Nobody ever wants to go to prison. Between the isolation, strict rules, and general inability to do what you want, when you want, life behind bars is intentionally oppressive. Life on Alcatraz, however, was much worse.
While almost everyone is familiar with the island infamous prison, spending time on the Rock was far different than what you see in movies or on tours. In fact, some rare photos prove that there was something much darker going on in San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz Island immediately calls one thing to mind: a fearsome federal prison. But, years before the penitentiary was built, the isolated, rocky outcropping was used for a much different purpose.
National Parks Service
Before Europeans made it to North America, two Native American tribes called the Bay Area home. Both the Ohlone and the Miwok used the island for two specific purposes.
Historians believe that the tribes would visit the island in order to harvest oceanic bird eggs. The Rock could have also been a place of exile, foreshadowing its role as a modern prison.
Mother Nature Network
In the 1700s, the Spanish arrived and took over California. Juan Manuel de Ayala entered San Francisco Bay and dubbed the island “Alcatraces,” referring to the pelicans that nested in the rocks.
Spanish control of the region didn’t last, however. Mexican governor Pio Pico ceded the region to the United States in 1846; the island was then purchased by California’s military governor, John Fremont.
Soon after, however, President Millard Fillmore commandeered Alcatraz for the United States Armed Forces. The population of San Francisco was swelling, and the island would serve as a fortification to protect the bay.
An invasion never came, so, in 1860, the United States Army started sending convicted soldiers to the island. Alcatraz was taking its first steps towards becoming a full-fledged prison. Some things still needed to change, however.
National Parks Service
While the island’s population started to swell, the infrastructure couldn’t keep up. New buildings were constructed to replace the old, crumbling fort, but that wasn’t enough. Some outside help was needed.
Curbed San Francisco
After World War I, the Bureau of Prisons officially took over Alcatraz. They felt the island’s isolated location was the perfect place to keep the country’s most dangerous criminals away from the greater population.
Officials deemed Alcatraz “the prison within the prison system,” due to its heightened security. Troublesome inmates from around the country were shipped to the island; even the boldest criminal didn’t want to take that boat ride.
On the island, any further misbehavior would earn a prisoner time in one of 40 solitary confinement cells. But there was an even darker punishment reserved for the worst offenders.
A violent prisoner could get sent to the “strip cell,” where he would be locked in dark room without clothing or furniture. He wouldn’t even have a toilet, just a hole in the floor.
But life outside of the “strip cell” wasn’t much easier. Every inch of the bleak prison was under constant guard; the goal was to force even the most hardened criminal to respect the rules.
Unsurprisingly, some of the country’s most infamous criminals found their way to Alcatraz. If you were a big name mobster, you’d eventually take a trip to the San Francisco Bay.
Unsurprisingly, Al Capone was a member of the island prison’s initial batch of prisoners. While Scarface was able to bribe wardens at other prisons, he had no such luck on the Rock.
“It looks like Alcatraz has me licked,” Capone reportedly said, finally accepting his fate behind bars. But he wasn’t the only infamous gangster to be whipped into shape on the island.
San Francisco Chronicle
George “Machine Gun” Kelly joined Capone in Alcatraz. He boasted that he would escape the island but, like the others, he fell in line. Guards said Kelly was a “model inmate” during his sentence.
Whitey Bulger spent three years on the Rock before he was transferred back to the mainland. For the most part, he enjoyed his time on the island and even considered one guard a true friend.
A prison is still a prison, though, and no one wanted to stay at Alcatraz for long. In total, 36 men tried to escape from the island. Unsurprisingly, most were captured and taken back to their cells.
The most famous attempt happened in 1962, when Clarence and John Anglin and Frank Morris slipped out of their cells during the night, leaving paper mache dummies in their place.
The three men climbed out an air vent and made it down to the water’s edge. They were never seen again, so authorities assumed they drowned on the way to the mainland.
Shortly after that infamous escape attempt, Alcatraz closed its doors. It simply cost too much to maintain a prison on an island; slowly every inmate was marched out of his cell and down to the docks.
San Diego Union Tribune
The Rock didn’t remain empty for long, though. In 1969, a group of Native Americans occupied the island in order to call attention to the plight of indigenous people. They would be removed by 1971.
In 1973, the National Parks Service opened Alcatraz to visitors. But, as eerie as the dark halls and the quiet cells may be, someone — or something — still calls the island home.
Unsurprisingly, given Alcatraz’s past, visitors have reported several ghosts occupying the prison, ranging from a strange presence in cell 14D to the spirit of Al Capone eternally practicing his banjo.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Alcatraz is undeniably a creepy place with a dark past. But a strange, star-shaped building in Philadelphia was the home of something even more horrific.
Staring up at the gates, lines full of prisoners shuffled in chains into their new home — Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829, it was a brand new experience for the inmates, guards, and even the warden. This wasn’t your average prison.
Eastern State was the very first official “penitentiary,” invoking a method of rehabilitation that came to be known as the Pennsylvania system: Every aspect of the design of the prison had a purpose that involved paying penance.
The prison itself was famous for its wagon wheel shape, the first of its kind, called the hub and spoke plan. Seven separate corridors were lined with individual cells, pointed towards a center watchtower. In all, it accommodated 450 souls, each in their own mental and literal prisons
See, each cell was self-sufficient, with a toilet and hot water. A single skylight provided the only light, a representation of the “Eye of God” keeping watch over them, guiding their path to redemption. Even the doors were downsized, so inmates had to physically bow down each time they entered their cells.
In those cells, they were kept in solitary confinement, which was supposed to be revolutionary. It was an experiment with a new emphasis on rehabilitation. The point was to remove all distractions, so the prisoner would seriously reflect on their crimes.
Initially, the inmates fated to the sanity-breaking sentence of solitary confinement were largely first-time offenders. It was a dump for petty criminals — robbers, pickpockets, small-time thieves — who ultimately suffered a punishment worse than rubbing elbows with the worst kinds of criminals.
Over the years, the prisoners outnumbered the cells, so they abandoned the solitary style out of necessity in 1913. Sadly, they still used “the hole” as means of punishment, leading prisoners down a special staircase to the basement where an eerie hall of forgotten cells waited.
The toxicity of the environment was evident early on. Charles Dickens visited and described it as such” “I am persuaded that those who designed this system…do not know what it is they are doing…I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
Isolation was just a way to break down the psyches of the inmates. Torture was another popular practice. Punishments included submerging men in freezing water, then leaving them outside in the harsh winters till frost covered their skin.
Another gruesome act included shackling an inmate’s tongue to their wrists. Any attempt at movement would pull at their tongue, risking yanking clean from their mouths if pushed to continue resisting. The prisoners learned that the disorientation of constant isolation was preferred to the hands of the guards.
Of all the high profile names to pass through Eastern State Pen, the worst was mobster Al Capone. His stint was short, just 7 months. During his period of isolation, it’s said Capone would shout in fear “Jimmy!” Either an invisible tormentor or a symptom of later mental decline, no one is sure.
Phantom Jimmy aside, Al Capone was hardly suffering in prison. His cell was decked out. Like other inmates, he was stuck in an 8 x 10 cell, only his came fitted with high-end furniture, oil paintings, and a radio.
Not all the inmates received a cushy welcome, or really deserved to be there at all. Governor of Pennsylvania Gifford Pinchot sentenced a dog to wear prison stripes at Eastern State. His crime? Murder. The victim? Pinchot’s beloved cat Pep.
Eastern State was officially made a national historic landmark in 1965, small comfort for the prisoners still locked inside. It officially closed in 1971. The prisoners were transferred to nearby institutions. For the first time in over 100 years, the complex was empty.
After 20 years of neglect, the prison reopened. The historic landmark is available for tours 7 days a week with guides or an optional audio component narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. But not every visitor to the prison is there to learn about history…
During its heyday, Eastern State had more than just the lingering negative energy of torture and seclusion. Records indicate over 50 separate suicides took place inside the prison. Prisoners knew there was a high probability of leaving in a body bag.
Inmate-on-inmate violence is a harsh reality for every prison, and Eastern State was no different. There were over two dozen murders documented on file, and in some cases, some prisoners just vanished, with no explainable cause or trace.
It garnered a reputation within the paranormal investigation community as a hotbed for activity. Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, and Buzzfeed’s Unsolved have filmed lockdowns inside the prison, and it’s always on the shortlist for the most haunted structures in America.
Current and former staff have heard weird sounds, like footsteps in completely vacant sections of the prison. On several occasions, people reported hearing the sharp wails of a baby. All the ghostly suspicions are further fueled by photos of orbs snapped by countless visitors.
Mid Atlantic Day Trips
The spirits lingering in Eastern State Pen are known to get physical. Cell doors were witnessed to slam shut without provocation. Others report feeling hands grasp their shoulders, potentially a departed inmate driven to madness, reaching out for human contact.
The place also hosts art exhibits, including one hair-raising series called Ghost Cats. Artist Linda Brenner installed 39 white cat sculptures about the grounds, representing a cat colony that lived on premises in the ’70s. But ghosts are still the main attraction.
Every year, Terror Behind The Walls runs from September through November. It boasts the title of largest haunted attraction in the U.S., making Pennsylvania a hub for paranormal vacations, since Gettysburg is near the top of any ghost enthusiasts’ must-see list.
According to legend, ghosts of the fallen soldiers still roam the empty fields of Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg, a site said to be one of the most haunted places in the world. In 2013, two believers investigated the rumors, and what they found got people talking.
These men heard stories about ghosts at Gettysburg, and a ranger told them at the time that tourists had been spotting apparitions, too. Eyes peeled, they drove down the empty road that ran parallel to one of the enormous battlefields.
Yankee Reb / YouTube
They pulled over beside a pair of cannons and turned off the car—a bad idea if horror movies were anything to go by. With their cameras rolling, they chatted idly, waiting for something—anything—to happen. Initially, they saw no ghosts.
Obviously, the lack of ghostly figures was disappointing. This was Gettysburg, after all, home to one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. Combined, the Union and Confederates suffered about 50,000 casualties. In other words…
If paranormal activity truly existed in the world, this should have been a hotbed for it; ghosts should have been practically strolling down the street, whistling a tune! Yet, after 20 minutes, there was nothing. That was when something caught their eye…
Yankee Reb / YouTube
With a little help from zoom-enhance technology, it was possible to see just what had captured the attention of the two men. Had an apparition really appeared right in front of them? Or were they only seeing a ranger out for a midnight walk?
As the men’s excitement—and panic—rose, the figure stepped out from behind the cannons. Sure enough, it was looking pretty ghostly—it was transparent! Then, rounding the cannons, it turned right for them.
Luckily for these two men, this particular ghost of Gettysburg wasn’t the murderous type. After just a few steps, it disappeared, gone back to the spirit world to haunt and spook another day. Um… what just happened?
Yankee Reb / YouTube
Now, you might be thinking, I’m on to you, clearly, this is a camera or computer trick. After all, with today’s editing technology, even a kid could insert a ghost into a few frames of dark video. This couldn’t be real, right?
Not so fast. A park ranger named Maria Brady relayed a tale to the Washington Post that might suggest there was more going on in the video than camera tricks. Her explanation started with an area called the Devil’s Den in Gettysburg…
There, Maria had discovered an envelope filled with rocks. Inside the envelope was a letter. According to Maria, it read, “Please return these to Devil’s Den, we are sorry.” Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time that rock-filled letters were found at Gettysburg!
Gettysburg National Military Park via the Washington Post
See, over the years, another rumor circulated around Gettysburg: the rocks there were cursed. Whoever pocketed a stone and brought it home faced terrible luck—forever. And plenty of park patrons confirmed that ghostly legend.
For instance, another park visitor sent a letter to Gettysburg (also containing stones he’d regrettably swiped from the park) explaining that his life had since fallen apart. He’d lost his job, his house, and his wife. Oh yeah, and he spent some time in prison.
“That was just the worst list of stuff that happened to somebody that I’ve ever seen,” Maria told the Post. “I mean, a lot of [the letters] are, ‘I broke my arm,’ ‘I lost my job,’ but, you know, when you go to prison for nine years?” Brutal.
As people from all over the county visited the old battlefield, enough left with spooky stories that indicated those ghost hunters’ first encounter might not be so far-fetched. In fact, another viral video from 2009 seemed to corroborate their story…
TC Ballinger / YouTube
After hiking off the main road, just about a mile away from Triangular Field—allegedly the most haunted location in all of Gettysburg—a couple set up a mounted camera at dawn and filmed for three minutes across nine locations.
They were filming at the second location and the sun hadn’t yet peaked over the trees. The ex-battlefield was silent—and seemingly ghost-free. But then something emerged from the trees along the horizon…
TCBallinger / YouTube
Like the ghost in the first encounter, this one took a few steps towards the camera, too, but the camera operators didn’t seem to notice it. What happened next, however, they couldn’t ignore!
TCBallinger / YouTube
The original ghost disappeared, only to be replaced by a ghostly deer! Then, another ghost soldier. And another. Soon apparitions flooded the entire field! Ghosts, it seemed, truly did inhabit Gettysburg!
TCBallinger / YouTube