Astounding Facts About Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay, California, operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Prior to that, it was a fort and a military prison. Several infamous criminals spent time on “The Rock,” including Al Capone and Robert Stroud, before it closed down when it became too expensive to maintain.

While you may know the basics about this infamous penitentiary, there are some chilling facts you probably haven’t heard. Read more about the escape attempts, paranormal activity, and other interesting occurrences at this island of incarceration…

Alvin Francis Karpowicz Was One Of The Four Men Dubbed ‘Public Enemy #1’ By The FBI

fingerprints
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Inmate Alvin Francis “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz spent more time at Alcatraz than any other prisoner. He was known for his scary smile, and he was a big-time criminal during the Depression. He was a member of the Barker Gang, which was notorious for its bank robberies, burglaries, kidnappings, and auto theft.

He spent 25 years at Alcatraz and was transferred to another prison when it closed. At one point, Karpis had his fingerprints removed by underworld physician Joseph Moran.

Guards Perpetuated The Myth That Sharks Would Eat Prisoners Who Tried To Escape

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US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Legend had it that escaping from Alcatraz was impossible because the San Francisco Bay was full of sharks, which had a taste for humans. But it was merely a legend and far from the truth. There were sharks in the bay; however, they were bottom feeders who were no threat to people.

The guards perpetuated this myth to keep inmates from even trying to escape. If they did manage to get into the ocean, they would have struggled with extremely cold temperatures, strong currents, and a one-plus mile swim to shore. Drowning was also a major possibility.

Alcatraz Provided Hot Showers For A Chilling Reason

GettyImages-515298724
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Not many prisons provided hot showers for inmates, but Alcatraz was the exception, and it wasn’t because the state felt that residents deserved a little bit of luxury. In reality, higher-ups thought if the inmates got used to the hot showers they wouldn’t be able to handle the San Francisco Bay’s frigid waters.

The theory was that this would prevent the prisoners from escaping. Still, a few men tried to escape anyway even though it was a very bad idea.

The Ghost Of Al Capone May Be Lurking In The Prison Today

Al Capone
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Al Capone was a model prisoner, so he was given some privileges, including permission to play the banjo. Fellow inmates enjoyed the music, and he knew hundreds of songs. Sometimes he spent his recreational time practicing in the shower room.

Not too long ago a park ranger, who didn’t know the story, claimed to hear banjo music in the shower area. There have been other employees and visitors who have also reported hearing the music. Is it possible that Capone’s ghost is responsible for the eerie sounds?

Many Men Tried And Failed To Escape

Alcatraz escape
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Thirty-six prisoners tried to escape from Alcatraz when it was a federal penitentiary. Twenty-three were caught, six were fatally shot, two gave up, and five were deemed “missing and presumed drowned.”

Today, highly-trained athletes participate in the Alcatraz Triathlon every year, an annual event that’s been held since 1980. It includes a 1.5-mile swim to San Francisco, an eight-mile run, and an 18-mile bike ride. So, it is possible to swim from the island to shore, but only if you’re in really good shape.

The First Escape Attempt Ended Really Badly

escape attempt
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Prisoner Joe Bowers was the first person who tried to escape from Alcatraz. In 1936, Bowers attempted to scale a chain-link fence located on the edge of the property. While he did get off the island, he was not in any condition to enjoy shore life.

Guards spotted Bowers on the fence, and he refused to get off of it. This forced one of the officers to shoot him. Bowers wound up falling between 50 to 100 feet. He did not survive.

However, Two Escapees May Have Survived

alcatraz cell
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin devised an intricate escape plan, which was documented in the book and movie, Escape From Alcatraz. Using homemade tools and dummy heads featuring real human hair, the men drilled holes in the cell’s walls and made life jackets out of prison raincoats.

Two men were never found, but one decomposed body was discovered on the shore a few weeks later. The official report concluded that all three had drowned. However, the U.S. Marshals Service case file remains open. Relatives of the Anglin brothers are convinced (and have a little bit of circumstantial evidence) that they escaped to Brazil.

Alcatraz Island Was The Perfect Spot For A Prison Because Of The Rocks

Alcatraz is a barren island
Barney Peterson/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Barney Peterson/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

When you think of an island, you may think of a pleasant tropical location. Well, Alcatraz Island is anything but. Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered it in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans. Prisoners, on the other hand, called it “The Rock.”

The reason why is the island is incredibly barren. There are no beaches, no flowing water, and very little vegetation. The first surveyor who visited the area believed it was too rocky to house any structures at all. Yet, it became a very fitting spot to host a federal penitentiary.

The Prison Caused Some Inmates To Go Insane

rows of cells
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Can prison make you lose your mind? Apparently one like Alcatraz could. Several inmates who spent time in the penitentiary had a very difficult time coping with the environment and ended up going insane. A few of them practiced self-mutilation, and there were also several people who made attempts on their lives.

One inmate purportedly chopped off all the fingers on his left hand. Another attempted to slash his throat with a pair of eyeglasses He wound up dying when trying to escape.

The Cells Were Frighteningly Small

The cell pictured is like that of all the other prisoners on Alcatraz
Bettmann / Contributor
Bettmann / Contributor

If you had claustrophobia, Alcatraz was definitely a place to avoid. The cells in the penitentiary were comparable to the size of a closet. They measured just five feet by nine feet, which sounds like a decent amount of space until you realize that you can touch the walls of the cell by merely stretching out your arms.

These cells were barely big enough to house a cot, toilet, and sink. If you wanted a bigger cell, you had to get to D block. The downside? These cells were for solitary confinement.

The Most Defiant Criminals Were Sent to Alcatraz

Defiant Criminals were sent to Alcatraz
Sabri Celebioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Sabri Celebioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What type of men had to serve time at Alcatraz? Unlike most penitentiaries, criminals weren’t automatically sent to Alcatraz. Those who were shipped to the island weren’t necessarily the worst or most violent on the block. Instead, those whom guards had a hard time handling and those who were very defiant ended up on the Rock.

The idea was to make these offenders shape up and learn how to obey the rules. If they did so, they would eventually be transferred to another prison.

The Infamous Birdman Of Alcatraz Was A Really, Really Bad Man

Robert Stroud
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Robert Stroud was a respected ornithologist, and at one point a “Committee to Release Robert F. Stroud” was formed to get him out of prison. This was despite the fact that Stroud was known as an “extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath.” He was a pimp at age 18, and he caused the death of a bartender in 1909.

While serving time, he fatally stabbed a guard and was known for his violent confrontations with other prisoners. Eventually, he was sentenced to life in prison and was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He is still considered one of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history.

Prisoners Were Incarcerated For An Indeterminate Amount Of Time

Prisoners Were Incarcerated For An Indeterminate Amount Of Time
Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

What made Alcatraz unique was that the prisoners who spent time there didn’t have set sentences. Most of them spent between six and eight years there, and that time was based on how long it took them to behave properly.

Inmates who transformed into “model prisoners” would eventually leave Alcatraz. They either transferred to their original prison or were given parole. Still, many of them had to serve multiple life sentences, so they had the potential of serving time on the Rock for many, many years.

Alcatraz Didn’t Have A Death Row, But Several Inmates Died There

A guard stands by as prisoners enter the Alcatraz mess hall for supper.

Alcatraz never executed any of its prisoners. The facility did not have a death row nor the ability to execute its inmates. However, several men did wind up dying while serving time there. The inmates themselves took eight lives. And five died from self-inflicted causes.

An additional 15 inmates died naturally. It may seem like a large number of deaths, but it really wasn’t. In fact, deaths were so infrequent on the island that the prison didn’t even have a fully operational morgue.

Some Prisoners Actually Babysat The Officers’ Children

long row of cells
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Do you remember your babysitter growing up? Did you like him or her? Well, your childhood caregiver was probably a bit more low-key than the ones that worked at Alcatraz. The prison was a minimal-security facility prior to 1933, and several inmates passed the time by babysitting.

They would watch some of the children of the officers. Can you imagine what that would have been like for the kids? By the time Al Capone arrived in 1934 (and it was transformed into a federal penitentiary), the prison no longer allowed inmates to babysit.

The Prison Had A Dungeon

Alcatraz had a dungeon
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

The “Spanish Dungeon” consisted of a block of cells situated below A block at Alcatraz. Rumors about the dungeons were rampant, and some former prisoners claimed they were built during the Spanish Inquisition (which they weren’t), while others insisted the dungeons were built under the water line.

While the dungeons did exist, they were built 100 feet above (not below) the water line. They remained open until 1942 when the Bureau of Prisons director discontinued their use because he thought they were cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Machine Gun’ Kelly Spent Nearly Two Decades at Alcatraz

Kelly mugshot
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Notorious criminal George “Machine Gun” Kelly was a bootlegger who conspired with his wife Kathryn Thorne to kidnap a wealthy businessman for ransom. They were sentenced to life in prison, and Kelly wound up at Alcatraz during the same period as Capone.

Kelly loved bragging about his criminal activities, but eventually he felt some remorse and wrote a letter to his victim, apologizing for his crime. He never received a response. Kelly spent 17 years on the Rock before being transferred back to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. He died there in 1954 following a heart attack.

One Mysterious Death Is Still Unexplained To This Day

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Was there paranormal activity at Alcatraz when the island housed its federal penitentiary? Some people claim that many unusual things occurred before it closed down in 1963. One incident took place in the 1940s in cell 14D. It involved a prisoner who was locked inside.

He screamed throughout the night that something with glowing eyes was attempting to hurt him. The following morning, officers found him dead by strangulation. However, the cause of death was never determined. Even scarier, guards later reported seeing his ghost in line with other prisoners during a headcount.

The Worst Offenders Were Sent To “The Hole”

The Worst Offenders Were Sent To
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz was difficult, but it was even worse for inmates who were punished for not following the prison’s rules. No one wanted to end up in cell block D, which contained five cells and was known as “The Hole.” The cells were very cold and had very little light.

Prisoners who ended up in The Hole were beaten and starved. Even worse was the “strip cell,” a single cell at the end of The Hole. It was completely bare except for a hole in the floor that served as a toilet.

The Prison Was Previously A Military Fort

Prison Was Previously A Military Fort
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images
Bettmann, contributor, Getty Images

Before Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary, it was a fort. In 1850, it was turned into a military base with the purpose of defending San Francisco Bay. A jailhouse was built on the property in 1867, and during the Spanish-American War of 1898 its prison held 450 inmates.

The prison was expanded over the following 15 years with large concrete cells. This block of cells still remains on the island today. In 1933, the military part of the fort was decommissioned, and it was turned over to the Prisons Bureau.