Hot Meals and Cold Cases: Solving Crimes at the Detectives’ Lunch Club

Rob Culpepper
Rob Culpepper

By Matthew Shaer

On a brisk day last November, law enforcement professionals and forensic scientists crowded into a dining room at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia to eat lunch and stare at photos of dead bodies. The contrast was startling: fine steaks served on white china, sumptuous wallpaper dimly lit by elegant candelabra, and blood and limbs projected onto a screen. Tucked into the back of the room, I struggled to keep down my coffee. My tablemates, most of them graying and austere, clad in smart, dark suits, seemed unbothered.

“Can you make the picture a little bigger?” shouted one.

“It’s hard to see the hands,” added another.

The hands in question belonged to David Hayes, a retiree from a small town in Nebraska. Two years earlier, in the fall of 2010, an intruder had broken into the back door of a condo owned by David and his wife, Joan.* David was savagely shot and bludgeoned to death; Joan was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and face. A pocketknife emblazoned with the logo of the Nebraska State Police was found buried in Joan’s sternum.

The details mystified police. Nothing appeared stolen. Joan was posed in a sexual way—her nightgown jimmied up around her neck, her legs splayed apart. Rings of table salt were spread in careful circles around the bodies. The pages of a rare edition of the Bible were scattered over David’s corpse, and there were multiple, careful stab wounds around his eyes.

After two years of investigation, the case was ice-cold. So in late 2012, David Schumann and Pete Webber, the Nebraska cops running the case, packed information on the Hayes murders into manila envelopes and sent them to the headquarters of the Vidocq (pronounced vee-dock) Society, a crime-solving organization founded in 1990 by a group of forensics specialists. Well-known in law enforcement circles, the Vidocq Society is a last resort—it’s where cops turn when every lead has come to naught. For Schumann and Webber, it was their best and perhaps last hope for a break. If the Vidocq Society couldn’t crack the case, nobody could.

FRESH EYES FOR COLD CASES

At first, there were three: William Fleisher, Richard Walter, and Frank Bender. At the time, Fleisher, now retired, was a police officer turned FBI special agent turned chief of Customs Service in Philadelphia. Walter was a respected crime scene analyst and forensic psychologist for the Michigan prison system—what Hollywood calls a profiler. Bender (who passed away in 2011) was a forensic reconstructionist who specialized in taking the skulls of murder victims and sculpting recognizable three-dimensional models of their faces.

In 1989, Bender introduced Walter to Fleisher over lunch, and the three men got to talking about old cases—the ones that congealed like aging butter, the ones investigators abandoned for lack of time or resources. They talked for three hours, leading Fleisher to make a proposal: Why not formalize this process into a kind of club where they could more rigorously tackle the cases that interested them? Fleisher had a name in mind—the Vidocq Society, after Eugène François Vidocq, a 19th-century fraudster turned private investigator. He also supplied the motto: Veritas veritatum, or “truth begets truth.”

The first Vidocq Society meeting was held in late 1990, in a conference room at the Naval Yard, in Philadelphia. Twenty-six people attended. The crime in question involved a South Carolina car dealer, his wife, and their son, all of whom had been tied in their home, killed, and left to rot in an upstairs bathroom. The society’s members felt they could identify the culprit if they could ask more questions, but no investigators directly connected to the case were on hand; Walter, who had consulted on the case, had presented the crimes to the group himself. Next, the society tried solving historical cases, but again, the members couldn’t share their suspicions with or ask questions of anyone who’d been on the scene. Not being able to affect the course of the long-abandoned investigations was too frustrating.

“We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got to have a mission, and we’ve got to have some clarity,’ ” Fleisher said. The members decided to set some ground rules. Cases should be relatively recent but at least two years old. The police should be willing to cooperate, if not present the cases themselves. And drug and organized crime killings were off-limits.

But why take any murders off the table? “Those cases are very slippery,” Walter says. “There are a lot of angles and twists that often have to do with the crowd that the victim associated with. The story of the dealer, the buyer, local gangs, the milieu of the city itself”—the particulars would be too difficult to convey in the course of such a short presentation.

At the same time, the Vidocq Society also decided to codify regulations on the membership process. Applicants had to be referred by a current member in good standing and offer something that others could not. “We’ve had experts on drowning—saltwater and freshwater—psycholinguists, entomologists, people who specialize in the amount of time it takes for insects to swarm onto a dead body,” says Fred Bornhofen, the society’s 75-year-old chairman of the board emeritus and case-management director. “We’ve just recruited a woman who does research on isotope analysis. The point is we’re not for voyeurs.”

Word soon got out and detectives from all over the country flooded the office with requests. Before long, the Vidocq Society upped its meeting schedule from four times a year to nine. Today, the 82 chartered members hail from all areas of the crime-solving trade. There are DNA specialists, experts on cults, psychoanalysts, Naval Intelligence men, polygraphers, and long-retired FBI special agents. They convene every month, except July, August, and December—even veteran sleuths need a vacation—in the upper reaches of the Union League, a stately old building in the heart of Philadelphia. And at each meeting, over a lavish multicourse meal, they hear the details of a single unsolved case.

Fleisher does not like to speculate on the precise number of cases the Vidocq Society has helped solve. From the beginning, the club has made it policy to take a strictly advisory role in ongoing investigations, leaving the glory to the police officers in the trenches. But there’s a clear advantage to collecting and tapping into dozens of the best minds in law enforcement, and the fact that more than 300 cases have been brought to the group is testament. “I’d put it this way,” Fleisher laughs. “Eighty percent of the time we figure out who did it. It’s how you prove it—that’s the critical thing.”

Fleisher is careful to clarify that the Vidocq Society doesn’t always get its man. Still, there have been several notable successes. In the early 1990s, the members took on the case of a murdered woman and concluded that her killer had been a foot fetishist. The tip off? The woman’s shoes were missing—the killer had stolen them as mementos. More famously, there was the case of Scott Dunn, a 24-year-old Texas man who disappeared in 1991. Bloodstains had been found in Dunn’s apartment, but there was no body. In the mid-1990s, the Vidocq Society agreed to look into Dunn’s death. After a reexamination of the blood spatter patterns and DNA evidence, its members concluded that Leisha Hamilton, Dunn’s longtime girlfriend, was the killer. She is currently serving 20 years in a federal penitentiary.

Bornhofen chalks up the society’s accomplishments not just to the expertise of its members but to their ability to examine a crime scene without any prejudice—in one case where a priest murdered an undertaker and his assistant, for instance, local police were reluctant to point a finger at a man of God. The Vidocq Society had no such problem.

REVISITING THE HAYES MYSTERY

David Schumann was still relatively new to homicide investigations when he and Pete Webber were assigned to the Hayes case. Webber, taller and wirier than his stocky partner, had been on the force for decades. The two detectives opened their investigation with a careful analysis of the crime scene and a list of potential suspects. The son, David Hayes, had been in charge of dispersing his parents’ trust. Louis Beck, the Hayeses’ fiftysomething son-in-law, had been the one to call in the murders—he claimed he’d found the bodies on his way back from church.

But there was the question of motive—no one seemed to have one. Truth be told, the detectives had a hard time imagining anyone would want to kill the Hayeses. Joan was soft-spoken and charming, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. David, a former accountant, spent most of his time at church or volunteering at a local ministry; in recent years, he’d become involved in a Christian movement led by a charismatic preacher named Bill Forster. The Hayeses lived quietly and simply.

They were not typical murder victims. Before long, Schumann and Webber’s investigation hit a brick wall.

In the minutes after lunch at the Union League was cleared, the crowd in the dining room circled the identity of the Hayeses’ killer carefully, asking gentle then pointed questions of Schumann and Webber and requesting second looks at some of the more interesting slides. It was clear that the cops had focused a good deal of their energy on the son-in-law. There wasn’t much motive there, but Beck had discovered the bodies, and he had also lawyered up, which certainly suggested something to hide.

A rotund Vidocq Society member raised his hand. “Maybe David Hayes was a pedophile, and he was killed by a victim,” the man said, stroking his chin. “Did you find any child pornography on his desktop?”

“None,” Webber said.

Another hand went up. This time, the questioner was a primly dressed woman in her sixties—an eminent forensic scientist. She pointed out that the Bible pages and rings of salt seemed to suggest a religious aspect to the crimes. In the Bible, after all, salt is often used to symbolize purification. Maybe the killer was a parishioner at the chapel where David Hayes sometimes worked? A murmur rippled across the room. The hive mind lurched into gear. An expert on cults confirmed that pagan groups also use salt. A ring of the stuff, she continued, might indicate that the bodies were a kind of offering. Attention was called back to stab wounds around Joan’s eye and the knife buried in her chest—two acts of extreme violence that might also be viewed as ceremonial in nature.

Then Walter strode to the front of the room and took the microphone. Later, he told me that it wasn’t typical of him to commandeer the floor like that, but he’d felt energized, on a roll. Clicking back through the pictures and eagerly gesticulating, he pointed out that the ring of salt around David’s body was incomplete; surely, if the murderer were actually interested in purification, the circle would have been closed. “I think what we’re looking at,” Walter said, “is someone trying to conceal the true motive of their crime.”

He suggested the detectives focus their energy on Bill Forster, the preacher, self-help guru, and friend of the Hayeses. David, as the detectives had noted, had been a prominent supporter of Forster’s. Perhaps he had grown disenchanted with the preacher or discovered that Forster was funneling the proceeds from his self-help products to some less-than-Godly enterprise. In that case, Forster certainly would have had a reason to kill the Hayeses.

At first, a few heads bobbed uncertainly, but then the entire room was nodding along; there were even some tentative claps.

“That’s very interesting,” Webber said.

A few minutes later, the meeting was officially adjourned, and the members of the Vidocq Society filed out into the hallway, one by one, happily chattering about the particulars of the case. Only Schumann and Webber stayed behind—they wanted to talk to Walter privately.

CASE CLOSED

A few weeks later, I called Walter at his home in northern Pennsylvania. When Walter is not occupied with Vidocq Society business, he keeps a busy schedule, traveling across the country for consultations and lecturing at conferences and universities on the finer points of profiling. Still, the Hayes killings had remained stubbornly on his mind.

“Of all murder cases brought to trial, only 27 percent have physical evidence and fingerprints,” he said. Because of television shows such as CSI, he continued, “we naively think that DNA can solve everything. It can’t. Sometimes it’s the good old-fashioned investigative arts. That’s where we can help.”

The Hayes case is extremely complicated—a “multilayered, economically related, cover-up kind of thing,” Walter says. But Walter had been in constant touch with the detectives from Nebraska, and he was confident they were zeroing in on the right suspect: Forster. “The guy will get caught,” Walter said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

As for the Vidocq Society, the next few years will be pivotal. The society remains an anomaly in the U.S.: a crime-solving organization made up entirely of freelance experts. But many of the original members, including Bornhofen and Fleisher, are hitting an age where they’re thinking about retiring from the club. The baton will have to be passed to a new generation of Sherlocks, and the founders are actively recruiting up-and-comers. Interested in joining the society? Well, the process is secretive, Walter says.

In other words, don’t call them. They’ll call you.

* Names, locations, and details have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.

This story originally ran in 2013.

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. IT BECAME A MILITARY OUTPOST IN THE 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. INMATES WERE FORCED TO BUILD THEIR OWN PRISON.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. LIFE THERE WASN’T SO BAD.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. ODDS OF ESCAPE WERE SLIM.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. INMATES LIKED PLAYING SOFTBALL.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. GUARDS LIVED ON THE ISLAND WITH THEIR FAMILIES.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. IT WAS CLOSED FOR BEING TOO EXPENSIVE.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. NATIVE AMERICANS OCCUPIED IT IN PROTEST.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. YOU CAN TAKE A TOUR.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. It’s possibly the only such park that can lay claim to Al Capone once strolling its grounds. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry (via the wonderfully-named Alcatraz Cruises). Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. IT’S LITERALLY GONE TO THE BIRDS.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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