Here's just a couple of interesting tales:
- Long before Alcatraz became home to some of the most notorious outlaws in the country, it was known as a place to be avoided by Native Americans who believed it to contain evil spirits. These Native Americans, called the Ohlone (a Miwok Indian word meaning "western people,") often utilized the island as a place of isolation or banishment for members violating tribal laws.
- From 1850 to 1907, the island served as Fort Alcatraz as a U.S. Army post taking on the role of the most powerful coastal defense in the west. In addition to its strategic defensive position, the island also took on the additional role of serving as a stockade for enlisted men.
- The first Confederate threat to California occurred in March, 1863 when the army learned that a group of southern sympathizers planned to overtake San Francisco Bay. Their strategy was to arm a schooner, use it to capture a steamship, blockade the harbor, and attack the fort. However, when the schooner’s captain bragged about the scheme while drinking in a tavern, the news was quickly relayed to Union officials. On the night the schooner was set to sail, the U.S. Navy seized the ship and arrested the crew. When the boat was towed to Alcatraz, the army found cannons, ammunition and 15 more men hidden in the ship.
- During the Civil War, Alcatraz's role as a military prison increased. In addition to the numerous military personnel committing crimes in the army, local civilians who had been arrested for treason were incarcerated there. Soon the rooms in the guardhouse began to fill.
- After the Civil War during the Indian Wars of the Old West, numerous Native Americans were incarcerated at the military prison. One such prisoner, Chief Kaetena, a compatriot of Geronimo, was sent to Alcatraz after battling against General George Crook's army. In January 1895, nineteen Hopi leaders, who had been involved in land disputes with the government and refused to comply with mandatory government education programs for their children, were severely punished by sending them to the “Rock.”
- As the ships of the U.S. military became more and more powerful, the defensive purposes of Alcatraz became obsolete. In 1907, Alcatraz was re-designated as the "Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison” and prison guards replaced infantry soldiers. Continuing to serve as a military prison until 1934, many of the buildings were constructed by prison labor during this time, until some 600 cells occupied the prison. As a Military Prison, there were at least 80 men who attempted to escape in 29 separate attempts. Of those, 62 were captured and returned to the prison, one may have drowned and the fate of 17 others were unknown.
- By 1933, the army decided that the island was too expensive to operate. In the meantime, the gangster era was in full swing, brought on by the desperate need of the great depression, combined with Prohibition. The nation’s cities were witnessing terrible violence as shoot-outs and public slayings became frequent when mobster’s took control. The ill-equipped law enforcement agencies were often bought off by the gangsters or cowered before the better-armed gangs of nattily dressed men. Simultaneously, the existing prisons were experiencing a number of escapes, rioting and gang-related murders. Alcatraz was the ideal solution to the problem and J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the opportunity to create a “super-prison” that would instill fear in the minds of would-be criminals, offered no means of escape, and a place where inmates could be safely controlled. Negotiations soon began and Alcatraz was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in October 1933.
- 1934 saw the arrivals of the "Rock's" first prisoners - infamous men like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. Until 1963, the prison would house the "worst of the worst" criminals in the country, the part of Alcatraz history made famous by numerous movies, and for which we are more familiar. During these years the prison housed a total of 1,545 prisoners. 36 men attempted to escape in fourteen 14 separate attempts. Of those, 20 were captured, seven were shot and killed, two drowned, and five were never found, assumed by prison authorities to have drowned.
- On November 9, 1969, Native Americans claimed the island demanding its use for a Native American Cultural Center and Indian University. The occupation continued for more than a year until June 10, 1971, when armed federal marshals, assisted by the Coast Guard, swarmed the island and forcibly removed the Indians.
- Today, a number of otherwordly entities are said to lurk in the shadows of the often fog-enshrouded island and have been heard, seen and felt by both the staff and many visitors to Alcatraz. The sounds of men’s voices, screams, whistles, clanging metal doors and terrifying screams are said to be heard within these historic walls, especially near the dungeon.
If you too, hold a fascination with Alcatraz and decide to pay a visit, make sure you book your reservations well in advance for the tours as they often book up days in advance.
For the full article on Alcatraz, visit The History & Hauntings of Alcatraz on our website.
Alcatraz Island National Park Service
Golden Gate National Recreation AreaFort Mason, Building 201
Alcatraz, San Francisco, California 94123
Visitor Information - 415-561-4900 Reservations - 415- 705-5555