Alcatraz has long captured the public imagination as the focal point of movies such as The Rock and The Great Escape which give us a glimpse inside one of the world's most famous maximum-security prisons. Dark tourism is a growing industry and as such a famous and enthralling prison, many of them choose to visit Alcatraz, with many companies offering guided tours to the remote island in San Francisco Bay.
Here are ten eerie and lesser-known facts about The Rock, a place known for hosting many high-profile inmates, no official escapes, and described by Mark Twain as "cold as winter, even in the summer months."
10 It Beat Al Capone
Al Capone is the original tough-guy gangster and in prison, this was no different. In Atlanta, Capone enjoyed special privileges through bribery and his notoriety. However, this wouldn't happen in Alcatraz where he was locked up in 1934. He was treated just like everyone else and within a year, was broken and labeled by the guards as a model prisoner.
Capone did, however, ask for one special privilege: to form a band, which he named, "The Rock Islanders." In a letter to his son, he wrote about how he learned how to play the banjo and over 500 songs, even writing a love song entitled, "Madonna Mia." It's safe to say this was not the same Al Capone that entered the prison a few years prior.
9 Water, Water, Everywhere
The sight of the island in San Francisco Bay is an eerie one, over a mile out and often surrounded by a dense sheet of fog. Alcatraz is a prison surrounded by another prison of ice-cold water. This has a psychological effect on the prisoners, quelling any thoughts of escape. Although the island is surrounded by water, it is a literal rock: no water flowed and each week over one million gallons were sent to the island.
The prison was also unique in that it offered its inmates hot showers. However, this was far from being a courtesy. It was to make the prisoners less familiar with cold water and therefore, less inclined to attempt escape. A myth also existed that the bay was infested with sharks. This was not true and the only sharks that lived in the bay were harmless, though the guards probably kept this secret close to their chests.
8 25 Years on The Rock
Criminals sent to Alcatraz were not sent there directly. They arrived from other prisons due to extreme disobedience. Alcatraz was hard and would discipline the prisoner before sending them back to a typical federal prison. Prisoners were sent here indefinitely, typically six to eight years before being sent back reformed.
This was not the case for the Alvin Francis Karpis, nicknamed "Creepy Karpis" on account of his odd smile. Karpis was a big Depression Era gangster and served the longest sentence recorded at Alcatraz, a staggering 25 years beginning in 1936 and ending in 1962 as Alcatraz closed its gates.
Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison and notoriously rigid in its rules and day to day life. This, coupled with the solitude of being on an island led to the deterioration of many prisoners' mental health. One inmate famously chopped off his fingers while working but most prisoners were stir crazy, meaning the mundanity of their everyday lives had them living as husks, repeating their days soullessly. On most nights, guards would practice their shooting on dummies as the prisoners listened. The following day, inmates would walk by these dummies observing the guards' accuracy. This had a harsh psychological effect on the inmates.
Prisoners spent most of their time alone, rarely socializing with other inmates. Also, visits were highly restrictive and controlled. Allowed only once a month, the inmate was separated by his visitor by a window and a guard closely monitored both the inmate and visitor.
6 Mythic Dungeon
Alcatraz was built atop a military fort dating back to the 1850s and only became a Federal Prison in 1934. To inmates, the "Spanish Dungeon" was a product of the old fort and used to torture prisoners who stepped badly out of line. The dungeon, built by military prisoners between 1901-1911, generated many myths among inmates.
It was rumored to have been built during the Spanish Inquisition and was below sea level. Although the old brick and constant dripping made this seem likely, the dungeon is a 20th-century construction.
Punishment at Alcatraz was extreme. At the dungeon, prisoners were chained up standing in total darkness, often with no food and regular beatings. These punishments often lasted for as long as 14 days and by 1942, the dungeon was found to be unnecessarily cruel and closed.
Cell Block D was dubbed "The Hole" since the cells were composed of only a hole to be used as a toilet. Inmates were poorly fed while in The Hole, beaten often, and experienced sensory deprivation for days on end. Prisoners would be force-fed during hunger strikes and cells were a mere five feet by nine feet.
The prison is recognized as one of the United States' most haunted prisons. In addition to its use as both a military and a federal prison from 1859 to 1963, the island was recognized by local Native American tribes to have been haunted by evil spirits.
As for the prison we know today, time spent there was dehumanizing and one can easily see how the spirits of many inmates could still be stuck there. At cell 14D for example, a cold feeling remains today, almost 100 years after a man mysteriously died there yelling of a spirit with yellow eyes attempting to kill him. Later, guards reported seeing him at roll call. Visitors to the prison report strange feelings and occurrences, including a psychic who reported speaking to a man who was murdered at Alcatraz named Butcher, and a Park ranger reported hearing a banjo playing in the shower room.
3 Nobody Escaped (Officially)
Alcatraz saw eight murders, five suicides, and 15 natural deaths, as well as 36 escape attempts. None, however, have successfully escaped. Many argue that three men did, in fact, in July 1962. Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin managed to escape from their cells and attempted to flee the island by using a makeshift raft.
Some believe the men successfully escaped as no bodies were ever found, however, no evidence exists to show the contrary either. The mystery will likely never be solved.
2 Boys Only Club
No woman was ever an inmate or a guard at Alcatraz. The majority of inmates went an average of six to eight years without seeing or hearing a woman's voice, though some went over 20. However, technically women and children lived on the island among these dangerous criminals.
Alcatraz had a civilian population of over 300 people, primarily the families of the guards and the island had a quasi-normal town with shops, barbers, and all the essentials for a normal life.
1 Cells Were Tiny
Even the most typical of Alcatraz's 336 cells was pretty far from comfy, measuring a meager five by nine feet, which is about the distance of two arms outstretched. Typically they were very basic, consisting of a bed, sink, toilet, and basic table to write or read. What else could an inmate do with lights out at 9 at night and isolated days?
These tiny cells, coupled with everything on this list, made life both as monotonous and miserable as possible for these prisoners and it's no wonder the infamous prison had many suicides and broke many minds and spirit.