The Spanish first explored the island which was later to house the infamous prison. The name “Alcatraz” is an English adaptation of the Spanish word for “pelicans”. The island passed into U.S. hands with its acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War.
In 1850 the U.S. military took over the island of Alcatraz and used it to house long-term prisoners until 1934 when it became too costly to maintain. In 1934 it became a federal prison which was intended as a place of last resort for inmates who were considered troublemakers in other federal penitentiaries. Among the most notorious of its prisoners were the racketeers Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin “Creepy” Karvis, and Arthur “Doc” Barker of the Ma Barker gang.
The prison was intended to be escape-proof. Until it closed in 1963, there were fourteen separate escape attempts by thirty-four men. In almost all cases, the men were killed or recaptured. The last escape attempt was depicted in the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood. The fate of the three men involved in the escape was never determined: they were never recaptured and were presumed drowned.
The prison on Alcatraz, often referred to as “The Rock,” was known as a cruel place with its notorious “holes”: a series of cells that were used to punish non-complying inmates by keeping them in complete isolation with minimal or no clothing, bread and water for sustenance, and no toilet facilities—sometimes for up to nineteen days.
Alcatraz was closed as a federal prison in 1963 by Attorney General Robert Kennedy due to the costs of its upkeep and the deterioration of its buildings. It was placed under the National Park Service in 1972, and was opened to the public the following year. Since that time it has become extremely popular as a tourist attraction with regular tours of the facilities.
Alcatraz has captured the popular imagination as the subject of innumerable books and movies, and a television series in 2012.
It has been fifty years since Alcatraz was closed as a prison. To listen to the memories of a former prison guard and a former prisoner, as well as to see photographs, please visit the NPR website at http://www.npr.org/2013/03/31/175847684/living-memories-from-the-last-days-of-alcatraz.
Is Alcatraz haunted? Clanging sounds, footsteps, voices, sobbing, and screams have been reported by both park employees and visitors. Perhaps one of the eeriest stories is the report of the sound of faint banjo music coming from the shower room. Al Capone spent hours strumming his banjo there rather than exercising in the yard and facing assaults by fellow prisoners.
If the evil that men do and the misery they suffer lives after them, Alcatraz is a natural haunting place.