Monday, June 29, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 53 - Alcatraz

Moment in Oddity - Dancing Mania

Ever heard of the Dancing Plaque? We hadn't heard of it either. This odd type of social hysteria seemed to originate in Europe and there were several occurrences between the 14th and 17th century. The phenomenon was first witnessed in Bernburg in the 1020s when 18 peasants sang and danced wildly around a church, but the largest occurrence that put Dancing Mania in the history books happened in Aachen, Germany in 1374. Thousands of men, women and children all took to the streets and danced about wildly until they finally collapsed from exhaustion. The next large bout of the strange mania took place in Strausburg in July of 1518. A young woman stepped out into the street and began dancing. She did so for days and within a week, thirty-four other people had joined in her contortions. By August, the number had swelled to 400. People began to die until finally the madness abated on its own. Dancing Mania was rare, but it did occur and it has left many wondering what caused such strange behavior. The people of the Middle Ages attributed the mania to a curse sent down by a saint for sins that villages were committing. Some believe that people were faking illness or had planned the events, but most dancers seemed to be in agony while dancing and begged for help with fear in their eyes. Others think that poisoning by ergot might be the culprit. Ergot is a type of mold on rye bread. This theory is dispelled by the fact that people would not all react in the same way to the hallucigenic effects of ergot poisoning. The most reasonable explanation is psychological distress and mass hysteria. The Dancing Plaque is a thing of the past that certainly was odd.

This Day in History - St. Hilaire Train Disaster

On this day, June 29th, in 1864, the worst railway accident in Canadian history occurred. The Richelieu River flowed between Montreal and New York City and it was used as a lane of transport for goods aboard steamships. When the railway came into the area, the Belœil Bridge was built over the river. The bridge was a swing bridge, so that it could be moved when the steamships needed to get through. Swing bridges are movable bridges that rotate on a central column, so that shipping lanes on either side are opened up. On June 29th a little after 1am, a Grand Trunk train was carrying nearly 400 German and Polish immigrants as it approached the Richelieu River. The swing bridge had been opened for passing ships and a red signal light a mile before the bridge let the train conductor know that he needed to stop. The signal went unnoticed and the Grand Trunk train ran off the railway and down onto a passing barge. The train crushed the barge and sank into the river. Remarkably, many people survived, but 99 were killed, while another 100 were seriously injured. A trial later that year found the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada at fault for the accident.


About 1.5 miles off the shores of San Francisco, California lies a rocky island with the infamous name "Alcatraz." Some of the most notorious criminals in American history were sent to a prison built on the island that bears the same name because of the impossibility of escape. But long before the likes of Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert "Birdman" Stroud came to the island affectionately nicknamed "The Rock," the island housed a light house and a military prison. Many desperate souls wiled away their lives on Alcatraz Island and many of those souls seemed to have stayed. Those souls include not only prisoners, but banished Native Americans. Some claim a portal exists on the island. Come with us across the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay as we explore the history and hauntings of Alcatraz.

The island we have come to know as Alcatraz was first discovered by a Spaniard named Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. The island was covered in birds, particularly pelicans, and so Ayala named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces." Alcatraces translates to pelican in English and was anglicized to Alcatraz later. As we all know, the Native Americans were the first to discover everything about America since they were already here and Native American tribes had not only seen Alcatraz Island, but they had used the desolate island with the sheer rocky sides as a place of banishment. The tribes believed evil spirits lurked on the island, so it was a fitting place for those that broke tribal law.

The Mexican government gave Alcatraz to a man named Julian Workman and instructed him to build a lighthouse on the island. Workman did not bother with a lighthouse. He instead gave the island to his son-in-law Francis P. Temple, who also did nothing with the island. In 1847, the governor of California, John Charles Fremont, bought the island from Temple, so that the government could build the lighthouse. The lighthouse was completed in 1853, but the Fresnal lenses were not installed until 1854 and the lighthouse was lit for the first time. In 1853, the island was fortified by the Army Corp of Engineers. The island was a natural defense for the bay and Fort Alcatraz was built. It housed 200 soldiers and 11 cannons. Work on the Fort had been arduous and no one is exactly sure how the team of thirty-five workers came and went from the island on a daily basis. Construction was hampered by the rock of the island as it crumbled easily. A plan to build a ditch around the Fort was ditched as well when it was discovered it would make the island unstable. Costs rose as the fort was extended to compensate for instability. The buildings were built from sandstone at first because brick was hard to come by in the West. Blue stone, also known as granite, was considered for material as well. In the end, Alcatraz was built mainly from sandstone, concrete and brick, while the granite was used for the South Battery. In 1857, the first fatalities occurred on the island. Two workmen were buried under a massive landslide. In 1859, 77 years of military administration began at Alcatraz.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used as an armory to keep weapons out of Confederate hands. Eighty-five cannons were also installed at the fortification. The Fort also had its first stint as a military prison for Confederate sympathizers and privateers at this time. In 1870, portions of Alcatraz were flattened in an attempt to level the island and build underground tunnels and magazines. After starting this plan at the southern tip of the island, it was abandoned as an impossibility. The entire complex was revamped and restored from 1869-1876 and it took on permanent use as a military prison. The Spanish-American War caused the prison population to burgeon. Later, some civilian prisoners were brought to Alcatraz because of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The concrete main cell block that we all know today was started in 1909 and completed in 1912.

In October of 1933, the military handed over Alcatraz to the Bureau of prisons and it became a civilian prison at that time. Because of the location of the jail on the rugged island, it was decided that the prison was well suited for the worst offenders. San Franciscans were not happy with the plan to house the worst of the worst off their shores. Unbelievably, at least 17 military prisoners successfully escaped Alcatraz. This would not be the case after Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary as we'll discuss later. It was not always the worst criminals that found themselves in Alcatraz. Conscientious Objectors were sent there during World War I. Generally, if a prisoner ended up at Alcatraz, it was because he had caused trouble at another prison. Staff was trained in security, but not rehabilitation. The first group of 137 prisoners arrived in 1934 to find the prison fortified in a way it had never been before. Double grating cell bar walls were installed as well as plate doors. Everything was built "tool proof." Employees of the jail lived on the island with their families.

The federal penitentiary ran for 29 years. During that time, fourteen escape attempts were made by 36 convicts. None of them succeeded. Twenty-three were captured before they could escape. The rest did not fare as well. Six were shot to death, two drowned and another five went missing and were presumed drowned. Many infamous gangsters spent time in Alcatraz. Everybody knows that Al Capone spent time there, but there was also Machine Gun Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and James "Whitey" Bulger. Capone had been a master manipulator when it came to prison and he managed to get lots of extra perks including furnishings for his cell. Here is his cell at Eastern Penitentiary:

This was not the case at Alcatraz. Capone was prisoner 85-AZ living in cell B-181 and there were no special privileges. Capone spent 4.5 years at Alcatraz and was even stabbed while there. He told the warden one day, "It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked." His syphilis became symptomatic in the latter part of his stay at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was tough for everyone there. A prisoner had a right to food, medical care, clothing and shelter, but that was it. Anything else was a privilege and daily life was very monotonous. Some prisoners were sent to the Strip Cell. This was an isolation cell. Prisoners were forced to strip naked before entering the cell and they were given only bread and water while in there. The cell was dark, had no sink and a hole in the floor served as a toilet. A step up were five cells dubbed "The Hole." These cells had a sink, lightbulb and a toilet, but they were isolated. There are stories that some inmates were tortured.

In 1946, one escape attempt led to the Battle of Alcatraz. Bernard Paul Coy had shimmied up a gallery and pried apart the cell bars. He had covered himself in axle grease and dieted down, so that he fit through the bars. He had spent months studying the routine of the guards. He grabbed a club, surprised a guard and nearly beat him to death. Coy then lowered guns and keys down to some accomplices. Nine unarmed guards were captured and locked in cells. The escape attempt was foiled when one of the guards hid the main key that Coy needed in a toilet. Joseph Cretzer, one of the escapees, took his rage out on the jailed officers and opened fire on one of the cells. Gun fire was exchanged and another officer was hit and killed. The Marines were called in to help rescue the captured officers and restore order. The battle lasted 48 hours. Two officers and three inmates died during the fight.

The prison was closed on March 21, 1963, due to salt water deterioration and the expense of running a place like Alcatraz. Native American activists took over Alcatraz in the late 60s to protest government actions against Native Americans. The protest lasted for two years. The apartments and other housing units were reduced to rubble after the protests to prevent future use by activists. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Tours are offered of the jail and island, although none of them are specifically ghost tours. There are evening ferry trips and tours though.

Alcatraz is thought to be one of the more haunted prisons in America. Full bodied apparitions are seen of both inmates and guards. The smell of smoke permeates corridors every so often. The corridor where the escaped inmates holed up during the Battle of Alcatraz is the scene of hauntings witnessed by Parks employees. They claim to hear clanging and when they enter the corridor, the noise stops. It resumes when they walk away. Once when the warden was giving a tour, sobs could be heard and a cold wind blew by the group. The warden did not believe in ghosts, but he could not explain what caused the weird experience.

A prisoner was locked up in The Hole in cell 14D sometime in the 40s. Guards heard him screaming and when they checked on him, he begged to be taken out of the cell. He claimed he had seen something with glowing eyes. The guards did not believe him and left him in the cell ignoring his incessant screaming through the night. Eventually, he quieted down. The next morning, the guards found him dead with an expression of terror frozen on his face. An autopsy revealed he had been strangled. No guard claimed responsibility. The next day when a head count was taken, there was an extra inmate who later disappeared. Cell 14D is often cold and people claim there is an oppressive feeling within the cell.

Abie Maldowitz was a gangster who was locked up in Cell Block C. His brutal ways earned him the nickname "The Butcher." Another prisoner in Cell Block C killed him. A psychic claimed that she was hearing from someone in the jail claiming to be The Butcher. The spirit is frightening. The Butcher is not the only gangster hanging around in the afterlife. Al Capone gets around quite a bit and Alcatraz is apparently another one of his haunts. Apparently, Al liked to play his banjo in the shower room. Visitors and employees sometimes hear the strumming of a banjo when near the shower room.

Troy Taylor on his website writes:
"According to sources, a number of guards who served between 1946 and 1963 experienced strange happenings on Alcatraz. From the grounds of the prison to the caverns beneath the buildings, there was often talk of people sobbing and moaning, inexplicable smells, cold spots and spectral apparitions. Even guests and families who lived on the island claimed to occasionally see the ghostly forms of prisoners and even phantom soldiers. Phantom gunshots were known to send seasoned guards cringing on the ground in the belief that the prisoners had escaped and had obtained weapons. There was never an explanation. A deserted laundry room would sometimes fill with the smell of smoke, even though nothing was burning. The guards would be sent running from the room, only to return later and find that the air was clear."
Mark Twain visited Alcatraz and wrote that the experience left him feeling weird and described it as "being as cold as winter, even in the summer months." Nearly every guard who worked at Alcatraz had some kind of unexplained experience. The intense feelings experienced at Alcatraz have left something to linger. What that is, no one can know for sure. Do the evil spirits that the Native Americans claimed lived on the island actually exist? Have former prisoners from the military days and the civilian days decided to stay in the afterlife? Is Alcatraz haunted? That is for you to decide!


  1. I have been to Alcatraz. My husband and I did a tour as part of our Honeymoon. I took loads of pictures but nothing weird or strange in the photos. However, we were in the Alcatraz store something did happen. To this day my husband is still freaked out about. He was looking at some of the signs for sale and he was near some books I walked away from him to look at other items. And I heard this loud crash and turned around and saw my husband looking at me with terror in his eyes. Near him was a bunch of books thrown on the floor. I asked him what did he do and he swore that he did not touch anything. The books just fell on the ground but they were not on the ground near the other books like if they just fell over. They looked like someone threw them. The clerk came over and acted like it happens all the time. My husband still to this day speaks of this and still maintains he did not touch the books. I believe him because he is not one to admit to something paranormal and the look on his face said it all for me.

  2. Very interesting experience. I believe your husband and I don't think the clerk was being polite. So now we wonder, who threw the books?