TACOMA, Wash. — Mugshots of men held captive in Washington's own Alcatraz. Models of the boats that ferried inmates back and forth. A violin hand carved with wood from fruit crates by a conscientious objector.

These are just some of the things you'll see in "Unlocking McNeil's Past," an exhibit at the Washington State History Museum that tells the 143-year-old story of the mysterious island prison.

“Not only is it a special story, but it is also unique to Washington,” said Mary Mikel Stump, director of audience engagement at the museum.

MacNeil Island
Swift currents and cold water often thwarted prisoner's attempts to get off the island.

Charles Manson was one of the many criminals locked up at McNeil.

“He became a musician there,” Stump said. “He learned how to sing and how to play the guitar, and realized through that he had some kind of special personality powers to draw people to him.”

Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, stabbed a McNeil Island guard to death in 1916. Gangster Alvin "Creepy" Karpis was an also an inmate at McNeil, as was mobster Al Capone's cousin, Ralph Capone.

“I sort of call him the lesser-known Capone," said Stump.

Over the years there were more than 100 escape attempts from McNeil.

“Most of them thwarted because of the cold water and the swift current surround the island,” Stump explained.

Mugshot of MacNeil Island inmate
A mugshot of an inmate from McNeil Island, Washington's own Alcatraz.
Washington State History Museum

With nothing but time on their hands, inmates made signs and ceramic vases. One wrote a manuscript on toilet paper. The exhibit has taped off sections to show how small the cells were.

“It's incredible how starkly beautiful this kind of decay can be,” said Strump, who visited McNeil four times to prepare the exhibit.

The roughly seven square mile island was home to both the prison and the families of prison workers. It's all been frozen in time since McNeil suddenly closed in 2011.

“It is a fairly eerie feeling to go out there because in many cases there are still papers and furniture and things left there,” said Strump.

McNeil Island remains a fascinating and mysterious chapter in Washington state history, but there is only one way to visit.

“Access to the island is denied,” Stump said. “So this exhibit is a really great way to get a glimpse into a place that you wouldn't actually be able to see or experience otherwise.”

"Unlocking McNeil's Past" runs through May 26, 2019, at the Washington State History Museum.

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