Infamous Alcatraz

Posted by US Ghost Adventures Contributor in US Ghost Adventures

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.

photo shows a huge rock formation with the remains of alcatraz on the top. they are just stone ruins.
The skeletons of Alcatraz stand tall. Flickr

Visitors say they can feel extreme cold and negative energy all around them as if they’re surrounded by spirits — or something else. A prisoner mysteriously died in the cell after screaming that a demon with yellow eyes was trying to kill him. The prison closed in 1963 due to the overwhelming cost of operations. By the time it became a tourist attraction in 1973, it had been abandoned for years. For the souls still trapped there, that may have been the worst form of “solitary” yet.

History of Alcatraz

First documented by Europeans in 1775, Alcatraz is named in Spanish after the pelicans that made the island their home. According to the stories, their chirps and cries could be heard out in the ocean, and large schools of them would circle 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. 

photo shows an aerial view of alcatraz island with the large stone structure in the center
Aerial view of the prison, the way the pelicans observed it. Flickr

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 it was taken by the U.S. government, Alcatraz’s fate was sealed as a place where all kinds of macabre things would take place.

Starting in 1850,  President Millard Fillmore –– we have no idea how we got elected with that name –– ordered that Alcatraz be used specifically as a military reservation. The previous owner was basically 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 fiercely 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.

Construction Starts

Alcatraz is so off the grid, so secretive, that it’s hard to pinpoint exact dates and details. The place is a sinkhole, really, 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 aimed at fortifying and militarizing 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 there are some who 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. To start, prisoners were kept in the basement for the first years that 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.

photo shows a peek through the jail bars at a cell block inside the prison
No one ever made it alive out of Alcatraz, the toughest prison in the world. Flickr

The jailhouse was initially designed as long-term detention for military prisoners. As you can imagine, such a place had very little civilian oversight and we can only imagine what went down –– if you were taken to Alcatraz, you probably weren’t given the chance to call your lawyer.

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 even 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 murder, 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 was ever able to 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 easily 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 in 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 really 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 that became known as “Alcatraz Blast Out.” 
  • Doctors who worked at Alcatraz had  a really high turn over rate. In fact, 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 in protest of government policies towards their communities. 

In Short

Known as the toughest prison in America, Alcatraz managed to break down every single 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 really 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!