The legend and haunted history of Alcatraz
You don’t have to believe in ghost stories to know that something weird is going on at Alcatraz Island. Once a former Native American burial ground, the island was a place for banished souls and evil spirits long before it was a prison. Inmates, guards, experts, and visitors have had many encounters with the ghosts of Alcatraz, and these are their stories.
A place for banished souls and evil spirits
It’s said by many experts and common folk alike that there’s something strange about Alcatraz Island, and the infamous prison that has been rumored to be haunted. But long before stories emerged of unidentified frightening sounds and encounters with ghosts, Alcatraz was indeed a strange place, where Native Americans banished their own for breaking tribal laws.
The Ohlone people occupied the lands we now call the San Francisco Bay Area, and for thousands of years, they avoided the island at all costs. Sources say that the Ohlone people believed evil spirits occupied the island and sent their worst to fend for themselves. Perhaps it’s their screams that visitors hear today.
Early explorers called Alcatraz a ‘bad place’
When the first Spanish explorers entered the foggy mouth of San Francisco Bay, there were some 10,000 people living in the area. However, only a select few lived on the rocky island in the middle of the bay. They noted an eerie light that emanated from the island, and noted in their logs that it was a “bad place.”
These explorers named the island “Alcatraz” for all the pelicans that used the island as a home. But the explorers moved on from the island, never knowing that it was the site where lost souls lived their last days and that the most violent people in the land would call it home. Their ghosts would haunt the island for centuries.
Fort Alcatraz became a miserable prison
Alcatraz was ceded to the United States from Mexico in 1848, and given its strategic location in San Francisco Bay, the government immediately began fortifying the island. Not long after, planners realized the isolated setting would make for a great prison. Soon, deserters, escapees, and those convicted of treason began arriving.
The prisoners here experienced nothing short of absolute hell. There was no natural water source, so they were forced to drink contaminated water. They were only given one meal a day, and spent that day in the dark, stacked head to foot, in tiny cells in the basement of the guardhouse.
The phantom lighthouse of Alcatraz
It is believed that many of those unfortunate souls who were in the bowels of the island lost their minds. If they misbehaved, they’d be thrown in what’s described as a “torture chamber,” which were “damp unlit holes carved out of the rocky basement where uncooperative prisoners were beaten and locked up in the dark with the rats.”
Many believe that their souls still roam the grounds. The lighthouse on Alcatraz Island has a similar story, as the original was built in 1854. It was replaced in the early 1900s, but according to reports, on foggy nights, the old tower will appear as a shrill whistle sounds and a green light flashes slowly around the entire island. Once it circles, it disappears just as quickly as it formed.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
By the time Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1933, many depraved souls had already perished on the evil island. A writer named E. Randall Floyd wrote In the Realm of Ghosts and Hauntings in 2002, and in it, he said: “almost every guard and official who served (at Alcatraz) until it was shut down by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s experienced something out of the ordinary.”
Reports indicate that multiple times guards were called into action because of the sounds of cannon shells firing and victims screaming. The incidents that occurred were so realistic, guards were summoned to the armory, grabbed weapons, and headed outside to find nothing. There is no explanation for the noises they heard.
Warden James Johnston and the ‘Devil‘s prison of America’
The first warden of Alcatraz was a man by the name of James Johnston, and one notable thing about him is that he didn’t believe in ghosts. That may have changed one day when he was leading a group of guests on a tour of the “Devil’s prison of America.”
As Johnston was telling the guests about the intricacies of the prison, all of a sudden, he stopped, and the entire group heard the unmistakable sound of a woman crying. It appeared to be coming from the walls, and as the sobs rose in volume, a cold wind swept through the room. Not one guest took another step forward, and Johnston could never explain why they heard what they did.
The legend of Al Capone
Warden Johnston was peppered by questions from reporters the moment “Big Al” arrived at Alcatraz Penitentiary in 1934. Rumor had it that Capone was still able to manipulate guards and run his rackets from behind bars, and that’s why he enjoyed luxuries such as a radio, and cell 181, his home, was the only cell at Alcatraz that was carpeted.
But the baseball bat-brandishing Chicago mob boss soon fell victim to bullies and was even stabbed by a fellow inmate on June 23, 1936. In another favor by the guards, Capone was allowed to use his recreational time playing his banjo in the prison shower instead of going outside. This is where the legend of Al Capone at Alcatraz starts.
The ghost of Al Capone
Capone couldn’t risk spending his one hour of free time in the prison yard, as the threat of attack was too great. Instead, he spent his days in the shower room, “twanging” his banjo. But the thing is, nearly a century later, many, many sources have reported hearing banjo music coming from the prison shower room.
One of the people who heard the music was ranger Lori Brosnan, who said that visitors have also reported a “cold chill” in the room. Brosnan also reported that at times when every door in Alcatraz was locked up for the night, and she was the only one with the keys, doors were heard slamming, and whispers lingered down the halls.
The Battle of Alcatraz
Capone didn’t die at Alcatraz, but he lost his mind there. He was so far gone that he was released from federal custody and spent the rest of his life in hospital care. That’s a much better fate than the men who started and fought the Battle of Alcatraz, and their ghosts haunt the grounds for different reasons.
On the night of May 1, 1948, three prisoners, Bernard Coy, Marvin Hubbard, and Joe Cretzer, took multiple guards hostage and broke into the armory. Armed to the teeth, the three men took over and freed an entire cell block. But when their key to the outside didn’t work, they became trapped, and decided they were going to battle it out with whomever or whatever came their way.
The Battle of Alcatraz got nasty
Coy, Hubbard, and Cretzer were joined by two more inmates, and soon they had as many as 14 guards as hostages. Cretzer made the dubious decision to fire on the guards, and many of them were mortally wounded. As the body count mounted, the anger and frustration built, and some have said that rage can still be felt today.
A brave group of guards penetrated the cell house and managed to free the hostages, while the prisoners retreated to higher positions. During the night of May 2, the battle, now in its second day, continued as the guards unleashed a barrage of small arms, machine gun, and mortar fire at the prisoners. They asked to surrender, but Warden Johnston refused to accept it.
The Battle of Alcatraz and the energy that stayed
That’s a photo of associate warden E.J. Miller, who was wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the inmates. Apparently, a gas billy club exploded in his face when it was shot while in his hand. On the third day of the battle, Warden Johnston had had enough and brought in the U.S. Marines.
A barrage of heavy weapons killed all three of the inmates, and when it was finished, another two prison guards were dead and 14 were wounded. In 1982, a reporter named Ted Wygant, who was a skeptic of paranormal activity, spent the night in the corridor where the three men died. He said he felt inexplicable anger and the urge to shoot someone, saying that their energy lingered in the halls.
Inmate life on ‘Hellcatraz’
Encounters with the paranormal and tales of haunting are thought to come from the bad energy that emanates from the island, and the prison’s past. Inmate life was no picnic at “Hellcatraz,” as it was nicknamed, and many inmates lost their minds.
Alcatraz was the epitome of isolation, as every single cell was made for one man, and each prisoner spent 23 hours a day inside their cell. It’s said that their whispers can still be heard, and so can their maddening screams. But that’s just what reverberates, as there are many tales of prisoners themselves having terrifying encounters.
‘The thing’ in cell 14D
Sources say that guards have reported multiple terrifying encounters with spirits they could not see, but there is a reference to one thing that guards and prisoners alike report to have seen. Several sources have given accounts of bright-red eyes appearing in the dark, and those people have dubbed it “the thing.”
The most terrifying encounter with the thing stems from an inmate who was locked in the hole sometime in the 1940s. He screamed that someone was in there with him, and cried that it had “glowing eyes.” Thinking he was making it up, the guards left him alone, and eventually, the inmate fell silent. They found him dead in the morning, with strangulation marks on his neck.
Prisoners were driven to madness
Aside from all the Native Americans that died on the island, and all the prisoners from the 19th century, Alcatraz is still a place where death occurs often. From 1933-1962, when the federal prison was open, five random people, three guards, and a dozen prisoners were murdered. That’s not to mention at least five people that took their own lives.
As mentioned previously, prisoners lived alone in their cells, as they were 45 square feet, with a bed, washbasin, and toilet (nothing more). This environment led to reports of prisoners who cut themselves and did other unspeakable acts. As for the inmates in solitary on D Block, their spirits seem to still be present.
The legend of cell block D
Cellblock D is notorious at Alcatraz, as it was where prisoners went for punishment. And cell 14D (you guessed it, in D Block) is “permanently” cold, reported to be on average 20-30 degrees less than the surrounding area. The block had five cells, including 14D, that was dubbed “the hole,” for solitary confinement.
The block also had what was called a “strip cell.” For up to 19 days, prisoners were locked up, naked, in a cell lined with steel. The toilet was just a hole in the ground, and prisoners were kept in the dark and fed only once daily. Aside from general bad feelings, people today have reported sudden coldness, and even bad smells emanating from the D cells, 11, 12, 13, and 14.
Inmate Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson
“I don’t care what anybody says, that was Johnny Haus!” said former inmate Leon “Whitey” Thompson in the 1980s. Thompson was something of an Alcatraz expert, as not only was he formerly an inmate, but he later became a guide when Alcatraz became a national park.
He provided a unique view into life on Alcatraz and told people that prisoners very much believed the prison was haunted, and he was certainly one of them. One time in the 1980s, when he was working as a guide, a ghostly man suddenly appeared on “Michigan Avenue” (a long corridor) and started walking away from Whitey. He was startled, but there was something oddly familiar about the apparition.
The ghost of Johnny Haus
When Whitey was an inmate at Alcatraz, he made the acquaintance of a “big Texan” named Johnny Haus. The two knew each other well but parted ways forever (or so they thought) when the prison shut down on October 25, 1962. But on a day in the 1980s on Alcatraz Island, the two would meet again.
The ghost that appeared in front of Whitey had his back to him, and walked down “Michigan Avenue.” When it rounded a corner, Whitey took off after it, but the ghost disappeared. “I don’t care what anybody says,” Whitey later said. “That was Johnny Haus!” Whitey also later said that Alcatraz was “damned.”
The ghost from the Escape from Alcatraz
Somewhere between 8-13 men died trying to escape from Alcatraz (five are “presumed dead”), and while no one is thought to have made it, the most successful attempt occurred on June 12, 1962. That night, three men (John and Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris) tunneled out of their cells and braved the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay using makeshift life preservers.
The plan was genius, and nearly flawless, as they even created paper-mache dummies (see photo) to fool the guards. Nevertheless, the men never turned up, and it was thought that the three men drowned. Then, in 2013, the FBI thought they were contacted by a ghost when a letter arrived signed by John Anglin, 51 years after he was declared “dead.”
Escaping Alcatraz was a deadly proposition
Even though nearly every prisoner probably thought about escaping, there were only 14 attempts over the nearly 30 years that Alcatraz Penitentiary was open for business. Thirty-six inmates were involved in these escapes attempts, 23 were captured, six were shot, two drowned, and as previously mentioned, five are “presumed dead,” but were never found.
Among those who died was Arthur “Doc” Barker, who, with four others, got out of their cells and all the way to shore. As the men assembled a makeshift life raft, guards fired upon them, killing “Doc.” The men were returned to where they escaped from D Block.
The origin of ‘the thing’
“The thing” wasn’t always reported in D Block, as it seemed to roam the grounds. It also took different forms, as in the dark its eyes glowed, and in the day an entirely different apparition appeared. Inmates, guards, and other sources have spoken of the same thing: a man roaming the grounds in 19th-century clothing.
Records of the inmates in the original Fort Alcatraz have vanished, but there is some information that survives. Aside from the terrible conditions on Alcatraz, we also know that the 12th prisoner to arrive at Alcatraz was “insane.” Cooped up in the damp, cold quarters with other depraved souls, it is believed that his energy survives on the haunted island to this day.
Native American ghosts
Those Native Americans you see in the photograph are not apparitions, but plenty of their ancestors have been viewed as such. The Native American presence on Alcatraz was strong and always has been strong, as it spans some 20,000 years.
First, the natives avoided it and then banished their wicked. Then, some found refuge there to avoid being converted to Christianity. Then, in the early 1900s, members of the Hopi tribe who resisted the reservation system were brought there as prisoners. Multiple accounts by guards attest to times when they saw natives dancing in circles, then suddenly vanishing in the night.
Alcatraz Island is quite literally a large rock, hence the nickname, “the Rock.” The Rock’s location in San Francisco Bay made it an ideal fortress to guard the vast amounts of shipping and naval forces stationed in the area. When the lighthouse in this photo was built in 1859, 11 cannons were installed with it. One hundred more were added during the Civil War.
These weren’t just any guns, either, as they were 15-inch Rodman Guns, and to put that in perspective, think of the naval guns aboard a battleship; they’re the same size. Prisoners have reported phantom cannon blasts in the night, and guards have thought these were so real they’ve been compelled to arm themselves and search the island for the source of the blasts.
It was all fun and games until this happened
It’s unfortunate that we don’t know more about the prisoners on Alcatraz, as according to sources, they were the first to make claims about ghosts and phantom noises. At first, the guards made fun of the inmates, and just laughed it off, until one day, several of them had an encounter.
According to sources, a party was being thrown at the Warden’s House and it was attended by guards. All of a sudden, a man appeared, with thick “mutton-chop sideburns.” He wore a grey suit, brimmed cap, and left the room so cold that the Ben Franklin furnace that was heating the room was extinguished. The guards didn’t laugh any more after that night.
Abie Maldowitz was part of a New York crime syndicate called Murder, Inc. before he ended up at Alcatraz. In the 1930s and early 1940s, hitmen in the Murder, Inc. syndicate were responsible for as many as 1,000 murders. In that environment, Maldowitz got a nickname: “Butcher.”
According to prison records, Butcher was working the laundry one day when he was killed by a fellow inmate. For decades afterward, there were repeated reports of his presence in C Block. Whitey Thompson brought a reporter there, and upon arriving, she saw something and then described what Butcher looked like to a T.
The sewing room
In the late 1990s, two people, psychic Daena Smoller and psychologist Larry Montz, combed the buildings of Alcatraz with advanced electronic equipment. There’s no way to corroborate their story, but according to them, while in the sewing room, Smoller suddenly felt an intense pain in her neck.
Their equipment began picking up readings, and the pair swear up and down that they heard the buzzing of sewing machines. Unbeknownst to the two until after their encounter, a man named Henri Young killed another man named Rufus McCain in the sewing room in 1942, by stabbing him in the neck.
With all of these reports of the paranormal, there has been no shortage of investigators who’ve tried to initiate contact with the other side. One such investigator was a writer named Michael Kouri, and not only did he claim to have established contact, but he said he had an entire conversation with the ghost of a former inmate.
The man told him that he had been beaten, had his leg broken, and was placed in solitary confinement. Another investigator, a psychic, who the L.A. Times reported on, said she inexplicably started speaking German in a child’s voice while in the Alcatraz hospital. She said that Alcatraz “was frequented by spirits.”
The Birdman of Alcatraz
If Robert Stroud looks scary, that’s because he is. In 1942, while at Alcatraz, he was diagnosed as a “psychopath,” and in the same meeting scored an 112 IQ. He murdered at least two people, but while serving a life-in-prison sentence, he noticed a nest with three injured sparrows, and he took them in to nurse them back to health.
Soon, Stroud had 300 canaries in his cell and even wrote a book called Diseases of Canaries. The guards hated his birds, so Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz, where birds flying in and out of his cell was not only against the rules but nearly impossible. In 1994, a couple visited his cell, and said they heard canary noises, and saw Stroud reading a book on his bed.
The ghost woman of Alcatraz
Visitors have reported many encounters with the paranormal, and while some may only be in the eye of the beholder, others actually have photographic proof. In 2014, a British couple named Sheila Sillery-Walsh and Paul Rice, from Birmingham, England, snapped a picture of a ghost while taking a guided audio tour.
Sillery-Walsh was taking pictures with her iPhone, and nonchalantly took one of a door. Then she looked at the picture she had just taken, and the photograph revealed a ghost woman. “I have no logical explanation for the girl in the picture,” said Sillery-Walsh. “I’m baffled by her! It’s funny because she’s staring right at the camera, with a knowing look.”
The Occupation of Alcatraz
Native Americans were the first to claim the unwanted land of Alcatraz, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they made it theirs again. It started with a small group of Sioux tribesmen on Nov. 10, 1969, who claimed that a treaty from 1868 gave them the right to reclaim any abandoned federal land.
The event was known as the Occupation of Alcatraz, and for 19 months, members of many Native American tribes called Alcatraz their home. Eventually, they had to leave, as local officials cut their power and saw to it that running water was scarce. The natives abandoned their effort on June 11, 1971, leaving the island to the spirits of their kin to haunt whoever visits the island next.