America’s most infamous prison, Alcatraz, has its fair share of interesting tales — from daring escapes to Al Capone’s prison band — but did you know that it’s also haunted?
“The Rock,” as it came to be known, was a maximum-security prison island with strict rules and even stricter punishments. Cell Block D was used for solitary confinement, a euphemism for torture. Perhaps that’s why 14D is the most active spot in the building.
History of Alcatraz
First documented by Europeans in 1775, Alcatraz is Spanish, named after the pelicans that made the island their home. According to the stories, their chirps and cries could be heard in the ocean, and large schools of them would circulate the waters before pouncing mercilessly on their prey. While pelicans are usually docile, the breed found in Alcatraz all those years ago was particularly aggressive and had too many sailors ducking for cover.
Before it became the Alcatraz that we know today, Alcatraz was just a tiny island off the coast of San Francisco. In 1846, however, when the U.S. government took it, Alcatraz’s fate was sealed as a place where all kinds of macabre things would take place.
Starting in 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz be explicitly used as a military reservation. The previous owner was cheated when he lost his property without receiving a single penny in return, so you could say things at Alcatraz got off on the wrong foot.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Alcatraz was fortified to the teeth as a strategic location on the West Coast where the Union stored firearms and other weapons. The tiny island eventually boasted 105 cannons around its perimeter to defend its arsenal and keep it from falling into Confederate hands. A lighthouse was built on the island around the same time, becoming the first functional lighthouse on the West Coast. Many sailors far out in the ocean described the blinding light that hit and confused them –– and the shrill, hungry pelicans that seemed to threaten them from above.
But Alcatraz was also more than an armed warehouse. Not so much by coincidence, the island was also operating as a military prison by 1961. Its isolated location and surrounding cold waters made it an ideal place to make people disappear. In fact, it was admittedly designed as the ultimate prison from which no prisoner could ever escape –– at least not without first dying. Countless people have perished trying to do the impossible, and many claim that their poor ghosts haunt the island to this day, still stuck there and unable to ever escape.
Alcatraz is so off the grid, so secretive that it’s hard to pinpoint exact dates and details. The place is a sinkhole, and it’s hard for anything to come out of there alive.
It is widely known that during the Civil War, the island underwent many changes to fortify and militarize the place. For example, there were ambitious plans to build underground tunnels and all kinds of passageways. These projects –– undertaken for most of the 1870s –– were officially left unfinished, though some claim otherwise. For all we know, Alcatraz is just the tip of the iceberg and what lurks underneath is the real Area 51.
The official record is scary enough as it is. Initially, prisoners were kept in the basement for the first years, and the place was used as a military prison. Things changed and picked up the pace in 1867 when a brick jailhouse was built and again in 1909 when a concrete main cell block was erected. Little did anyone know what lay ahead or who and how many people would make their way to this floating prison.
In the 1970s, Alcatraz was also used to imprison Hopi Native American men who refused to send their children away to boarding schools. Rumors afloat about all the different kinds of torture and experiments that the poor men were subjected to, and it is believed that, to this day, some of their ghosts haunt the place.
To make things worse, the place became a federal prison in 1933, and Alcatraz quickly became the place where bank robbers and murderers were sent to serve their sentences. Not just any bank robber and murderer, however: from Robert Franklin Stroud to Al Capone, Alcatraz is only for America’s most wanted. And despite all their bravado and swagger, no criminal could ever escape. From 1933 to 1963, when it closed its doors, the federal prison had 36 inmates who attempted to escape but were either caught or drowned in the sharp waters. One of them –– John Paul Scott –– managed to make it to the shore, but he was so weary that the police quickly found him lying down on the ground, unconscious and suffering from hypothermic shock.
Facts about Alcatraz
Alcatraz is a tiny, mighty island full of secrets. No prisoner ever managed to escape and live to tell their story, so we can only imagine what goes on there. From what we know, the 70s were wild there, too:
- During WW1, the anarchist Philip Grosser was detained in Alcatraz after he refused to join the war. He wrote Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island about his experiences inside the prison before committing suicide in 1933.
- Another inmate, Rufe Persful, once chopped off his fingers and begged another inmate to do the same to his other hand. Whatever went down in Alcatraz broke down the toughest of men.
- In 1946, 6 prisoners managed to take control of the cell house and break into the weapons room, but the U.S. Marines intervened and took them out during a shootout known as “Alcatraz Blast Out.”
- Doctors who worked at Alcatraz had a high turnover rate. Most lasted just a few months or even days because they were all scared away by the violent inmates who wanted drugs.
- In an attempt to make the island escape-proof, the tunnels were eventually sealed up with concrete –– and it is said that some poor souls were sealed alive.
- Beginning in November of 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied the island, protesting government policies towards their communities.
Known as the most brutal prison in America, Alcatraz managed to break down every one of its inmates. Maybe it was the military-style, punitive management that ran the prison, or maybe there was something in the water –– nobody knows for sure. To this day, some report hearing gut-wrenching screams around the remains of the prison, especially where the “Alcatraz Blast Out” took place.
For a riveting read on another haunted prison, check out our article about the Ohio State Reformatory!