Legends of Alcatraz

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Located in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island and Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary have been cited as one of the most haunted places in America,[1][2] and also as the most haunted prison in the country.[3]

The Los Angeles Times describes Alcatraz as the "most notorious federal penitentiary this country has ever known. Its history runs far and deep, as do the stories, the rumors, and the legends". The Native Americans mentioned the evil spirits they purportedly encountered on the island long before it became a federal prison.[4] Mark Twain documented the eerie atmosphere of the island after visiting it, described it as "being as cold as winter, even in the summer months."

Prisoners, rangers and visitors have reported a wide range of alleged ghostly activity on Alcatraz, from whispering in cells and locked cell doors shutting, to phantom figures in corridors, cold spots and even the sounds of musical instruments and sewing machines. Officials for Alcatraz have dismissed the reports of ghosts at Alcatraz as nonsense and deny their existence.[5]

Perceptions of Alcatraz[edit]

Jerry Lewis Champion Jr. stated that it is "easy to see that Alcatraz Island contains all the legend and aura for the tales of ghosts and lost souls."[6] The Los Angeles Times describes Alcatraz as the "most notorious federal penitentiary this country has ever known. Its history runs far and deep, as do the stories, the rumors, and the legends", and cited it as one of five major haunted spots in California.[7][8] Paranormal investigators consider the prison to be one of the most haunted places in the world.[9] Paranormal investigator Mollie Stewart declared Alcatraz to be "extremely haunted".[10]

According to historians, long before the prison opened on Alcatraz, early explorers to the island believed it to be haunted and it developed a reputation as a "bad place".[11][12] Western explorers visiting the island felt it had a disturbing atmosphere and spoke of the moonlit paths during the night.[13] Bones and artifacts unearthed by archaeologists on the island have indicated that it might have served as a burial ground for Native American outcasts.[14] Native Americans, known as Ohlone (A Miwok Indian word), were the earliest known inhabitants of the Alcatraz island. Even though they avoided the island as they believed that evil spirits resided there, they were using it for deporting their criminals under the tribal law to live on the island in isolation. They also gathered eggs of birds and marine food from the island. Even after the Spanish discovered the island in 1759, and started spreading Christianity, the natives who did not want to convert used the islands as their refuge.

Mark Twain documented the eerie atmosphere of the island after visiting it, described it as "being as cold as winter, even in the summer months",[15] and The Washington Post has also claimed that Alcatraz is a place "where visitors can sense the dread of past inhabitants still trapped in the atmosphere."[16] New York Magazine has said that although the penitentiary hasn't been operational since 1963, it "remains ultra sinister, perversely fascinating, iconic."[17] A documentary Haunted Alcatraz, broadcast on the Travel Channel, has said "there is little question that Alcatraz holds a particular place in our collective imagination, consistently evoking feeling, stirring and dark" and that the "power of the island" still captivates visitors after departure.[18] A 1995 book included Alcatraz as one of The 25 Scariest Places in the World.[19]

Prison background[edit]

Hopi inmates of the original military prison
Main article: Alcatraz Citadel

Alcatraz Citadel, also known as Fort Alcatraz, was the original military defense and prison on Alcatraz Island. The citadel was built in 1859 as a U.S. Army military defense, and began function as a war camp in 1861 and long-term military prison in 1868. During the American Civil War, the citadel and its batteries provided an important line of defense. The island continued to develop in the 1870s and 1880s, and in 1893, the first hospital on Alcatraz opened. A new upper prison was built in 1904, but after the citadel ceased function as a military defense in 1907 and the original citadel collapsed the following year, a $250,000 concrete military prison was erected between 1910 and 1912. In 1933–1934, the building was modernized and became the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. It incarcerated some of America's most dangerous criminals between 1934 and 1963. During its time as a Penitentiary, 8 people were murdered at the prison by inmates; a guard was murdered in the laundry room in the late 1930s, two died during the ill-fated 1946 escape attempt, and five inmates were killed in random attacks.[20] Five prisoners committed suicide, and at least a dozen died in total trying to escape.[20][21]

Reported activity in the prison[edit]

Claims by prisoners and guards[edit]

According to writers such as E. Floyd, "almost every guard and official who served there until it was shut down by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s experienced something out of the ordinary" and said that park rangers occasionally still reveal "shocking supernatural secrets".[9] During its time as a Penitentiary, both inmates and guards reported a wide range of purported ghostly activity in the prison. It is reputedly haunted by the ghosts of Native American prisoners and officials who perished on the island during the American Civil War and at the military prison.[22][23] Prisoners, many of whom were declared insane after serving time at Alcatraz,[23] reported peculiar whispering sounds in the middle of the night, floating blue lights and figures, moaning, and the clanking of chains in cells which were known to be unoccupied.[24] One inmate in D-block was reported to have seen glowing red eyes in the dark and screamed for hours.[22] He was found dead the following morning with a purple face, bulging eyes, and unidentified strangle marks around his throat.[25][26][27]

C-block

Guards initially laughed at the claims of ghosts by inmates but as time progressed some were reported to have experienced unusual activity themselves, including feeling cold spots, unseen fingers on the back of their neck, and crying in the night.[28] The first Warden of Alcatraz, James A. Johnston, was reputed to have heard a woman sobbing while conducting tour of the prison.[28] Occupants of the prison reported seeing prisoners from the early military prison in 19th century garb walking the corridors in A-Block which would disappear when approached by the guards, and one member of staff reputedly saw a gang of Native American prisoners marching around in a circle before vanishing.[28] Phantom gunfire, cannon blasts and fire alarms going off on their own accord have all been reported.[24] The Warden's House, now a burnt out shell since the Occupation of Alcatraz, is also reputed to be haunted;[29] during the time of the penitentiary, several guards reported seeing the spectre of a man with mutton-chop sideburns during a party wearing a gray suit and brimmed cap, leaving the room icy cold and extinguishing the fire in the Ben Franklin stove.[30] A phantom lighthouse has also been said to have emerged from the fog of San Francisco bay.[9]

Former inmate Leon "Whitey" Thompson, who worked as a guide at Alcatraz for many years and later visited it regularly before his death in 2005, believed that Alcatraz Island is haunted and has stated that "he could feel it" while he was incarcerated there. He later believed the prison to be "damned", and often had the sense of being watched by spirits.[18][21] During his time in the prison, Thompson was friendly with an inmate named Johnny Haus, a big Texan. He last saw him on 25 October 1962 when he left Alcatraz and knew he'd never see Haus again.[21] One day in the 1980s when Thompson was alone in the cellhouse waiting for visitors to arrive for a tour, he claimed to have seen a large dark figure at the end of the "Michigan Avenue" corridor. He saw the apparition walk around the corner and out of sight. Thompson rushed to the end of the corridor, but nobody was there. He believed the ghost to be that of Haus, by the way he walked and the feeling which the figure gave off. Afterwards, Thompson said "I don't care what anybody says, that was Johnny Haus".[31]

Claims by visitors and rangers[edit]

D-Block cell of Alcatraz

Since its closure, reports of unexplained clanging sounds, screams, and crying have often been reported in the prison blocks.[27][32] Unexplained footsteps and moaning have been reported in both A and B blocks.[27][33] C-Block is reputedly haunted by the spirit of former inmate Abie Maldowitz (nicknamed Butcher) who was murdered in the laundry room.[32] On September 5, 1984, a ranger spent the night alone on the island and was awakened by a heavy door swinging in C-Block, but found no cause for it; the door swinging continued on other nights.[33]

D-Block is considered by paranormal investigators to have the most activity in the prison.[25] Four of the 42 cells in this block are thought to be haunted, and unexplained voices have been reported in cells 11, 12, and 13. Cell 14-D, the worst cell for punishment in "The Hole" and of Alcatraz, is considered to be the most haunted cell in the prison.[6] Many people report that Cell 14-D is permanently icy cold, even during the summer, and is often 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit colder than anywhere else.[34]

Left:Al Capone at Alcatraz. Right: The showers of Alcatraz
Cell 181 in Alcatraz where Al Capone was imprisoned

Banjo sounds have been reported to emanate from the shower room, where Capone used to practice.[35][36][37] A park ranger also reportedly heard Capone twanging his banjo in the shower. Ranger Lori Brosnan has said that many visitors have reported feeling a cold chill when walking through the shower room, and one visitor reported feeling fingers on the back of his neck, but turned around and nobody was there.[27][31] Brosnan herself has reported unexplained sounds such as cell doors moving in the night when the vices were locked tight and only she had the keys.[38] Other rangers have also reported doors opening on their own accord, whispering sounds in cells, and the sounds of a harmonica.[38] Ghostly voices from the hospital wards have also been reported.[33][39] George "Machine Gun" Kelly has reportedly been sighted in the prison's church and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis is said to haunt the prison bakery and kitchen.[4] One visitor and his wife have claimed to have heard canaries singing in what was the cell of Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz", and to have seen him on the bed reading a book, yet Stroud was never permitted to keep birds in his cell as he'd done at former prisons.[5]

Claims by investigators[edit]

The inmates who were killed during the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946, Bernard Coy (left), Marvin Hubbard (center), and Joe Cretzer (right)

Numerous investigators and psychics such as Annette Martin and Jeanne Borgen and paranormal teams have sought to "contact spirits" at Alcatraz.[40] KGO Radio Morning News anchor Ted Wygant, a skeptic of the paranormal, visited Alcatraz in 1982 with psychic Jeanne Borgen and spent the night there.[21] Wygant said for most of the duration of the visit they found nothing, but around 3 am in the utility corridor, the place where three of the men of the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz were shot dead, he said that although it was pitch black, he suddenly got a "tremendous feeling of anger" and felt an evil presence lying on the floor at the place where the men had died.[38] He started cursing and said that he felt a strong compulsion to fire a gun at people.[38] Borgen said that it left Wygant quite out of character, and said that when they turned on the light, "his face was changed, you could see the anger and hate in his eyes".[38] Wygant has said though that it is quite difficult for him to believe there was something really there, but he is certain that he felt that something had happened.[38] In 1984, paranormal investigator and writer Michael Kouri claimed that he visited the prison and in a trance was spoken to by the spirit of a dead prisoner who told him that he had been beaten and had his legs broken and was placed in solitary confinement.[41] According to the Los Angeles Times, one woman, who claimed to be psychic, began speaking German in a child's voice on a tour of the prison hospital, and said that Alcatraz was frequented by spirits.[42]

Left:Sewing in the New Industries Building. Right:Henri Young

In the early 1990s, Sightings investigated the prison and claimed that they have evidence of ghostly activity caught on film at Alcatraz.[41] A CBS news team was also reputed to have experienced strange activity in the prison hospital and in the laundry room.[41] Psychic Daena Smoller and psychologist Larry Montz investigated the prison and found nothing in D-Block or the cellhouse but equipped with a magnetometer, they picked up a reading in the New Industries Building in the area where inmates had been employed in sewing.[18] Smoller says that she picked up on the intense sound of buzzing of sewing machines and energy of the workplace and suddenly felt an intense pain in her neck.[18] Nothing happened for several minutes until the magnetometer reportedly "jumped".[18] Montz said that unless there was an electromagnetic device in the building which would cause it to have taken place, then there was "definitely paranormal activity taking place".[18] Apparently unknown to the investigators, the incident had occurred in the area that Henri Young had murdered Rufus McCain, stabbing him in the neck.[18]

Rebuttal of haunted claims[edit]

Despite former guards and park rangers revealing their paranormal experiences at Alcatraz, officials for Alcatraz have publicly dismissed the reports of ghosts at Alcatraz as nonsense and deny their existence; an official for Alcatraz said in 1994, "These ridiculous ghost stories will stop tourists from visiting. And how can these people say they heard canaries? We don't have any birds in here."[5] Mary Forgione of the Los Angeles Times also stated that "The National Park Service, which operates the island as a tourist site, pooh-poohs this, calling it Hollywood hype."[8] Alcatraz, run by the National Park Service, therefore does not operate an "official ghost tour" for tourists, but such tours, organized by independent parties, are permitted in the prison.[27] Former prison guard Frank Healy, who served at Alcatraz as a young man from 1948 to 1951, has said that it was easy to gain a negative feeling at the prison at a time when it was all "doom and gloom", although he said that if any place would have ghosts it would be Alcatraz.[31] Tracy Grant of The Washington Post, in discussing the book "Ghost Hunt" which documents the alleged haunting at Alcatraz, has said "Authors Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson claim to be ghost hunters, and in this book they offer stories about the ghosts of inmates at Alcatraz prison and the idea that the ocean can be haunted. These stories are definitely scary, but don't take them too seriously. After all, ghosts aren't real. Are they?"[43]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dolan, Rebecca (19 October 2012). "America's Most Haunted Places". Huffington Post. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  2. ^ Wetzel 2008, p. 33.
  3. ^ Person & Taylor 2010, p. 26.
  4. ^ a b Lynch & Canwell Sutherland, p. 125.
  5. ^ a b c Weekly World News. Weekly World News. 29 March 1994. p. 21. ISSN 0199574X. 
  6. ^ a b Lewis Champion Jr 2011, p. 165.
  7. ^ "‘Alcatraz’ ARG: Unlocking the secrets of J.J. Abrams’ show". Los Angeles Times. 17 January 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Forgione, Mary. "5 Haunted Spots in California". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c Floyd 2002, p. 1.
  10. ^ 2006, p. 124.
  11. ^ Oliver 1998, p. 16.
  12. ^ Needham & Needham 1976.
  13. ^ "San Francisco Bay's Angel Isle". The New York Times. 27 August 1967. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  14. ^ Floyd 2002, p. 2.
  15. ^ "The beauty on the bay, San Francisco's natural and manmade charms await you". Sunday Gazette Mail, accessed via HighBeam Research. 1 February 2004. Retrieved 6 April 2013. 
  16. ^ Barrett, Andrea (14 October 2007). "Consuming Silence; While anarchists terrify America, these patients in Saranac Lake must endure their own quiet terror". The Washington Post, accessed via HighBeam Research. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  17. ^ New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. 10 June 1996. p. 60. ISSN 00287369. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f g "Haunted Alcatraz, Part 4". Travel Channel. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  19. ^ Emert, Phyllis Raybin; Jarrett, Lauren (1995). The 25 Scariest Places in the World. Lowell House. ISBN 978-1-56565-277-4. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  20. ^ a b Glionna, John M. (7 April 2007). "Alcatraz: Getting rattled on 'the Rock". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  21. ^ a b c d "Haunted Alcatraz, Part 1". Travel Channel. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  22. ^ a b Vale 2008, p. 30.
  23. ^ a b "Night in Alcatraz' D Block a haunting experience". San Francisco Chronicle. 4 October 2009. Retrieved 7 April 2012. 
  24. ^ a b Floyd 2002, p. 3.
  25. ^ a b Weekly World News. Weekly World News. 25 October 2004. p. 39. ISSN 0199574X. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  26. ^ Wetzel 2008, p. 38.
  27. ^ a b c d e "Alcatraz Ghost Tours". USA Today. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  28. ^ a b c Floyd 2002, p. 4.
  29. ^ Kessler 1979, p. 47.
  30. ^ Person & Taylor 2010, p. 22.
  31. ^ a b c "Haunted Alcatraz, Part 2". Travel Channel. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  32. ^ a b Sammons & Edwards 2005, p. 240.
  33. ^ a b c Dillon 2001, p. 172.
  34. ^ Dwyer 2005, p. 69.
  35. ^ Richards 2004, p. 175.
  36. ^ Doak 2011, p. 13.
  37. ^ "Take a tour of haunted America". Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, accessed via HighBeam Research. 1 October 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  38. ^ a b c d e f "Haunted Alcatraz, Part 3". Travel Channel. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  39. ^ Gregory 2008, p. 151.
  40. ^ Auerbach 2003, p. 21.
  41. ^ a b c Floyd 2002, p. 5.
  42. ^ Glionna, John M. (12 July 2001). "Willing Captives of Alcatraz Lore". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  43. ^ Grant, Tracy (26 October 2007). "Stories to send a chill up your spine". The Washington Post, accessed via HighBeam Research. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 

Bibliography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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