Escape from Alcatraz 1962: a Daring True Story
The Alcatraz Escape
If you are a child of the 70s, 80s or 90s, you are likely familiar with the 1979 action movie Escape of Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood. But, did you know it was based on a real life-event?
On the evening of June 11th, 1962, three dangerous criminals broke out of a maximum-security prison known as Alcatraz, sometimes referred to as The Rock, an island located in San Francisco Bay (US). They made their way off the island on a boat that they had constructed themselves out of stolen raincoats.
According to the records, they were never found and their whereabouts were never revealed. However, a large number of individuals, including the relatives of the three persons who escaped, think that they were successful in escaping that night and have been living in hiding for several decades.
‘The Rock’ was one of the toughest federal prisons in the US, where many infamous criminals such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly had been sent to. The fortress was said to be insurmountable and escape-proof. It was set in San Francisco Bay, surrounded by the cold waters of the Pacific, where the water temperature is about 12°C in December and rough currents that can exceed 6 knots.
Alcatraz operated as a maximum-security federal prison for 29 years, from 1934 to 1963. During that time, 36 inmates tried to escape on 14 different occasions. Out of those, twenty-three were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two men were confirmed to have drowned and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned“.
There were four inmates involved in the Escape of Alcatraz. Frank Morris, Allen West, and the two brothers John and Clarence Angling. All four individuals were familiar with one another by the time they were locked up together at Alcatraz since they had all spent time with one another in previous jails before arriving at ‘The Rock’
Frank Lee Morris was a career crook and the mastermind behind the escape operation. When Frank was 11 years old, he was abandoned by his parents and spent the remaining years of his childhood in foster homes. By the time he was 13, he had already racked up his first criminal offence
During his teenage years, he was taken into custody several times and accused of various crimes, including armed robbery and narcotics offences. Frank spent much of his adolescence in and out of juvenile detention centres and in prison for various crimes such as armed robbery and narcotics possession.
Frank was sentenced to 10 years to the Louisiana State Penitentiary for armed robbery and car theft. However, he was only to spend a year in the maximum-security prison, before escaping. Frank was recaptured a year later while committing a burglary and sent to Alcatraz in 1960. He was inmate number AZ1441.
Federal officials said that Frank Morris had an IQ of 133, making him a certifiable genius in the top 2% of the general population.
The Anglin Brothers
John William Anglin and Clarence Anglin were born in 1930 and 1931 respectively into a large family of seasonal agricultural labourers who moved about the country picking fruits and vegetables.
As children, John and Clarence were inseparable. Interestingly, every June the Anglin family moved to Michigan to pick cherries, and it was there that the two brothers became skilled swimmers in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.
The Anglins travelled the length and breadth of the country. Due to their dire financial circumstances, the two brothers went into a life of crime at a very young age. Clarence was apprehended for the first time at the age of 14 when he broke into a gas station.
After their initial run-in with the authorities, they began robbing banks as well as other types of businesses. They would generally target businesses after working hours, to ensure that they were closed and no one got injured. The brothers claimed that they never used guns, except during a bank heist in which they used a toy gun.
In 1958, three of the Anglin brothers (John, Clarence and Alfred), received 35-year sentences each after robbing the Columbia Savings Bank in Columbia, Alabama. After several escape attempts from the Atlanta Leavenworth Penitentiary, John and Clarence were transferred to Alcatraz.
John Anglin arrived at Alcatraz in 1960 and would become inmate AZ1476. His brother Clarence arrived a year later and would become inmate AZ1335.
The brothers were assigned adjoining cells next to Frank Morris, who was known to them from previous incarcerations in other prisons. They began hatching an escape plan with the help of another inmate, Allen West.
Allen West was the very last person to join the group in planning the breakout of Alcatraz. West was a young man with an impressive criminal record. By the age of 28, he had already been arrested over 20 times during his life.
In 1955, Allen was sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, and later to Florida State Prison for automobile theft. Allen attempted to break out of his new facility but was caught and sent to Alcatraz in 1957 as a result of his failure. Allen West would become inmate AZ1335.
The four men devised a plan to break out of jail after being placed in adjacent cells, which allowed them to communicate with one another during the night.
Led by Morris, they constructed a raft, bore a tunnel through the walls of their cells, and made their way off the island through the rough Pacific waters surrounding it.
They used a variety of rudimentary tools from inside the prison. They fashioned a homemade drill with the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner, using used saw blades from the prison workshops and metal spoons from the jail dining hall.
They started enlarging the holes surrounding the ventilation ducts that were located under the sinks in each of their cells by using the makeshift equipment that they had brought with them. They concealed their work from the guards by using painted strips of cardboard.
In order to conceal the noise they made while drilling through into the unguarded utility corridor behind their cells, Morris would play his accordion during ‘music hour’. Music hour was one of the few privileges that Alcatraz inmates had and was only given to those as a reward for good behaviour.
Capone was among the first prisoners to occupy the new Alcatraz federal prison in August 1934. Unable to bribe the guards into giving him preferential treatment (like he had done in other prisons), he realised that in order to gain privileges such as music, he had to cooperate with prison rules. After racking up time for good behaviour, he convinced the warden to buy music equipment and was permitted to play banjo in the Alcatraz prison band, the ‘Rock Islanders’ which had a rotating group of musicians including George ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ Barnes on drums.Music on the Brain
The men drilled on their walls for 6 months, widening the ventilation ducts beneath their sinks, until they were able to squeeze through to an unguarded utility corridor behind their cells. They walked down this corridor and then climbed to the roof of their block cell inside the building. It was here where they set up a clandestine workshop with all the materials that they were able to steal or that had been donated to them.
Once inside the makeshift workshop, they constructed the raft that they would use to get out from the island as well as a set of life jackets that were at this location. Here they used over 50 raincoats to make life preservers based on a design they have seen in a magazine. They also made a 6×14 foot rubber raft, which was then meticulously sewn together and sealed by a melting rubber on hot pipes in their workshop. They also converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate the raft and built paddles to row out of pieces of wood and stolen fasteners.
The Evening of 11th June 1962
At long last, on the evening of the 11th of June in 1962, the raft was finished, and it was time to put the plan into action.
When it came to covering up their absence the inmates cleverly fashioned Papier-mâché representations of their heads out of soap, dust, toilet paper, and toothpaste. This allowed them to hide their whereabouts without anybody noticing.
The heads were given a realistic appearance by using paint taken from the maintenance workshop and genuine human hair gathered from the floor of the prison barbershop. They were placed on the inmates’ pillows, and beneath their blankets, in the shape of their bodies, clothing and towels were stuffed into the shape of the prisoners’ bodies.
They made their way through the ventilation ducts and into the corridor behind their cells. All except for Allen West. The cement Allen had used to strengthen the concrete around the vent had solidified. West’s dreams of fleeing were swiftly dashed when he realized that the cement would prohibit him from going through the hole he had cut in the concrete. When he finally succeeded in enlarging the gap wide enough for him to pass, his co-conspirators were already gone. He then went back to his cell.
During this time, Frank and the two Anglin brothers found their way out of the prison by climbing up a ventilation shaft and out onto the roof. When they broke out of the shaft, they produced a loud commotion that almost gave them away, but fortunately, the guards who heard it opted not to investigate. This allowed them to successfully escape.
The three men, seeing that they were no longer in danger, used kitchen pipes to descend fifty feet to the ground, and then climbed over two barbed-wire perimeter fences that were twelve feet high.
They made their way to a beach on the north-eastern side of the island, where the searchlights would have a difficult time locating them. They inflated the raft with a modified concertina and at around ten o’clock they set sail towards Angel Island, which is located roughly 3 miles from Alcatraz.
The Aftermath of the Escape of Alcatraz
A massive manhunt was quickly organized, with personnel from both civilian and military law enforcement agencies participating. Over the next 10 days, significant searches were conducted on land, air, and water near Alcatraz Island, as well as further afield.
A local San Francisco police officer reported seeing a boat near Alcatraz Island that, after a few minutes, made a U-turn and travelled in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge. This officer’s statement came a day after the men were reported missing. Following an investigation, the FBI came to the conclusion that the statement was false.
The United States Coast Guard reported locating one of the prisoners’ paddles on June 14th, off the south coast of Angel Island. On the same day, workmen on the island discovered a wallet that had details about the Anglins.
Six days later, shredded rubber that washed up on the coast near the Golden Gate Bridge was thought to be from the convicts’ raft. The next day, a deflated life jacket was found by a prison boat that was floating fifty yards off Alcatraz Island.
These strewn-apart relics were all that was ever found of the escapees of Alcatraz and the implements that they had employed in their attempt to flee. The FBI swiftly came to the conclusion that the three detainees had drowned, despite the fact that no remains were ever found.
There have been claims from both the Morris Family and the Anglin family stating that the fugitives of Alcatraz truly had survived and were living new lives. Whether the FBI took those claims seriously or not is anyone’s guess.
Confessions from the Morris Family
In 1962, the year of the Escape from Alcatraz, a man by the name of Bud Morris came forward and identified himself as a cousin of Frank Morris. He said that Frank had hired him to bribe some of the Alcatraz guards and that he had seen Frank in a park in San Diego many days after the escape from the penitentiary facility.
There was a subsequent claim made by Bud’s daughter that she had attended this meeting; however, there was no evidence to support this claim.
Confessions from the Anglin Family
As early as the holiday season of 1962, a number of members of the Anglin family stated that they had received messages and postcards from the brothers. These postcards will continue to arrive other the years, sometimes unsigned, sometimes bearing the names “Jerry and Joe”.
Rachael Van Miller Anglin, the mother of the two brothers, received flowers anonymously every Mother’s Day until her death in 1973. It is also said that two women who were extraordinarily tall and wore a lot of makeup attended her burial. Members of the family think that John and Clarence Anglin attended the event disguised as themselves.
In 1989, one of the Anglin brothers, Robert, stated that two men came to examine the body of their deceased father, lingered for a time, mourned over the body, and then departed. He believed they were his siblings John and Clarence.
Other Reported Sightings
Many people who are not related to the Anglin family have come forward over the years, saying that they have either seen the three fugitives or have had communication with them.
In 1989, two people called Unsolved Mysteries to report that they had seen Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris on a farm near Marianna in Florida, even though evidence of either man could afterwards be located.
1993 was the year in which supposedly fresh evidence surfaced. Thomas Kent, a former convict at Alcatraz, stated on the episode of America’s Most Wanted that he was involved in the planning of the breakout, but that he did not participate in it himself since he was unable to swim.
Additionally, he indicated that Anglin’s girlfriend was the one who drove the men to Mexico and picked them up. The fact that Kent had been compensated by the television network for his confession caused many people to be sceptical of his tale.
In the same year, a second individual by the name of John Leroy Kelly claimed on his deathbed confession that he had abducted the prisoners in a boat and then murdered them so that he could keep the $40,000 that had been collected by the families.
When Kelly revealed this information, he also pointed out the general area where the three deceased men’s bodies were reported to have been buried. After further searching, no skeletal remains were found.
In the year 2015, History conducted interviews with members of the Anglin family on the escape. In addition to displaying some of the postcards that are said to have been sent by the brothers over the years, they also corroborated Fred Brizzi’s narrative.
Brizzi had known the brothers since they were toddlers and said that he had seen the escapees in Brazil in 1975. He presented photographic evidence purported to be of the two Anglin. However, their identity could not be confirmed because both individuals were seen to be wearing sunglasses, and the photograph itself was in poor condition.
Brizzi also claimed that the brothers did not cross the bay out of the island. Instead, they paddled around the island to the dock and attached an electrical cord –that was reported missing- to a prison ferry that departed after midnight, and they were towed behind it to the mainland.
The Official FBI Response
The official story from the FBI was that the three inmates from Alcatraz had likely drawn in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Impossible to cross the Bay
Crossing the Bay. Yes, youngsters have made the more than mile-long swim from Alcatraz to Angel Island. But with the strong currents and frigid Bay water, the odds were clearly against these men.FBI
The Anglin brothers themselves were strong swimmers, having spent their youth in the dangerous currents of Michigan.
Shortly after their escape, another inmate, John Paul Scott, managed to escape from Alcatraz and swim the 2.7 nautical miles from Alcatraz to Fort Point, where he was found suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion.
There are annual swimming competitions up to Alcatraz Island and Angel Island. Though usually, swimmers wear a diving suit.
However, according to all reports, the three escapees of Alcatraz did not swim, they used a raft and paddles to make it to shore.
Several studies have been conducted on the feasibility of an Escape from Alcatraz Island aboard a raft constructed with the same materials available to the prisoners. All the studies conducted on the topic concluded that it was possible.
No car robbery
Three if by land. The plan, according to our prison informant, was to steal clothes and a car once on land. But we never uncovered any thefts like this despite the high-profile nature of the case.FBI
Contrary to the official FBI report, a 2011 documentary by National Geographic discovered that there had been a car robbery the day after the escape of Alcatraz. A 1955 blue Chevrolet with licence plate KPB076.
The same blue Chevrolet was spotted in Oklahoma, Indiana, Ohio and South Carolina, where three months after the escape of Alcatraz, three men matching the inmate’s descriptions were attempting to procure a residence in the woods.
Family ties. If the escapees had help, we couldn’t substantiate it. The families appeared unlikely to even have the financial means to provide any real support.FBI
Frank Morris‘ cousin, Bud Morris, claimed to have delivered envelopes full of cash to the Alcatraz guards on at least “eight or nine” occasions for bribes. The FBI chose not to believe Bud on the basis that he was a ‘con man’ and a ‘crook’ and probably was making the whole story up.
Why would Bud make the story up when he had nothing to gain from it is anyone’s guess. But, wouldn’t a career criminal (just like the escaped inmates) have the right connections to give bribes to the right guards?
Families could have also assisted the inmates by providing food, shelter, clothes and even transport.
Missing in Action
Missing in action. For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas.FBI
Rumours that the inmates had escaped to Brazil persisted for many years. In 1965, the FBI dispatched a few agents to South America but found “no credible evidence”.
The photographic evidence produced by Brizzi had experts divided, with many Forensic experts claiming that the two men were ‘more than likely’ the Anglin brothers.
In 1979, the FBI officially closed the Alcatraz Escape investigation. However, they did hand their evidence to the U.S. Marshals Service, whose Service intends to continue investigating the case until the year 2030, when all of the men will be over 100 years old.
There are many conflicting reports when it comes to the story of the escape of Alcatraz. For instance, one version of the events says that the guards only discovered the dummy heads in the bed of the inmates in the morning. While other version said that they tried to wake up the three inmates, but they were unable to do so, so they entered their cells and discovered the dummy heads. They did not raise the alarm until the following morning.
Why would they not raise the alarm until the morning? By not doing so, they were giving the inmates several hours‘ head start before the manhunt would begin.
The prisoners made very loud noises while they were escaping through the ventilation shaft, and yet no guards went to investigate the cause of said noises.
Where the guards in on it? Were they bought or paid off?
Perhaps there is another explanation as to why the FBI would have preferred the official version of the Escape of Alcatraz as “missing, presume drowned”. And that explanation is politics.
The previous year the US had seen a disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, planned by Eisenhower and approved by Kennedy. This escalated into the Cuban Missile Crisis between the US and the Soviet Union. Which is often considered the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war.
The US was also involved in a Cold War-era proxy war, commonly known as the Vietnam War, which suffered extreme casualties. At the same time, the US was also building secret nuclear tunnels under Greenland. It was a period of extreme tension and conflict, and the administration could not afford to be seen making mistakes. Therefore, it made more sense to declare the three men dead that to admit that they were at large, as this would have diminished their credibility.
In 2018, the FBI finally acknowledged that they had in their possession a letter they received in 2013 that was said to have been authored by John Anglin. The news that Morris and his brother Clarence had passed away was disclosed in the letter that Anglin sent.
My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely! If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke.John Anglin’s Letter
The lone remaining prisoner had indicated that he was willing to turn himself in, in exchange for medical care. The FBI was unable to verify the letter’s legitimacy, and they were unable to make contact with the letter’s author again. Was this the final statement from the only surviving member of the group that escaped Alcatraz in 1962?