If, as many believe, ghosts return to haunt the places where they suffered traumatic experiences in life, then the prison at Alcatraz Island must be full of ghosts. After the prison closed, high levels of paranormal activity have been reported.
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.
Alcatraz Island is located in San Francisco bay. It 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". In 1847, Alcatraz was taken over by the United States military. "The Rock" as it is most commonly referred to, had extreme strategic value, especially during these times of tension between the United States and the Mexican government.
In 1861, Alcatraz started to receive Confederate prisoners, during 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 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 sanitary facilities. 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 and fed only bread and water.
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 were incarcerated on Alcatraz, they shared quarters with the worst of the military prisoners. The island became a shipping point for deserters, thieves, rapists and repeated escapees.
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 prison cell block 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 there worst 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. 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.
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 entire 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. 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 pneumonia and arthritis after spending days or weeks on the cold cement floor with no clothing.
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 filled.
Many of the prisoners who served time in Alcatraz ended up insane. Al Capone, one of Alcatraz's most famous inmates, 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 minor wound.
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 convicts.
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.
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 insane.
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 prisons.
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.
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 find nothing.
One Park Service employee stated that she had been working one rainy afternoon when the sparse number of tourists was 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."
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 14D. 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 inmates 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.
Sometimes the old lighthouse which has long since been demolished, appears out of a dense fog, accompanied by a ghostly whistling sound, and a great flashing light which passed slowly around the entire island, just as if the Lighthouse was still active. The spectacle would then vanish before the startled eyes of guards and visitors.
Phantom cannon shots, gun shots, and screams oftentimes sent seasoned guards falling flat on their stomachs thinking that prisoners had escaped and obtained weapons. Each time, there was no explanation. A deserted laundry room would sometimes emanate a strong scent of smoke, as if something was on fire. The sensation of the choking smoke would drive guards out of the room, only to return a few minutes later, the area now completely smoke free the phantom smoke occurred many times over the years.
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.
Several of the guides and rangers have also expressed 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.
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 Capone?
Renowned ghost hunter Richard Senate and a psychic spent the night on Alcatraz as part of a KGO radio promotion. According to Senate, emotions seemed to drip from every corner of Alcatraz as the long night progressed. He and the psychic visited the spots where rangers said they heard marching footsteps, and clanking metal; however, nothing happened. Finally, Senate locked himself in cell 12-D, where an evil and persistent ghost is rumored to dwell. As the thick, steel door was closed, Senate immediately felt icy fingers on his neck, and his hair stood on end. He knew he was not alone. Additionally, the psychic picked up on the twisted and dismembered bodies of uniformed men. Both left the island convinced that Alcatraz had its own special energy.
According to Antoinette May, much of the paranormal activity on Alcatraz occurs around areas associated with the penitentiary's worst tragedies. One of them is the Block C utility corridor, cell Blocks A and B, with the eeriest area centering on cell 14-D where it is always cold. According to May, gifted psychic Sylvia Brown accompanied by a CBS news team investigated parts of Alcatraz. As Brown toured the prison hospital she picked up cards and notes tacked up on a wall, and the letter "S." A ranger confirmed that the "S" probably stood for Robert Stroud who spent ten-and-a-half years in the hospital, in the very room they were standing. He also had hundreds of notes and cards tacked up all around him. Brown sensed strong energy in what used to be the therapy room, and the prison laundry room, where at least one prisoner was murdered.
When authors, Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn visited Alcatraz, they ventured down to solitary with a park ranger. As Osborn entered cell 14-D, she immediately felt strong vibrations coming from within. Winer and the ranger followed Osborn, and within seconds, each of them experienced an intense tingling sensation in their hands and arms they were convinced that something or someone was in there with them. The far corner of the cell where they were standing, and feeling the intense energy, was the exact spot where the naked, shivering prisoners would huddle, night after night, in the darkness. Osborn said that she had never felt so much energy before in one spot.