12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like there’s a new—and wildly successful—book, podcast, or show devoted to a crime. Investigation Discovery, a hit from when it debuted in 2008, continues to top the ratings (and even throws its own true crime convention, IDCon). From Serial and Dr. Death to In the Dark and Atlanta Monster, there’s no shortage of true crime podcasts. The genre is so huge that Netflix—whose offerings in this arena include The Keepers, Evil Genius, Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, and The Staircase—even created a parody true crime series (American Vandal). Which raises the question: Why are we so obsessed with true crime? Here’s what the experts have to say.

1. BECAUSE IT’S NORMAL (TO A POINT).

First things first: There’s nothing weird about being true crime obsessed. “It says that we're normal and we're healthy,” Dr. Michael Mantell, former chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department, told NPR in 2009. “I think our interest in crime serves a number of different healthy psychological purposes.” Of course, there are limits: “If all you do is read about crime and ... all you do is talk about it and you have posters of it, and you have newspaper article clippings in your desk drawer, I'd be concerned,” he said.

2. BECAUSE EVIL FASCINATES US.

The true crime genre gives people a glimpse into the minds of people who have committed what forensic psychologist Dr. Paul G. Mattiuzzi calls “a most fundamental taboo and also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse”—murder. “In every case,” he writes, “there is an assessment to be made about the enormity of evil involved.” This fascination with good versus evil, according to Mantell, has existed forever; Dr. Elizabeth Rutha, a licensed clinical psychologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, told AHC Health News that our fascination begins when we're young. Even as kids, we're drawn to the tension between good and evil, and true crime embodies our fascination with that dynamic.

We want to figure out what drove these people to this extreme act, and what makes them tick, because we'd never actually commit murder. “We want some insight into the psychology of a killer, partly so we can learn how to protect our families and ourselves," Lost Girls author Caitlin Rother told Hopes & Fears, "but also because we are simply fascinated by aberrant behavior and the many paths that twisted perceptions can take.”

3. BECAUSE OF THE 24/7 NEWS CYCLE ...

Even if we’ve been fascinated by crime since the beginning of time, we likely have the media to thank for the uptick in the true crime fad. “Since the ‘50s, we have been bombarded … in the media with accounts of crime stories, and it probably came to real fruition in the ‘70s,” Mantell said. “Our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime.” Later, he noted that “The media understands, if it bleeds, it leads. And probably 25 to 30 percent of most television news today [deals] with crime particularly personal crime and murder. Violent predatory crimes against people go to the top of the list.”

4. … AND BECAUSE WE CAN’T LOOK AWAY FROM A "TRAINWRECK."

“Serial killers tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks, or natural disasters," Scott Bonn, professor of criminology at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, wrote at TIME. "The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity. In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”

In fact, the perpetrators of these crimes might serve an important societal role, as true crime writer Harold Schechter explained to Hopes & Fears. "That crime is inseparable from civilization—not an aberration but an integral and even necessary component of our lives—is a notion that has been advanced by various thinkers," including Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, he said. "If such theories are valid (and they have much to commend them), then it follows that criminals can only fulfill their social function if the rest of the world knows exactly what outrages they have committed and how they have been punished—which is to say that what the public really needs and wants is to hear the whole shocking story. And that is precisely what true crime literature provides."

5. BECAUSE IT HELPS US FEEL PREPARED.

According to Megan Boorsma in Elon Law Review [PDF], studies of true crime have shown that people tend to focus on threats to their own wellbeing. Others have noted that women in particular seem to love true crime, and psychologists believe it’s because they’re getting tips about how to increase their chances of survival if they find themselves in a dangerous situation.

One study, published in 2010, found that women were more drawn than men to true crime books that contained tips on how to defend against an attacker; that they were more likely to be interested in books that contained information about a killer’s motives than men were; and that they were more likely to select books that had female victims. “Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men," the researchers concluded; "the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime.” Amanda Vicary, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post that “by learning about murders—who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc.—people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”

Watching, listening to, or reading about real crimes “could be like a dress rehearsal," Dr. Sharon Packer, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, told DECIDER.

According to crime novelist Megan Abbott, men are four times more likely than women to be victims of homicide—but women make up 70 percent of intimate partner homicide victims. “I’ve come to believe that what draws women to true crime tales is an instinctual understanding that this is the world they live in," Abbot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "And these books are where the concerns and challenges of their lives are taken deadly seriously.”

6. BECAUSE THERE MIGHT BE AN EVOLUTIONARY BENEFIT.

Dr. Marissa Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, told Hopes & Fears that she believes people are interested in true crime because we've evolved to pay attention to things that could harm us so that we can better avoid them. “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific, because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli,” she said.

7. BECAUSE WE’RE GLAD WE’RE NOT THE VICTIM ...

Psychologists say one of the main reasons we’re obsessed with true crime is because it gives us an opportunity to feel relieved that we’re not the victim. Tamron Hall, host of ID's Deadline: Crime, identified that sense of reprieve at ID's IDCon last year. “I think all of you guys watch our shows and say, ‘But for the grace of God, this could happen to me' … This could happen to anyone we know,” she said.

Packer told DECIDER that a big factor in our true crime obsession is something sort of like schadenfreude—getting enjoyment from the trouble experienced by other people. “It’s not necessarily sadistic, but if bad faith had to fall on someone, at least it fell on someone else,” she said. “There’s a sense of relief in finding out that it happened to someone else rather than you.”

8. … OR THE PERPETRATOR.

On the other hand, watching true crime also provides an opportunity to feel empathy, Mantell said: “It allows us to feel our compassion, not only a compassion for the victim, but sometimes compassions for the perpetrator.”

"We all get angry at people, and many people say ‘I could kill them’ but almost no one does that, thankfully," Packer said. "But then when you see it on screen, you say, ‘Oh someone had to kill someone, it wasn’t me, thank God.’ [There is] that same sense of relief that whatever kinds of aggression and impulses one has, we didn’t act on them; someone else did.”

9. BECAUSE IT GIVES US AN ADRENALINE RUSH ...

“People ... receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing terrible deeds,” Bonn writes. “If you doubt the addictive power of adrenaline, think of the thrill-seeking child who will ride a roller coaster over and over until he or she becomes physically ill. The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.”

10. … AND BECAUSE WE’RE TRYING TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY.

Humans like puzzles, and true crime shows and podcasts get our brains going. “By following an investigation on TV,” Bonn writes, “people can play armchair detective and see if they can figure out ‘whodunit’ before law enforcement authorities catch the actual perpetrator.”

“True crime invites obsession for three reasons," Dr. Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, told Hopes & Fears. "People gawk at terrible things to reassure themselves that they are safe; and most true crimes on TV and in books are offered as a puzzle that people want to solve. This gives them a sense of closure. It is also a challenge that stimulates the brain.”

11. BECAUSE WE LIKE TO BE SCARED … IN A CONTROLLED WAY.

“As a source of popular culture entertainment, [true crime] allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real,” Bonn writes. “For example, the stories of real-life killers are often for adults what monster movies are for children.” Schechter told the BBC the same thing—that stories about serial killers are “fairytales for grownups. There’s something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters.”

Our interest in what motivates violent crimes boils down to being afraid, A.J. Marsden, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida told the Huffington Post; true crime allows viewers to “dive into the darker side of humanity, but from the safety of the couch.”

12. BECAUSE THE STORYTELLING IS GOOD—AND COMFORTING.

Ask Investigation Discovery’s hosts why people love true crime, and most of them will mention one thing: storytelling. “For thousands of years, people have gathered around the fire and said, ‘Tell me a story,’” Lt. Joe Kenda, former detective and host of Homicide Hunter, told Mental Floss in 2017. “If you tell it well, they’ll ask you tell another one. If you can tell a story about real people involved in real things, that draws their interest more than something some Hollywood scriptwriter made up that always has the same components and the same ending.”

Tony Harris, host of Scene of the Crime and Hate in America, echoed Kenda’s sentiment about storytelling, noting that many true crime shows have a definitive ending: “In most of the shows, we button it up.”

Not only that, most true crime shows follow a similar format—which could also play into our obsession.

“In order to see why people are obsessed with true crime, you have to see the bigger metanarrative that nearly all true crime stories share,” Lester Andrist, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, told Hopes & Fears. “In the typical true crime story, it’s easy to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and most importantly, the crimes are always solved. Mysteries have answers, and the justice system—imperfect though it may be—basically works.”

And so, in a weird way, these true crime stories—as horrific as they are—end up being comforting. “While living in a world where there is rapid social, political, economic, and technological change,” Andrist said, “true crime comforts people by assuring them that their long-held ideas about how the world works are still useful.”

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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