijacking of 500 cases of whiskey belonging to the Moran gang by five policemen six weeks ago.... I expect to have the names of these five policemen in a short time. It is my theory that in trying to recover the liquor the Moran gang threatened to expose the policemen and the massacre was to prevent the exposure.

Al Capone had an unbeatable alibi as to his own direct involvement in the massacre—he was being questioned by agents of the Bureau of Internal Revenue's Intelligence Unit at the time of the killings. But Moran was out for revenge. To take the heat off, Capone arranged to have himself arrested in Philadelphia by a detective friend on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Taken before a judge with the understanding that if he pleaded guilty he would receive only three months in jail, Capone was surprised to get a sentence of one year and to be taken promptly to Philadelphia's Holmesburg County Prison. Three months later he was transferred to Eastern Penitentiary, where he received what is called "preferential treatment":

Warden Herbert B. Smith made him more comfortable, giving him a cell to himself and letting him furnish it with rugs, pictures, a chest of drawers, desk, bookshelf, lamps and a $500 radio console. As his work assignment, he drew the untiring one of library file clerk. For ordinary inmates visiting hours were limited to Sundays, but Capone's friends and family could come any day. From the warden's office he was allowed to telephone whomever he chose, and he spoke often to his lawyers, his underworld colleagues and various politicians....

The reporters Capone was willing to talk to had little difficulty getting to him either and they filled column after column with the minutiae of his daily existence. CAPONE GAINS ELEVEN POUNDS ... CAPONE DOESN'T GO TO CHURCH ON SUNDAYS ... CAPONE PICKS CUBS TO WIN 1930 FLAG.... He bought $1,000 worth of arts and crafts produced by his fellow prisoners and mailed them to friends as Christmas gifts. He donated $1,200 to a foundering Philadelphia orphanage. Such Samaritan deeds, described at length by the press, aroused a good deal of sympathy for Capone. A civil engineer from Chicago, a total stranger to him, coming to Philadelphia on business, obtained permission to visit him, clasped his hand and told him, "Al, we're with you."

Capone's outstanding behavior allowed the jailers to reduce his sentence by two months and on March 17, 1930, he was smuggled past reporters in the warden's car and driven to a nearby town where his own men picked him up and drove him back to Chicago.


Capone's ability to evade arrest, let alone conviction, for any of the crimes he was believed to have committed, as well as his control of police officials, prosecutors, and city, county, and state judges, was growing along with his status as a benefactor of the poor. Thus community leaders began to look to the federal government for help in regaining control over their city. In 1929 Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, went to Washington, D.C., to urge President Herbert Hoover to have Prohibition agents stop "victimizing ordinary drinkers and instead concentrate on the principal bootleggers who were the source of corruption in Chicago. For instance ... Al Capone." McCormick was surprised that Hoover replied, "Who is Al Capone?" But after being briefed by McCormick and advised that Chicago police and courts had failed to bring Capone to justice, Hoover began asking his secretary of the treasury, "Have you got this fellow Capone yet.... I want that man in jail." The Chicago Daily News publisher also led a delegation of civic leaders to Washington, D.C., to ask President Herbert Hoover to intervene. What the delegation wanted was an efficient, incorruptible criminal justice apparatus that would take over—and win—the battle against gangland in the nation's second largest city.

In spring 1930 Frank Loesch, the head of the Chicago Crime Commission, announced the establishment of a "public enemies" list:

[It ranked] outstanding hoodlums, known murderers, murderers which you and I know but can't prove ... and there were about 100 of them, and out of that list I selected 28 men.... I put Al Capone at the head ... the purpose is to keep the light of publicity shining on Chicago's most prominent ... and notorious gangsters to the end that they may be under constant observation by the law enforcing authorities and law-abiding citizens.

This list, as noted by Capone biographer Lawrence Bergreen, had significance "far beyond Chicago ... it was reproduced in newspapers across the country ... and continues to this day." Becoming Public Enemy no. 1 made Al Capone the most notorious gangster in American history and brought to the nation's attention dozens of other hoodlums and outlaws who seemed to operate successfully outside the law.

The trips to the nation's capital by the newspaper publishers and other influential citizens of Chicago produced two federal initiatives. One, mounted by Eliot Ness and his Prohibition agents, was intended to break up Al Capone's bootlegging business under the provisions of the Volstead Act. The second involved an effort by Frank Wilson and Internal Revenue Service agents to charge and convict Capone—who had never filed an income tax return—of tax evasion. It was the second strategy that finally brought him down.

IRS agents, operating under the assumption that they must produce evidence of income from illegal activities, had been unsuccessful in finding witnesses who were willing to testify against Capone before a grand jury. The break the government needed came when Agent Frank Wilson, working alone one evening, happened to open the drawer of an old file cabinet in a storeroom near the offices he and his men were using; inside he discovered a package wrapped in brown paper containing the three bound ledgers that had been picked up during the raid on one of Capone's establishments after the murder of McSwiggin. The books had not been examined at that time; they had been turned over to the IRS for safekeeping, placed in the file cabinet, and forgotten. As he examined the ledgers, Wilson realized that they constituted the financial record of an enormous gambling operation, along with many notations of payments to "Al." The IRS investigators immediately launched a search for the bookkeeper and by matching handwriting samples from bank deposit slips, voting registers, police records, and bail bond certificates to the penmanship in the ledgers they were able to identify the writer as one Leslie A. Shumway.


Excerpted from ALCATRAZ by David Ward GENE KASSEBAUM Copyright © 2009 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Reconstructing the Life of a Prison

Part I. Alcatraz from 1934 to 1948
1. The Federal Government's War on Public Enemies
2. A New Form of Imprisonment
3. Selecting the "Worst of the Worst"
4. The Program
5. Organized Resistance: A Regime Tested
6. Finding a Hole in the Rock: The First Escape Attempts
7. Alcatraz on Trial
8. The War Years
9. The Battle of Alcatraz

Part II. Life on the Rock for Resisters and Public Enemies
10. Resistance and Adaptation
11. Outlaws among Outlaws
12. Celebrity Prisoners

Part III. Alcatraz as an Experiment in Penal Policy
13. Return to the Free World
14. Lessons from Alcatraz for Supermax Prisons

Bibliographic Commentary
About the Authors

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Alcatraz: The Gangster Years 2.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
glodo More than 1 year ago
Cabezone More than 1 year ago
Excellent! David Ward has finally begun to answer the question on whether or not the Alcatraz Experiment worked. Having had the fortunate GOOD LUCK in being able to live on Alcatraz until my teenage years. My Father, Uncle & Cousin were all officers on the Island. I now have a much better understanding on what went on inside the Prison. Even though my Father & Relatives worked inside the prison for many years, they would never talk about their jobs. This book covers the years 1934-1948. A MUST read for those interested in the REAL Story of the Bureau Of Prison years. Looking forward to David's second book covering the years from 1949 to after the closing of Alcatraz in 1963.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Al capone is known as scarface than who is scareface known as
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book sucks balls and if i could i wouldnt put no stars never
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like i said best book ever ward has really show he's best
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A well writtem book on the most publicized prison in history. Good facts that include the notorious gansters in the 1900s.
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Hi my name is Bob
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Watch the series