Alcatraz was the harshest, loneliest, and most dismal of America’s federal prisons, located on a damp rock of an island in San Francisco Bay, is said to be haunted by sounds that seem to be connected to inmates and violence of the past. Alcatraz, originally named La Isla de Los Altraces (The Island of the Pelicans), was first an Army fort and prison. In 1934 it was turned into a federal penitentiary.
The toughest convicts were interred there solely for punishment, not for rehabilitation. Conditions were brutal and escape virtually impossible. The prison was closed in 1963 and is now a tourist attraction. Al Capone was one of the first famous inmates there. After five years at “the Rock,” as Alcatraz was called, he went insane, due in part to his incarceration and in part to his condition of advanced syphilis.
Insanity was the kindest fate to befall a prisoner—others committed suicide, murdered one another, mutilated themselves (one chopped off the fingers of one hand with an axe), or died unpleasant deaths from illness and disease. Beatings by guards were routine, and the screams of the beaten reverberated throughout the cells. Prisoners were shot trying to scale the walls.
In 1946, six inmates attempted to break out of the prison. In the ensuing bloodshed, three guards were killed and three of the six would-be escapees were shot to death; many others were wounded. Little besides the sounds of violence was heard at Alcatraz, for prisoners were forbidden to talk, except for three minutes twice a day during recreation and two hours on weekends.
Capone, whose life was constantly threatened by other inmates, kept largely to himself and spent his time playing his banjo in his cell or in the shower (showers were granted to inmates once a week). Capone joined a four-man band whose members included “Machine Gun” Kelly.
The most notorious cells were four solitary cells called “holes” in Block D, numbered 11, 12, 13, and 14. In solitary confinement, a prisoner was stripped of clothing, beaten, and shut up in complete darkness in one of the tiny cement cells with only a hole in the floor for a bathroom. He was fed bread and water twice a day, and given one full meal every third day.
The holes were notorious for breaking men, either through insanity, illness or death. Capone was thrown into a hole on three occasions. Another inmate, Rufe McCain, was confined to 14-D for three years and two months as punishment for attempting to escape in 1939. Upon his release, he murdered another inmate who had been part of the escape plan. Visual apparitions have been reported at Alcatraz since its closing.
Guards and tour guides have reported hearing the sounds of clanging metal doors, men’s voices, whistling, coughing, screams, and the running of feet along corridors. Clanging sounds have been heard at night in the corridor where the three 1946 escapees were gunned down. Screams have been heard coming from the dungeon, near Block A, where the surviving three escapees were chained.
Men’s voices have been heard in the hospital ward. Various individuals have reported feeling “strange” in the vicinity of 14-D, although some acknowledge their reaction may be influenced by their knowledge of what went on there. The cell also reportedly remains very cold, even if the surrounding area has warmed on a hot day. Banjo music has been reported wafting from the shower room, where Capone once held forth with his only solace.
- Brown, Mark Douglas. Capone: Life Behind Bars at Alcatraz. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, 2004.
- Stuller, Jay. Alcatraz: The Prison. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, n.d. Winer, Richard, and Nancy Osborn. Haunted Houses. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.
The island of Alcatraz in San Francisco is deemed to be one of the most haunted islands in the world. Holding a long history of native settlement, war, a military prison and numerous deaths, the penitentiary on the island houses violent and eerie paranormal activity witnessed by visitors, guards and staff of the place alike.
The establishment is a hotspot for the paranormal, experiencing varied ghostly activities: apparitions of notorious and murdered individuals, clanking of chains and locked cell doors, screaming ghouls and different intensities of poltergeist activities.
Alcatraz Island, its name coming from the Spanish word ‘alcatraz’ meaning pelican, is located in San Francisco Bay, California. It was discovered by a Spaniard, Juan Manuel de Ayala, together with three other islands in 1775. It is a relatively small island; measuring approximately 9 hectares only.
Island of Evil Spirits
The Native Americans were noted as the first visitors of Alcatraz Island. They did not settle on the island since they believed that it is the home of vicious, evil spirits. Instead, because of the perceived nature of the place, the natives banished the criminals who broke their tribal law to the island. It was the ultimate punishment during that time to live in isolation and with the company of malevolent spirits on Alcatraz.
Military Citadel and Prison
The island had a very prominent rock perched on the center of it, some giving it the moniker ‘The Rock’. The US Government took notice of it and noted its possible advantages in military defense, especially in the time when the gold rush was flourishing along the American River of California. Eventually, in 1853, initial buildings, including the first lighthouse in West America, was erected on Alcatraz.
The product of the continuous planning and building on the island was a garrison that housed around two hundred soldiers and 105 cannons in 1861. In the long run, the ideal location of Alcatraz encouraged the government to keep prisoners of war on the island.
Following the Civil War, the fortress was converted into a military prison; a brick jailhouse was built and it originally held only twenty-six prisoners. In the course of the Spanish-American War, however, the population of the prisoners of war increased to four hundred and fifty by 1906.
In the following years, more captives added to the safety confinement of Alcatraz. Hundreds were transported to the island after the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906 and a three-story cell block was built to accommodate the growing number of inmates. The original cell block was demolished, leaving only the basement, and the new concrete one was built above it.
Though the prison was known to have stringent rules, like dividing the inmates into three different categories according to their conduct and restricting certain privileges, the structure and the security of the facility was at its minimum. The cells were only used for sleeping and the inmates spent the day gardening, cooking and cleaning for the locals.
The ‘punishment’ and jobs for the inmates were varied and they somehow served as servants for the native population residing on the island. Due to the laxness of security, some prisoners tried to flee from the prison island but they would often be faced by the large cold waves surrounding Alcatraz and would drown in vain.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
The increase in the number of criminals and the rise of the existence of notorious gangs led to a number of problems for the law enforcers on the mainland. The facilities in the San Francisco jails were either unequipped or too small to contain the rapidly growing number of criminals.
The solution was simple; they needed a maximum-security facility located away from the mainland that would pose an intimidating image to the aspiring law breakers. As a result, in 1934, the citadel and prison in Alcatraz became an official federal prison, later renamed the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Extensive renovations took place and anything that indicated the lack in security was replaced with high-technology equipment, tool and fool-proof buildings and overall maximum safety measures.
Aside from the improved security, the first warden of the penitentiary, Warden Johnson enforced strict but efficient rules within the prison. Every pleasant activity, such as receiving and writing letters, going to the library and even work was considered a privilege and each activity was ‘earned’ through merits from good conduct.
Suffering in Alcatraz
Though the ways of Warden Johnson were praised outside the prison by critics and skeptics, the inmates secretly gave the facility the name ‘Hellcatraz’ because of the numerous sufferings experienced there. The criminals had the notion that once one enters Alcatraz, it would be the end of his/her criminal career and his/her life.
The guards would beat the prisoners in various ways and sometimes it would end in a violent death. Other punishments include putting corresponding additional weights on the inmates while they work. These weights include chains and metal balls that would make moving around difficult.
The citadel has almost the same structure of the prison cells except for the one at the basement, D-block. D-block was known to be the “Treatment Unit” where difficult prisoners were punished for misconduct. The block is made up of 42 cells; all of which are highly-secure and escape-proof.
When a prisoner was banished to D-Block, he was not allowed out for a certain period of time, depending on the weight of his violation. He was devoid of human interaction, allowed only a maximum of two showers each week, and would eat his bland porridge meals accompanied by only the four walls of the small cell.
The block faces the San Francisco Bridge and thus, strong and cold winds usually plague the already lonely inmates. Also, it is rumored that a guard was fond of blasting the air conditioning of the area to intensify the suffering of the prisoners held in D-block.
The other cells in block D are known as the ‘Strip Cells’, also located at the basement of the prison. The ‘lawbreaker’ would be stripped down to his/her underwear and confined in a small cell that only contained a single toilet and sink. The prisoner would be kept inside for days without human interaction.
Bare naked and given a thin mattress that would stay only for sleeping hours. Prisoners in the strip cell were only given a small piece of bread a day. A dim bulb was also present in the cell but guards could choose to turn it off. Some prisoners would be driven out of their wits because of extreme boredom or loneliness.
The last cell in D-block was called “The Hole” as it is but a steel cell that cannot let any light in. It didn’t have a sink or a toilet, only a hole in the floor used for defecation. All the senses were impeded in The Hole; the total torture of silence, darkness, cold and loneliness.
Famous People held in Alcatraz Island
The maximum-security facility of Alcatraz enabled the prison to hold notorious and famous inmates who were involved in large-scale crimes.
1. Al ‘Scarface’ Capone
- Al Capone was a member of a gang in Chicago and eventually became the crime boss of the Chicago Outfit. His gang earned around $100 million per year through organized crimes such as prostitution, robbery and gambling.
- The Chicago Outfit was associated with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 which resulted in the death of seven other mobsters.
- Quite ironically, Al Capone was sent to Alcatraz for tax evasion. It was on the island prison where he claimed that he finally ‘got licked’.
2. George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly
- Convicted for kidnapping, Kelly stayed on Alcatraz for around 17 years. He got his nickname from the machine gun that his wife gave him and which he always carried around.
3.Robert Stroud (Birdman of Alcatraz)
- Stroud was first convicted of manslaughter after he brutally shot a bartender in Alaska. He was angered when his victim wasn’t able to pay for the prostitute that he requested.
- Stroud was transferred to different prisons because of his prominently violent behavior often causing deaths of guards or inmates.
- Before he was sent to Alcatraz, Stroud was allowed to raise canaries in his prison cell in Leavenworth, Kansas. He kept his birds, which accumulated to 300 in number through time, inside his cell and studied their physiology. This later made him produce two books about birds.
- He was transferred to Alcatraz when it was discovered that he used his bird equipment to brew alcohol in his cell.
- In Alcatraz, Stroud was never allowed to keep birds in his cell.
4. Alvin ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpowicz
- Dubbed by the FBI as “Public Enemy No. 1”, Karpowicz stayed in Alcatraz for 25 years, probably the longest sentence that anyone served in the island prison.
- He was nicknamed as “Creepy Karpis” for his sinister and disturbing smile.
Deaths in Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island has experienced hundreds of deaths even before its discovery. From the banishing of law-offending Native Americans and deaths of military men to the murders and escape failures of the Alcatraz penitentiary, the island has been a venue where suffering and demise hang heavy in the air.
Some native Americans believed that Alcatraz Island is the home to menacing spirits. As to why they think that that is the case, no one is sure.
The ‘criminals’ who were banished to live in isolation in Alcatraz were believed to have died on the island; either by numerous escape feats or by dying of old age.
Prisoners of War
In the late 1800s, prisoners from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War were held in Alcatraz.
Some of them attempted to flee the island but they always failed, owing to the fact that the seas surrounding the island are almost impossible to swim across.
Inmates of the penitentiary
From 1933 to 1963, the Alcatraz Penitentiary has seen about fourteen escape attempts. Thirteen inmates have died in their escape attempts:
Six of them were shot dead by the guards
Two died while trying to escape by sea
Five disappeared and they were presumed to have drowned
One very organized escape happened in 1946 when 6 prisoners got hold of certain weapons from the facility. However, since they weren’t able to retrieve the keys, a bloody fire battle took place between the guards and the inmates. The encounter, named ‘The Battle of Alcatraz’, resulted in the death of two officers and three aspiring escapees. The other two were tried later and were given death sentences as punishment.
There were also random brawls in the prison. Around 13 inmates were beaten to death or murdered by other prisoners. A guard was killed in the laundry room and five inmates took their own lives while serving their sentences.
Current Situation and Landmarks
After 30 years of operation, the expenses for the maintenance and operation of the facility rose sky high. The concrete buildings were starting to wear out because of the salt from the surrounding sea and all the necessities for the prison needed to be shipped over to the island. In 1963, the Alcatraz Penitentiary was officially closed.
At present, the island’s main establishments still remain: the main prison, the lighthouse, the warden’s house, the library, the dining hall and the two industry buildings are the most prominent structures left in the island.
While the prison was still operating, Warden Johnson who was not a believer of the paranormal, toured a number of visitors around the grounds. When they passed the ‘dungeons’, Johnson and the guests heard a wailing woman. The crying lasted for a number of minutes and then abruptly stopped. The group was then enveloped by a sudden drop in temperature while they were still inside the building.
On several occasions before the prison was officially closed, the guards would hear cannon fire from outside but when they checked, everything would appear as if nothing had occurred. All the cannons showed no signs of them being fired.
Musical instruments are also heard in the abandoned halls of the prison. Several guards have reported hearing the harmonica playing. Some hear the banjo in the shower room. The caretakers suspect that it was Al Capone’s soul that was playing the banjo. While the notorious crime boss was still alive, he would go to the shower room and practice his instrument.
Locked cell doors are often heard swinging open and then closed.
Ghostly voices are heard all over the facility. In the dining hall, there are chattering voices and clattering utensils. In the hospital ward, screams often resound on a silent night.
The ghost of Stroud is believed to roam his cell since some rangers reported hearing chirping birds in the area. The odd thing was, Stroud was never allowed to bring any of his canaries to Alcatraz.
There are anonymous whispers in the halls and some screaming in the dead of the night when the cells are obviously unoccupied.
Sounds of dragged chains, running and crashing sounds are also heard by the staff.
The ghosts of some of the former inmates were also reported to be seen in Alcatraz.
Alvin Karpowicz was seen roaming the bakery and kitchen of the facility. He would show himself with his usual creepy smile.
One section of the prison called C-block is said to be haunted by the ghost of Abbie Maldowitz. His apparition would be seen or heard opening cell doors. He is also seen in the laundry room where he was brutally murdered by his fellow inmates.
George Kelly or “Machine Gun” has been seen in the church grounds on several occasions.
Some rangers have seen the ghost of Al Capone playing his banjo.
A mysterious man has been said to haunt the Warden’s house. Even when the prison was still operational, the apparition already disturbed the area. At the Christmas Party of the guards and the warden in 1940, they saw a man wearing a gray suit and a cap just outside of the premises. All the attendees of the party saw the apparition appear and disappear. The fire on the stove went out and the room suddenly became ice cold.
A phantom lighthouse is said to appear during cold and foggy nights. Apart from the massive apparition, an unearthly whistling sound and a green light would also roam all throughout the island.
One psychic claimed that he had a conversation with a ghost. The apparition told him that his leg bones were purposely broken as a punishment. He was then put into secluded confinement for months.
On one occasion, the fire alarm of the laundry room went off. When the rangers went to check, the room was full of black smoke. However, as they were about to locate the origin of the fire, the smoke mysteriously disappeared.
Ghosts caught on Camera
Since the island is open for some tours, Alcatraz receives a number of curious visitors.
One of the visitors, who snapped a number of pictures around the area noticed an image of a woman through a glass. The woman was wearing a black dress and hat, peculiarly styled like that of the Victorian era.
When they checked the other visitors, no one was wearing the same dress as the captured image. The glass was also not reflective so it was impossible that the image was one of the living, strolling the premises of the prison.
When some investigators and psychics went to check for paranormal activity in Alcatraz, they bought a magnetometer to detect any abnormal magnetic waves often caused by any supernatural energy.
The group came to the front of the New Industries Building and picked up an erratic reading on the device. One of the psychics felt a throbbing pain in her neck. They later found out that a murder took place at the same spot where they picked up the erratic reading. One of the inmates had stabbed another in the neck in front of the New Industries Building.
As Alcatraz became popular as a haunted island, skeptics and psychics flocked to the area to confirm the claims. One of the curious men was Ted Wyant, a radio anchor who did not believe in paranormal phenomena.
Wyant brought his crew and a psychic, Jeanne Borgen, for an overnight stay at Alcatraz. For the duration of their stay, Wyant did not feel anything out of the ordinary until the wee hours of the morning. The anchor awoke with an anger that he later identified not coming from himself. He stated that at that time, he wanted to brutally beat up or shoot someone.
According to his crew, Wyant threw lewd and rude curses to them with an expression that they never saw him have in the past. He looked like he was about to kill someone.
Incidentally, they found out that the place where they camped was the exact location where the “Battle of Alcatraz” happened. It was where the three inmates died while they were fighting against the guards.
On yet another one of the tours, a woman was allegedly possessed by a German child. She started talking in a small voice and talked straight German; a language that she had no knowledge of.
Known as the block that held intense feelings of suffering and pain, D-block is said to be the most haunted place in Alcatraz.
The screaming in the block is said to belong to the ghost of the inmate who was strangled to death by a guard. Just after his death in the 1940s, the guard who killed the prisoner was head counting the inmates when he realized that the count was one person more. They turned around and saw the ghost of the departed inmate. The apparition vanished like smoke.
Of the 42 cells in D-block, the most active are cells 12-D and 14-D. When passing these cells, one can feel an eerie feeling of being watched, of an unbelievably cold breeze and of intense negative feelings. The temperature in the cells is always below normal room temperature, even during hot summer days.
Curious visitors noted different negative emotions in 14-D but all of them indicate a very heavy feeling when going inside. One psychic and an author described having tingling sensations in their fingertips. The psychic energy was so strong they had to get out as fast as they went in.
Ghost hunter Richard Senate spent a night in cell 12-D and felt cold hands wrapped around his neck. At the same time, he saw images of dismembered corpses in his mind.
Probably one of the scariest spirits in Alcatraz is “The Thing”. Visitors and guards who have had an encounter with the evil spirit describe it to be accompanied by a foul stench and crying sounds. The Thing itself is said to have bright and glowing eyes.
One of the most violent encounters of the Thing was when the prison was still operational. An inmate in D-Block was screaming loudly as if he was being attacked. He also claimed to be accompanied by an apparition with glowing eyes. However, the guards ignored him, as they thought it was only the prisoner’s way of luring the guards to open the cell doors and release him. In the morning, the guards inspected the cell after the inmate became suspiciously silent. The prisoner was found dead; an obvious pained expression etched upon his face and purpling handprints on his neck, evidence of strangulation. When his body underwent an autopsy, it was found out that he did not strangle himself.
True Paranormal Hauntings