Life on the Rock: The Alcatraz Quiz


By: Bambi Turner

5 Min Quiz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

The name Alcatraz may be synonymous with the island's infamous prison, but the federal lockup at Alcatraz represented just a small portion of the island's rich history. Think you know all there is to know about the people, events and moments that made The Rock so famous? Take our quiz to find out!

What birds gave the island its name?

Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala dubbed the island La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, when he mapped the area in 1775.


Alcatraz was home to the first one of these on the west coast of North America.

Before it was a tough prison, Alcatraz was home to the first west coast lighthouse in North America. A small lighthouse started operation on the island in 1854 and was replaced by a taller one in 1909.


What year did the U.S. reserve the island as a military prison?

President Millard Fillmore established Alcatraz as a military prison in 1850. By the end of the decade, Alcatraz was used to contain both military prisoners and Native Americans who spoke out against the U.S. government.


What year did the U.S. Department of Justice take over Alcatraz?

Alcatraz remained a military prison until 1933, when the Department of Justice took over and transformed Alcatraz into a part of the federal prison system. The prison officially opened its doors on July 1, 1934.


What percent of federal prisoners were typically held at Alcatraz at any given time?

Alcatraz held only around 1 percent of all federal prisoners and typically housed only between 260 and 275 inmates at any given time.


How many people attempted to escape from Alcatraz?

Just 36 known people attempted escape from the island. Of those, 23 were caught right away, six were shot to death and two drowned. Another three who attempted escape in 1962 were never seen again and were assumed to have drowned.


How many men spent time at Alcatraz during its 30 years as a federal prison?

Just over 1,500 men spent time at Alcatraz between 1934 and 1963, when the prison was closed due to high operating costs.


Who occupied the island from 1969 to 1971?

After the prison closed, a group of Native American protesters occupied the island for two years. They offered the U.S. government $24 (the price paid by the U.S. for Manhattan) to buy Alcatraz, but were eventually forcibly removed from the island.


Today, Alcatraz is an official historic landmark.

The island became part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area in 1972 and was designated an official National Historic Landmark in 1986.


How many cell blocks did the prison have?

Alcatraz consisted of four cell blocks, with blocks B and C used to house prisoners in individual cells. Cell block A was mostly used for storage, while guards used Cell block D to contain unruly inmates.


How long was the average stay in Alcatraz?

The average inmate stayed at Alcatraz for just 8 years -- most were sent to the island due to poor behavior in other federal prisons. Only two men were ever paroled directly to freedom from Alcatraz Prison.


What year was infamous gangster Al Capone sent to the island?

Capone was transferred from a federal prison in Atlanta to the island in August 1934. Prison officials felt it was the only way to prevent Capone from buying off guards and other inmates to enjoy special favors behind bars.


How long did Capone spend at Alcatraz?

Capone spent four years on the island. During his time at Alcatraz, he was not only stabbed with a pair of scissors but also suffered greatly from the syphilis that later killed him.


What instrument did Capone play in the prison band?

Capone's behavior was so good at Alcatraz that he was permitted to join the prison band. The gangster played the banjo as part of "The Rock Islanders."


Gangster Mickey Cohen died at Alcatraz.

The legendary west coast mobster was actually the first person to ever be bailed out of Alcatraz after he was imprisoned for tax evasion.


How long did Machine Gun Kelly spend on the Rock?

George Kelly, who picked up the nickname Machine Gun after his favorite weapon, spent 17 years on the island. From 1934 to 1951, he served as an altar boy in the prison chapel and worked in both the laundry and administrative offices.


Alcatraz inmate Robert Stroud is better known by this nickname.

Stroud --the Birdman -- spent years raising birds from his prison cell and even wrote two books about canaries before he was sent to Alcatraz. During his 17 years on the island, he was forbidden from raising any birds as he had at other prisons.


What did former inmate Ray Gardner name his memoir about the prison?

Train robber Gardner served four years at Alcatraz from 1934 to 1938. He memorialized the prison in his book "Hellcatraz: The Rock of Despair," which offered an inmate's view of the island and its prisoners.


What did prisoner Henry Young use to kill fellow inmate Rufus McCain in the 1930s?

Young and McCain launched a failed escape attempt in 1938. The next year, Young stabbed McCain to death with a spoon, an act which served as the inspiration for the 1995 film "Murder in the First."


What was gangster Alvin Karpis' nickname?

Nicknamed Creepy for his strange facial expressions, Karpis was the only person to be named the FBI's "Public Enemy No. 1" and then be taken alive. After his capture, he spent 26 years in Alcatraz.


Whitey Bulgur spent time at Alcatraz.

The infamous gangster was at Alcatraz from 1959 to 1962 and was eventually released from prison altogether in 1965. He remained free for decades, eluding law enforcement until he was captured in 2011 at the age of 81.


Civilians lived on Alcatraz too.

Around 300 civilians -- guards, officials and their families -- lived in a series of apartment buildings and private homes outside the prison. They even had their own bowling alley and general store.


How many inmates died at Alcatraz?

Roughly 28 inmates died on the island, including 8 who were murdered, 5 suicides and another 15 who died of natural causes.


How far is the island from the California coast?

Alcatraz measures around 22 acres and sits just 1.25 miles from the coast of California.


No one has ever swum from Alcatraz to the mainland.

On December 16, 1962 a pair of inmates attempted to escape from Alcatraz. One was captured immediately, but the other -- John Paul Scott -- swam all the way to the mainland before he was found lying on the beach suffering from hypothermia.


When was the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon first held?

People today are willing to pay for a chance to escape from the Rock. Held since 1981, the annual Escape from Alcatraz triathlon includes an eight-mile run, an 18-mile bike ride and a 1.5-mile swim through the frigid water.


How much was the federal government paying per person per day to house an inmate at Alcatraz?

Alcatraz finally closed in 1963 after the government decided that the $10-per-day per-prisoner price tag was too high. Similar prisons in other parts of the country cost just $3-per-day per-inmate to operate.


How many people visit Alcatraz each year?

Around 1.4 million people willingly make the trip to the former prison each year -- many hundreds of times the number of people ever housed in Alcatraz.


What year was the film "Escape from Alcatraz" released?

Clint Eastwood played Frank Morris, who along with brothers Clarence and John Anglin escaped from the island in 1962. The ending of the 1979 film mimicked the real story of the escape -- the three men were never seen again, and no one knows whether they simply drowned or made a clean getaway.


How many seasons did J.J. Abrams series "Alcatraz" run on FOX?

The series, which explored a world in which the prisoners and staff of the island were transported into modern-day San Francisco, ran for just a single season in 2012.


Explore More Quizzes

About HowStuffWorks Play

How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!