“The Rock” became a synonym for Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay long before its penitentiary housed the most desperate federal prisoners in the United States for almost 30 years, from 1934 to 1963. Alcatraz’s historical significance reaches much further back in time and possesses more facets than the story of bank robbers and kidnappers. On the island stood the first lighthouse on America’s Pacific shores, a light that has guided ships in and out of the magnificent bay for almost 125 years. For nearly 75 years, the island served as a military prison for army convicts from both the western states and overseas possessions. And for 50 years, Alcatraz played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor.
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A Description Despite later tales that the island was honeycombed with Spanish tunnels and dungeons, it attracted very little attention ;from explorers and settlers before the Mexican War. Nor was there much about it that was attractive. Alcatraz jutted out of the bay, a barren irregularly shaped rock that was devoid of flowing water as well as vegetation. An American army officer described it as being “entirely without resources within itself and the soil is scarcely perceptible being rocky and precipitous on all sides. Its first surveyor wrote: “This Island is chiefly composed of irregularly stratified sandstone covered with a thin coating of guano. The stone is full of seams in all directions which render it unfit for any building purposes & probably difficult to quarry.” He added: “The island has no beach & but two or three points where small boats can land.” His survey showed that the island was I, 705 feet long and that its maximum width came to 580 feet. Its long axis lay in a northwest-southeast direction. When viewed in profile it had two “peaks” that reached elevations above sea level of 134.9 and 138.4 feet. The guano probably gave cause for the name White Island that was occasionally applied to it. The Rock measured about 22 acres.
The first European to visit the island mayor may not have been Frigate-Lt. don Juan Manuel de Ayala, who sailed the first ship into San Francisco Bay in August 1775. On August 12 he set out in a small boat from his temporary anchorage at Tiburon for nearby Angel Island, which he named Isla de los Angeles. Although he found good moorings there, he decided to inspect further before deciding on a harbor: “I rather preferred to pass onward in search of another island, which when I reached it proved so arid and steep there was not even a boat-harbor there; I named the island de los Alcatrazes [Island of the Pelicans] because of their being so plentiful there.
The citizens of San Francisco were not at all overjoyed to have a federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. Throughout October 1933, the San Francisco Chronicle listed group after group who opposed the scheme. Chief of Police William J. Quinn, the Police Commission, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors spoke out against a federal prison for gangsters on the island. An editorial in the Chronicle argued that Alcatraz was too close to the city to be a summer resort for bad men. Professional gangsters, it said, would have outside friends who would help them escape. It recounted that over the years 17 military prisoners had successfully escaped by swimming or by stealing boats and another six had gotten away by one ruse or another. The Federation of Women’s Clubs joined the uproar of protests. Two young women, Doris McLeod and Gloria Scigliano, made separate and successful swims out to the island to demonstrate how easily it could be done by an escaping prisoner. In January 1934 the Chronicle proposed that a statue of peace be erected on Alcatraz instead of a prison. But the protests fell on deaf ears; the Justice Department continued its planning.
In October 1933 the Justice Department prepared a statement saying that it had completed arrangements for taking over the military prison. Stressing the security of the island, the statement pointed out that Alcatraz had long been known as one of the best disciplined and most secure penal institutions in the country. It would serve well for the present campaign against racketeers and confirmed criminals. In the initial negotiations, the War Department planned to evacuate the island promptly. But a hitch developed that caused the army to remain on Alcatraz until June 1934. In the permit to the Justice Department, the secretary of war required the penitentiary to continue the laundry services to certain army posts in the Bay Area and to the army transports that docked at Fort Mason. It was readily apparent that the Bureau of Prisons required time to remodel the prison before the first federal prisoners could be brought there. Thus the military prisoners continued to operate the laundry, while the Bureau of Prisons revamped the prison facilities. The records indicate that the two agencies cooperated amazingly well during the transition period. The army permit contained several other conditions and agreements besides the laundry services. The military turned over motor launch General McDowell to the Justice Department (this was General McDowell II and not the grand old steamer). The army water boat was to continue to furnish water to Alcatraz on its regular harbor runs with the Justice Department paying its share of the cost. No buildings were to be erected on the island without the approval of the War Department. The army reserved the submarine telephone and telegraph cables, 338, 465, and 703 for itself, and civilian employees on the island were be transferred to the Justice Department, perhaps the most important of these being J.H. McFadden, the island’s superintendent of construction.
Sanford Bates, director of the Bureau of Prisons, recognized early that some repairs and improvements would have to be undertaken to make Alcatraz a place of maximum security. One important major change would be that of replacing the open-hearth steel window bars with tool-proof steel. Bates also considered the installation of gas and gun (metal) detectors. He wrote the Prison Equipment Bureau in Cincinnati, Ohio, asking if it would send an expert to Alcatraz to determine what had to be done. Robert C. Bunge, consulting engineer, completed his report for the Prison Equipment Research Bureau in November 1933. In addition to its importance in describing the changes to be made, Bunge’s report also disclosed some modifications that had been made to the prison since Colonel Turner drew his plans of the building in 1910.
In contrast to the army regime, prisoners were now to be restricted to only the area containing the prison, the utility building at the northwest end of the island, and the laundry shops building adjacent to the power plant. The entire eastern side of the island from the powerhouse to and including the southeastern end of the island would be off-limits to convicts. It was necessary, said Bunge, to seal off the old communication tunnel (from fortification days) that ran across the island, its western end being in the prison work area: “The tunnel that runs from the power house across to buildings no 84 [dry cleaning plant] must be made escape proof as it forms a direct connection from within the walled area to the outside part of the island. This can be done by installing a tool-proof grated door in either or both ends of the tunnel.” Grated doors were installed at both ends of the tunnel. Later the west end was sealed off with concrete also. Bunge’s report also made the following recommendations: Guard barracks (building 64)–Bunge thought it should be used as quarters for guard personnel; however, its entire interior should be gutted as it was wooden and a dangerous firetrap.
Disciplinary barracks (building 68)–Shower room in basement, put tool-proof window guards on all windows and a new steel plate door with observation panel in it between shower room and hall. Rest of basement; put tool-proof window guards on all windows. Replace all doorways with new plate or grating doors and frames. In the northwest corner is a tunnel carrying the steampipes, electric lines, waterlines, etc. At present it is possible to lift an iron cover over this tunnel entrance and get out of the building. Enclose this area with a tool-proof grating having a door.
First floor: Put in a cutoff plate and door leading from the outer to the inner hall; the door to have an observation and speaking panel. Put new double plate and grating doors with speaking panel in the entrance between the inner hall and the cell room proper; the door to have observation and speaking panel. Put new plate door with speaking and observation panel between the inner hall and the squad room. This will be a temporary means for visitors to communicate with prisoners. Put new window guard in the lavatory in the inner hall. Enclose with a tool-proof grating the stair area for the stairs that go from the inner hall to the second floor. Remove the soft steel grating and wood that forms the entrance between the commandant’s room and the cellblock, and concrete up this opening.
Put tool-proof window guards on all windows of the cell room proper. Put new double plate and grating doors between the cell room and the outside stairway on the northeast corner of the cell room (one of the old granite entrances from the former Citadel) . This is the doorway that eventually will be used as an entrance to the industrial area from the cellblock proper. Put new grating door between cell room and mess hall, to be the sliding slam-door type. Put new double plate and grating doors from cell room to the outside stairs on the northwest corner of the building which is another entrance to the industrial area (through the stockade). Put new double grating and plate doors between cell room and the sentry’s walk on the wall around the enclosed recreation area (stockade). All plate doors to have observation panels.
The department has decided to use the two main cellblocks in this room (army nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5; bureau of letters Band C). These two blocks are three tiers high, having fifty-eight cells on a tier, making a total of 174 to each block, for a total of 348 cells. Remove all present steel cell fronts and locking devices and replace with modern cell fronts and locking devices made of tool-proof steel. Remove the four sets of spiral stairs and construct a new stair in the open space where the cellblocks are divided. Enclose the area of these cellblocks between the top of the upper cell tier to the underside of the roof slab with tool-proof steel grating. Since the two smaller outside cell blocks (army nos. I and 6, bureau letters A and D) are not to be used, the area occupied by them are to be enclosed with a wire mesh grating having doors. Replace the grated doors to the utility passages on both ends of the cellblock and at each tier level. In the center of the cellblock which is to become the stairwell, the openings from this area to the utility corridor have no enclosures around them (eight of them). These should be enclosed with tool-proof steel grating.
There is a fresh-air intake, five inches by four feet, under each radiator. This opening should be enclosed with tool-proof grating. In each cell at present there is an electric light outlet in the ceiling that is unprotected. A prisoner could blow all the fuses in the cellblock. A wall light box should be placed on the back wall of each cell, so fastened that it cannot be tampered with from the cell side but from the utility passage side. Some type of guard enclosures should be built in the mess hall and guard stations at each tier at each end of the cell room. In the cell room are two open entrances to the basement, in which the storage room and fresh, softened water tanks are (the basement of the old Citadel). Since these are in areas not to be used and which will be enclosed with wire grating, they do not need consideration. On the northwest wall of the cell room is a stair that goes to the shower room. It is now protected by soft-steel grating. This is satisfactory, because a prisoner could escape only to the shower room, Mess Hall, Kitchen, and here, the engineer recommended:
Put tool-proof window guards on all windows. Put in cutoff grating with a sliding door and a slam lock on it, cutting off the mess hall from the kitchen. Put new cutoff grating and doors enclosing the identification room (?) and the stair entrance to the hospital on the second floor. Put in a new cutoff grating and a door enclosing the stair hall leading from the mess hall to the basement. Put in new grating door enclosing the stairway from the kitchen to the basement. Second Floor: Since the department has decided not to use the assembly hall (it later did) or any rooms on this floor, recommend that the present three wooden bridges connecting the second floor to the floor of the second tier of cells be removed and the openings to the assembly hall be dosed with concrete. The stairway from the south corner of the cell room to the chaplain’s office has been removed. The door to the chaplain’s office should be closed with concrete. (The library on this second floor was also retained for a time.) All hospital windows should be protected with tool-proof window guards. The entrance door from the outside stairs in the north corner of the hospital should be enclosed with a tool-proof plate and grating door having an observation and speaking panel. In the stair hall there should be a cutoff grating with a door so that prisoner-patients may use the toilets.
There is a special hinged steel window guard in the room marked “Stores.” This is for receiving supplies in the hospital from the basement level outside the building. Recommend that this window be closed solid with a tool-proof window guard and that supplies for the hospital be brought up the stairs. The dumb waiter now on the outside of the building should be removed. In the stair hall there is a trap door to the- roof; it should have a steel grating with frame and with a prison lock.
In response to Bates’s interest in tear gas and gun detectors, Federal Industries forwarded a series of recommendations to him for improving security on the island. Because of the number of employees and their families who would be living on Alcatraz, the firm considered it impossible to surround the island with “electro-static or micro-wave” protection. Instead it recommended the use of two police dogs to accompany day and night patrols, especially on the northeast side of the island; that each outside guard be equipped with a Thompson submachine gun (U. S. Navy model); that only gas guns be used about the prison proper and that wall guards be armed with gas riot guns and hand grenades; as well as installation of five federal gas guns in the main entranceway to the prison building, connected to a turret that would be so located as to operate both the entrance doors and the gas ($3,775); installation of an electro-magnetic gun protection in the entranceway; installation of 20 federal tear gas guns in the ceiling girders of the mess hall and kitchen, these to be operated from a turret in the corner of the mess hall ($9,050); and 8 tear gas guns in the ceiling of the assembly hall, with turret ($5,050).
Thomas F. Butterworth, the bureau’s chief inspector, visited Alcatraz in January 1934. His inspection report described the various service systems on the island:
One could readily assume that Ayala had reached today’s Alcatraz. However, the chart resulting from this first survey of the bay clearly labeled today’s Yerba Buena Island as de los Alcatraces. Some scholars, such as Stanger and Brown, believe that the chart was inaccurate and that the name was applied to the wrong island by an unskilled hand, and that Ayala’s “arid and steep” island was indeed today’s Alcatraz. Others assume that the chart is correct, that Ayala did visit Yerba Buena, and that the name was later accidentally changed. Stanger and Brown believe that Ayala’s phrase could only have applied to today’s Alcatraz and not to the more bountiful Yerba Buena. Supporting this conclusion, on the one hand, is the army’s experiences on Yerba Buena around 1870, when it had a full-fledged post on the island capable of supporting 150 men. A spring and a well supplied a limited but adequate amount of water. And the post boasted a 5-acre garden. Photographs taken at the time show a heavy natural growth of grasses, bushes, and large shrubs. On the other hand, Ayala’s own pilot, Jose de Canezares, described today’s Yerba Buena as “rough, steep and with no shelter.
In the late 1850s, the first inmates to occupy Alcatraz were military prisoners who were put to work building a new prison that later became known as “The Rock.” The U.S. Army used the island until 1933, at which time the Federal Government decided to open a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary to deal with the most incorrigible inmates.
Alcatraz was designed to break rebellious prisoners by putting them in a structured, monotonous routine until their release. Prisoners were given four basic things – food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Receiving anything beyond that had to be earned. Famous criminals, such as Al Capone, George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis and Arthur “Doc” Barker, spent time in Alcatraz. Mobsters in other prisons often managed to manipulate special privileges from guards, but not at Alcatraz.
The Strip Cell
Prisoners refusing to follow prison rules risked being confined to the Strip Cell, located on the lower tier of D Block. It was a dark steel cell, where inmates would be stripped naked and given water and bread once daily, an occasional meal and a mattress at night. The only ‘toilet’ was a hole in the cell floor and there was no sink. While there, convicts had no contact with others, spending their time in pitch-dark solitude.
The Hole on D Block
Similar to the strip cell, there were five ‘hole’ cells also on the lower tier, where prisoners were kept in isolation for up to 19 days. The cells had a toilet, sink, lightbulb and a mattress provided during the night only.
Because of the huge cost to refurbish the prison it was closed in 1963. Later the island and parts of the prison were reopened by the Parks Services for daily public tours.
Tales of Torture
The fact that Alcatraz was built on an island and kept so isolated from public view, tales of inmates being tortured and of their bitter spirits coming back to haunt the halls of Alcatraz began to circulate.
The Ghost Stories of Alcatraz
The Utility Corridor
One of the areas which some claim is the most active with paranormal activity is a utility corridor where inmates Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard were plummeted with bullets after a failed prison escape. It is there that in 1976 a night security guard reported hearing unexplained eerie clanging sounds coming from inside.
Cell 14D, one of the ‘hole’ cells is believed by some to be very active with spirits. Visitors and employees have reported feeling a raw coldness and at times a sudden ‘intensity’ encompasses the cell.
Tales have been told of an event in the 1940s, when a prisoner locked-in 14D screamed throughout the night that a creature with glowing eyes was killing him. The next day guards found the man strangled to death in the cell. No one ever claimed responsibility for the convict’s death, however the next day when doing head counts, the guards counted one too many prisoners. Some of the guards claimed seeing the dead convict in line with the other inmates, but only for a second before he vanished.
Other stories have circulated that Warden Johnston, nicknamed “The Golden Rule Warden,” also faced a bizarre event while showing some of his guests around the prison. According to the story, Johnston and his group heard someone sobbing from inside the prison walls, and then a cold wind whisked past the group. Johnston could never explain any reason for the occurances.
Cell blocks A, B, and C
Visitors to cellblocks A and B. claim they have heard crying and moaning. A psychic visiting wrote that while in Block C he came upon a disruptive spirit name Butcher. Prison records show that another inmate in block C murdered Abie Maldowitz, a mob hitman known as Butcher.
The Ghost of Al Capone
Al Capone, who spent his last years at Alcatraz with his health in decline from untreated syphilis, took up playing the banjo with a prison band. Fearing he would be killed if he spent his recreational time in the “yard,” Capone received permission to spend recreation time practicing his banjo in the shower room.
In recent years, a park ranger claimed he heard banjo music coming from the shower room. Not familiar with the history of Alcatraz, the ranger could not find a reason for the sound and documented the strange event. Other visitors and employees have reported hearing the sound of a banjo coming from the prison walls.
More Paranormal Reports
Other odd events experienced over the years include guards smelling smoke, but finding no fire; sounds of unexplained crying and moaning; unexplained cold spots in areas of the prison and claims of seeing ghosts of prisoners or military personnel.
Could it be Alcatraz is haunted? Ghost hunters have said they feel parts of the island and areas of the prison evoke a certain “strangeness.”