prison

Escape From Uncle Sam's Island

Famous for containing some of the most violent and destructive prisoners in American History, Alcatraz Island juts out of the dark waters of San Francisco Bay. Bleakly surrounded by sharp currents and sharks, prisoners were kept in line with the grim reality that escape was near impossible. No refuge could be found on the grim rock of Alcatraz Island.

Men, like Al Capone, were cycled into the island and forced to live in imprisonment. Their crimes were heinous enough to secure them into this almost impenetrable prison. Most of the men who tried to escape were swiftly returned, or ended up dead. Those who managed to sneak their way past the guards would be swept away by the sea, and they would never be seen again.

It was not surprising that these prisoners toed the line and tested the odds, due to their lengthy histories in running against the law and risking everything.

There was a long history in attempted escapes from Alcatraz. In 1938, three men murdered a guard before they were shot down. Three years later, other prisoners attempted to filed down the bars of their cells to flee, but eventually surrendered their efforts. It was a constant desire to flee that ran through the men. Alcatraz gave men a raw desperation that they needed to escape, no matter the risk. They would attack guards with flimsy tools or they would plunge into the icy waters, willing to face the sharks.

Generations of prisoners would fumble with their attempts to escape, but it took until 1962 for true success.

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Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin managed to pull off the most devious caper on June 11th. As bank robbers, they had been sentenced to serve their time at Alcatraz by the American justice system. However, they managed to use their clever wit to break their way out of the supposedly impenetrable walls, and possibly survive.

There were three key elements to their success. The first, was in order to escape the prison itself, they had to carve a tunnel out of the wall of their cell with sharpened spoons. Due to the darkness of the prison and the music hour that was often hosted, they were able to effectively hide their efforts from the guards. This tunnel led up to a vent, allowing for their escape into the night.

Disguising their vanishing was the second part. Each of the three men stole human hair from the barbershop in the prison, and used papier-mache to create dummies. Paired with the hair, the dummies were positioned on their bunks, allowing to throw suspicion off for a short period and giving them a head start.

The final, and arguably the most important, element of their plan had been using fifty stolen raincoats to devise a functioning life raft. This feat of engineering allowed the men to survive the waters and make it to land.

This was the first known successful escape from the prison. If you hadn’t heard about the escape and the high survival odds of these three men, don’t worry. Alcatraz prison, along with the FBI, worked hard to cover their plight and claimed that the bodies of the men had been swept into the sea.

Alcatraz was a dominating force, a hulking dark creation of cells and hard rock. Men were confronted with the cold reality that there was no relief to their situation. Their wild personalities had to die in order for their survival.  Alcatraz, however, was a force that rose against these men and smothered their behaviours.

The story of Morris and the Anglin brothers might have vanished entirely, if it hadn’t been for a letter written to the San Francisco police department. John Anglin claimed that he was the only member of the trio currently alive, and that he would turn himself in if he would receive medical care for his cancer.

This letter went under rigorous testing for DNA and fingerprints, and results reportedly returned as inconclusive. Perhaps it was a hoax written by local boys, or a tourist inspired by the true history of the island.

Or, it was the attempt to solidify the truth of their escape, and their survival.

I’d like to imagine that this was in fact an honest letter written by the hand of John Anglin. In recent years, plenty have attempted to swim from Alcatraz Island to the shores of San Francisco, eager to fight against the swift currents and small sharks that roam the waters. While these swimmers are not escaped convicts, it does serve to defend the very real possibility that it is in fact, not impossible.  


Interested in one of the most daring swims of your life? Check out this article by Graham Little on it.


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

The Voices Go to Jail

Ladies and gentleman, it is February 20th, and tonight, we are going to jail.

Well, not exactly. We are going to the Ottawa Jail Hostel, formerly known as the Carleton County Gaol. If you’ve been on the Ottawa Haunted Walk or stayed here yourself, then you’ll know all about this place.

It seems lost now, as a brooding and austere five-story Victorian building amongst the modern high rises and shopping centres. There’s still a pillory on the front lawn, and a faded sign above the courtyard gate saying: ‘Jail Entrance, Entrée De La Prison’. But no prisoners have passed through the doors in forty-five years now, or not a living one at least.

Photo: ca. 1870-1880, William James Topley  / Library and Archives Canada / PA-012371

Photo: ca. 1870-1880, William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-012371

Yes, you guessed it. The building is very, very haunted. In fact, Lonely Planet calls it the ninth most haunted place in the world, and that is what we call a good review.

But first, before our stay begins, the story of the jail itself.

The Gaol was constructed in 1861, with a four story cell block to the rear, the administration block facing directly onto the Rideau Canal, a gallows yard surrounded by walls up to six metres high, and an underground tunnel going to the Courthouse next door. Its architect was Henry Hodge Horsey from Kingston, who also designed many of Ottawa’s notable Victorian buildings like the Banque Nationale and the original City Hall. At the time, the Gaol was considered ‘state of the art’, but as we all know, the standard in the nineteenth century tended to be quite low.

For starters, men, women and children were all doomed to serve their time within its walls—some of them murderers, others pickpockets and the like. They shared sixty cells with one hundred and fifty of their fellow inmates, in unsanitary conditions and without heating in the frigid winter months. Inmates only received one meal per day if they were lucky, while some of them were placed in solitary confinement, naked and alone. So it should come as no surprise that some inmates died before their sentences were up.

Photo: ca. 1910, N.D Wilson  / Library and Archives Canada / PA-044698

Photo: ca. 1910, N.D Wilson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-044698

Seven years after the Gaol began operation, an important part of Ottawa’s history took place between one Patrick Whelan and the Minister of Parliament for Montreal West, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Patrick J. Whelan  / Archives of Montreal.

Patrick J. Whelan / Archives of Montreal.

McGee was coming back from a Parliamentary debate just after midnight on April 7th, 1868. He ascended the steps towards the boarding house on Sparks Street where he had been staying, and greeted the owner of said boarding house, when he was suddenly shot through the neck. The shot reportedly knocked his dentures right out of his mouth. When others came to the scene, they found McGee dead on the street, with no sign of his assassin.

But it only took the police a day to find the culprit, in a tavern, with a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol in his pocket—allegedly the very pistol that had taken the life of McGee the previous night. The assassin was Patrick J. Whelan of County Galway, a man suspected of sympathizing with an Irish militia called ‘The Fenian Brotherhood’. When brought before the Court, however, Whelan insisted upon his innocence, but it was to no avail. In September, the Court found him guilty and sentenced him to die. Upon receiving the verdict of the Court, Whelan spoke these words:

"I am held to be a murderer. I am here standing on the brink of my grave, and I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed."

It’s not entirely clear if Patrick Whelan was indeed the man who killed D’Arcy McGee, as the evidence against him ended up being circumstantial at best. Nevertheless, not six months after the murder, in front of a crowd of five thousand spectators, Whelan again declared his innocence, before being hung from the Gallows at the Carleton County Gaol.

His body was buried on the property, where it presumably still remains with all the other men, women, and children who perished there. Afterwards, only two more executions took place there, the last being in 1945.

Eventually, in 1972, the outdated and infamously inhumane County Gaol closed for good. However, unlike most of the beautiful buildings designed by Henry Horsey, the Gaol was not demolished. It was instead turned into a hostel, after enjoying a much needed renovation. Guests stay in former cells, tour-goers pass by on the Ghost Walk and spirits linger alongside them. According to the stories, Patrick Whelan is unsurprisingly the most prolific phantom at the jail-turned-hostel. Guests often describe waking up to find Whelan standing over them, or he is seen walking towards the gallows. His spirit is certainly not alone though. There have also been many reports of disembodied screaming and crying, a feeling of intense negativity, and even violent encounters with the more aggressive spectral residents.

So we are going to spend the night with them.


If you’ve stayed here and experienced some spooky stuff yourself, tell us about it here, on Facebook, or tweet @AtticVoices! Remember to check the #VoicesInTheGaol tag on Twitter for our live-tweets and stay tuned for more terrible tales from the Carleton County Jail.


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Natascha Wood

Say her name three times and she will appear.

Twitter: @oldvvitch

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