Picture it: San Francisco, 2017. I was three months pregnant with our first child, Tony’s beard was at its zenith, and we were vacationing in Frisco for our ten year wedding anniversary! It was probably only our third vacation ever in the last decade, so every day we were checking multiple places off of our “must see” list. Our trip would certainly not have been complete without an excursion to a very famous and historical landmark - Alcatraz, one of America’s most haunted prisons.
A Brief History of Alcatraz Penitentiary
Known as “The Rock”, Alcatraz Penitentiary has a long, chilling history, which seems to echo through its dilapidated buildings as tales of Alcatraz’s hauntings continue to this day.
Originally built as a military fortress in the 1850s, Alcatraz was converted into a military prison in 1868. Situated one-and-a-quarter miles offshore in the San Francisco Bay, the island’s steep, rocky topography and location in shark-infested waters made it an ideal place to confine violent criminals. The first fortress-prison was demolished in 1909, and a new prison was rebuilt in its place by the prison’s own inmates. After the prison fell into disrepair in the 1920s, it was again closed, restructured, and reopened in 1933, this time as a federal prison claiming to be “escape-proof.” Alcatraz continued to function as a prison for dangerous federal criminals until it was closed by Robert F. Kennedy in 1963, due to the huge financial cost it required to keep it in operation. A few years later, in 1969, a group of Native Americans claimed the island, and held it in occupation for two years, before being forced out by federal marshals in 1971. Finally, in 1972, the island prison was added to the new Golden Gate Recreation Area, and officially opened for tourists and the public.
The Haunted History of Alcatraz
At any given time, approximately 250 dangerous prisoners were housed on Alcatraz, including gangsters Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly, crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, and murderer Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz” - just to name a few of the criminals from the prison’s bloody history. The reasons Alcatraz earned its title as the most haunted prison in America are many. Some of the creepy occurrences contributing to Alactraz's haunted legacy are as follows:
- Statistics: During its years of operation, there were 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz, involving 36 men. Twenty-three of the men were caught, 6 were shot dead, 2 were confirmed drowned, and the remaining 5 were thought to have drowned, either in the bay or swept out to sea. (The government's official position is that no one has successfully escaped from The Rock; however, conspiracy theories abound about three men, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, surviving their escape attempt, never to be recaptured. You can check out this fascinating story here!) In addition, Alcatraz saw 8 murders by inmates, 5 prisoner suicides, and 15 deaths by natural causes or illnesses. (Want more Alcatraz facts? Go here!)
- Psychological and physical trauma: The treatment and punishment of prisoners was reported to have resulted in psychological and physical trauma for some of the inmates, a number of whom were driven insane before their time on The Rock was concluded. Some of these treatments and punishment included:
- The Spanish Dungeon: Located underneath Cellblock A are cells is known as “the Spanish Dungeon.” Reportedly used during Alcatraz’s military prison era, the dungeon cells were used for the more “unmanageable inmates,” who would be taken below and chained to the bars of the dungeon, allegedly without clothes and food on some occasions.
- The single Strip Cell: Feared by inmates, the Strip Cell was a steel-encased cell with no sink or toilet where unruly prisoners would be locked, without clothes, in total darkness. Offenders were usually placed in the freezing cell for 1 to 2 days at a time.
- The Hole Cells: The Hole cells were similar types of cells, where prisoners were isolated from others and provided with only the bare minimum to survive- bread, water, a low wattage light bulb- for sometimes up to 19 days.
- Cell 14D: Cell Block D is the most famously haunted cell block. In 14D, one of “the Hole” cells, a prisoner in the 1940s once spent the night screaming that a creature with red glowing eyes was killing him. In the morning, the inmate was found dead by strangulation, and no person was ever discovered to be responsible for his death.
- The Battle of Alcatraz: From May 2 to May 4, 1946, inmates attempted to take over the prison. The 3-day fight and standoff resulted in the deaths of 2 corrections officers and 3 inmates, and the injury of 11 officers and 1 inmate. Two convicts who participated in the takeover were later executed (at San Quentin) for their roles in the officers’ death. (You can read more about the frightening Battle of Alcatraz here.)
These events are only a number of potential causes of paranormal activity stemming from Alcatraz's long history. The book Ghosts of Alcatraz by Kathryn Vercillo shares an introductory history and many haunting experiences that have taken place on the island. One excerpt from the book reads:
"Not too far away, just off Cell Block C, is the Utility Corridor where three prisoners who attempted to escape (Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard) were ultimately captured and grenaded to their deaths. In this same corridor, a welded shut door muffles the eerie sounds of the spirits on this cellblock . . . A guard who was watching the area at night heard odd noises coming from behind the door. It sounded as though something was knocking around in the corridor down there, but when the guard opened the door, he saw nothing that could possibly be making the sounds. He closed the door and was going to continue on his security rounds, but as soon as the door shut behind him, the noises started up again. Thinking that someone must be in there playing some sort of joke on him, the guard opened the door again and looked around the area extensively. He never found the source of the noise. When he closed the door again, the noises again resumed . . . Since that time, this area has been blocked off and that particular door has been welded shut."
In the many decades that have passed since the 1850s, strange events and encounters on the island have never ceased to be reported. From whispering in the cells, to ghostly figures, to sounds of clanging bars and doors shutting, to disappearing smoke, to cold spots and areas where visitors are suddenly overcome with emotion, there are no shortage of ghosts lingering in Alcatraz.
Our Alcatraz Experience
I'll answer the big question first - no, we didn't encounter any otherworldly activity on Alcatraz! However, our trip to Alcatraz Island was an experience not to be missed (although we almost did miss it!) - and we're glad we had the opportunity to go!
Alcatraz, as one of the most important "must see" items on our trip agenda, was the first big attraction we intended to visit while in San Francisco. But, when we showed up at the ticket office bright and early on the first morning of vacation, those plans hit a bit of a snag: tickets to Alcatraz were already sold out, for the entire summer. With daily tours leaving every 30 minutes, every day, we were dumbfounded that there was nothing available - even considering the landmark's popularity - for the next two months!
Trying not to cry at this disappointing news (which is the natural reaction to any kind of news when you're pregnant) I jumped on my Smartphone and started searching the Alcatraz Cruise website. We couldn't come all the way to San Francisco and not make it to the "main event" of the trip, right?! Lo and behold, the site came through for us: there were two tour tickets available online, for two days later - the only openings for the entire week! The tickets were promptly loaded into the virtual cart (thank you, pervasive consumer-based technology), and we returned to the pier later that week for our boat ride to Alcatraz. And, lesson learned: always pre-order tickets for popular national attractions before flying across the country to visit them.
Even in June, the ride to and from Alcatraz across the San Francisco Bay was freezing. The wind whipped hard enough to take your breath away, the waves were choppy, and fog rolled in and out across the horizon. From the mainland, Alcatraz looks comparatively close to shore, but after crossing the channel, it's difficult to imagine how a prisoner could actually survive a swim from the prison to dry land. (Lookin' at you, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers... in whichever undisclosed country you're hiding out in.)
If you're looking for a creepy island where you can enjoy ghostly horrors of the past — and who doesn't look for that in a vacation? - Alcatraz is the place to visit! It’s remote, eerie, and desolate, even with hoards of tourists stomping around. There is a quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, that says, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." After visiting San Fran in the summer, we can both can attest to the truth of this statement; temperatures that week didn’t rise about the low 60s, and it was colder still on Alcatraz, surrounded by water and wind. The chill was everywhere, and the surrounding bay and sky alternated between blue and slate gray throughout the afternoon. Alcatraz is not a cheery place, to say the least.
We opted to skip a guided tour, although looking back I think it would have added even more to our experience by expounding on the island’s history. But since we both hate crowds and love abandoned places, we explored the eerie sights on our own, most notably:
- The ruined buildings: Many of the island’s residence buildings are in ruins, some having been demolished and some destroyed by fires in 1970. It was interesting to note, though, (in a "Yikes, I hoped they always locked the doors" kind of way) how women and children - the families of Alcatraz’s guards - had lived only steps away from some of the country’s most dangerous criminals.
- The morgue: This wasn’t the large, laboratory-style morgue fabricated in Michael Bay’s movie, “The Rock.” (Although I won’t lie, that would have been cool too.) Alcatraz’s actual morgue is tucked away on the far end of the complex, housed in the entrance of an old Civil War tunnel. Despite its small size and the crowds around it, it was still a creepy place, with the mortuary slab still in place and the vaults shrouded in the darkness at the back of the room. Not a place you’d want to hang out in after dark. Or in broad daylight. Or at any time at all, really.
- The cellhouses: Speaking of places you wouldn’t want to hang out in after dark... The cellhouses, the centers for the main horrors and hauntings comprising Alcatraz’s history and lore, were disturbing. Granted, decay and disuse have done them no favors, but they are still scary places. Cramped, stark, and with no exposure to direct sunlight, the cells were bleak sad cubicles. The buildings were also long and shadowy, ideal places for things that like to come out in the dark - and I don’t mean the Tooth Fairy (cue eerie musical riff). If not for the presence of so many people milling about, I think the overall atmosphere of the place would have felt much more ominous and agitated. My heart goes out to any lonely guard assigned to patrol Alcatraz at night; may he have nerves of steel and carry a big stick.
Although we didn't witness any ghostly activity, experiencing Alcatraz was well worth it, both for its storied history and for its potential to encounter the paranormal. If you have the chance to see it, we recommend the experience! ...Just maybe call ahead for tickets. Please enjoy some of our touristy pictures of Alcatraz below, and stay tuned for a future blog post about our visit to Eastern State Penitentiary! (Because for some reason, we keep ending up at haunted prisons.)
And now I'm going to watch "The Rock."
Have you visited any famous haunted locations? Share with us in the comments!