Surviving the Escape From Alcatraz

By Doreen R

In 1962 three inmates incarcerated at the infamous Alcatraz prison managed to escape without being noticed.  Nearly 60 years later, the question of whether or not they made it to freedom still remains. This story will detail their daring escape. We’ll take a deeper look into what happened after they fled and decide for ourselves if they reached the shores of safety. We’ll also look at the infamous prison itself, some of its more popular inmates, and we’ll discuss why this mystery still intrigues us so many years later.  We’ll understand how these three criminals planned and executed their plan and fled a prison made famous for being inescapable.  We’ll examine expert opinions on if and how one can survive such an escape.  Many believe the three prisoners met their doomed fate in the shark-infested waters surrounding the facility. Many others believe they succeeded in swimming across the San Francisco bay on that dark and fog-filled night.

We will uncover a photo that claims to be of two of the prisoners taken in Brazil, approximately thirteen years after they fled Alcatraz. Family members of the three will weigh in with their opinions of that fateful night. We’ll also understand why this legendary tale refuses to fade away and still enthralls masses of readers and history buffs alike.

 Alcatraz Island Prison

Alcatraz Prison is situated in San Francisco, 1.25 miles off the shores of the city on the bay. The island was originally intended as a military prison, but in 1934 it was to become a federal prison. Alcatraz operated as an official federal prison from 1934 to 1963.

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The facility’s appeal as a prison was that it was surrounded by water, making an escape difficult, if not impossible. The currents of water surrounding the prison were considered rough and choppy and lowered the odds of an escape.  Today, Alcatraz Island Prison is a popular tourist attraction and welcomes some 1.5 million visitors each year.

Island of the Pelicans

Before Alcatraz became synonymous with the term prison, it was a picturesque island that was the landing spot for flocks of pelicans. The literal definition of its original name ‘La Isla de Los Alcatraces’ is ‘Island of the Pelicans.’ This is likely the reason that Robert Stroud, aka The Birdman of Alcatraz, got his moniker.

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Despite the movies and legends surrounding The Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud wasn’t allowed to keep any of the birds inside in his cell. The popular movie bearing the inmate’s name was, in great part, fictionalized.  However, Stroud was an ornithologist who served 17 years in Alcatraz.

Alcatraz the Military Prison

As mentioned earlier, Alcatraz was first a military prison that housed military personnel serving various sentences dating back to the 1850s. The jail was also used during the 19th century to lock up Native Americans who disputed land rights with the US government.

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The facility became a popular home to Confederate sympathizers and military deserters during the Civil War. The lighthouse that was erected on the island was first lit up in 1854 but was replaced in 1909 by a much larger installation that could be seen from much larger distances.

The Most Secure Prison Opens Its Doors

In 1934 Alcatraz officially became the prison that was to house the most notorious and violent law offenders. The facility was meant to secure the prisoners while also giving them the opportunity to rehabilitate. These same inmates were prone to escapes and unruly behavior in other prisons.

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The point of sending criminals to Alcatraz was to be temporary, and once rehabilitated, the criminals would then be returned to their previous federal facility where they would serve out the rest of their sentence. While Alcatraz’s residents weren’t considered the most dangerous, they were considered flight-risks and needed to be in a secure surrounding. No other facility at the time compared to Alcatraz, which was deemed the most secure prison in the world.

Famous Criminals at Alcatraz

Alcatraz was known for hosting some of America’s most notorious criminals. The prison was a veritable who’s who of mobsters and murderers. One famous mobster we’ve all heard of is Al Capone, the notorious prohibition gangster. After committing numerous murders and crimes, he was sentenced to Alcatraz Prison in 1934.

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Another infamous inmate was George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, also active during the prohibition era and considered a worthy gangster in his own right. Kelly also was the brains behind a large number of bank robberies throughout the United States. He was sentenced to serve the remainder of his life sentence in Alcatraz in 1934.  

The Escapes of Alcatraz

Before the widely known escape that occurred in June 1962, there were 12 previous attempts to escape Alcatraz. There was also a final escape planned in December 1962, which was foiled. 33 inmates, not including the three in 1962, planned and attempted to execute escapes from the infamous penitentiary. There’s even a tale of two inmates that tried to flee on two separate occasions.

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Six inmates were killed in shootings by guards, and 23 prisoners were caught, while two gave up. Five are considered missing and thought to have drowned, although their bodies were never covered. Due to the large number of planned escapes, the prison was forced to shut down in 1963.

June 12, 1962

This was the date that three prisoners escaped Alcatraz prison, never to be seen, found, or heard from again. Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin expertly accomplished the impossible. Or did they? The three planned a sophisticated and well thought out escape.

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The three inmates managed to carve their way out of the cells by using spoons and forks over a period of time.  They managed to go unnoticed thanks to the noise of accordion playing that happened for some 90 minutes each night. They had expertly created false walls that went unnoticed by staff and guards.

Frank Morris

Frank Morris was born in 1926 and was orphaned at age 11. Within a couple of years, he was actively involved in drugs, car theft, and armed robberies. At age 13, he was first arrested by authorities. He arrived at Alcatraz at the age of 34 on January 20, 1960.

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If he succeeded in escaping, which many believe he did, he would be 94 years old today. Although in a letter believed to have been written by escapee John Anglin, and forwarded to the FBI in 2013, he claims that Morris died in 2005 at the age of 79.

John and Clarence Anglin

Brothers John, born in 1930, and Clarence Anglin, born in 1931, were two of thirteen children born on a farm in Florida. According to arrest records, Clarence was first arrested at the age of 14. It didn’t take much incentive for the two brothers to join forces and begin their life of crime.

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The duo robbed businesses as well as banks. They weren’t known for shooting or harming their victims and, for the most part, robbed establishments and banks that were closed for the day. The brothers were arrested numerous times and even planned an escape from an Atlanta prison. The brothers were considered flight risks and sent to Alcatraz. John landed on the island in 1960, and Clarence joined him in 1961.

A Lot of Time to Think in Alcatraz

The Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris got to know each well in Alcatraz, as they were in adjoining cells. After becoming friendly and realizing they could trust one another, the threesome began considering their exit. It is believed that Frank Morris was in charge of the planning and execution, according to former inmate Allen West.

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West claims he was also planning to escape with the Anglins and Morris. The four all served time in the same Atlanta prison at the same time before ending up in Alcatraz and felt they could trust each other.  Once they devised their plan, they put the steps in motion.

Getting to Work

The initial part of the plan was to create the escape tunnel via the vent duct located under the sink in their cell. Over the course of at least 6 months, Frank, John, and Clarence began widening the space with metal spoons and forks stolen from the jail’s eating area.

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The men were careful to make sure no one saw what they were up to and even hid the openings by using cardboard pieces that were painted to match the walls. Even the guards weren’t the wiser and never suspected anything unusual was taking place.

Enjoying Music Nights in Alcatraz

The three men were able to conceal the noise they made carving their escape hatch under the sink, thanks to the ninety minutes of music that played each night in the prison. Morris was even known to play his accordion extra loud to mask any noise made by the brothers.

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It took approximately six months for the three to carve out a tunnel. The three were able to reach a utility passage that wasn’t guarded by any of the officers. During the planning stages, they regularly snuck through the tunnel to leave equipment they would need for the day they planned to escape. The materials left to be used later included raincoats and makeshift life preservers made out of the 50 raincoats they collected.  They even managed to build a rubber raft that was sealed shut using steam from the working pipes in the tunnel.

These Prisoners Were No Dummies

After the tunnel was formed and the materials were ready for the big escape, the three needed to make sure they would have a good head start. To not draw attention to empty beds, they needed to come up with a way to appear to be safely tucked away for the night.

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They created dummy-like heads made from a paper-mache like substance that made use of dust, toilet paper, toothpaste, and even soap. They had paint from the prison workshop and succeeded in creating impressive lifesize heads that even had real hair, taken from the jail’s floor in the facility’s barbershop.

All Accounted For

On the night of the escape, Frank, John, and Clarence created the illusion of their sleeping bodies, using the dummy head and rolled up clothes covered in their prison-issue blanket.  For all intents and purposes, for anyone walking by the cell, nothing seemed out of place.

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Between the makeshift bodies and dummy heads placed on their pillows, to one and all, it appeared that the inmates were sleeping soundly in their cells. It was now June 11, 1962, and the plan was being carried out by the three prisoners.

 The Plan is Put into Action

Frank Morris, John, and Clarence Anglin slithered their way through the tunnel to the roof of the utility corridor. The door of the shaft banged loudly, causing a loud noise, which raised a few eyebrows, but nothing else was heard, so further investigation wasn’t warranted.

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The three had collected their equipment of a raft and life preservers, and they scaled down a pipe connected to the kitchen, measuring 50-feet. They then proceeded to climb the prison’s fence, which was full of barbed wire. It’s believed they then inflated the raft, and at approximately 10:00 pm that night, they left the island.

The Morning After

On the morning of June 12, 1962, no one suspected a thing. Only when the prisoners were woken as usual did the escape become known.  The beds of the three escaped inmates were discovered, and an extensive search was initiated.

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The prison’s warden was away on vacation during the escape, and when notified that three inmates were missing, he didn’t fathom they had a chance of surviving the rough waters surrounding the island’s prison. No one had accomplished a successful escape before, and he didn’t think it was likely that Morris and the Anglins would succeed.

Searching for the Fugitives

Over the course of ten days, the prison personnel, military, and outside law agencies searched for the escaped prisoners. Searches were conducted by land, air, and sea, but to no avail. Fisherman in a boat near the area was said to have found a billfold wrapped in plastic that had the names, residences, and pictures of John and Clarence Anglin’s friends and family.

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Remains of raincoat materials were said to have been found on June 21st adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s believed that they are remnants of the makeshift raft.  Important to note that a flattened life preserver was found some 50 feet from the island. There was no other evidence found in the area, and the FBI investigation found nothing else relating to the escaped prisoners.

The FBI Makes  a Statement

The FBI, still unable to find additional proof the prisoners survived the escape, made a public statement soon after staying they had definitely drowned. While many believed the three got away with their plan, the fact that no bodies were found made it hard to believe the FBI’s version of events.

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FBI Agent Patrick Mahony had his doubts. He felt that if the prisoners did drown, the bodies would have been found, yet there was nothing to prove the end result either way.  An interesting fact given by the San Francisco Police was that on June 12, 1962, around 3:00 a.m., a boat was seen near Alcatraz, making its way to the Golden Gate Bridge.  This was enough to raise theories that the three may have succeeded with their plan.    

One Last Escape From Alcatraz

As if the unresolved escape of Morris and the Anglins didn’t do enough to harm the reputation of Alcatraz, another prisoner tried his luck at leaving the island. On December 16,  1962, a prisoner by the name of John Paul Scott managed to break out of the most secure prison in the world.

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Scott managed to swim from the island nearly 3 miles to the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was found by teens, who claimed he was exhausted and showed signs of hypothermia. This is the only documented case ever of a prisoner managing to swim away from the prison and survive to tell the tale.

Alcatraz is Shut Down

On March 21, 1963, AG Robert F. Kennedy instructed authorities to close the infamous prison. Not only wasn’t it escape-proof, but it was the most expensive prison in the United States and no longer warranted the expense of the less than ideal penitentiary.

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In the 1960s, it cost approximately $3.00 per day to house a prisoner in the country’s prison system. However, that wasn’t the case with Alcatraz; due to its location, the cost was upwards of $10.00 per day per prisoner, which is why the facility was shut down after the last inmate successfully managed to reach safety after escaping.

Sightings of the Escapees

With no definitive resolution to the June 1962 escape, many were quick to claim to have seen the prisoners roaming around freely.  Only a day after the escape, someone swearing to be John Anglin contacted a lawyer in San Franciso requesting a meeting with the FBI. It was later deemed a joke.

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In 1965 the FBI was following up on claims that Clarence and John Anglin were seen in Brazil. Witnesses claimed to made friends with the fugitive and could supply more information. Nothing ever came of the rumors. Calls over the years were made to the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department in the years following the escape, but nothing tangible was ever uncovered or deemed reliable.

Holiday Greetings From the Anglin Brothers

Over the years family members of John and Clarence Anglin have claimed to have received holiday cards and letters. Either the cards were unsigned or if they were signed they had the names ‘Jerry and Joe.’ The cards were shown to the authorities, but no one was able to track down where they originated from.

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Robert Anglin, brother of John and Clarence, recalls phone calls where no one was on the other end, and flowers were sent to their mother on Mother’s Day with no card or name attached. There were reportedly several sightings of the brothers from the late 1960s into the late 1970s in the Florida and Georgia areas.

John Anglin Writes a Letter

In 2013 the San Francisco Police Department received a handwritten letter from none other than  John Anglin. The letter contained the following sentence “I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962. Yes, we all made it that night, but barely.’

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The writer of the letter stated that the three survived the escape and went on to claim that Frank Morris died in 2005, while Clarence lived till 2008. In the letter, John claimed he was 83 years old and battling cancer. He went on to state that for the majority of his life, he was residing in Seattle and a short while in North Dakota.

Is the Letter Legit?

The San Francisco Police held onto the letter for a full five years before announcing its existence. They did have the handwriting analyzed to check its authenticity, but the results were inconclusive, and no further action pertaining to the letter was ever attempted.

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According to a statement by the US Marshals’ Sevice, handwriting samples of the three men was obtained. Their handwriting was compared to the letter received, but no one has been able to declare that the letter was definitely written by any of them.

The Legend That Refuses to Die

We may never know without a shadow of a doubt what happened that fateful night in June 1962, but we are still captivated by the little information we do have. We do know that Frank Morris, John, and Clarance Anglin were the only escapees of Alcatraz to have never been found or heard from again.

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Their legend continues to enthrall generations. Books and movies have been made based on the facts that we do have. This remains an unsolved mystery that may never be resolved, and we’ll have to decide for ourselves the fates of those three men.

Books, Movies and Even Escape Rooms

With a great number of books written about Alcatraz and after researching this piece, it’s easy to see why there’s endless information to be found related to the prison. From its early history dating back to the Civil War and up to the closing of the prison in1963, there’s something for everyone.

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There are some eight or more films dedicated to the history of Alcatraz. Two of the most popular include the highly acclaimed ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ with Clint Eastwood and the Oscar-winning ‘Bird Man of Alcatraz’ starring Burt Lancaster.  In 2012 there was a short-lived series titled ‘Alcatraz,’ which proves the topic continues to be timeless. There are even several Alcatraz-themed Escape Rooms for die-hard fans of the genre.

A Tourist Attraction

The stories and history surrounding the prison has made it a stop for most visitors to San Francisco. The facility is now under the auspices of the United States National Parks Services and offers many varieties of tours and excursions to the famed facility that housed the biggest and most infamous criminals of all time.

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It’s required to take a boat to get to the island, and if time allows, one should go for the tour with a guide for the best experience. There are night tours as well as extensive tours that show where Al Capone slept along with other infamous inmates.