Editors' Picks

11 Thrilling Facts About The Alcatraz

If you are a crime procedural series aficionado or you have a morbid fascination with serial killers and crimes, then Alcatraz is not an unfamiliar word. Alcatraz can immediately be associated with prison hell or death sentence. But there’s a lot of reason to get Alcatraz tickets and visit The Rock. Here are some thrilling facts to make this a must on your San Francisco list.

1. Alcatraz did not always equate to “prison hell.”

A Spanish explorer by the name Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 mapped San Francisco Bay and identified one of the three islands as “Los Isla de los Alcatraces” which meant “Island of Pelicans.”

2. It was actually designed to be a naval defense fort.

In the 1850s, President Millard Fillmore declared Alcatraz as a military fort and reservation. By 1859, two years before the start of the Civil War, troops moved in to defend the Bay Area of San Francisco.

3. Alcatraz housed soldiers in need of punishment and retraining.

In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed as the “Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks” because it housed punished soldiers and those that need retraining and attitude adjustment.

4. Alcatraz was rebuilt by prisoners.

The army prisoners punished and sent to Alcatraz built most of the buildings after the Army decided to remove the fort guns and convert the island to a military prison. Those military commanders surely knew how to punish their prisoners.

5. Alcatraz was home to infamous criminals.

The most notorious and problematic criminals all over the U.S. were shipped to Alcatraz. Some of the infamous criminals that called the island home were Al Capone, a multi-millionaire seller of illegal liquor, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, a notorious bank robber who was caught after he kidnapped a wealthy oil tycoon and Henry Young, a bank robber who brutalized a hostage and cold-blooded murderer.

6. Alcatraz was haunted.

It was believed that the ghosts of prisoners were haunting this already haunted place. There were reports of banjo playing in the shower area where Al Capone used to practice his banjo when he joined the Rock Islanders Band.

7. Alcatraz was the “time out” for prisoners planning to escape.

Machine Gun Kelly was shipped to Alcatraz from Leavenworth when he bragged about escaping and breaking out his wife from prison in time to celebrate Christmas together.

Roy Gardner, dubbed as “The King of Escape Artists” was also sent to Alcatraz when he escaped McNeil Island Prison by creating a hole in the prison fence and swimming to the shore. Unfortunately for him because no matter how good of an escape artist he was, he was no match for Alcatraz.

8. 0-14-36.

No, these are not vital statistics. Instead, these are Alcatraz’s number- 0 escapes, 14 escape attempts, and 36 involved inmates. Surprisingly, there were few prisoners who thought they were armed with magic pixie dust that would help them escape the grasp of Alcatraz.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 23 of the prisoners were recaptured, 6 were shot and killed during their escape attempts, 2 drowned while 5 escapees went missing and were presumed dead due to drowning.

9. The “popularity” of Alcatraz has infected Hollywood.

The very famous Clint Eastwood portrayed the role of Frank Morris- an infamous criminal with a record of prison escapes. The movie Escape from Alcatraz revolved around the story of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers, John, and Clarence. The movie, however, was not 100 percent accurate as it was injected with the “Hollywood bug” called drama and fiction.

In real life, the planned escape consisted of nine months of burrowing into the rotting cement of the prison wall at the back of their cells and stealing 50 raincoats to build a raft so as not to swim the chilly waters surrounding the island. The plan was to paddle to Angel Island, steal a boat and a car. They were also “wise” enough to create fake heads from soap, toilet paper, homemade cement mix and hair they collected from the prison barbershop.

On June 11, 1962, the escape took place when the three men crawled at the back of their cells, carried their raft to the roof and scaled down the wall and into the cold bay of San Francisco. The guards discovered the escape in the morning when they saw the decoys under the sheets. It was believed, however, that they did not survive the 12 degree Celsius of water and 13 kilometers per hour tide. What strengthened the belief of their death as well as the pieces of men’s raft found floating in the bay.

10. Alcatraz probably had the best accommodation in U.S. prison.

The prisoners averaged to 260 only in a prison with 336 cells. With overcrowding a normal scenario and significant problem in U.S. prisons, Alcatraz seemed like a hotel in comparison. Each cell was 9ft long by 5ft wide and 7ft high, with a small sink, toilet, and sleeping cot. The inmates also had hot water running for their baths. But before you wrinkle that forehead of yours, the hot water was to accustom the inmates’ to warm temperature and hinder them from becoming adapted to the freezing San Fo Bay waters- a clever and humane way of preventing prison escapes. Probably the “best” part of being on this island was that food in Alcatraz was, according to the inmates, the tastiest of all prisons. It was no surprise really to note that some prisoners requested to be sent to Alcatraz.

11. Alcatraz is “hell hole” no more.

Alcatraz was closed on the 21st of March 1963 due to its expensive operating costs and deteriorating infrastructure. With no water resources, bottled water was delivered to the island along with other supplies that added to the high operating expenses of the island.

At present, Alcatraz is one of America’s most famous national park site and tourist spot welcoming more than 1 million visitors per year. Alcatraz now boasts of its artifacts displayed at its museum, exterior exhibits installed all over the Island giving tourists a more in-depth knowledge about its historic albeit dark past. So if you have free time and you are looking for an exciting way to spend your time, get your Alcatraz tickets, and you will surely be in for an adventure.