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Ghostly Inhabitants of Alcatraz

Updated on July 15, 2011

Alcatraz 1895

‘Island of the Pelicans'

The name Alcatraz comes from the original Spanish name "La Isla de los Alcatraces." Translated, it means ‘Island of the Pelicans'…so named by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. The Island has been designated government property since California became a state in 1848.

Alcatraz was used as a military fort to protect the San Francisco Bay and by 1870 it had become a long term detention facility. Apparently, some of its residents never left. Perhaps it is best known as the country’s’ toughest federal penitentiary and one of the most haunted places in America.

The original Native American inhabitants believed the island to be inhabited by evil spirits. These spirits continue to lurk in the shadows. The sounds of men’s voices, screams, whistles, clanging metal doors and terrifying screams are said to be heard, especially near the dungeon. Sometimes Indians who had broken tribal laws were sometimes sent to the island as punishment…some even banished for life to live with the evil spirits.

Military Prison in 1907

Alcatraz was officially declared a Military Prison in 1907 and remained as one until 1934. At that time it was transferred to the Dept of Justice and made a Federal Prison. For nearly 30 years, Alcatraz housed some of the worst criminals in America until it closed in 1963 because of disrepair and cost three times as much to operate compared to other prisons.

While the island was a federal penitentiary, guards reported hearing sounds of sobbing, moaning, terrible smells and something they described as "The Thing.” It was said to have glowing eyes. Other guards and families living on the “The Rock” claimed sightings of phantom prisoners and soldiers.

"The Hole"

Warden Johnston

Reportedly, even Warden Johnston, who was known as a devout skeptic, once heard the unmistakable sounds of a woman sobbing during a guest tour of the prison. The cries, also heard by the visitors, were said to come from inside the walls of the dungeon. Just as the sobbing stopped, an icy cold wind sent chills through the group.

Since the 1940’s, apparitions have been seen at the burned-out remnants of the warden’s house. One story is told about a ghostly encounter during a Christmas Party at Warden Johnston’s. Several guards described a ghostly man who suddenly appeared wearing a gray suit, brimmed cap, and mutton-chop sideburns. As the guards stood frozen in their tracks the room suddenly turned icy cold and the fire in the Ben Franklin stove went out. Less than a minute later, it vanished.

And on foggy nights, many say the old lighthouse will suddenly appear, accompanied by a whistling sound and a flashing green light. The green light slowly travels around the island and has been seen by guards and visitors alike. The eerie spectacle disappears as quickly as it came.

Realistic Screams

Other guards told of hearing cannon fire and gunshots, accompanied by screams so realistic guards hit the ground for cover believing there had been a prison break and somehow acquired firearms. After the initial shock, the guards would cautiously look around and see absolutely nothing. These incidents have never been explained.

Another frequent experience was the smell of smoke coming from a deserted laundry room. Upon investigation there was black smoke so thick it the guards were driven from the room. However, minutes later, the room would be completely smoke free.

The infamous D-Block is said to be, the most haunted block in the prison. It was originally constructed the same as other prisoner blocks, but was later reinforced making it more secure. This action was prompted by an escape attempt in 1939 escape attempt, in which Arthur "Doc" Barker was killed.

D-Block, became known as the "Treatment Unit” and had 42 cells. All inmates in D-Block had absolutely no contact with the general population. Thirty-six of cells were like others in general population however, these prisoners were not allowed to work, nor go to the mess-hall. They were allowed one visit to the recreation yard and two showers each week. All meals were served in their cells. These cells all faced the Golden Gate Bridge, from which fierce cold winds often blew. One sadistic guard was known to turn on the air conditioning to make the inmates’ situation even more unbearable.

Five of the remaining cells were known as “Strip Cells,” but more commonly called “The Hole.” These were reserved for the most serious trouble makers and were located on the bottom tier, the coldest place in the prison. They contained only the basic necessities: a sink, toilet, low wattage light bulb and a mattress, which was removed each morning. Inmates confined to “The Hole” were limited to not more than 19 days.

The last “Strip Cell” was known as the "Oriental.” This cell was reserved for those deserving the most severe punishment the prison could assign. Those sentenced to confinement in this dark steel encased cell were deprived of all peripheral senses. There was no sink or toilet, only a small hole in the floor to dispose of prisoner waste.

Inmates assigned this treatment were stripped of their clothing, given a restricted diet, and confined in a cold, total pitch-black darkness. This level of punishment was limited to no more than 2 days.

A former guard at the prison in the 1940’s, reported his peers often saw a ghostly apparition of a man wearing late 1800’s prison attire walking the hallway next to the Strip Cells. On one occasion, when an inmate was locked in "the Hole,’ he began screaming someone with glowing eyes was already occupying the cell. His screams continued late into the night. Then there was total silence until dawn when the guards inspected the cell. The man was found dead with a horrified expression on his face and noticeable hand-prints around his throat. An autopsy revealed the strangulation was not self-inflicted.

Some believed a guard who couldn’t tolerate the man’s screaming anymore did it. However, no one ever admitted to the accusation. Others still believed he was killed by a restless, evil spirit. Adding more confusion to the puzzle was something else. When the guards did a daily head count, there was one too many in the line-up. At the end of the row, stood the dead convict. Guards and prisoners alike stared in stunned silence as the figure vanished.

Visitors and staff to Alcatraz tell of cold spots within the hallways of D-Block. Cells 12 and 14 D are the most active. Cell 14-D, is said to be almost 20 degrees colder than others and numerous psychics have felt emotionally charged impressions in these cells where punished prisoners were known to have suffered. It is said some park rangers refuse to venture there alone.

Michael Kouri, co-author of Haunted Alcatraz, described receiving psychic impressions while visiting cell 14-D. He describes “seeing” a small man with a head shaved who ‘told’ of being beaten and his legs broken by guards.

On another occasion noted ghost hunter Richard Senate and a psychic spent the night. Senate locked himself in cell 12-D, where an evil spirit supposedly resides. As the steel door closed behind him, he felt icy fingers wrap around his neck. The accompanying psychic also experienced visions of twisted bodies and dismembered men.

Throughout its’ history, Alcatraz has been home to many notorious crooks and gangsters…the least of which was no less than Al Capone. Capone was assigned to a cell located on the outside west end of Cellblock B. He was never allowed a musical instrument or radio. Nonetheless, many have reported the sound of a phantom banjo emanating from his cell.

It should come as no surprise Alcatraz has been unofficially dubbed "Hellcatraz."


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      10 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      No Problem Goody! Got quite a few more ghost stories you might want to check out. Appreciate the link.

    • goody7 profile image


      10 years ago from over there under the sycamore tree

      Great story with great historical detail. I totally find this subject to be fascinating. I put a link from your hub to my own ghostly hub. I've coined it "ghost central", and hopefully you'll get even more traffic this way. If you don't like the link, then just please let me know, and I'll remove it for you. Keep on hubbing.

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      10 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I hadn't heard any of them before I wrote it!

    • theppcguy profile image


      10 years ago

      That was a great hub! Alcatraz is one scary place. I've heard some of these stories before but some were new to me. One of my favorites is the Al Capone banjos tory.

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      10 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I appreciate your comments Brooke. Glad you liked it.

    • Brooke.Crawford profile image


      10 years ago from Missouri

      Wow, I didn't know of all these ghost stories when I visited Alcatraz. It's a creepy enough place even without the ghost stories; any place that has had that much pain is always powerful... Nice hub.

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      10 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you Kitty

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      10 years ago from Summerland

      voted up and awesome from me! i love a good ghost story...and alcatraz has always fascinated me. great information here and very interesting. thanks for sharing!


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