Escape From Alcatraz

Another book I enjoyed reading during our late summer vacation was J. Campbell Bruce’s Escape From Alcatraz. One of my favorite movies is the 1979 docudrama by the same name.

9781580086783_p2_v1_s192x300Clint Eastwood plays prisoner Frank Morris, and leads a team of three in an ingenious escape—which is the only escape ever recorded in the facility’s history.

The book was a perfect pick for beach reading. I wanted to learn more about this prison’s history,1 not to mention the actual escape; and that I did. I was all in. It read like a suspense novel. In part because Bruce also details many of the other attempts during the 29 years that the island served as a federal penitentiary (1934-1963).

For almost two centuries after Sir Francis Drake first sailed up that West Coast in 1579, fog hid the Golden Gate from seafaring explorers. Alcatraz, facing the sea, was discovered by land. In the fall of 1769—the year a Scot, James Watt, invented the steam engine and revolutionized industry—Don Gaspar de Portolá, on an overland march from Mexico, scaled a peak and stared down at San Francisco Bay.

alcatraz-734138Not until 1775, about the time Paul Revere was galloping out of Boston, did the Golden Gate open in welcome to seafarers poking along the coast. On a clear afternoon that summer three Spanish vessels dropped anchor in a sheltering cove inside the heads.

The next morning, August 5, seven weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, in charge of a scouting party, maneuvered the first boat through the mile-wide passage. Directly ahead of a bleak, barren mass of rock jutted out of the bay, covered as if frosted with white pelicans that stared curiously down their pouchy beaks at the intruders.

Don Juan christened it La Isla de los Alcatraces. Later known as Bird Island and, from the snowy flocks, White Island, in time the Spanish singular for pelican, Alcatraz, took hold.

I won’t quote anything on the daring (and what I believe to be death-defying) 1962 escape or even the impact that the prison had on some of the most violent criminals sent to the island (including Al “Scarface” Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly). No spoiler alert here.

Simply put, it is a fascinating and factual presentation. But you’ll have to find your own $3 copy on eBay and begin the reading journey. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed mine.

There was a time when people were threatened with machine-gun fire if they came too close to the federal penitentiary. “Stay away!” (And that they did.) No one wanted to visit the dreaded Alcatraz. Now it’s a popular destination: a museum run by the National Park Service; and one that I would very much love to see… someday.


 Bruce, Campbell J. Escape From Alcatraz. (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005). 8.