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Famous Prisons History: Alcatraz

The island in San Francisco Bay, California called Alcatraz (also referred to as the Rock or originally called the Isle of the Pelicans), has a colorful history that involves some of the most famous of criminals. In the beginning, the prison was used for military purposes before it became a prison for highly dangerous criminals. In this article, you will learn more about the history of Alcatraz that some believe is haunted by ghosts of former inmates.

History of Alcatraz

The first documentation of the island dates back to 1775 was when Spaniard Juan Manual de Ayala charted San Francisco Bay and named the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (or “The Island of the Pelicans”). As early as 1861, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners. The cold strong currents of the San Francisco Bay waters made the isolated island a rather hazardous place for inmates , guards didn’t have to worry much about any escapees getting close to civilians.

During World War I, Alcatraz held conscientious objectors , one of which was named Philip Grosser, who wrote about his experiences in a pamphlet titled, ‘Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island’. The United States Department of Justice acquired the United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz in 1933 and by August 1934, the island was transformed into a federal prison. It was run in this manner for nearly 30 years. Most of the prisoners at Alcatraz had been sent there because they were causing too much trouble at other facilities. Because of this, the prison saw many familiar and well known faces.

Famous Inmates

Alcatraz once housed the infamous gangster Al Capone and Robert Stroud , the bird expert who became the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz.’ Despite Stroud’s nickname, he was not allowed to keep any birds during his stay at the prison. George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, who was a gangster, bootlegger and businessman, was known for bragging about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Bumpy Johnson (mob boss from Harlem, New York) and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (known for his ‘Robin-hood’ style of crimes in the neighborhood) also spent time at Alcatraz. The majority of the prisoners at Alcatraz had been sent there after causing problems at other prisons.

Whereas other prison guards in various facilities would let some mobsters slide with special privileges, Alcatraz did not. Prisoners were given four basic necessities for living , food, clothing, shelter and medical attention when needed. If they wanted something beyond the basics, they had to earn it. The prison was designed with the intention to break rebellious prisoners by placing them into a structured environment with a monotonous routine that would hopefully help after they were released.

Today, Alcatraz Island is home to an abandoned prison that some people believe is haunted by ghosts. It is also the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States. Some people come to learn about the history of the prison, while others are interested in hunting for ghosts.