Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Alcatraz Mystique

I have always been fascinated with Alcatraz, the isolated California island prison known as "The Rock." It's where the most notorious murderers and mobsters were sent between 1934 and 1963.

My husband and I toured it during a honeymoon stop in San Francisco. I know, so romantic! But positively creepy and enthralling in a good, spine-tingling way. It's amazing it is such a popular tourist attraction since it has been closed for over 50 years now.

I read a bewitching article today detailing all sorts of unexplained occurrences that guards have reported since the prison doors clanged shut for the last time.
For example, one guard says walking inside the former elctroshock therapy room was the "worst" part of his rounds. Once he took a picture of it at night to show friends. When he developed the film, there was a face in the room staring back at him.

A female former guard reports having the distinct sensation of "being pinched on the butt." She says, "It happened with great regularity. I have no explanation for it, and I don't talk to people about it, because I know it makes me sound crazy."

Other tidbits I find interesting about Alcatraz:
  • There were only two men ever paroled directly from Alcatraz to the free world. They either died there or were transferred to other federal penitentiaries.
  • In the earlier years of Alcatraz, inmates were not allowed to talk to one another except during meals and recreation periods. Some inmates commonly emptied out the water from their toilets and created a primitive communications system through the sewage piping.
  • Most cells were extremely small--only 5 feet by 9 feet. Most men could extend their arms and touch each wall within their cell.
  • 36 prisoners were involved in various escape attempts. Two inmates actually successfully made it off the island but were quickly captured. Seven inmates were shot and killed trying to escape. Two drowned and 5 inmates have been unaccounted for and presumed drowned.
The Most Famous Escape Attempt:

Occurred on June 11, 1962, and was made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were never seen again.

An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts.

They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight.

But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later a man's body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified.
Morris and the Anglins are officially listed as missing and presumed drowned.

In 2003, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, the co-hosts of the San Francisco-based Discovery Channel television series MythBusters, sought to prove whether the escapees could have survived. Using similar materials to those used in 1962, they constructed an inflatable raft from 50 rubber raincoats and made plywood paddles.

Hyneman and Savage selected a date when the tide direction and rate matched that of the escape attempt, and with another crew member, Will Abbot, standing in for the third prisoner, they were able to paddle with the outgoing tide to the
Marin Headlands, near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The trip took 40 minutes and Hyneman and Savage agreed that the escape could have succeeded: the only problem with calling the myth "confirmed" is the simple fact that there's no actual evidence to show the escapees actually succeeded.

Leading Alcatraz historian Frank Heaney has spoken to relatives of the Anglin brothers who claim to have received postcards from South America signed by the two, but Frank Morris was never heard from again.


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