In 1775, the island was named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans) by a Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala. In 1850 American President Millard Fillmore reserved the island that is located in the San Francisco Bay (about 1.5 miles from San Francisco) for military use. A fortress with 100 cannons was built to protect the San Francisco Bay as was the first operational lighthouse on the west coast. The island was also used by the military as a prison. In the early 1900s, the military inmates built the 600 cell-structure that still stands to this day. Construction was completed around 1912.
Is Alcatraz Haunted?
Alcatraz is most well-known for being a Federal Prison. Operations changed hands from the American Military to the Department of Justice. Alcatraz operated from 1934 to 1963 as a maximum security prison for difficult and dangerous inmates from across the United States. Alcatraz was set up to be not only escape proof but to teach the inmates to follow the rules of prison life so they could be transferred back to other federal prisons to fulfill their sentences.(history.com and photo)
Alcatraz was a unique prison because of it’s desolate, rocky, often mist-shrouded and remote location surrounded by the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay and also because it was run on a very strict and unchanging schedule to the daily routine of the prisoners. It opened on July 1, 1934, with one guard to every three inmates. The inmates were not permitted to speak to each other except for a 10 minute period each weekday and for two hours on the weekends. It was nicknamed “the Rock”.
The Cells the Inmates Dreaded
The Hole would fall under the category of solitary confinement cells. Alcatraz had five of these cells that contained a toilet, a sink, one light, and a mattress was provided at night to sleep on. In the research, I conducted it was reported that most inmates would stay in the hole for a number of days but would usually be put back in their regular cell within 19 days. An inmate would be put in the hole as a means of discipline for minor infractions of the strict prison rules.
When an inmate committed a more serious infraction they would be confined to the Strip Cell. It was as the name implies, a cell where the inmate would be naked. The cell had a hole in the floor to use as a toilet (that could only be flushed from outside the cell) and no sink. The inmate would be given only bread and water once per day.
If an inmate committed a very serious infraction they risked being thrown into the Dungeons of Alcatraz. Not only would the inmate be naked but would be chained to the wall in a standing position from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fed only bread and water and would have a bucket for a toilet that was only emptied once a week. At night the inmate would get a blanket to either sleep on or under. (thoughtco.com)
The inmates that were sent to these “special” cells were often physically assaulted by the guards and were left de-humanized, complacent, and at the edge of insanity by the time they were returned to either their own regular cell or the hospital ward depending on the severity of the beatings they received.
There were some well-known criminals housed within Alcatraz during its years of operation. One of them was Al Capone, the mob boss served 4.5 years in Alcatraz after it was suspected that he was still running his gang and had managed to bribe guards to get favours while imprisoned in the Atlanta US Penitentiary that Capone entered in 1932. By the time Al Capone went to the Atlanta US Penitentiary he had had syphilis for about 13 years, he was also diagnosed with gonorrhea and was detoxing from his cocaine addiction. Capone had never sought treatment for syphilis or gonorrhea. The infections had taken a toll on his health, especially his mental health. Al Capone spent his last year at Alcatraz in the hospital ward before he was transferred to another penitentiary in California to complete his sentence.
Another well-known inmate was George “Machine Gun” Kelly. He was a mobster who served 17 years in Alcatraz. Robert Stroud, who was a murderer and was known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz” who served 17 years in Alcatraz after he was transferred from the Leavenworth, Kansas prison. Although he was known as the Birdman, Stroud was not allowed to keep birds while in Alcatraz as he had in Leavenworth. The longest-serving inmate was Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz who was in Alcatraz for 25 years. (history.com)
The Effects of Insanity
Many inmates were driven to insanity while in Alcatraz. Some of the causes for it were the relentless mediocrity of the prison routine, to the enforced silence between prisoners, the solitary confinement in the hole, the strip cell, and the dungeon, or even untreated syphilis. It should be noted that Warden Johnston, who ran Alcatraz, believed that insanity was an excuse used by inmates to get out of work details. Empathy within the prison system did not exist while Alcatraz operated.
Prairieghosts.com has reported that some prisoners did great harm to themselves while imprisoned in Alcatraz. An inmate named Rube Persful took a hatchet while working in a shop one day and while maniacally laughing chopped off the fingers of his left hand. Persful then begged a prison guard to help him remove the fingers from his right hand. My word!
Joe Bowers was an inmate that reportedly slashed his own throat with broken eyeglasses. Bowers was treated with basic first aid and thrown in the hole. Once Joe was released from the hole he attempted to scale a chain link fence once he was outside. He knew he would be shot by the guards and that is exactly what happened. Bowers body fell about 75 feet to the rocks below after he was shot.
Another gruesome act of self-harm happened when inmate Ed Wutke sliced through his own jugular vein with the blade from a pencil sharpener. Wutke bled to death.
But What About the Ghosts?
Now that I have told you about the history and infamy of Alcatraz I hope I have managed to paint a picture of what life within its concrete walls was like. It is hard to imagine a worse place for someone’s spirit to reside within. But spirits do live within the walls of Alcatraz.
When Alcatraz finished being a Federal Penitentiary it again changed hands. This time the Department of Justice turned Alcatraz Island over to the National Park Service. Tourists now visit Alcatraz in droves to get a glimpse of the infamous prison, and to feel the starkness of life on the island. Some tourists also arrive on Alcatraz for ghost hunting. The following experiences have been reported from many different sources, even Warden Johnston had a ghost tale to tell
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Warden Johnston was conducting a tour for a set of his guests when they all heard sobbing coming from the dungeon area of the prison, the sound was followed by a cold wind that blew through the group and undoubtedly raised the hairs on the back of their necks.
Crying and moaning is often heard by tour guides and tourists alike within Cell Block A, B, and C. A psychic medium reportedly met a disruptive spirit that identified himself as the Butcher, while in Cell Block C. The psychic medium did not know at the time of reporting the meeting that Cell Block C was the area of the prison that had housed a mob hitman named Abie “the Butcher” Maldowitz.
Guards have reported hearing the footfalls of running men on the upper walkways when the prison is empty. People often report smelling smoke especially in the laundry area and no fire is ever located. Guards also say that they have heard clanging coming from a utility corridor where three inmates were shot to death during a failed prison escape. Gunshots have also been heard while out in the “yard” section of the prison. Voices have been heard coming from the hospital ward and it is always found to be empty.
Cell 14D was one of the five cells in Alcatraz called “the Hole.” It has a storied past and in the 1940s a prisoner was put in that cell. The prisoner immediately began to scream as the guards closed the door. The prisoner screamed to the guards that a glowing-eyed creature was in the cell with him as was trying to kill him. The guards ignored his pleas and the screaming eventually stopped. When the guards opened the cell in the morning they found the inmate dead. The inmate had hand prints on his neck and he had died from strangulation. During the morning head count, the guards counted an extra inmate. The extra inmate was an apparition of the deceased prisoner that disappeared right before the eyes of guards and prisoners alike.
Cell 14D is now ALWAYS cold. A park ranger has stated that the cell block can be a comfortable 70*F and the corridor outside of the cell could be hot enough to remove your jacket but once you step into the cell the cold is felt immediately. A drop in the temperature is thought to indicate the presence of a spirit.
Apparitions of inmates and military personnel have also been reported in various locations within and outside the prison.
When Al Capone was imprisoned in Alcatraz he experienced a lot of violence from other inmates and was stabbed once. For some reason, Warden Johnston allowed Capone to remain inside during the mandatory recreation time. During those times Capone would play the banjo in the shower room. A park ranger reported hearing banjo music emanating from the shower room and was surprised to learn that he had heard a performance by the infamous Al Capone.
Touring Alcatraz is on our ghost hunting bucketlist for sure. Have you been there? Are you going there? Let us know.
The Other Half