The Big A has always been a rough joint.
Before the turn of the last century, the government had no dedicated facilities for men convicted of federal crimes – typically, moonshiners, mail-tamperers and those engaged in "white slavery," better known today as pimpin'.
When criticism escalated about the common practice of renting out federal prisoners as involuntary laborers, Congress passed the Three Prisons Act of 1890, which authorized federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas; on McNeil Island in Washington's Puget Sound; and on the southeastern outskirts of Atlanta.
Although 14 more federal penitentiaries – considered the high-security flagships of the Bureau of Prisons – would be built over the next century, Atlanta would remain the largest. And when Alcatraz shut its doors in 1963, it regained its reputation as the meanest.
Italian immigrant and small-time scam artist Charles Ponzi served a few years in Atlanta for fraud during the teens. When he got out, he dreamed up an elaborate investment scheme that hoodwinked a nation and, at the time it came crashing down in 1920, was earning him $250,000 a day. Ponzi served another few years in prison, was deported back to Italy and finally died penniless in Brazil.
In 1919, the Atlanta Pen would get its first celebrity inmate in Eugene V. Debs, a renowned labor leader, pacifist and three-time Socialist Party candidate for president. The 63-year-old Debs had been convicted under the liberally worded Espionage Act for giving a speech opposing World War I and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1920, he again ran for president from his cell, receiving nearly a million votes, about 3.4 percent of the ballots cast.
The following year, Debs was pardoned by President Warren G. Harding.
Another political prisoner was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born journalist who had come to the United States in 1916 to preach the then-controversial notion of social equality for blacks. Launching a back-to-Africa movement, he was viewed as a rabble-rousing seditionist by the feds, who eventually convicted him of mail fraud.
Garvey came to Atlanta in 1925 and immediately wrote his most famous speech, "First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison," which urged his followers to "Look for me in the whirlwind." His sentence was commuted two years later by President Calvin Coolidge and he was subsequently deported.
Also in 1925, Atlanta became home to Roy Gardner, a legendary train robber who had managed to escape from McNeil Island. He tried to tunnel under the thick prison wall and, later, led an unsuccessful breakout by holding two Atlanta guards at gunpoint, a move that earned him 20 months in solitary, followed by a transfer to Alcatraz. Paroled in his 50s, Gardner committed suicide after a movie based on his life failed at the box office.
Al Capone's business card reputedly identified him as a used-furniture dealer. But, although he was never convicted of racketeering or rapped for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the Chicago mob boss known as "Public Enemy No. 1" was eventually nailed by G-man Eliot Ness on 22 counts of tax evasion.
Landing in Atlanta in 1932, Capone soon became top dog, bribing guards to run errands and manipulating the warden for special privileges. Two years later, federal authorities fed up with the mobster's cushy arrangement shipped off him to Alcatraz. Released in 1939, Capone spent his remaining years suffering from advanced syphilis.
Capone was only one of many gangsters to spend time in the Big A. Irish-American hoodlum James "Whitey" Bulger served three years here in the mid-'50s for armed robbery and hijacking before returning to Boston to take charge of a crime ring that controlled much of the narcotics trade throughout New England. A fugitive since 1994, Bulger is widely thought to have been the inspiration for the mob boss portrayed by Jack Nicholson in The Departed.
Old-school Mafia Don Vito Genovese ended up in Atlanta for heroin dealing not long after he had finished bumping off rivals to secure his place as boss of the country's pre-eminent crime family. Reportedly, he continued to run the family business from behind bars until his death in 1969.
After the fabled French Connection narcotics ring had been broken up in the late '60s, Vincent Papa, a major New York drug runner, organized one of the most brazen series of thefts in that city's history. Over the course of three years, more than 250 pounds of seized heroin was stolen from the NYPD property room and replaced with baking flour. The switch was only discovered when police noticed the powder was being eaten by small beetles.
Although Papa was convicted for the scheme and sent to Atlanta in 1972, authorities never solved the question of how he managed to get the drugs out of the heavily guarded room. Five years later, Papa took his secret to the grave when he was stabbed to death by inmates reputedly hired by Lucchese family mobsters who'd heard the rumor – spread by then-prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani – that he was talking to the feds.
In 1957, Atlanta became home to Rudolph Abel, a Soviet superspy whose real name was Vilyam Fischer. After supervising Moscow's entire U.S. espionage network for decades, Abel was finally caught when the FBI found one of the hollow nickels he used to hide microfilm. He was returned to the Motherland in a secret 1962 swap with downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
Gifted con man Frank Abagnale had already successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a pediatrician and an attorney when, at the ripe age of 23, he was sent to Atlanta in 1971. He didn't stay long. Abagnale reportedly walked out the front gate by pretending to be an undercover prison inspector. Later recaptured, he served less than five years in prison and now runs a thriving consulting firm specializing in fraud prevention.
During his 1970s heyday, Atlanta's own "Scarface of Porn," Mike Thevis, owned more than 500 adult bookstores, controlled distribution of 40 percent of the country's pornography and was raking in $100 million a year. Thevis was convicted of burning down a competitor's business in 1978, and he escaped from jail to shotgun the former associate (and a bystander) who'd ratted him out. Thevis was recaptured and briefly held in the Atlanta Pen before being sent off to a federal prison in Minnesota to serve a life sentence.
Another notable Atlantan to pass through the Big A was Fred Tokars, a former prosecutor and magistrate judge who had his wife killed in 1992 rather than pay a divorce settlement. Hit man Curtis Rower kidnapped Sara Tokars and her two young sons, then shot her in the back of the head with a sawed-off shotgun as the children watched. Sent away for life, Tokars now suffers from MS in a federal prison infirmary in Florida.
Charles Harrelson, father of Woody Harrelson of "Cheers" fame, was sent to Atlanta for the notorious 1988 murder of a federal judge in Texas. A freelance contract killer, the elder Harrelson is often cited by conspiracy buffs who place him on the Grassy Knoll during JFK's assassination. After a failed escape attempt, he was sent to the Supermax facility in Colorado, where he died in his sleep in March.
The Atlanta Pen's last real celebrity prisoner was ill-starred baseball star Denny McLain.
A two-time winner of the Cy Young Award as a Detroit Tiger and the last major-league pitcher to win 30 games, he finished his career with the Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately, McLain also was a born flimflam man who makes Pete Rose look like the Dalai Lama.
Even as a player, he was suspended for running a bookmaking operation and once cost his team a pennant race when he had his toes broken by a Mob loan shark. Not long after leaving baseball, McLain declared bankruptcy for the second time, fell in with gamblers, and was convicted of racketeering, extortion and cocaine possession.
On arriving in Atlanta in 1985, the former all-star tipped the scales at 275 pounds and was in such bad shape that when he pitched in a jail-yard baseball game, he had to be relieved after the sixth inning and his team lost 25-5.
McLain was eventually released two-and-a-half years into a 23-year prison sentence when it was proved that several of the jurors who'd convicted him had slept through the trial. But, unable to stay out of trouble, he spent another six years behind bars for looting the pension fund of a company he'd bought, finally getting sprung in 2003.
In his various memoirs, McLain singled out the Big A as the filthiest and most dangerous of the many prisons he'd known, once writing: "After Atlanta, the men's room at a Texaco would look like a hospital operating room."