Myths of Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island is veiled in the fog of myth.
by Kevin Hoover
December 9, 2014
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At just 22 acres, infamous Alcatraz Island is a place crowded with harrowing history and some fearsome fables. The rocky perch in San Francisco Bay was for millennia an isolated habitat for seabirds, but has become best known for its jailbirds. Native Americans called it an “evil Island,” and Alcatraz has come to be associated with violence and evil, having served as a military fortress, hosted various prisons with notorious inmates of “the vicious and irredeemable type,” stood for years as a ghost-infested ruin, and been the backdrop for multiple major motion pictures, none of them lighthearted fare. To find out whether The Rock lives down to its hype as the beautiful bay’s bad boy, let’s hop on the ferry at San Francisco’s Pier 33 and take a little cruise, to Alcatraz Island.
A rough-hewn jewel located just one and a quarter miles off San Francisco’s shoreline at a prime defensive location inside the bay’s entrance, Alcatraz was equipped in the 1850s with troops and cannons to defend the city and its Gold Rush assets.
The first myth might be that Fort Alcatraz could repulse an invader’s attack. This island apparently couldn’t shoot straight.
On July 3, 1876, a mock battle was staged. A barge packed with explosives was towed into the bay, with Fort Alcatraz poised to pummel the faux invader with its mighty guns.
Yeah, that didn’t go so well. Alcatraz’s cannons couldn’t hit their mark, and the old schooner was unscathed. Finally, under cover of smoke, a young officer went out and set the ship on fire, vanquishing the imaginary enemy and keeping the bay safe from sitting-duck schooners full of explosives.
Eventually, Alcatraz’s guns were dismantled, never having fired a single shot in war.
Of course, Alcatraz gained its most enduring fame as a prison.
Indians are first said to have banished their misfits and malcontents there, and the Union later followed suit, imprisoning non-compliant Indians, Confederate sympathizers and its own military misbehavers.
In 1934, it became Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a prison for the hardest hardcores. The prison’s moat was the frigid, swirling waters of San Francisco Bay. Escape was considered all but impossible. And therein lies our next myth.
People did escape from Alcatraz, in that they left and never went back. But did they survive? No one knows, but theories abound, as do strong opinions based solely on speculation.
For all the lore and legends, Alcatraz’s stats aren’t all that impressive. Its 336 cells were never fully occupied, the prison averaging just 260 men – no women – behind its walls each night. In its 29 years as a federal prison, Alcatraz held fewer than 1,600 prisoners.
Some 36 of these were involved in 14 escape attempts. Of those, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, two drowned, and five are are listed as "missing and presumed drowned."
Escape from Alcatraz
The most celebrated escape attempt took place in June, 1962, when three men made their way out in an elaborate plan that exploited the island prison’s every weakness.
After 29 years, Alcatraz was facing closure, funding was declining, staff was short and its warden was the hard-drinking, heavy smoking Olin G. “Gypsy” Blackwell, known as a hands-off administrator.
He was on vacation the night Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin escaped from their cells. The three made their way to the roof, down to the shore and off the island on a rubber raft they had meticulously constructed out of prison-issue materials.
Where could they have fabricated an inflatable boat, paddles, life jackets and the fake heads they made to place in their bunks and spoof patrolling guards the night of their escape?
By enlarging air vents, the conspirators gained access to a common utility corridor behind their cells. Once inside, they could climb pipes to the top of Cell Block C, where, overhead in the building’s ceiling, a man-sized air shaft led to the roof, open air and freedom.
Collaborator Allen West conned the guard staff into letting him fully enclose part of the cell block’s roof with 200 feet of hanging blankets, ostensibly to contain dust during cleaning and painting.
So, in the middle of the country’s most celebrated, high-security lockdown, scheming prisoners were actually able to create their own secret workshop with an escape hatch, hiding in plain sight.
Had the guards simply peered inside the celltop enclosure, they might have found the flotation devices, plus paint, glue, tools and even a cobbled-together periscope used for lookout purposes.
But they didn’t. So, for months, after hours while other noise was being made but within feet of guards patrolling on nearby catwalks, the prisoners were able to build everything they needed for their escape.
The prison’s letting inmates cordon off a portion of the cell block from view is what made the 1962 escape possible, a fact successfully covered up by prison authorities for decades and only revealed with the release of secret FBI files in the 1990s.
The image of Alcatraz as a formidable federal pen patrolled by no-nonsense “bulls,” at least in its later years, appears to be a myth. Per prior plans, the legendary prison was to close within a year of the breakout.
After the three escaped, a massive manhunt was launched spanning bay, coast and land. Though countless swimmers have successfully made the journey from island to shore, currents weren’t favorable for the inmate sailors at the hour of their escape, and would have carried them out toward the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.
All that was ever found was a paddle, some personal photos in a pouch and some life jackets made of raincoat material.
No bodies were ever recovered, though a Norwegian freighter later reported sighting a body floating, face-down, 20 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, in clothing consistent with prison garb.
On Dec. 31, 1979, the FBI turned the case over to the U.S. Marshal’s Service. It will remain open and active until the three escapees are found dead, arrested or turn age 100. That will happen in 2026, 2030 and 2031.
Sightings of the men have been reported all over the world, but never verified. Some romantics insist that the three anti-heroes settled in South America. Doubters assert that they couldn’t have survived the treacherous night currents of San Francisco Bay, much less quietly lived out their lives fully undetected outside of jail.
Supervising U.S. Marshall Michael Dyke, who still follows up on a half-dozen or so leads every year about the 1962 escapees, said his initial investigative technique is falsification. When a tip trickles in, he tries to prove it wrong. If he can’t, he pursues it.
But over 52 years, little to nothing in terms of sightings, rumors and conspiracy theories, has panned out.
Bottom line: No. One. Knows. What happened to the escapees.
Oh by the way, the dangerous, man-eating sharks that authorities used to like to say filled the bay waters? Myth. They’re mostly sand sharks, with no taste for humans.
The Rock successfully contained hundreds of bad guys, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, the famed “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
The Birdman offers another set of mini-myths, most notably that prison transformed a feral criminal into a gentle, kindly, self-trained biologist and humanitarian. That describes the narrative arc of the 1962 film, The Birdman of Alcatraz, featuring Burt Lancaster as Stroud.
Stroud performed pioneering research in avian pathology. He was a prolific author of high intelligence who penned two learned tomes on matters avian, plus a posthumously published autobiography and a book about the prison system.
But like a songbird’s call, Stroud was complex. He was also a pimp, a raging psychopath and impulsive murderer whose hazard reduced only with age. He entered the prison system at age 19, and never left. Stroud killed a guard, tangled with other inmates and spent 42 of his 54 years in prison in solitary confinement.
While Stroud was a “birdman,” his scientific inquiry all took place at Fort Leavenworth, not Alcatraz as the myth goes. Ironically, he wasn’t allowed to pursue avian science, or even harbor birds, at the timeless bird habitat that is Alcatraz Island.
The movie also mythologizes Stroud as the peace broker in the Battle of Alcatraz, who threw the inmates’ guns out to the surrounding authorities.
That simply didn’t happen. The rebellious inmates were found dead in a utility corridor , still holding the weapons they took from guards.
Given the amount of anguish expended by the souls who spent their years on this lonely, cruel rock outcropping, the walls must be saturated with anger and despair. As any competent parapsychologist knows, this means the ghostly possibilities are endless – as are descriptions of them. Photos of the windblown, seemingly lonely island somehow fail to capture the full-on, running rave of restless souls partying down on The Rock.
From its days as an army prison during the Civil War remains an unknown Confederate soldier, who, in an officer’s uniform and sporting a handlebar mustache presumably woven from ectoplasm, roams the island’s shore.
Other ghosts take wildly varying forms, appearing as shadows, mists, cold spots, a little girl, purple faces, even a large yellow cat.
They’re noisy, too, sometimes moaning, sobbing or screaming, or bellowing cries for help. They manipulate objects – clanking chains, firing gunshots, even playing the harmonica.
Al Capone has been heard playing the banjo, as he used to do in the shower room.
Unseen things brushing past you, taps on the neck and sudden, icy chills have been described, as have fearful feelings, from rage to tingling to vibrations.
Nowhere are the undead more active than in three-story D block, known as the “Treatment Unit” along what inmates called “Sunset Strip.” Six isolation cells on the floor level contained The Rock’s most incorrigible guests. The most haunted of the isolation cells is said to be 14D, a featureless “strip cell” at the block’s far end, where prisoners were sometimes held naked.
Cell 14D is deeply recessed into the concrete walls behind double doors, and decidedly dark, dank and disquieting. It’s nowhere you’d want to spend any time. Nor, during our moments there, did any restless spirits.
An aspiring Skeptoid paranormal investigator visited cell 14D, as have many before. With little regard for personal safety, we summoned interested guests from beyond to make an appearance on the show.
Audio: “Calling any spirits in cell D14. Say anything you like.” (Ambient noise.)
Unless the spirits manifest as casually attired families and friends toting digital cameras and water bottles, they were nowhere to be seen, or heard.
U.S. Marshall Dyke said he has spent a lot of time sitting in Robert Stroud’s cell, patiently awaiting any sign of a lingering presence. “I didn’t sense anything,” Dyke told Skeptoid. “The hair doesn’t stand up on the back of your neck.”
For all the sincere and compelling stories by prisoners, guards, visitors and ghost detectives, nothing has been authenticated. The frightful feelings can’t be measured or repeated; no one can say with certainty they did or didn’t happen, or define the paranormal processes involved. In other words, the terrifying tales aren’t falsifiable. Since they can’t be disproved, they can’t be proved, and without proof, the stories aren’t anything science can call evidence.
So, is Alcatraz haunted? Alas, we just don’t have any data to support that lovely myth, just great stories.
One thing everyone can agree on is that Alcatraz is kind of creepy.
There’s a lot more to Alcatraz than mystery and mythology. The island’s natural history, its occupation by American Indians from 1969 to 1971 and its many colorful personalities all beckon interest.
Nowadays, Alcatraz is anything but a last stop on the way to misery. It’s a prime tourist destination, operated by the U.S. Park Service. Instead of muttonchopped apparitions, rosy-cheeked young park rangers greet you at the ferry landing, full of interesting information about the storied island. Rather than grizzled hardcores packing shivs and plotting escapes, the prison’s corridors teem with waddling tourists. And those clanking chains? They’ve been replaced with ringing cash registers in the Alcatraz gift shop, where you can buy prison garb, books and innumerable other trinkets. Even Alcatraz’s much-abused grounds are getting some love, thanks to an extensive gardening project.
Spend an afternoon or evening on Alcatraz, as do a million and a half tourists every year. You’ll have fun amid the ruins; maybe you’ll even snap a clear picture of a phantasmic prisoner. That would make you the first to prove true the Myths of Alcatraz.
By Kevin Hoover
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Cite this article:
Hoover, K. "Myths of Alcatraz." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
9 Dec 2014. Web.
29 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4444>
References & Further Reading
Babyak, Jolene. Breaking The Rock. Berkeley: Ariel Vamp Press, 2001.
BOP. "Alcatraz Origins." Historical Information. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 7 Mar. 2005. Web. 9 Aug. 2015. <http://www.bop.gov/about/history/alcatraz.jsp>
Bruce, J. Campbell. Escape From Alcatraz. New York: Ten Speed Press, 1976.
Nadel, Ira. Alcatraz:History and Design of a Landmark. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012.
NPS. "History & Culture." Alcatraz Island. National Park Service, 19 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 Sep. 2015. <http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/index.htm>
Thompson, Edwin N. The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island 1847-1972. Denver: U.S> Dept. of the Interior, 1979.
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