The Hauntings of Alcatraz

Located in San Francisco Bay with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco, you’ll find perhaps the most famous prison in the world. Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock”, was originally known as “La Isla de los Alcatraces” or “The Island of the Pelicans” because of its appearance as a barren white rock. The white was caused by pelican droppings, hence the name. It served as a lighthouse, then a military fortification, then a military prison followed by a federal prison until 1963, when it became a national recreation area. Today it is maintained by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and nearly a million visitors per year stop by to check the place out.
The island, believed to be an evil place by Native Americans, has seen centuries of death from accidents, murders, and suicides. With this dark history, it’s no wonder Alcatraz is said to be one of the most haunted places in the nation. If ghosts return to haunt the places where they suffered traumatic experiences when they were alive, then Alcatraz must be bursting at the seams with spirits.

Entrance Sign to Alcatraz
Entrance Sign to Alcatraz

For years there have been reports of mysterious happenings on Alcatraz Island. These reports come from visitors, former guards, former prisoners, and national park service employees. From the original lighthouse reappearing on occasion to clanging, screaming, and sobbing, there are too many tales to put into this short article. It would definitely take a book to tell them all. Some of the strange occurences are recounted in the following paragraphs.
The Lighthouse – There have been several reports that on foggy nights the old lighthouse, built in 1854 and torn down after it was damaged in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, will suddenly appear, accompanied by an eerie whistling sound and a flashing green light that makes its way slowly around the island and then vanishes as suddenly as it appears.
The Grounds – Many guards and park rangers have reported experiencing unexplainable crashing sounds, cell doors mysteriously closing, unearthly screams, and intense feelings of being watched. A number of guards from 1946 through 1963 experienced something out of the ordinary at one time or another. There have been reports of sounds of sobbing and moaning, horrible smells, phantom cannon shots, gun shots, and screams. Once in a while, groups of phantom prisoners and soldiers appear in front of startled guards, guests, and the families who lived on the island. None of these occurances have ever been explained.

Alcatraz Cellblock, walk of shame
Alcatraz Cellblock, walk of shame

The door and the corridor – Behind a door in Cellblock C that looks as if it has been welded shut, lies the utility corridor where Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer and Marvin Hubbard were killed by grenades and bullets during the bloodiest escape attempt in Alcatraz’s history in 1946. Additionally, the attempt took the lives of two guards and injured 18 others. The trial afterward resulted in the execution of two more convicts who took part in the aborted escape. Behind this door can sometimes be heard loud clanging along with the sounds of people running as if trying to escape and disembodied voices. Others have reported seeing the apparitions of men wearing fatigues at the site of the riot that left the three prisoners dead. As a result, this utility corridor is recognized as one of the most haunted spots in the prison.
The laundry room – Also in Cellblock C is the laundry room that is said to hold an unseen presence. The story is told that a hit man named Butcher was killed in the laundry room. The room is said to occasionally emanate a strong odor of smoke, as if something was on fire. The sensation of the choking smoke would drive guards out of the room, only to return a few minutes later, the area now completely smoke free.
The most haunted area on Alcatraz is Cellblock D, or solitary, as it was often called. D-Block, which became known as the Treatment Unit was made up of 42 cells with varying restrictions. None of the prisoners put in D-Block was able to have contact with the general population. These inmates were not allowed to work or go to the mess hall to eat; they had to eat in their cells. They were allowed one visit to the recreation yard and two showers a week. These cells faced the Golden Gate Bridge, from which fierce cold winds often blew and one guard who worked D-Block was notorious for turning on the air conditioning to make it even colder for those confined on the block.


Alcatraz Cell Bunk
Alcatraz Cell Bunk

Five of the cells in D-Block, cells 9-14, are known as “The Hole,”. These cells contained only a sink and toilet, had no windows and only one light with a low-wattage bulb that could be turned off by the guards on a whim. The darkness made it seem like a hole in the ground. Reserved for the most serious prison rule breakers, these cells were located on the bottom tier, the coldest place in the prison. All mattresses were taken away during the day and the prisoners were not allowed time in the yard, showers, or reading materials. Inmates could be sentenced to up to 19 days in the hole, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Needless to say, these horrible conditions led to misery, anger, and possibly even insanity. That ambiance seems to linger to this day. Most people who go to Cellblock D get feelings of sudden intensity and a feeling of cold in certain cells, especially cell 14-D. This cell is often reported to be 20 degrees colder than the rest of the cells on the block. Psychics who have visited the area reported picking up on the feelings of torture, misery, and abuse that were left behind by 29 years’ worth of prisoners who were forced to stay there. These cells are so eerie that some national park service employees refuse to go there alone.

Gas Chamber, Empty Chair
Gas Chamber, Empty Chairs

A guard who worked at the prison in the 1940’s reported that guards often saw the ghostly presence of a man dressed in late 1800’s prison attire was often seen walking the hallway of “The Hole”. Perhaps the strangest event occured when an inmate locked in a cell in “The Hole” immediately began to scream that someone with glowing eyes was in there with him. The spectral prisoner had become so much of a practical joke among the guards that the convict’s cries were ignored. The inmate’s screams continued well into the night, and then suddenly stopped. When the guards inspected the cell, the convict was dead with a terrible expression on his face and noticeable handprints around his throat. The autopsy revealed that the strangulation could not have been self-inflicted.
At the time many believed the inmate was strangled by a guard who got tired of hearing the inmate scream, but no one ever admitted to the strangling. Most believed the prisoner was killed by the restless, evil spirit of the nineteenth century prisoner who was so often seen wandering the corridors.

Hydrotherapy Room
Hydrotherapy Room

As a footnote to this tale, when the guards lined-up the convicts for the daily count, there was one too many convicts in the line-up. At the end of the row, stood the recently strangled convict. As everyone looked on in stunned silence, the ghostly figure vanished.

As the years go by, ghost hunters, authors, crime buffs and curiosity-seekers continue to visit the island hoping to have their own encounter with the ghosts of Alcatraz. Although most encounter nothing, they do have a tendancy to leave with a feeling of uneasiness. The majority of the ghostly experiences of Alcatraz have been reported by former guards and national park service employees who often spend hours alone on the island. Many claim not to believe in the supernatural but occasionally, one of them will admit that weird things happen here that they cannot explain.

Denise Villani an author and the webmaster of several websites and article directories. Find more articles and information on Alcatraz and other haunted places by visiting