Corpses in the Pig Pen: The Tale of Indiana's Most Notorious Serial Killer

Belle Gunness as a young woman
Belle Gunness as a young woman
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

The scent of smoke wafted through Joe Maxson’s bedroom as dawn broke on April 28, 1908. At first, he thought an early breakfast was cooking below—he lived on the second story, somewhere above the kitchen—but the smoke drifting through his window looked unusually thick. Maxson rose from bed, peered outside, and saw a wall of flames.

His mind immediately turned to the other people living in the house. Three children, as well as the home’s owner—a 48-year-old widow named Belle Gunness—were likely sleeping. Maxson was the family’s hired farmhand and had lived on the small La Porte, Indiana, farm for barely three months. It was his job to protect the property and the people in it. He ran across his bedroom and tried to open the door leading to Gunness’s half of the home.

It was locked.

With smoke choking his throat, Maxson cried out in a desperate attempt to get the family’s attention. “Fire! Fire!” But nobody stirred. The only thing Maxson heard was the ominous creaking of burning timbers.

As a haze filled the bedroom, Maxson scrambled down a set of rear stairs, ran outside, and grabbed an ax. He desperately hacked at the door leading to Mrs. Gunness’s part of the home, but it was no use. Nobody inside was responding. By the time the authorities reached the property, the building was a charred husk.

When the embers finally cooled, firemen sifting through the rubble found evidence that the fire was not accidental. In the basement, they discovered the four burnt bodies of three children and an adult female. The woman’s corpse was headless.

Immediately, neighbors began mourning the tragedy: Belle Gunness, a lonely widow who had spent years fruitlessly looking for love, had died surrounded by her children in a horrendous fire. For all her life, it seemed that tragedy had followed Mrs. Gunness—she had lost two husbands and multiple children to terrible accidents—and now it looked as though fate had come for her, too. Within days, a disgruntled former farmhand named Ray Lamphere was arrested for setting fire to the building.

As the village mourned, a South Dakota man named Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office. He had heard about the blaze and was deeply worried. Months earlier, his brother, Andrew Helgelien, had come to La Porte with the intention of moving in with Mrs. Gunness. He hadn’t heard from his brother since.

The ensuing investigation would turn the town of La Porte, Indiana, into the center of America’s attention.

 

By all outward appearances, Belle Gunness had a hard lot in life. Born on a farm in Norway, she emigrated to the United States in 1881 when she was 22 and settled in Chicago, where she met her first husband, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson. Two of their children (who may have been adopted) never lived passed infancy. Around 1895, a candy store they owned burned to the ground. In 1900, one of their homes was turned to ash. That same year, Mads mysteriously died.

Using her husband’s life insurance payout, Belle bought a farm with more than 40 acres near La Porte, Indiana, and married a fellow widower named Peter Gunness. Marital bliss, however, was in short supply. Not even one week after the wedding, Peter’s 7-month-old daughter died unexpectedly. And that December, Peter died in a freak accident after a sausage grinder fell from a high shelf and struck his head. The circumstances seemed strange enough that the coroner looked into it, but Belle was cleared.

In the ensuing years, the two-time widow kept few constant companions. She lived alone with her surviving children and a revolving cast of farmhands, who helped her pitch hay, butcher hogs, and manage a menagerie of chickens, horses, cows, and a single Shetland pony. Around 1905, she decided it was time to find love again and began placing classified ads in Scandinavian-language newspapers.

"Personal—comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."

According to her mail carrier, Mrs. Gunness sometimes received as many as eight letters a day from suitors. Her neighbors watched as men came knocking. One of her farmhands, Emil Greening, would tell the New York Tribune that she often kept the identities of the men concealed: “Mrs. Gunness received men visitors all the time. A different man came nearly every week to stay at the house. She introduced them as cousins from Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and from Chicago ... She was always careful to make the children stay away from her 'cousins.'”

Two photographs of Andrew Helgelien
Andrew Helgelien
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

Gunness was extremely private and practical in her search for a new partner. As much as she was looking for romance, she was also looking for a man who could help take care of her property and its finances, and she vetted the incoming suitors as if she were an employer looking to fill a job opening. Money was always at the top of her priorities. In one letter to a potential suitor named Carl Peterson, Gunness reportedly wrote, “I have picked out the most respectable and I have decided that yours is such … If you think that you are able in some way to put up $1000 cash, we can talk matters over personally.” From 1905 to 1907, dozens of potential suitors knocked on her door, though none appeared to please her enough to actually tie the knot.

In July 1907, Gunness hired Ray Lamphere to be her new farmhand. A 37-year-old with an unsavory reputation as a drinker, gambler, and all-around loafer, Lamphere defied expectations: He was a competent carpenter and loyal employee. Immediately, Gunness gave Lamphere a room on the second floor of her home, and soon the two began a strictly sexual relationship. Too poor to ever be considered a potential suitor, Lamphere resented the men coming in trying to woo the woman he grew to love.

Mrs. Gunness didn’t care. While she was sleeping with Lamphere and auditioning potential suitors, she was busy exchanging deeply personal love letters with a 40-something South Dakota wheat farmer (and fellow Norwegian immigrant) named Andrew Helgelien. Over about 16 months, Gunness sent him approximately 80 letters.

The long-distance romance burned slowly. Gunness explained that all of her other suitors had been duds, but Helgelien sounded like a true, red-blooded Norwegian. She begged him to come to Indiana. According to Harold Schechter’s book Hell’s Princess, Gunness wrote: “This is a secret between us and no one else. Probably we will have many other secrets between us, not so, dear friend?”

 

Andrew Helgelien’s arrival in La Porte broke Ray Lamphere’s heart. When the South Dakota farmer came in early January 1908, Gunness kicked Lamphere out of his room and told him to sleep in the barn. “After he came, she had no use for me,” Lamphere later lamented.

Helgelien and Gunness appeared to have fallen in love immediately. Just a few days after meeting, they walked into the First National Bank of La Porte together and attempted to redeem three of the South Dakota man’s Certificates of Deposit. Within days, they pulled out $2839—money to build a new life together.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Gunness and Lamphere got into a fight. Some say it’s because she owed him money. Others say it was because he was jealous of Gunness’s new man. Whatever the reason, Lamphere was fired and replaced with Joe Maxson.

Over the next three months, Lamphere became an endless source of grief for Belle Gunness. She wrote multiple letters to the local sheriff, Albert Smutzer, complaining that Lamphere, playing the part of a creepy ex-lover, was prowling on her property and peeking through the windows. In March, Belle tried to get Lamphere declared insane, which failed. She then had him arrested and fined for trespassing. Days after that, he was arrested again and acquitted, though by this time nearly every La Porte city official was aware that Lamphere seemingly had it out for the poor widow.

He wasn’t the only one.

 

When Andrew Helgelien left for Indiana, he told his brother, Asle, that “he would be back home in a week surely,” according to the La Porte Argus-Bulletin. Andrew never explained why he was leaving. Nor did he return as promised.

Back in South Dakota, Asle worried endlessly. He checked with family and friends to see if anybody knew of Andrew’s whereabouts, but nobody had the answers. It wasn’t until a farmhand found a stack of letters in Andrew’s cabin from a “Bella Gunness” that Asle realized that his brother had run off to Indiana to bed a rich widow. He pored over the love letters and was immediately suspicious of the woman’s motives.

“Take all your money out of the bank,” one letter advised, “and come as soon as possible.”

“Now see all that you can get cash for, and if you have much left you can easily take it with you, as we will soon sell it here and get a good price on everything,” she wrote in another. “Leave neither money or stock up there but make yourself free from Dakota so you will have nothing more to bother with up there.”

In a third letter, the mysterious woman wrote: “Do not say one word about it to anyone, not even your nearest relative.”

Worried that his brother was being bilked by a con woman in Indiana, Asle wrote to Mrs. Gunness in mid-March and inquired about his brother, more than two months after Andrew had arrived. The widow wrote back promptly.

“You wish to know where your brother keeps himself,” Gunness wrote. “Well this is just what I would like to know but it almost seems impossible for me to give a definite answer.” She claimed that Andrew had left for Chicago. In fact, she had received a letter from him sent from the Windy City telling her not to write back for a while. In it, Andrew said that he had left to search for a family member. She speculated he might go to Norway. “Since then I have neither heard or seen anything of him.”

For Asle, the excuse raised eyebrows. This was very uncharacteristic of his brother. When he asked Gunness to forward the letter his brother had sent from Chicago, the widow remorsefully told him that the letter was missing.

“I got the letter in the morning and read it and laid it in a china closet in the kitchen and went to milk & when I came back the letter was gone,” she wrote, blaming her ex-farmhand for the note’s disappearance. “That Lamphere was here and he had probably taken it.”

Asle remained suspicious of the story. Meanwhile, Gunness continued to voice her suspicions of Lamphere. On April 27, she visited her attorney, Melvin E. Leliter, and asked to have a will drawn up. She seemed extremely anxious.

She told the lawyer what she had been telling everybody in town: Ray Lamphere was causing her more and more trouble, and she was afraid he was going to do something dangerous. “I want to prepare for an eventuality,” she reportedly told her lawyer. “I’m afraid that fool Lamphere is going to kill me and burn my house.” The lawyer signed the will.

After the meeting, Belle Gunness went shopping and came home with cakes, a toy train, and two gallons of kerosene. According to Schechter, she treated her family that evening to a large meal of meat and potatoes and spent the night sitting on the floor, playing with her children and their new toy train.

The following morning, her house burned. Ray Lamphere was arrested almost immediately. And when Asle Helgelien received a newspaper clipping announcing that the house had burned, he rushed to Indiana.

 

On May 4, Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office in hopes of gaining information on the whereabouts of his brother. Sheriff Smutzer drove Helgelien to the Gunness house and told him to see if he could find any clues in the burnt rubble.

By then nearly a week had passed since the fire, and the skull of Belle Gunness had yet to be found. All of the bodies had been mangled and charred, but it was curious—and frustrating—that the head of the oldest woman had somehow gone missing, especially because the coroner needed it to make a proper identification. The La Porte Argus-Bulletin claimed that a vengeful Ray Lamphere must have disposed of it, writing that he had “decapitated her, and then set fire to the house to cover the evidence of his crime.”

When Helgelien arrived, Joe Maxson and another man were digging through the charred rubble in search of the missing head. Asle grabbed a shovel and joined in hopes of finding some sign of his brother. After two days, he gave up. According to Schechter, he told the men goodbye and started walking down the road—until a creeping sense of doubt compelled him to stop and turn around.

“I was not satisfied,” Helgelien later said, “and I went back to the cellar and asked Maxson whether he knew of any hole or dirt having been dug up there about the place in spring.”

In fact, Maxson had. There was a fenced-in hog lot about 50 feet from the house. Earlier that spring, there were a couple of soft depressions in the ground—buried rubbish, Mrs. Gunness had explained—and Maxson was ordered to level the divots with dirt. Helgelien asked the men to dig up the trenches: Perhaps there was something buried in the trash that would indicate his brother’s whereabouts.

The men slogged over to the pig pen and thrust their shovels into the muck. They didn’t have to dig deep before they penetrated a putrid layer of trash. As they dug further, somebody gasped—poking from the ooze was a gunny-sack.

Inside were two hands, two feet, and one head. Asle recognized the withered, rotten face: It was his brother.

When the men looked back up from the gruesome hole, they peered across the pig pen and realized that there were dozens of slumped depressions in Belle Gunness’s yard.

 

The earth was filled with burlap bags of torsos and hands, arms hacked from the shoulders down, masses of human bone wrapped in loose flesh that dripped like jelly. On the first day of digging, five bodies were found. On the second, the count totaled nine. Then 11. After a while, the police stopped counting.

“The bones had been crushed on the ends, as though they had been … struck with hammers after they were dismembered,” reported The Chicago Inter Ocean. “Quicklime had been scattered over the faces and stuffed in the ears.”

Body after body after body was found in shallow, trash-covered graves—some under the pig pen, others near a lake, a few by the outhouse. Each body was butchered into six parts: The legs chopped at the knee, the arms hacked at the shoulder, and the head decapitated. Most of the remains could not be identified.

Investigators digging up bodies on Belle Gunness's property
Investigators digging up bodies on Belle Gunness's property
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

Just days earlier, newspapers and neighbors had been singing Belle Gunness’s praises. Here was a heroic woman who died in a desperate attempt to save her children from an awful fire. But as this mass grave of burlap-wrapped bodies came to light, the people of La Porte realized that Mrs. Gunness was not the woman they believed her to be.

Most of the skulls were scarred with giant gashes and showed signs of blunt trauma. Some of the bodies—those still intact, at least—contained traces of strychnine, commonly used as a rat poison. Many of the remains had been quartered like a hog, doused in quicklime to speed up decomposition, and buried under piles of men’s shoes. It was clear that this was not some crude family cemetery, but a mass grave. And for people familiar with Mrs. Gunness’s matrimonial advertisements, there was no question to whom these bones belonged.

As the police soon pieced together, Belle Gunness had lived a double life as a serial killer. She lured bachelors with her classified newspaper ads. When she believed the right man had replied, she’d convince him to come to La Porte and would seduce him into surrendering his life savings. After the man withdrew the cash, she killed him.

The yellow press pounced on the story. Just a week after calling her a heroic mother, reporters nicknamed Gunness the “Indiana Ogress" or “Female Bluebeard,” and even compared her to Lady Macbeth. Reporters described her home as a “horror farm” and a “death garden.” These details attracted gawkers, who came in droves to La Porte—some estimates say 20,000 people gathered at the farm one weekend—to watch body parts yanked from the dirt. Vendors reportedly sold ice cream, popcorn, cake, and something called “Gunness Stew.”

A crowd gathering to watch the exhumations on the Gunness property
A crowd gathering to watch the exhumations on the Gunness property
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

“As a result of the nationwide coverage of the case, police officials in La Porte were flooded with inquiries from people who feared that their long-missing loved ones had ended up in the muck of Belle Gunness’s hog lot,” Schechter writes in Hell’s Princess.

Stories poured in about missing men believed to have heeded Mrs. Gunness’s siren call: There was Christie Hilkven of Wisconsin, who sold his farm in 1906 to live with a widow in La Porte. There was Olaf Jensen, who wrote his relatives that he was off to get married in Indiana. There was Bert Chase … and T.J. Tiefland … and Charles Neiburg. The names went on.

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on investigators that the identity of the headless woman in Gunness’s basement was a matter of public safety. If the body didn’t belonged to Belle Gunness, then it meant a serial killer was on the loose.

 

Sightings of Belle Gunness were reported across the country. She was lurking in the woods of La Porte, shopping the streets of Chicago, riding a train bound for Rochester, New York. But on May 19, a pair of dental bridges were discovered in the rubble of the Gunness home. A La Porte dentist identified the bridges as belonging to Gunness, and authorities quickly claimed that they had secured proof that the headless corpse belonged to the murderous widow.

Many people, however, were skeptical. According to hearsay, neighbors who had seen the charred corpse believed it was too short and skinny to belong to their neighbor, a tall woman who weighed upwards of 250 pounds. Reporters wondered if the serial killer could have lit the house on fire, torn the bridges from her mouth to throw off the police, and fled the blaze. Rumors swirled that, days earlier, Gunness had hired a housekeeper and that the remains might have belonged to that woman instead.

Despite any lingering doubts, the police continued to pursue arson and murder charges against Ray Lamphere. There was solid evidence that Lamphere had been near the Gunness home the morning of the fire. (He had admitted to seeing the smoking building; he even claimed that he had refused to report it to the police because he feared he’d be blamed him for causing it.) At best, Lamphere was negligent in failing to report an emergency. At worst, he had started it.

The prosecution acknowledged they were in a tricky position. After all, they were fighting on behalf of Belle Gunness, a woman, they admitted, who had “engaged in the wholesale slaughter of humanity.” But it didn’t matter: It was still a crime to burn down another person’s house, prosecutors said, even if that person is later found to be a serial killer.

The lawyers even insinuated that Lamphere knew about the Gunness murders. According to the Chicago Inter Ocean, Lamphere denied this. “I have led a pretty loose life, maybe, and possibly I drank too much at times,” he reportedly said. “But there are others who have done as bad as me who are walking the streets of La Porte today. I know nothing about the ‘house of crime,’ as they call it. Sure, I worked for Mrs. Gunness for a time, but I didn’t see her kill anybody, and I didn’t know she had killed anybody.”

The ensuing court case became a media circus. As Lamphere pled for his innocence, his lawyers argued that Gunness had started the fire and had framed her old farmhand. For weeks leading up to the event, she had diligently worked to hurt Lamphere’s reputation and credibility, constantly bad-mouthing him around the town’s authorities.

It’s a plausible theory. Gunness had duped authorities before. As investigators later learned, her first husband had died on the one—and only—day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped. In fact, she had collected insurance on all of her deceased family members, as well as on two properties that had mysteriously burned down. She was a master at framing herself as a victim of tragedy, when in fact she was tragedy’s greatest beneficiary.

“My sister was insane on the subject of money,” her sister, Nellie Larson, would later tell the Chicago Examiner. “She never seemed to care for a man for his own self, only for the money or luxury he was able to give her.” Indeed, the insurance payouts and matrimonial schemes earned her more than $1 million in today’s money. It also led to the deaths of at least 20 people.

But for whatever reason, the jury still believed there was convincing evidence that Lamphere had started the fire. Lamphere’s only saving grace came when a chemist found traces of strychnine in the bodies of the burnt children, evidence that Gunness’s kids had not died from arson, but from the same poison preferred by their mother (though the testifying doctor refused to declare strychnine the cause of death). That evidence helped acquit Lamphere of any charges of murder, but it failed to protect him from the charge of arson—a crime that carried up to a 21-year sentence.

After just one year in prison, Lamphere died of tuberculosis. Before his death, he purportedly confessed to a pastor, saying he had witnessed the murder of Andrew Helgelien and had demanded hush money from Gunness. She fired him instead. And when Lamphere returned to the house to take back his personal belongings, Gunness charged him with trespassing and began defaming him in public. Today, many believe that Gunness was probably responsible for the fire: With her old farmhand turned against her and Asle Helgelien breathing down her neck, Gunness knew her ruse was up—so she destroyed everything.

But that’s just one of many theories.

For now, the lingering question of whether Gunness got away—whether the headless body belonged to a rumored housekeeper or to the Female Bluebeard herself—remains unanswered. In 2008, forensic anthropologists exhumed the murderer’s suspected body and attempted to analyze the DNA, comparing it to DNA samples Gunness had left on a postage stamp and envelope. The sample, however, was too degraded to provide conclusive results.

Little has been resolved since. At the time of Ray Lamphere’s trial, the Cleveland Plain Dealer prophesied that “The La Porte case may always remain one of the most puzzling things in the annals of crime.” It appears it will forever be that way.

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

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

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. 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. Alcatraz was 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. Alcatraz 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 at Alcatraz wasn't always 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 escaping Alcatraz 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. Softball was a popular pastime.

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. Alcatraz's prison 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. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

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. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz 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. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has 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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