Alcatraz Still Haunts Us

Alcatraz Still Haunts Us

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Alcatraz!

One of Alcatraz's many birthdays, August 11, 1934 is the day the federal government delivered 137 hardened criminals to its shiny new maximum security prison. Well, perhaps not so shiny. The one-time military prison, one-time fortress, one-time banishment rock has been in use for quite some time and plenty of blood has been shed.

The indigenous tribes of the now-San Francisco area, the Miwok and their western friends, the Ohlone (regional group of tribes renamed Costanoans by the Spanish), are said to have feared the island and its vague evil spirits. I can't find any information on these evil spirits except one, lone website that claims the Ohlone believed there were half-man-half-eagle creatures covered in feathers who were missing an arm, had a giant wing, and ate anyone who went to the rock. Archaeologists can confirm that the Ohlone likely used the barren land has a place of banishment for those who defied tribal law and, later, a hiding place when the Spanish tried to force Christianity on them.

In 1769, the Spanish found the island and renamed it Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, due to the large bird colony. It was later called Alcatraz, likely because non-Spanish speaking white people couldn't pronounce Alcatraces. I'll interject to note that Alcatraz isn't actually an island. Geologically, it is a mountain in a valley that is now covered in San Francisco Bay water.

The US Army had it's eye on Alcatraz as a strategic military point of protection for San Francisco and took it over in 1848 after the Mexican-American War. In 1853, they began work on a fortress and installed over 100 cannons by the start of the Civil War. Not counting the unknown death toll of banished Ohlones, the first deaths on Alcatraz occurred in 1857 when a landslide buried several laborers and killed two of them.

Though mainly a fortress, the military also used Alcatraz as a war prison for US soldiers, Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, and Native Americans. Paiute Tom was the first Native American to arrive in 1873 from Camp McDermit in Nevada. Incarcerated for unknown reasons, Paiute Tom was shot and killed by a guard, also for unknown reasons, two days later on June 7, 1873. That same year, 6 Modocs arrived: Barncho, Sloluck and four others. They were sentenced to hang for murders during the Modoc War, but Ulysses S. Grant commuted Barncho's and Sloluck's sentences because they were so young. The other 4 were hung and Barncho died of tuberculosis, as one does in crowded, filthy living conditions. In 1898, US troops coming back from the Philippines after the Spanish-American shared their souvenir of tropical disease, killing many.

The US military decided they were done with using Alcatraz as a fortress and in 1907 they converted it to strictly a military prison. In their 16-year rule of the island, 80 military prisoners attempted escape. 62 were captured, generally when the current pulled their makeshift driftwood rafts back. 1 prisoner drowned, 17 others were never found.

In 1933, the military decided they had enough fun and handed it over to the federal government who turned into a maximum security penitentiary. 32 of the military prisoners remained. On August 11, 1934, 137 of the country's most dangerous prisoners were dropped off on Alcatraz. Throughout the next year, the prison population would swell to over 240 and included many high-profile men like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and its longest tenent, Richard Stroud, β€œThe Birdman of Alcatraz.” He just really liked birds. A lot.

The strict policy of silence drove many insane and 5 men committed suicide. 8 men were murdered by other inmates. Just 36 prisoners attempted escape. 20 were captured, again because the current dragged them back. 7 men were shot and killed trying to run, like Doc Barker in 1937. 2 drowned in the San Francisco Bay. However, 5 lucky(?) guys managed to get out. The first successful escape was by Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe in 1937. It was assumed they drowned, but were later found alive in South America. In 1962, Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris disappeared.

The most violent, bloody event, The Battle of Alcatraz lasted from May 2-4, 1946. Six men, Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Clarence Carnes, Marvin Hubbard, and Miran Thompson tried to escape, but, lacking a critical key, decided to fight. They killed two guards taken hostage. Shockley, Thompson and Carnes eventually returned to their cells, presumably by force. Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard continued to fight, were eventually killed, but not before wounding 17 guards and 1 prisoner. Shockley and Thompson were sent to the San Quentin gas chamber. Carnes was given a second life sentence.

Alcatraz ceased operation in 1963 due to high costs and widespread public criticism. Shortly after, a group a 40 Sioux activists protested on the island for 4 hours. An old federal treaty declared that all retired or abandoned federal land is to return to the Native American people who once occupied it. This group was threatened with felonies if they did not disband. Six years later, the Indians Of All Tribes (IOAT) took up residence on Alcatraz. The Occupation of Alcatraz lasted nineteen months, from 1969 to 1971, with 89 residents to start with and swelling to over 400 at its peak. In 1970, the stepdaughter of one of the original protesters plummeted three stories to her death. Her family decided to leave and several more followed suit. With fewer numbers and dwindling public support, the government cut off power and telephone service. It is also alleged that the San Francisco Police set fire to the island to try to force the IOAT off Alcatraz. Shortly after the fire, on June 11, 1971, a group of officers forcibly removed the final 15 protesters from Alcatraz.

Naturally, Alcatraz is a fantastic site for California ghost stories and urban legends. Paranormal activity has been reported by many throughout the years, but the National Park Service disputes this. Perhaps the most famous is the Demon of Alcatraz. A prisoner had been murdered in Cell 14D. Another prisoner placed in that cell claimed to see glowing red eyes. One night, he was found strangled with fingermark bruising on his neck. That day, the body count was one inmate too high. Block C is allegedly haunted by three prisoners who attempted to escape and eventually died in prison. The Michigan Ave cell block is said to have a ghost that stares at you, creates a horrible smell, loud crashes and screaming.

One night, a group of guards were playing cards in the warden's office. They claim that they were dealt cards by a phantom and fled. In the 1950's, the warden's wife was hanging laundry and claimed she saw 50 or 60 Civil War soldiers on the shoreline. An administrative worker also claims to have seen them and heard cannons go off. Perhaps these were the 45 Civil War soldiers that died on Alcatraz. There are many stories of hearing coughing, harmonicas, cell doors slamming, laughter, and hazy apparitions.

Regardless of whether the ghost stories are true, so many suffered and died on Alcatraz. The years of despair and violence have left their mark on San Francisco, on California, and this country. History shows that the tension between our governing entities and the people have only worsened. Perhaps later I'll post about the Zoot Suit Riots, the Watts Riots, the Newhall Massacre, Bloody Christmas, the LA Riots and the general civil unrest of the last 20 years in California.

Malvina Reynolds' performance of "Alcatraz (Pelican Island)", Benefit for the Indians on Alcatraz concert. Recorded at Stanford Chapel, Stanford University, December 12, 1969.
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