From 1934 to 1963, few places struck fear into the hearts of American criminals like Alcatraz. The imposing prison peeked through the mist of San Francisco Bay, warning all who looked upon her: Be good. Or you could end up here.
Alcatraz was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1775 and given the name, “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, or “The Island of the Pelicans”. During the 19th century, it served as a Military base and prison. It was clear right away that the Island was the perfect place to house prisoners; escape was practically impossible. Even if one managed to get out of the base, the swift and rocky waters of San Francisco Bay would sweep him off to sea long before he ever reached the mainland. After the Civil War, the fort was deemed obsolete, but the facility continued to be used as a military prison. The Island became a form of punishment for the already punished; those who could not be controlled in other prisons, including repeat escapees, were shipped off to Alcatraz for safe keeping. During this time, the prisoners were usually serving sentences of two years or less. During the 1920’s, attendance dwindled. There was little need for a military prison of that size and in that location.
However, the rampant crime of the 1920’s and 1930’s caused the newly minted FBI to seek an escape proof prison that would deter criminals. They decided that Alcatraz was the perfect place for such a prison and in 1933 the Federal prison bureau took over the building and over the next year a massive renovation took place that turned the Island from a minimum security military prison to an impregnable Federal penitentiary. The best guards of the system were sent to the island. It was still not a place for normal criminals. Repeat escapees, incorrigible inmates, and those who were getting special treatment because they were “famous” at other prisons were sent to Alcatraz as the ultimate non-capital punishment.
If haunting is caused by trauma, then Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock” is certainly a logical place for a few ghosts. The punishments there were beyond imagination. There were specialized solitary confinement cells that were designed to inflict psychological and physical torture. One was called the “stip cell” where the prisoner would be stripped naked and thrown in a special cell that had no toilet (only a hole on the floor), no sink and a giant steel door that would block out all the light. The inmate was kept there for one or two days in total darkness; fed only enough to sustain them. A straw mattress was provided at night to sleep on, but removed in the morning. There were four cells known as the “holes” where an inmate was thrown in (allowed to keep their clothes) and left in almost total darkness. The steel door was there, but there was a low wattage light bulb providing some light. They were fed bread and water, with a regular meal every three days. While the conditions were (slightly) more tolerable than the strip cell, men could be kept there for up to 19 days and were often beaten for anything more than the most minor of offenses. Frequently men left the hole and had to be taken straight to the hospital ward because they were sick or had “lost their senses”. There were even dungeons in the basement, where inmates were chained to the wall, naked, and left there all day; given only a blanket to sleep on at night.
The Prison closed in 1963 but it remains a popular tourist attraction to this day. Many a strange occurrences are said to take place there. There are the normal “ghostly” experiences; cold spots, footsteps, ect. However, there are some that are much more interesting. The utility corridor is considered the most haunted place in the prison. Three inmates were killed there in a hail of bullets during a three day prison-wide escape attempt that was nicknamed “The Battle of Alcatraz”. In 1976, a guard kept hearing noises coming from behind the door; when he opened it there was nothing there. The “Hole” on D block (14D) is said to be cold all the time, even when the rest of the prison is warm. Once the Warden of the Prison heard sobbing coming from inside the walls. A psychic once met a ghost named “Butcher” in Cell block C. It’s believed that this is the ghost of Abie Maldowitz, a mob hitman known as Butcher who was murdered in cell block C by another inmate. A guard once heard banjo music in the shower room, the same room where Al Capone, broken by the Rock and driven to insanity by syphilis, would hide during recreation hours (fearing he would be killed in the yard), playing his banjo. The most bizarre report comes from the 1940’s. After a prisoner was thrown in 14D, he started screaming that there was a “creature with glowing eyes” locked in with him. The guards ignored him; ghost sightings were common jokes among inmates and guards alike. In the middle of the night, the screaming finally stopped. The next morning, they found the man dead, strangled. Since there was no way he could have strangled himself, some believe that a guard did it, fed up with the screaming. Some believe it was something else. The next day, several guards counted one too many men in the line; a couple claimed to see the dead man for a second, standing in line like always, before he disappeared.
Alcatraz was America’s first “Escape proof prison” (though that’s debatable) and it’s possible, just possible, that some never escaped; not even through death.