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Alcatraz: The Devil's Island in San Francisco’s Backyard

In San Francisco, “The Rock” refers to Alcatraz Island, a former military and federal prison that’s reputedly one of the most haunted places on earth, and a popular place to visit on a San Francisco holiday.

In 1775 Juan Manuel de Ayala named it "La Isla de los Alcatraces", "The Island of the Pelicans”. Today it is still home to seabirds such as Western gulls and egrets. One of the oldest working lighthouses in the United States looks over the remnants of the military garrison that once stood here. Its most fascinating feature, however, has always been the prison, a group of concrete cells dating back to 1909.

It was first a detention zone for Civil War captives and rogue soldiers. Bound by ankle chains attached to heavy iron balls, they were kept in horrible conditions, sleeping side-by-side on the cold, concrete floor, and given only bread and water. By day they performed chores like cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Eventually, they were allowed a few privileges, and a baseball field was built for their enjoyment. Boxing matches between inmates – the legendary "Alcatraz Fights" – became popular and drew people from the mainland.

A huge crime wave hit America during the Great Depression, and Alcatraz became home to the country’s most despicable criminals, especially the gangsters. It earned the nickname “Uncle Sam's Devil's Island” under the iron hand of Warden James A. Johnston, who enforced the rule of total silence. Punishments were severe, like confinement to the Strip Cell, a cold, pitch-black room with no toilet or sink. Many detainees lost their minds here, and committed indescribable deeds, now part of the legends that make up Alcatraz’s mystique.

Among its famous jailbirds is Al Capone, who was always found crouching in a corner of his cell, mumbling baby talk to himself.

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