Ghosts of Alcatraz Island, California

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California by Kathy Alexander.

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California by Kathy Alexander.

With its centuries-old history from ancient Native Americans, to Fort Alcatraz, to a Military Barracks, and most often known service as one of the toughest federal penitentiaries in the Nation, it is no wonder that this place is said to be one of the most haunted in the nation.

Often described as a portal to another dimension, Alcatraz is filled with the energy of those who came to the “Rock” and seemingly never left.

From its first visitors, tales and legends of the island have circulated for several centuries. In the beginning, the Native Americans believed the island to be inhabited by evil spirits.

As severe punishment for violations of tribal law, Indians were sometimes isolated on the island or even banished for life to live among the evil spirits.

Today, these spirits that continue to lurk in the shadows of the often fog-enshrouded island have been heard, seen, and felt by both the staff and many visitors to Alcatraz. The sounds of men’s voices, screams, whistles, clanging metal doors, and terrifying screams are said to be heard within these historic walls, especially near the dungeon.

While the island served as a federal penitentiary, several guards reported extraordinary experiences, including hearing the sounds of sobbing and moaning, terrible smells, and reports of what they called “The Thing,” an entity that was said to appear with glowing eyes. Other reports were made of phantom prisoners and soldiers appearing before the guards and families who lived on the island.

The old warden's home on Alcatraz Island, by Kathy Alexander.

The old warden’s home on Alcatraz Island, by Kathy Alexander.

Reportedly, even Warden Johnston, who did not believe in ghosts, once encountered the unmistakable sounds of a woman sobbing while leading several guests on a tour of the prison. The cries, heard by the warden and the guests, were described as coming from inside the walls of the dungeon. Just as the sobbing stopped, an icy cold wind blew through the group.

Since the 1940s, apparitions have been seen at the site of the now burned-out shell of the warden’s house. During a Christmas Party at Warden Johnston’s, several guards told the story of a ghostly man who suddenly appeared before them wearing a gray suit, brimmed cap, and sporting mutton-chop sideburns. As the startled guards stared at the apparition, the room suddenly turned very cold, and the fire in the Ben Franklin stove was extinguished. Less than a minute later, the spirit vanished.

Often, it has been reported that the old lighthouse will suddenly appear on foggy nights, accompanied by an eerie whistling sound and a flashing green light that makes its way slowly around the island. Appearing to both guards and visitors alike, the spectacle vanishes just as suddenly as it appears.

Cellblock at Alcatraz today, by Kathy Alexander.

Cellblock at Alcatraz today, by Kathy Alexander.

When the prison was still open, other guards told of hearing phantom cannon and gunshots, accompanied by screams that were so real they sent the seasoned guards to the ground, believing that prisoners had somehow escaped and obtained weapons. After taking cover, the guards would then cautiously look about to see absolutely nothing. These incidents could never be explained.

Another often reported experience of the guards was the smell of smoke that often came from a deserted laundry room as if something was on fire. When they investigated, the black smoke was so thick it drove the guards from the room. However, just minutes later, the room was completely smoke-free.

The notorious D-Block of the prison is said to have been and continues to be the most haunted block in all the prison. While first built the same as the other cell blocks, the Bureau of Prisons appropriated additional money for a more secure D-Block after the 1939 escape attempt, in which Arthur “Doc” Barker was killed.

D-Block, which became known as the “Treatment Unit,” comprised of 42 cells with varying degrees of restrictions. For all prisoners incarcerated in D-Block, there was no contact with the general population. Thirty-six of the cells were virtually like the others in the general population; however, inmates were not allowed to work nor go to the mess hall for meals. They were allowed only one visit to the recreation yard and two showers each week, and all meals were served in the cells. Their only diversion was reading of prison-approved material. These cells all faced the Golden Gate Bridge, from which fierce cold winds often blew. One guard who worked D-Block was known to turn on the air conditioning to make it even colder for those confined on the block.

A cell in the "Hole," by Kathy Alexander.

A cell in the “Hole,” by Kathy Alexander.

Five of the remaining six cells in D-Block were known as Strip Cells but were more often referred to as the “Hole.” Reserved for the most severe offenders of prison rules, these cells were located on the bottom tier, the coldest place in the prison, and contained only a sink, a toilet, and a low wattage light bulb that the guards could turn off. The prisoner’s mattresses were taken away during the day, and they were not allowed at any time in the yard or showers or given reading materials. Inmates could be sentenced to as many as 19 days in the hole, completely isolated and in a state of constant boredom.

The last Strip Cell, known as the “Oriental,” was the most severe punishment the prison could assign. Assuring complete deprivation of all peripheral senses, the dark steel-encased cell contained no sink or toilet, just a small hole in the floor for prisoner waste.

Inmates were placed naked in the cell, given a restricted diet, and confined in a pitch-black, cold environment. Although a sleeping mattress was allowed at night, it was removed at dawn each morning. Inmates were usually only subject to this degree of punishment for only 1-2 days.

A former guard who worked at the prison in the 1940s reported that guards often saw the ghostly presence of a man dressed in late 1800s prison attire walking the hallway next to the Strip Cells. On one occasion, when an inmate was locked in “the Hole,’ he immediately began to scream that someone with glowing eyes was in there with him. The 19th-century spectral prisoner had become so much of a practical joke among the guards that the convict’s cries of being “attacked” were ignored. The inmate’s screams continued well into the night when they were suddenly replaced by total silence. When the guards inspected the cell the following morning, the convict was found dead with a terrible expression on his face and noticeable hand-prints around his throat. The autopsy revealed that the strangulation was not self-inflicted.

A cell in Alcatraz by Kathy Alexander.

A cell in Alcatraz by Kathy Alexander.

At the time, many believed the inmate was strangled by a guard who had finally had enough of the inmate’s screaming. Though an investigation was made, no one ever admitted to the strangling. Most believed that the prisoner was killed by the restless, evil spirit of the 19th-century prisoner who was often seen wandering the corridors. Adding to the mystery, when the guards line up the convicts for a daily count, one too many convicts were in the line-up. At the end of the row appeared the recently strangled convict. As everyone, guards and prisoners alike, looked on in stunned silence, the ghostly figure vanished.

Today’s visitors and staff often report cold spots within the hallways of D-Block, as well as sudden intense feelings. Cells and 12 and 14 D are the most active. Cell 14-D is often reported to be almost 20 degrees colder than the rest of the cells on the block, and numerous psychics have felt emotionally charged impressions in the corners of the cells where punished prisoners were known to have crouched and suffered. These cells are so eerie that it is said that some park rangers refuse to go there alone.

When authors Richard Winer and Nancy Osborn, authors of the book Haunted Houses, made a trip to Alcatraz, they also felt eerie feelings in cell 14-D. When the pair entered the cell along with a park ranger, they all felt strong vibrations and tingling sensations in their hands and arms. Convinced that something or someone was there with them, Osborn stated that she had never felt so much psychic energy in one spot.

Overlooking the Recreation Yard by Kathy Alexander.

Overlooking the Recreation Yard by Kathy Alexander.

Co-author of the book Haunted Alcatraz, Michael Kouri, also had described receiving psychic impressions when he visited cell 14-D. Also experiencing tingling sensations, he tells of “seeing” a small man with his head shaved who “told” of being beaten, his legs broken by guards, and left in solitary confinement.

On another occasion, when renowned ghost hunter Richard Senate and a psychic spent the night on Alcatraz, Senate locked himself in cell 12-D, where an evil spirit is said to make his home. As the steel door was closed, the ghost hunter felt icy fingers wrap around his neck while the experienced psychic visions of the bodies of twisted and dismembered men.

In Cellblock C, many believe that the utility passageway where convicts Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, and Marvin Hubbard were killed during their escape attempt in 1946 is haunted. Loud, clanging noises are often heard but stop when the door is opened, only to resume once closed. Others have reported seeing the apparitions of men wearing fatigues and hearing disembodied voices at the riot site that left the three prisoners dead.

Alcatraz Hospital

Alcatraz Hospital

The laundry room in Cellblock C is also said to hold an unseen presence. When a CBS news team brought in celebrity psychic Sylvia Brown, along with ex-convict Leon Thompson, Sylvia immediately encountered the unseen presence and strong impressions of violence in the Laundry Room.  As she described a tall man with a bald head and small beady eyes, Leon Thompson, the ex-convict, moved forward, stating: “I remember Butcher. He was a hitman with Murder Incorporated before they caught him. His name was Abie Maldowitz, but we called him Butcher. Another prisoner killed him here in the laundry room.” Prison records confirmed that Maldowitz was killed by another inmate in the laundry area of Cellblock C.

In the old hospital ward, park personnel has often heard voices and the screams of inmates who were often secured to a table until they were calmed down. Voices are also heard in the old mess hall.

When Al Capone was imprisoned at Alcatraz, he was assigned to a cell located on the outer west end of Cellblock B. Though the gangster was never allowed a musical instrument or a radio, many have reported the sound of a phantom banjo strumming within his cell.

Alcatraz Administration Building by Kathy Alexander.

Alcatraz Administration Building by Kathy Alexander.

In 1992, Alcatraz was featured on the popular television program Sightings, where several of the Park Service staff confirmed the haunted history of the prison. Among the stories told by staff were unexplainable crashing sounds, running footsteps, unearthly screams, cell doors that mysteriously closed of their own accord, moans, chains rattling, and the constant feelings of being watched.

Sightings also enlisted the help of a psychic investigator, Peter James, to get his impressions as he walked through the prison. James soon described hearing the voices of men who had been driven mad and experiences of abuse, fear, and pain.

The tales of ghostly hauntings upon Alcatraz Island have become so frequent that the legends have become as popular as the island’s long history. Seemingly, the paranormal prison is destined to live up to its popular nickname of “Hellcatraz.”

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

See readers story below

Also See:

Alcatraz History

A Daring Escape From Alcatraz

Ghost Stories

San Francisco History

San Francisco Photo Gallery

Was the woman real or a spirit from another time?

Readers Story – August 2012

Myself, my daughter and her college friend toured Alcatraz in July. The attached photo was taken with a phone camera from my daughter’s friend. She refused to keep it on her phone. If you look closely… a woman is sitting in the driver’s seat of the truck. When this picture was taken… there was NO ONE in that truck. I know because I love classic cars/trucks and was waiting for my turn to take a photo. I was off to the rear left of the truck. There was a mother/daughter off directly to the left of the truck and my daughter had gone ahead. The truck was a display and I believe it belonged to one of the warden’s. Can you tell me, did you ever hear of there being any female ghosts on Alcatraz. This photo shook me, my daughter, and her friend pretty bad.

Any info you have would be greatly appreciated.

Kristine Castillo, RN
photo is attached…if you enlarge it you can see this woman very clearly.