Bodies in mysteries can be discovered anywhere, right? Preferably within the first few chapters of a book. But I’m always looking for interesting places. Places where Julia Bonatti, my San Francisco astrologer, can become involved in a crime. And I love the thought that she could be found at an iconic San Francisco site – like the “Rock.”
People know Alcatraz, the island of pelicans, as a federal prison. But well before then, the island had a long and interesting history. It was first discovered in 1775 by Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala, although Native Americans claimed to have known of its existence for 10,000 years. Alcatraz boasted the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast and in 1828 it was put to use as a military prison during several wars — the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and even World War II.
From 1934 to 1963 it was a federal prison for the most notorious criminals in America — Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. In addition, another 700 people– wardens, guards, electricians, along with their families, lived a sheltered life in a small, intimate community on the Rock.
Alcatraz was considered inescapable because of isolation by the cold and hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay. Yet thirty-six desperate prisoners, in spite of the dangers, made fourteen separate escape attempts. Twenty-three of them were caught alive, six were shot during their escape, two drowned and five are listed as missing and presumed dead.
Of those five in 1962, the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, are considered the most likely to have survived the swim. As boys, they had learned to swim in the icy waters of Lake Michigan. It’s just possible they had the stamina to survive. One long-standing rumor holds that they survived the journey and escaped to Brazil. However, the F.B.I. officially concluded in 1979, on the basis of circumstantial evidence and expert opinion, that the men drowned in the frigid waters before reaching land. The U.S. Marshal’s case file remains active though. The Anglin brothers, probably long deceased, remain on its most wanted list.
If you’re so inclined, I warn you — it’s a cold and creepy place. The stone and brick walls are dank and slimy and, I swear, there are some strange odors. The Rock in my opinion is a monument to human misery. Oh, and did I mention? It’s reputed to be haunted too. No surprise! But more about that in a later post. Maybe it’d be a good place for Julia to visit after all.
This post first appeared at Jane Reads on June 27, 2018.