Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

Garrison Life on the Rock, 1859-1934

Births and deaths were a part of the fabric of Alcatraz's history. Between 1875 and 1891 and from 1893 to 1910, 35 garrison soldiers and general prisoners died on the island. Of these deaths, 20 were caused by disease, 9 were accidental, 5 were suicides, and 1 was a murder. In addition, two wives lost their lives: one who was killed (below), and a sergeant's wife who committed suicide.

One of the most tragic incidents of death involved the capable and conscientious post surgeon, Capt. William D. Dietz. On the morning of January 28, 1891, the 29-year-old captain and his young wife were found dead in their quarters. The terse medical report read:

"Mrs. Dietz came to her death at the hands of the Captain. Weapon used--shot-gun, Caliber 10, subsequently the Captain killed himself with the same weapon. Insanity is supposed to be the cause of the tragedy." The island experienced another act of violence in 1909 when Sgt. Roy Ford threw Pvt. Thomas Mullaly out of a third-story window in the barracks. The private fell 37 feet onto the iron grating and was killed instantly. Sergeant Ford then killed himself with a .38 caliber Colt.

Lest it be thought that Alcatraz's garrison consisted of only mad killers, the death in 1889 of Sgt. Charles Brown, Company C, First Infantry, should be noted. There was nothing unusual about his demise--kidney and liver disease; but his passing caused the recording of the career of a seasoned soldier. Brown was born in Manheim, Germany, in 1854. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Sixth Cavalry, U. S. Army. After serving in the cavalry for 16 years, he reenlisted in the infantry and served at the Presidio before transferring to Alcatraz in early 1889. The "Alcatraz Descriptive Book" listed the Indian engagements that Brown had participated in during his cavalry days: Mulberry Creek, Texas, Aug. 30, 1874; Camp Apache, Arizona Territory, Jan. 9, 1876; Canon Creek, Montana, Nez Perce Indians, Sept. 13, 1877; Birch Creek, Oregon, Bannocks and Piutes, July 8, 1878; Umatilla Agency, Oregon, Bannocks and Piutes, July 13, 1878.


Alcatraz as rendered by an artist in 1898.


San Francisco's bustling Market Street in 1890.

During one of these engagements, Sergeant Brown was severely wounded in the upper portion of his right arm. Only 35 years old at the time of his death, Brown had served his adopted country for 18 years (over half of his life) from the deserts of Arizona to the snows of Montana. Most of Alcatraz's dead were buried in the military cemetery on Angel Island. When that burial ground was closed early in the 20th century, most funerals then were conducted at the National Cemetery, Presidio of San Francisco.

The birth records are far from complete, but for a short period from July 1884 to December 1888 they were maintained with some care. During those years, no fewer than nine babies came into the world on the Rock. At that time, an average of 22 women lived on the island, most of them the wives of officers and sergeants. Again, from January 1900 to April 1907, ten babies were born on the island. While the number of children living on the island fluctuated greatly over the years, the scarce census records indicate a rough average of 20 or so boys and girls ("army brats") making Alcatraz their home.

Other civilians living at Alcatraz included Chinese servants attached to officers' families. The employment of Chinese in this occupation was almost universal throughout western army posts, from Idaho to Arizona in the last half of the 19th century. Perhaps they were the reason for the Chinese consul general at San Francisco paying a visit to Alcatraz in April 1887, where he was received "with the usual military honors." Another civilian employee was the hospital matron, usually the wife of an enlisted man. Her primary responsibility was doing the hospital laundry. In 1885 the Alcatraz post surgeon arranged to have the hospital laundry done commercially in San Francisco, at the Occidental Laundry on Octavia Street. Still; he appointed Miss Katie Grant as matron, saying it was "merely formal."

Despite Alcatraz's being an island, social activities were probably not unduly restricted, since the officers attended parties and dances at the other posts in the bay and entertained at home. On Tuesday nights the quartermaster steamer made a theater run to San Francisco. At one time, the military prisoners organized the Prison Dramatic Association and gave several presentations. In 1889, a pleasant change of pace occurred when the First Infantry on Angel Island sent its regimental band to Alcatraz on a temporary assignment. Recreational activities and sports were more of a problem due to the lack of level ground. Baseball, for instance, could not be played before the 1870s, when prisoners finally hewed out the southeast end of the island. The surgeons worried about this, and eventually a gymnasium was set up and regular drills were instituted. In the early days, a post trader had a small store in the vicinity of the wharf. Eventually this enterprise disappeared from the island and the troops' indoor recreation was limited to playing pool in their own "amusement room." Then, in 1890, the surgeon reported with satisfaction, "The canteen recently established is an appreciated innovation, and will undoubtedly tend to render the enlisted man more contented with his monotonous life upon this rather circumscribed and lonely isle. The Alta California sent a reporter 1885 to write a story on the military prison. He found the Rock to be a pleasant place. To his surprise, he described his walk to the top of the island:

“Along the roadside, as it nears the summit, are a succession of charming gothic cottages, occupied by the commanding officers of the garrison and their families, each with a little garden plot, and the voices of merry children make the air musical. On the summit proper, no grim implements of warfare chill the observer, if we except the solid shot, fifteen inches in diameter, which . . . cheerfully contribute to the adornment of the place, ranged in decorous rows, one above the other, around the tennis court, shielded from the stiff ocean breeze by a high wall, and lying in close proximity to a dainty garden, rich in fragrance and bloom.”

“The solid mass of masonry [Citadel] which caps the summit was built in war times and designed as a final refuge in case of siege. Its walls of brick and granite are some four [three] feet in thickness, and their narrow slits and perforations, as well as the sloping ramparts above, proclaim the uses for which it was designed. Day and night an armed sentry paces the roof, a duty that is an empty ceremony in time of peace. . . .the buildings are chiefly clustered on the eastern slope of the island, where they are protected from the ocean winds. The northern portion is virtually unoccupied, save by some minor fortifications, reached by a level road which runs below the level of the surface, and is flanked by green lawns, above which rise bulwarks of earth. Higher up, chicken-houses and cow yards are seen, swelling the complement of domestic animals on the island.”

In March of 1888 fire destroyed two of the oldest frame structures on Alcatraz, the old engineer stable and the engineer mechanics' quarters (lately used as an ordnance storeroom). A third building, the nearby laundress's quarters, was also a total loss. Thousands of people in San Francisco watched the blaze—an ironic contrast to 18 years later when Alcatraz would watch San Francisco go up in flames:

“About 6 o'clock yesterday afternoon the attention of residents of the south end of town was attracted to Alcatraz Island I as dense volumes of smoke there betokened the fact that the fortress was on fire. As the fire for some time seemed to be beyond control of those fighting it, the excitement of the thousands of spectators who from Telegraph Hill and other elevations watched the progress of the flames become intense. Some of the more imaginative half expected a terrific explosion, while others fell to speculating on the chances of the military, either for escape or for baking in their cells. A board of officers met the next day to determine the cause of the fire, which the newspaper thought was a cigar thrown into the stable. The board discovered "the children of the post have been in the habit of using this building [the stable] as a secret playhouse, making their way therein through an opening known only to themselves."

It was determined that just before the fire, two or three small boys had been in the stable had found a matchbox. No names were mentioned, but there probably were some warm pants in the quarters that evening. Every March the post quartermaster prepared his annual report on the state of the public buildings. The report for 1889 was one of the more detailed of those that have survived and provided a good summary of the structures.

(See PDF Version for Table and Source Notes)

The greatest change at Alcatraz, however, was the army's decision to. incarcerate all military prisoners returning from the Philippines who had time yet to serve. During the summer of 1899 the average prison population on the island was 25. In April 1900 the number of convicts jumped to 441, and Alcatraz's garrison more than doubled at the same time. The old prison complex on the island, a haphazard collection of ramshackle structures, became totally inadequate almost overnight. The garrison troops took shelter in every nook and cranny, including the gloomy casemates at the wharf. Every facility on the island became strained to the utmost. The next ten years would see the greatest burst of construction activity since Colonel Mendell had revamped the fortifications in the early 1870s.

Work began with a new single-story wing for the hospital in 1900. This addition contained a 16-bed ward with barred windows, an operating room, and a laboratory. Space for the wing was found by demolishing an old hose house and a frame building that had served as a gymnasium. Four years later, when a prisoner developed tuberculosis, the post surgeon got permission to construct an isolation ward on top of the new wing. Also in 1900, anew temporary prison was erected on the parade ground at the southeast end of the island, on the site excavated by Mendell's workforce 30 years earlier.

For most of the 45 years that a garrison had occupied Alcatraz Island, the enlisted men's quarters had been far from satisfactory. The Citadel had been the only permanent barracks, and the troops had lived in it for only a short time before moving into a succession of temporary frame buildings. As of 1905 the guard companies were living in the latest of these, located on top of the unfinished casemates. Several other small structures, such as first sergeants' rooms and a barber shop, shared this huge platform. In February 1905 the quartermaster announced that all of these buildings would be replaced by a four-company, three-story, concrete-block barracks that would cost an estimated $10,000. This low price (later increased to $20,000) would be achieved by the use of prison labor to manufacture the hollow concrete blocks on the island and carry out all the construction work under the direction of skilled civilian supervision. The post quartermaster, Lt. Gilbert A. McElroy, had overall charge of the work. A senior officer inspected the work in October 1905 and noted that progress was slow, owing to the necessity of erecting the structure in two parts so that the troops could continue to live in the old barracks while half of the new building went up. He said that the new barracks would contain dayrooms, dormitories, and a post exchange. The kitchens and mess rooms would be in the casemates. The flank section was to have a two-lane bowling alley on the first floor. Latrines would be retained in the old casemated rooms to the rear of the structure. The inspector described the construction as follows:

The exterior and interior partition walls of these barracks are made of hollow concrete blocks moulded in the form of rock faced ashlar on the outside, the concrete being reinforced with iron at places, where additional strength is required.

The work, including preparation of the blocks is done wholly by prison labor and with material--broken stone and sand--brought from Angel Island, nothing but the cement, lumber for joists, door and window frames, etc. is purchased. . . . Construction is under the direct personal charge of 2nd Lieut. G. A. McElroy, 13th Infantry, who . . . has prepared himself . . . by a most exhaustive study . . . of hollow block and reinforced concrete construction. These barracks will when completed be in appearance similar to the stone barracks at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Inasmuch as this building still stands and because a set of plans for it has not yet been located, McElroy's construction report is quoted herein at length:

The two foot [thick] brick wall in the rear of the barracks was not destroyed. It extended up about two thirds the height of the first floor; wooden moulds were made and the wall run up the full height of the first floor, by means of concrete molded on the walls, reinforced by galvanized iron pipe. Prisoners mixed the concrete by hand, using the formula of one part concrete, two parts sand and gravel, and three parts crushed stone] with facing on all outside blocks in the proportion of one part cement to two parts of sand. This makes a block very rich in cement; but this is necessary on account of the block being manufactured by what is known as the "Dry Process." By the "Dry Process" we mean giving the concrete all the water it; will stand, but not enough water to make the block sag when taken out of the form. The concrete is first thoroughly mixed dry, then thoroughly mixed wet, and thoroughly tamped as it is placed in the form; as soon as the facing has been applied, the block is immediately removed from the machine and left on the cast iron plate for about forty eight hours; at the end of the first twenty four hours, water is applied to the blocks by means of a sprinkler, and the blocks are kept thoroughly wet for about ten days, and then allowed to cure for about three weeks.

The largest block that the machine now in use here can make is 321' x 16" x 9"; all blocks of larger size are made in wooden forms, for e. g " window and door lintels and sills. The lintels are all reinforced. . . . The foundation of the barracks is an old brick casemate. The casemate rests on solid rock, and . . . is one huge monolith. Before commencing any construction work, it was necessary to remove several car loads of brick and concrete abutments on top of this magazine. . . . The walls of the building rest on concrete foundations, which were made in forms on the magazines. The chimneys rest on the supports for the heavy arches in the casemates, and holes were drilled through the top of the magazine for the kitchen flues, the kitchens being located in the magazines.

After some little experimenting it was decided that it would be better to the stoners as they were laid, and this had been done throughout the building. Advantage has been taken of the hollow blocks to use them as ventilators. The belt courses between the floors were constructed in wooden forms, it being necessary to have this course 12" wide. . . . These blocks were laid in place, and then cut in such a way that the floor joists would fit in and could be tied by iron rods. At points… in the walls where the wall might be weakened by a heavy load, twisted steel bars were used as reinforcements, or the hollow space filled with the poured concrete. Nothing but cement mortar has been used in the building. . . .

Whenever possible, all partitions have been constructed of hollow 6" concrete blocks. The only partitions not of concrete are the partitions in the two central sets of barracks....The partitions are attached to the adjacent walls in two ways: --First by cutting a hole in the outside wall after the wall is laid large enough to insert one end of the block in the partition wall; this hole runs through the hollow space in the outside wall and when the block in the partition wall has been inserted, the space is carefully filled with concrete; these holes are generally cut in the outside wall of every third row of blocks. The second method is by means of corner stones; this method is used entirely where an interior partition joins another. By a corner stone we mean a stone 32" long with an "L" one half as long, or 16". . . . Plaster can be applied directly against the wall; joints between blocks on interior walls should not be pointed up. If blocks are machine made and the interior surface of the walls true, a cement grout will make a fairly good rough finishing. . . .

All chimneys are constructed of. concrete in the partition walls, or are attached to the exterior walls . . . all flues in the chimneys in the barracks will have terra cotta flue linings. . . . The chimneys have from two to eight or ten flues in addition to the ventilating flues. Each fire has a separate flue. . . . The foul air ventilator extends the full .height of the chimney; the large ventilators also extend the full height of the chimneys and into these ventilators we have openings from each squad room. The entire building is heated by fireplaces. The large squad rooms are provided with two fire places each. The grates are approximately 13" x 26"; the fire places are all lined with ordinary fire brick.[Concerning the great earthquake of 1906] The only damage done to the chimneys or fire-places by the earthquake was to throw the fire brick lining out of the fireplaces. Concrete hearths about four feet wide are placed in front of each fireplace on a level with the floor. Concrete mantels are being constructed… The grates were made in San Francisco from designs prepared in this office. . . .

The steps in the rear of the barracks are made of concrete reinforced on corners with iron bars. . . .. Porches the second floor run around two sides of the building. The floor joists to these porches extend through the interior walls . The porches are eight feet wide; the floor joists 3" x 12"; lower porch is supported by figure four braces bolted to the brick casemate; the upper porch supported by columns; turned balustrades extend the full length of both porches. This turning work has all been done at this post by prison labor; the porch columns were also made at this post. The stairway is six feet wide with 12" hard wood treads, a rise of about 7"; turned balustrades on the stairways were also made by prison labor. . . .