From the time it became a federal prison in 1934
until it was closed down in 1963, the steel doors clanged shut
behind more than 1,000 hardened convicts, criminals and escape
artists. Alcatraz was not conceived as a facility for
rehabilitation. It was a place of total punishment and minimum
privilege. And those who survived it often did so at the cost of
their sanity... and some believe their souls.
Alcatraz Island, located in the mists off of San
Francisco, received its name in 1775 when the Spanish explorers
charted San Francisco bay. They named the rocky piece of land La
Isla de los Alcatraces, or the "Island of Pelicans". The island was
totally uninhabited, plagued by barren ground, little vegetation and
surrounding water that churned with swift currents.
In 1847, Alcatraz was taken over by the United
States military. The Rock had extreme strategic value, especially
during these times of tension between the United States and the
Mexican government. Topographical engineers began conducting
geological surveys and by 1853, a military fortress was started. One
year later, a lighthouse was established (the first on the Pacific
Coast) to guide ships through the Golden Gate.
A few years later, a military fort was erected on
the island and in 1859, Alcatraz saw its first prisoners, a
contingent of court-martialed, military convicts. Then in 1861,
Alcatraz started to receive Confederate prisoners, thanks to its
natural isolation created by the surrounding waters. Until the end
of the Civil War, the number of prisoners here numbered from 15 to
50. They consisted of soldiers, Confederate privateers, and southern
sympathizers. They were confined in the dark basement of the
guardhouse and conditions were fairly grim. The men slept
side-by-side, head to toe, lying on the stone floor of the basement.
There was no running water, no heat and no latrines. Disease and
infestations of lice spread from man to man and not surprisingly,
overcrowding was a serious problem. They were often bound by
six-foot chains attached to iron balls, fed bread and water and
confined in "sweatboxes" as punishment.
After the war ended, the fort was deemed obsolete
and was no longer needed. The prison continued to be used though and
soon, more buildings and cell houses were added. In the 1870’s and
1880’s, Indian chiefs and tribal leaders who refused to give into
the white man were incarcerated on Alcatraz. They shared quarters
with the worst of the military prisoners. The island became a
shipping point for incorrigible deserters, thieves, rapists and
In 1898, the Spanish-American War sent the
prisoner population from less than 100 to over 450. The Rock became
a holding pen for Spanish prisoners brought over from the
Phillipines. Around 1900 though, Alcatraz again became a
disciplinary barracks for military prisoners. Ironically, it also
served as a health resort for soldiers returning from the
Phillipines and Cuba with tropical diseases. The overcrowding caused
by a combination of criminals and recovering soldiers resulted in
pardons to reduce the number of men housed on the island.
By 1902, the Alcatraz prison population averaged
around 500 men per year, with many of the men serving sentences of
two years or less. The wooden barracks on the island had fallen into
a ramshackle state, thanks to the damp, salt air and so in 1904,
work was begun to modernize the facility. Prisoner work crews began
extending the stockade wall and constructing a new mess hall,
kitchen, shops, a library and a wash house. Work continued on the
prison for the next several years and even managed to survive the
Great Earthquake of 1906. The disaster left San Francisco in
shambles and a large fissure opened up on Alcatraz, but left the
buildings untouched. Prisoners from the heavily damaged San
Francisco jail were temporarily housed on the island until the
city’s jail could be rebuilt.
Construction of the new buildings was completed
in 1909 and in 1911, the facility was officially named the "United
States Disciplinary Barracks". In addition to Army prisoners, the
Rock was also used to house seamen captured on German vessels during
the First World War. Alcatraz was the Army’s first long-term prison
and it quickly gained a reputation for being a tough facility. There
were strict rules and regulations with punishments ranging from loss
of privileges to solitary confinement, restricted diet, hard labor
and even a 12-pound ball and ankle chain.
Despite the stringent rules though, Alcatraz was
still mainly a minimum-security facility. Inmates were given various
work assignments, depending on how responsible they were. Many of
them worked as general servants, cooking and cleaning for families
of soldiers housed on the island. In many cases, the prisoners were
even entrusted to care for the children of officers. However, this
lack of strict security worked to the favor to those inmates who
tried to escape. Most of those who tried for freedom never made it
to the mainland and were forced to turn back and be rescued. Those
who were not missed and did not turn back usually drowned in the
harsh waters of the bay.
Other escape attempts were made by men who did
not go into the water. During the great influenza epidemic of 1918,
inmates stole flu masks and officer’s uniforms and causally caught a
military launch heading for the base at the Presidio. The convicts
made it as far as Modesto, California before they were captured.
During the 1920’s, Alcatraz gradually fell into
disuse. The lighthouse keeper, a few Army personnel and the most
hardened of the military prisoners were the only ones who remained
on the island. The mostly empty buildings slowly crumbled... but a
change was coming.
The social upheaval and the rampant crime of the
1920’s and 1930’s brought new life to Alcatraz. Attorney General
Homer Cummings supported J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in creating a
new, escape-proof prison that would send fear into the hearts of
criminals. They decided that Alcatraz would be the perfect location
for such a penitentiary. In 1933, the facility was officially turned
over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Attorney General asked
James A. Johnston of San Francisco to take over as warden of the new
prison. He implemented a strict set and rules and regulations for
the facility and selected the best available guards and officers
from the federal penal system.
Construction was quickly started on the new
project and practically the entire cellblock building was built atop
the old Army fort. Part of the old Army prison was used but the iron
bars were replaced by bars of hardened steel. Gun towers were
erected at various points around the island and the cellblocks were
equipped with catwalks, gun walks, electric locks, metal detectors,
a well-stocked arsenal, barbed and cyclone wire fencing and even
tear gas containers that were fitted into the ceiling of the dining
hall and elsewhere. Apartments for the guards and their families
were built on the old parade grounds and the lighthouse keeper’s
mansion was taken over for the warden’s residence. Alcatraz had been
turned into an impregnable fortress.
Wardens from prisons all over the country were
polled and were permitted to send their most incorrigible inmates to
the Rock. These included inmates with behavioral problems, those
with a history of escape attempts and even high-profile inmates who
were receiving privileges because of their status or notoriety. Each
train that came from the various prisons seemed to have a
"celebrity" on board. Among the first groups were inmates Al Capone,
Doc Barker (who was the last surviving member of the Ma Barker
Gang), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz"
Stroud, and Floyd Hamilton (a gang member and driver for Bonnie &
Clyde), and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
When they arrived on Alcatraz, the inmates were
driven in a small transfer van to the top of the hill. They were
processed in the basement area and provided with their basic
amenities and a quick shower.
Al Capone arrived at the prison in August 1934.
Upon his arrival, he quickly learned that while he may have once
been famous, on Alcatraz, he was only a number. He made attempts to
flaunt the power that he had enjoyed at the Federal prison in
Atlanta and was used to the special benefits that he was awarded by
guards and wardens alike. He was arrogant and unlike most of the
other prisoners, was not a veteran of the penal system. He had only
spent a short time in prison and his stay had been much different
than for most other cons. Capone had possessed the ability to
control his environment through wealth and power, but he was soon to
learn that things were much different at Alcatraz.
Warden Johnston had a custom of meeting new
prisoners when they arrived and he gave them a brief orientation.
Johnston later wrote in his memoirs that he had little trouble
recognizing Capone when he saw him. Capone was grinning and making
comments to other prisoners as he stood in the lineup. When it
became his turn to approach the warden, Johnston ignored him and
simply gave him a standard prison number, just like all of the other
men. During Capone’s time on Alcatraz, he made a number of attempts
to convince Johnston that he deserved special consideration. None of
them were successful and at one point, Capone finally conceded that
"it looks like Alcatraz has got me licked."
And he wouldn’t be the only one to feel that way.
Alcatraz was not a recreational prison. It was a
place of penitence, just as the Quakers who had devised the American
prison system had planned for all prisons to be. There were no
trustees here. It was a place where the inmates had but five
rights... food, clothing, a private cell, a shower once a week and
the right to see a doctor.
Each of the cells in America’s "first
escape-proof prison" measured 4 x 8 feet, had a single
fold-up bunk, a toilet, a desk, a chair and a sink. An
inmate’s day would begin at 6:30 in the morning, when he
was awakened and then given 25 minutes to clean his cell
and to stand and be counted. At 6:55, the individual
tiers of cells would be opened and prisoners would march
in a single file line to the mess hall. They were given
20 minutes to eat and then were marched out to line up
for work assignments. The routine never varied and was
The main corridor of the prison was given the
name "Broadway" by the inmates and the cells here were considered
the least desirable. The ones on the bottom tier were always cold
and damp and they were also the least private, since guards, inmates
and staff members were always passing through this corridor. New
prisoners were generally assigned to the second tier of B Block in a
quarantine status for the first three months of their sentence.
The guards at Alcatraz were almost as hardened as
the prisoners themselves. They numbered the inmates one to three,
which was stunning considering that most prisons were at least one
guard to every twelve inmates. Gun galleries had been placed at each
end of the cell blocks and as many as 12 counts each day allowed the
guards to keep very close tabs on the men on their watch. Because of
the small number of total inmates at Alcatraz, the guards generally
knew the inmates by name.
While the cells the prisoners lived in were
barren at best, they must have seemed like luxury hotel rooms
compared to the punishment cells. Here, the men were stripped of all
but their basic right to food and even then, what they were served
barely sustained the convict’s life, let alone his health.
One place of punishment was the single "Strip
Cell", which was dubbed the "Oriental". This dark, steel-encased
cell had no toilet and no sink. There was only a hole in the floor
that could be flushed from the outside. Inmates were placed in the
cell with no clothing and were given little food. The cell had a
standard set of bars, with an expanded opening to pass food through,
but a solid steel door enclosed the prisoner in total darkness. They
were usually kept in this cell for 1-2 days. The cell was cold and
completely bare, save for a straw sleeping mattress that the guards
removed each morning. This cell was used a punishment for the most
severe violations and was feared by the prison population.
The "Hole" was a similar type of cell. There were
several of them and they were all located on the bottom tier of
cells and were considered to be a severe punishment by the inmates.
Mattresses were again taken away and prisoners were sustained by
meals of bread and water, which was supplemented by a solid meal
every third day. Steel doors also closed these cells off from the
daylight, although a low wattage bulb was suspended from the
ceiling. Inmates could spend up to 19 days here, completely silent
and isolated from everyone. Time in the "hole" usually meant
psychological and sometimes even physical torture.
Usually, convicts who were thrown into the "hole"
for anything other than a minor infraction were beaten by the
guards. The screams from the men being beaten in one of the four
"holes" located on the bottom tier of D Block echoed throughout the
block as though being amplified through a megaphone. When the
inmates of D Block (which had been designated at a disciplinary unit
by the warden) heard a fellow convict being worked over, they would
start making noises that would be picked up in Blocks B and C and
would then sound throughout the entire island.
Often when men emerged from the darkness and
isolation of the "hole", they would be totally senseless and would
end up in the prison’s hospital ward, devoid of their sanity. Others
came out with pnuemonia and arthritis after spending days or weeks
on the cold cement floor with no clothing. Some men never came out
of the "hole" at all.
And there were even worse places to be sent than
the "hole". Located in front of unused A Block was a staircase that
led down to a large steel door. Behind the door were catacomb-like
corridors and stone archways that led to the sealed off gun ports
from the days when Alcatraz was a fort. Fireplaces located in
several of the rooms were never used for warmth, but to heat up
cannonballs so that they would start fires after reaching their
targets. Two of the other rooms located in this dank, underground
area were dungeons.
Prisoners who had the misfortune of being placed
in the dungeons were not only locked in, but also chained to the
walls. Their screams could not be heard in the main prison. The only
toilet they had was a bucket, which was emptied once each week. For
food, they received two cups of water and one slice of bread each
day. Every third day, they would receive a regular meal. The men
were stripped of their clothing and their dignity as guards chained
them to the wall in a standing position from six in the morning
until six at night. In the darkest hours, they were given a blanket
to sleep on.
Thankfully, the dungeons were rarely used, but
the dark cells of D Block, known as the "hole, were regularly
Al Capone was in the "hole" three times during
his 4 1/2-year stay at Alcatraz. The first years of Alcatraz were
known as the "silent years" and during this period, the rules stated
that no prisoners were allowed to speak to one another, sing, hum or
whistle. Talking was forbidden in the cells, in the mess hall and
even in the showers. The inmates were allowed to talk for three
minutes during the morning and afternoon recreation yard periods and
for two hours on weekends.
Capone, who remained arrogant for some time after
his arrival, decided that the rule of silence should not apply to
him. He ended up being sent to the "hole" for two, 10-day stretches
for talking to other inmates. He also spent a full 19 days on the
"hole" for trying to bribe a guard for information about the outside
world. Prisoners were not allowed newspapers or magazines that would
inform them of current events. Each time that Capone was sent to the
"hole", he emerged a little worse for wear. Eventually, the Rock
would break him completely.
Many of the prisoners who served time in Alcatraz
ended up insane. Capone may have been one of them for time here was
not easy on the ex-gangland boss. On one occasion, he got into a
fight with another inmate in the recreation yard and was placed in
isolation for eight days. Another time, while working in the prison
basement, an inmate standing in line for a haircut exchanged words
with Capone and then stabbed him with a pair of scissors. Capone was
sent to the prison hospital but was released a few days later with a
The attempts on his life, the no-talking rule,
the beatings and the prison routine itself began to take their toll
on Capone. After several fights in the yard, he was excused from his
recreation periods and being adept with a banjo, joined a four-man
prison band. The drummer in the group was "Machine-Gun" Kelly.
Although gifts were not permitted for prisoners on the Rock, musical
instruments were and Capone’s wife sent him a banjo shortly after he
was incarcerated. After band practice, Capone always returned
immediately to his cell, hoping to stay away from the other
Occasionally, guards reported that he would
refuse to leave his cell to go to the mess hall and eat. They would
often find him crouched down in the corner of his cell like an
animal. On other occasions, he would mumble to himself or babble in
baby talk or simply sit on his bed and strum little tunes on his
banjo. Years later, another inmate recalled that Capone would
sometimes stay in his cell and make his bunk over and over again.
After more than three years on the Rock, Capone
was on the edge of total insanity. He spent the last year of his
sentence in the hospital ward, undergoing treatment for an advanced
case of syphilis. Most of the time he spent in the ward, he spent
playing his banjo. His last day on Alcatraz was January 6, 1939. He
was then transferred to the new Federal prison at Terminal Island
near Los Angeles. When he was paroled, he became a recluse at his
Palm Island, Florida estate. He died, broken and insane, in 1947.
And Al Capone was far from the only man to
surrender his sanity to Alcatraz. In 1937 alone, 14 of the prisoners
went rampantly insane and that does not include the men who slowly
became "stir crazy" from the brutal conditions of the place. To
Warden Johnston, mental illness was nothing more than an excuse to
get out of work. As author Richard Winer once wrote, "it would be
interesting to know what the warden thought of Rube Persful".
Persful was a former gangster and bank robber who
was working in one of the shops, when he picked up a hatchet, placed
his left hand on a block of wood and while laughing maniacally,
began hacking off the fingers on his hand. Then, he placed his right
hand on the block and pleaded with a guard to chop off those fingers
as well. Persful was placed in the hospital, but was not declared
An inmate named Joe Bowers slashed his own throat
with a pair of broken eyeglasses. He was given first aid and then
was thrown into the "hole". After his release, he ran away from his
work area and scaled a chain-link fence, fully aware that the guards
would shoot him. They opened fire and his body fell 75 feet down to
the rocks below the fence.
Ed Wutke, a former sailor who had been sent to
Alcatraz on murder charges, managed to fatally slice through his
jugular vein with the blade from a pencil sharpener.
These were not the only attempts at suicide and
mutilation either. It was believed that more men suffered mental
breakdowns at Alcatraz, by percentage, than at any other Federal
In 1941, inmate Henry Young went on trail for the
murder of a fellow prisoner and his accomplice in a failed escape
attempt, Rufus McCain. Young’s attorney claimed that Alcatraz guards
had frequently beaten his client and that he had endured long
periods of extreme isolation. While Young was depicted as
sympathetic, he was actually a difficult inmate who often provoked
fights with other prisoners. He was considered a violent risk and he
later murdered two guards during an escape attempt. After that,
Young and his eventual victim, McCain, spent nearly 22 months in
After the two men returned to the normal prison
population, McCain was assigned to the tailoring shop and Young to
the furniture shop, located directly upstairs. On December 3, 1940
Young waited until just after a prisoner count and then when a
guard’s attention was diverted, he ran downstairs and stabbed
McCain. The other man went into shock and he died five hours later.
Young refused to say why he had killed the man.
During his trial, Young’s attorney claimed that
because Young was held in isolation for so long, he could not be
held responsible for his actions. He had been subjected to cruel and
unusual punishment and because of this, his responses to hostile
situations had become desperately violent.
The attorney subpoenaed Warden Johnston to
testify about the prison’s conditions and policies and in addition,
several inmates were also called to recount the state of Alcatraz.
The prisoners told of being locked in the dungeons and of being
beaten by the guards. They also testified to knowing several inmates
who had gone insane because of such treatment. The jury ended up
sympathizing with Young’s case and he was convicted of a
manslaughter charge that only added a few years on this original
After the trial, he was transferred to the
Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. After
serving his Federal sentence, he was sent to the Washington State
Penitentiary and was paroled in 1972. He had spent nearly 40 years
in prison. He later disappeared and it is unknown whether he is
still alive today.
During the 29 years that Alcatraz was in
operation, there were over 14 escape attempts in which 34 different
men risked their lives to try and make it off the Rock. Almost all
of the men were either killed or recaptured. Only one of the men was
known to have made it ashore. John Paul Scott was recaptured when he
was found shivering in the rocks near the Golden Gate Bridge. As for
the men who vanished, it was believed that most of them succumbed to
the cold water and the always churning currents that moved past the
island. Although no bodies were ever recovered, the authorities
always assumed that the men had drowned and marked the cases as
Of all of the escape attempts though, two of them
left a lasting mark on the history of the island. The most traumatic
and violent of the two took place in 1946. It was later dubbed the
"Battle of Alcatraz" and it began as a well-planned and
well-organized breakout from the "escape-proof" prison.
In May 1946, six
inmates captured a gun cage, obtained prison keys and
took over a cell house in less than an hour. The
breakout attempt might have succeeded if not for the
fact that a guard, Bill Miller, didn’t return one of the
keys to the gun cage as soon as he finished using it, as
was required by prison regulations. The strange twist of
fate completely disrupted the escape attempt. When the
cons captured the gun cage, they found all of the keys
except for the one that would let them out of the cell
building. This was the key that Miller failed to return
to the guard cage. The breakout was grounded before it
But the prisoners, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, and
Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes,
would not give up. They took a number of guards hostage and before
the escape attempts was over, three of the guards were dead and
others were wounded. Two of them were murdered in cold blood in
cells 402 and 403, which were later changed to C-102 and C-104.
Thousands of spectators watched from San
Francisco as U.S. Marines invaded the island and barraged the cell
block with mortars and grenades. The helpless inmates inside of the
building took refuge behind water-soaked mattresses and tried to
stay close to the floor and out of the path of the bullets that
riddled the cells. But even after realizing that they could not
escape, the six would-be escapees decided to fight it out.
Warden Johnston, unable to get a report on how
many convicts were actually involved in the battle, came to believe
that the safety of San Francisco itself might be at risk. With the
entire prison under siege, he called for aid from the Navy, the
Coast Guard, as well as the Marines. Before it was all over, two
Navy destroyers, two Air Force planes, a Coast Guard cutter, a
company of Marines, Army officers, police units, and guards from
Leavenworth and San Quentin descended on the island.
The fighting lasted for two days. With no place
to hide from the constant gunfire, Cretzer, Coy and Hubbard climbed
into a utility corridor for safety. The other three men returned to
their cells, hoping they would not be identified as participants in
the attempt. In the bloody aftermath, Cretzer, Coy and Hubbard were
killed in the corridor from bullets and shrapnel from explosives.
Thompson and Shockley were later executed in the gas chamber at San
Quentin and Carnes received a sentence of life, plus 99 years. His
life was spared because he helped some of the wounded hostages. The
cell building was heavily damaged and took months to repair.
While this may be the most violent escape from
Alcatraz, it is by all means not the most famous. This attempt was
that of Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. In 1962,
a fellow prisoner named Allen West helped the trio to devise a
clever plan to construct a raft, inflatable life vests and
human-like dummies that could be used to fool the guards during head
counts. Over a several month period, the men used tools stolen from
work sites to chip away at the vent shafts in their cells. They
fabricated the life vests, the rafts and the dummies. They also
ingeniously created replicated grills that hid the chipped away
cement around the small vents. The quality of the human heads and
faked grills was remarkable as they used only paint kits and a soap
and concrete powder to make them. They also collected hair from the
barbershop to make the dummies more lifelike. These painstaking
preparations took over six months.
On the night of June 11, 1962, immediately
following the head count at 9:30, Morris and the Anglin’s scooted
through the vents and scaled the utility shafts to the upper levels.
Once they reached the roof, they climbed through a ventilator duct
and made it to the edge of the building. After descending pipes
along the cement wall, all three climbed over a 15-foot fence and
made it to the island’s shore, where they inflated the rafts and
vests. They set out into the cold waters of the bay and were never
The next morning, when one of the prisoners
failed to rise for the morning count, a guard jammed his club
through the cell bars at the man. To his shock, a fake head rolled
off the bunk and landed on the floor!
Almost 40 years later, it is still unknown
whether or not the prisoners made a successful escape. The story has
been dramatized in several books and was made into a gripping film
starring Clint Eastwood. The FBI actively pursued the case but never
found any worthwhile leads.
After this last escape attempt, the days of the
prison were numbered. Ironically, the frigid waters around the
island, which had long prevented escape, were believed to be the
leading ruin of the prison. After the escape of Morris and the
Anglin’s, the prison was examined because of the deteriorating
conditions of the structure, caused mostly by the corrosive effects
of the salt water around it. In addition, budget cuts had recently
forced security measures at the prison to become more lax. On top of
that, the exorbitant cost of running the place continued to increase
and over $5 million was going to be needed for renovations.
According to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the prison was no
longer necessary to have open.
On March 23, 1963, Alcatraz closed it doors for
good. After that, the island was essentially abandoned while various
groups tried to decide what to do with it. Then, in 1969, a large
group of American Indians landed on the island and declared that it
was Native American property. They had great plans for the island,
which included a school and a Native American cultural center. The
Indians soon had the attention of the media and the government and a
number of meetings were held about the fate of Alcatraz.
The volume of visitors to the island soon became
overwhelming. Somehow, during the talks, the island had become a
haven for the homeless and the less fortunate. The Indians were soon
faced with the problem of no natural resources and the fact that
food and water had to be brought over from the mainland. The
situation soon became so desperate that island occupants were forced
to take drastic measures to survive. In order to raise money for
supplies, they began stripping copper wire and pipes from the island
buildings to sell as scrap metal. A tragedy occurred around this
same time when Yvonne Oakes, the daughter of one of the key Indian
activists, fell to her death from the third story window. The Oakes
family left Alcatraz and never returned.
Then, during the evening hours of June 1, 1970, a
fire was started and raged out of control. It damaged several of the
buildings and destroyed the Warden’s residence, the lighthouse
keeper’s home and even badly damaged the historic lighthouse itself.
Tension now developed between Federal officials
and the Indians as the government blamed the activists for the fire.
The press, which had been previously sympathetic toward the Native
Americans, now turned against them and began to publish stories
about beatings and assaults that were allegedly occurring on the
island. Support for the Indians now disintegrated, especially in
light of the fact that the original activists had already left
Alcatraz. Those who remained were seen as little more than
"squatters". On June 11, 1971, the Coast Guard, along with 20 U.S.
Marshals descended on the island and removed the remaining
Alcatraz was empty once more.
In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate
National Recreation Area and Alcatraz Island fell under the purview
of the National Park Service. It was opened to the public in the
fall of 1973 and has become today one of the most popular of
America’s park sites.
The Hauntings of
During the day, the old prison is a bustling
place, filled with tour guides and visitors... but at night, the
building is filled with the inexplicable. Many believe that the
energy of those who came to serve time on the Rock still remains,
that Alcatraz is an immense haunted house... a place where strange
things can and do happen today!
Every visitor who arrives by boat on Alcatraz
follows the same path once walked by the criminals who came to do
time on the Rock. The tourists who come here pass through the
warden’s office and the visiting room and eventually enter the cell
house. After passing the double steel doors, a visitor can see that
just past C Block. If they look opposite the visiting room, they
will find a metal door that looks as though it was once welded shut.
Although the tour guides don’t usually mention it, behind that door
if the utility corridor where Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were killed
by grenades and bullets in 1946.
It was also behind this door where a night
watchman heard strange, clanging sounds in 1976. He opened the door
and peered down the dark corridor, shining his flashlight on the
maze of pipes and conduits. He could see nothing and there were no
sounds. When he closed the door, the noises started again. Again,
the door was opened up but there was still nothing that could be
causing the sounds. The night watchman did not believe in ghosts, so
he shut the door again and continued on his way. Some have wondered
if the eerie noises may have been the reason why the door was once
welded shut? Since that time, this utility corridor has come to be
recognized as one of the most haunted spots in the prison.
Other night watchmen who have patrolled this cell
house, after the last of the tourist boats have left for the day,
say that they have heard the sounds of what appear to be men running
coming the from the upper tiers. Thinking that an intruder is inside
the prison, the watchmen have investigated the sounds, but always
One Park Service employee stated that she had
been working one rainy afternoon when the sparse number of tourists
were not enough to keep all of the guides busy. She went for a walk
in front of A Block and was just past the door that led down to the
dungeons when she heard a loud scream from the bottom of the stairs.
She ran away without looking to see if anyone was down there. When
asked why she didn’t report the incident, she replied "I didn’t dare
mention it because the day before, everyone was ridiculing another
worker who reported hearing men’s voices coming from the hospital
ward and when he checked the ward, it was empty."
Several of the guides and rangers have also
expressed a strangeness about one of the "hole" cells, number 14D.
"There’s a feeling of sudden intensity that comes from spending more
than a few minutes around that cell," one of them said. Another
guide also spoke up about that particular cell. "That cell, 14D, is
always cold. It’s even colder than the other three dark cells.
Sometimes it gets warm out here - so hot that you have to take your
jacket off. The temperature inside the cell house can be in the
70’s, yet 14D is still cold... so cold that you need a jacket if you
spend any time in it."
Oddly, the tour guides were not the only ones to
have strange experiences in that particular cell. A number of former
guards from the prisons also spoke of some pretty terrifying
incidents that took place near the "holes" and in particular, Cell
During the guard’s stint in the middle 1940’s, an
inmate was locked in the cell for some forgotten infraction.
According to the officer, the inmate began screaming within seconds
of being locked in. He claimed that some creature with "glowing
eyes" was locked in with him. As tales of a ghostly presence
wandering the nearby corridor were a continual source of practical
jokes among the guards, no one took the convict’s cries of being
"attacked" very seriously.
The man’s screaming continued on into the night
until finally, there was silence. The following day, guards
inspected the cell and they found the convict dead. A horrible
expression had been frozen onto the man’s face and there were clear
marks of hands around his throat! The autopsy revealed that the
strangulation could not have been self-inflicted. Some believed that
he might have been choked by one of the guards, who had been fed up
with the man’s screaming, but no one ever admitted it.
A few of the officers blamed something else for
the man’s death. They believed that the killer had been the spirit
of a former inmate. To add to the mystery, on the day following the
tragedy, several guards who were performing a head count noticed
that there were too many men in the lineup. Then, at the end of the
line, they saw the face of the convict who had recently been
strangled in the "hole"! As they all looked on in stunned silence,
the figure abruptly vanished.
If, as many believe, ghosts return to haunt the
places where they suffered traumatic experiences when they were
alive, then Alcatraz must be loaded with spirits.
According to sources, a number of guards who
served between 1946 and 1963 experienced strange happenings on
Alcatraz. From the grounds of the prison to the caverns beneath the
buildings, there was often talk of people sobbing and moaning,
inexplicable smells, cold spots and spectral apparitions. Even
guests and families who lived on the island claimed to occasionally
see the ghostly forms of prisoners and even phantom soldiers.
Phantom gunshots were known to send seasoned guards cringing on the
ground in the belief that the prisoners had escaped and had obtained
weapons. There was never an explanation. A deserted laundry room
would sometimes fill with the smell of smoke, even though nothing
was burning. The guards would be sent running from the room, only to
return later and find that the air was clear.
Even Warden Johnston, who did not believe in
ghosts, once encountered the unmistakable sound of a person sobbing
while he accompanied some guests on a tour of the prison. He swore
that the sounds came from inside of the dungeon walls. The strange
sounds were followed by an ice-cold wind that swirled through the
entire group. He could offer no explanation for the weird events.
As the years have passed, ghost hunters, authors,
crime buffs and curiosity-seekers have visited the island and many
of them have left with feelings of strangeness. Perhaps those who
experience the "ghostly side" of Alcatraz most often are the
national park service employees who sometimes spend many hours here
alone. For the most part, the rangers claim to not believe in the
supernatural but occasionally, one of them will admit that weird
things happen here that they cannot explain.
According to one park ranger, he was in one of
the cell houses one morning, near the shower room, and heard the
distinctive sound of banjo music coming from the room. He could not
explain it --- but many who know some of the hidden history of
Alcatraz can. In his last days at the prison, Al Capone often hid in
the shower room with his banjo. Rather than risk going out into the
prison yard, where he feared for his life thanks to his
deteriorating mental state, Capone received permission to stay
inside and practice with his instrument.
And perhaps he sits there still, this lonesome
and broken spirit, still plucking at the strings of a spectral banjo
that vanished decades ago. For on occasion, tour guides and rangers,
who walk the corridors of the prison alone, still claim to hear and
an occasional tune echoing through the abandoned building. Is it Al
Or could it be merely another of the countless ghosts who
continue to haunt this place, year after year.....?