Is It Possible That An Alcatraz Escapee Is Still Alive?

Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay, Calif., operated for 29 years — from 1934 to 1963. During that time, 36 inmates attempted to escape. According to officials, every single escape failed because the prisoners were either captured or shot. However, five inmates in the December 1937 and June 1962 escape attempts were never found. While most experts believe they died of drowning, family members think at least one man survived and successfully managed to escape the “escape proof” facility.

John Anglin’s Family Believes He Got Away And Is In His 80s

John Anglin and his brother Clarence escaped with fellow inmate Frank Morris by tunneling through their cells. The three of them wound up in the bitter cold water and were never heard from again. The Anglin family discovered in 2016 that police received a strange note in 2013 purporting to be from John.

The letter read: “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. This is no joke.”

John & His Brother Teamed Up To Rob Banks In The ’50s

Before getting into more details about the letter, let’s review some information about John and his conspirators. John and his older brother Clarence were born in Georgia. Their parents were farm workers who relocated the family to Florida in the early 1940s. They spent summers picking cherries in Michigan, and the boys often showed off their swimming skills in the cold water of Lake Michigan.

They turned to a life of crime in their 20s (in the 1950s) by robbing banks and other facilities. They made sure the businesses were closed at the time so no one would get hurt.

The Brothers Were Imprisoned & Transferred To Alcatraz After Several Escape Attempts

John and Clarence may have been burglars, but they weren’t armed and dangerous. They reportedly only used a gun one time, and it was a toy gun. The pair was arrested in 1956 and were given 15- to 20-year sentences. They served their time in various prisons across the country: Florida State Prison, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, and Atlanta Penitentiary.

Unhappy with their confinement, the siblings made numerous attempts to escape the prison in Georgia. This led to their transfer to Alcatraz. John went first, arriving on Oct. 21, 1960. He was followed by Clarence on Jan. 10, 1961.

They Conspired With Two Other Men To Break Out Of Alcatraz

John and Clarence got to know a couple other inmates at Alcatraz with the same goal: escape. Frank Lee Morris, who was orphaned at a young age, was first arrested at age 13. He was involved in everything from narcotics possession to armed robbery. He was also extremely intelligent and scored very high on IQ tests.

Like the Anglin brothers, he served time in several prisons in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. He escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary but was recaptured one year later for burglary. He arrived at Alcatraz in 1960. The Anglin brothers also met a man named Allen West.

They Dug Holes At Night While Morris Covered Up The Noise With Accordion Music

The four of them lived in adjacent cells in 1961. It’s possible they knew each other previously from the time they served at the Atlanta penitentiary. Morris was the mastermind behind the escape plans. Over the course of six months, they spent their nights digging around their cells’ ventilation duct openings.

They had acquired saw blades they found on prison grounds as well as spoons they stole from the commissary and a drill they made from vacuum cleaner parts. The four men hid the holes using cardboard and paint. Morris would play the accordion in order to muffle the sound of their work.

They Got Advice From Whitey Bulger

In 2014, Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger wrote a letter to the Algin’s nephew, Ken Widner, about the escapees. Bulger had met the Anglins while serving time at Alcatraz. Bulger reportedly gave John and Clarence some advice about navigating the currents in San Fransisco Bay. He also gave them some insight about life on the run.

Widner explained, “He taught them that when you disappear, you have to cut all ties. He told me in a letter, ‘This is the mistake that I made.’ He told me, ‘These brothers undoubtedly had done exactly what I told them to do.’ ”

The Inmates Used Handmade Mannequins To Fool The Guards

The men dug holes in their cells that were big enough to lead into a utility corridor. They then climbed to the top of their building where they created a workshop to prepare their escape supplies. They also came up with an ingenious way of working outside their cells undetected.

They mixed together soap and toilet paper to create a papier-mâché-like substance that they sculpted into dummy heads. They made them appear more realistic using paint from the maintenance shop and clippings from the barbershop floor. The men stuffed towels and clothing under the blankets so it looked as though they were asleep.

The Men Made A Raft & Life Preservers Out Of Rain Coats

The holes in their cells led to the utility corridor. West was the only one of the four who was unable to escape because the ventilator grill in his cell got stuck. The Anglins and Morris climbed to an area inside their building where they created life preservers and a rubber raft, using more than 50 raincoats they had managed to acquire.

They made paddles from scrap wood. The trio climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet to the ground down a vent pipe, climbed over two barbed wire fences, and inflated the raft using a concertina they stole from another inmate.

Authorities Found Evidence Of Their Escape But No Human Remains

They inflated the raft at the northeast shoreline in an area that was out of view of the prison’s searchlights and gun towers. It’s believed they escaped around 10 p.m. No one knew they were gone until the following morning because their dummies made it appear as though they were asleep in their bunks.

Photo: FBI
Photo: FBI

Law enforcement officials and military men spent the next 10 days searching for the escapees. They found a paddle and a wallet containing the Anglins’ personal information and mementos. Authorities also found one of their makeshift life jackets, which was deflated. However, they never found any remains or physical evidence indicating the inmates’ whereabouts.

Most Believe The Men Died In The Frigid Water

West, who was left behind, cooperated with investigators. He explained that the men planned to steal clothing and a car once they got to land. FBI investigators believed that the extremely cold water temperature and strong currents would have made it very unlikely for the inmates to reach land. Still, the case remained open for 17 years.

On Dec. 31, 1979, investigators closed the case, noting that the Anglins and Morris probably died in the freezing cold water while trying to reach Angel Island. The U.S. Marshals Service never closed its investigation and still receives occasional leads about the case.

In His Letter, “John” Claims His Brother & Morris Lived Long Lives After Their Escape

Is it possible that John, Clarence, and their fellow inmate Morris survived? Let’s return to that letter that was sent to a San Francisco Police department in 2013. The writer, purporting to be John, noted: “If you announce on TV that I’ll 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.”

He added that Morris “passed away” in 2008, while Clarence died in 2011. John’s nephew Ken Widner was angry that he didn’t learn about the letter until 2016.

John’s Nephews Are Mad Authorities Kept The Letter Secret

Ken told The Sun: “I believe John is still alive, I do not believe Clarence is still alive, I have no idea clue about Frank Morris. I know Frank Morris was with them in 1975. I have a pretty good idea of where they’re at… (but) that I’m not going to say.”

Ken’s brother David Widner added that he thought it was “very possible” John was still alive because the inmates were “very, very smart guys” and capable of surviving the elements. David also added that he thought it was “inhumane” that authorities didn’t tell the family about the letter back in 2013.

The Family Has “Proof” That John & Clarence Headed To Brazil Following The Escape

The nephews submitted a photo to authorities in 2016 they think proves the brothers survived the escape. The photo reportedly shows John and Clarence in Brazil in 1975. The nephews, who live in Georgia, told a documentary crew that their uncles met up with a criminal associate who took them to the South American country. The photo was reportedly taken on a Brazilian farm that John and Clarence owned.

If you look closely, you may see the resemblance to the inmates. Ex-US marshal Art Roderick, who spent 20 years researching the escape, believes the photo was taken by family friend Fred Brizzi.

John & Clarence Reportedly Sent Christmas Cards To Their Sister

A forensic expert examined John and Clarence Anglins’ mugshots and compared them to the photo of the men from Brazil, noting that it’s “very likely” they were the same men. The Widners also have other evidence that their uncles survived. They showed authorities Christmas cards that were sent to their mother, Marie Anglin Widner.

The cards were signed by Clarence and John but had no postage. Their mother received the cards for three years following the escape. As for the 2013 letter, FBI analysts checked it for DNA and fingerprints but were unable to conclusively prove that it was indeed from John Anglin.

Bones Found On San Francisco Shore Didn’t Match The Anglin Brothers

While making the 2015 History channel documentary Alcatraz: Search for the Truth, the Widners allowed investigators to dig up the remains of John and Clarence’s older brother Alfred. He attempted to escape from an Alabama prison and was electrocuted. Authorities wanted access to Alfred’s DNA to compare it to bones they found on the shore of San Fransisco in 1963. Thinking the bones belonged to one of the Anglins or Morris, they conducted some tests.

The DNA did not match the Anglin family, bolstering support that the brothers survived. However, the bones could belong to Morris. Since Morris has no living family members, it’s unclear if they are his.

The Currents In The Bay Would Have Been A Major Factor In Their Survival

In 2003, the crew from the television show MythBusters tried to determine whether people could escape from Alcatraz island using a man-made raft built using the same materials the inmates had access to. The TV stars concluded an escape was, in fact, feasible. In 2014, researchers at Delft University also tried to determine if the three men could have escaped and survived.

Using a computer model, they specifically examined the timing of the escape. If the men left near midnight, the currents would have been favorable for their passage. If they left in the hours before or after 12 a.m., the currents would likely have made it difficult for them to survive.

If John Is Still In Brazil, He May Never Return Home

It’s possible that John and his brother wound up in Brazil where they lived for many years. But if John is still living, he may never leave the country because Brazil may not allow him to be extradited to the United States. The former marshal Roderick wants to learn how they managed to escape.

He told the New York Post in 2015: “When you work these types of cases, there’s a feeling you get when stuff starts to fall into place. I’m getting this feeling now.” As for Ken and David, they want closure and the ability to bury their uncles at their family plot in Florida.

The 1979 Film Escape From Alcatraz Was Based On Their Story

The 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz starred Clint Eastwood, Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward as Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin. The filmmakers alluded that the escape was successful. The movie was praised by critics and is often considered one of the best films of the year. It has a 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $43 million at the box office.

Filmed at Alcatraz, Eastwood, Ward, and Thibeau did not use stunt doubles to escape down the prison wall and into the water. Director Don Siegel believed they had been lost in the currents on two separate occasions.

A 1937 Escape Also Never Turned Up Any Remains

In 1937, inmates Theodore “Ted” Cole and Ralph Roe were working in a tire repair shop on Alcatraz when a thick fog entered the bay. They made a hole through a window in the shop and escaped, hiding in the fog. Using a wrench, they opened up a lock in the gate and dropped 20 feet down on the to beach.

Later evidence showed the pair had planned the escape in advance but did not use a raft. Authorities believe they drowned and were swept out into the Pacific Ocean. However, no one ever found their remains, and the incident marred the prison’s reputation as being “escape proof.”

Inmate John Paul Scott Was The Only Man Proven To Escape Alcatraz

On Dec. 16, 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott swam 2.7 nautical miles from the island of Alcatraz to Fort Point, which is located at the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. When his body washed up on shore, a group of teenagers found him but believed he was dead.

When police arrived, they knew immediately that Scott was the escaped inmate they were seeking. They apprehended him on the same day he escaped and sent him back to Alcatraz. Scott had hypothermia and was exhausted. The identical Alcatraz–Fort Point route is used today by triathletes in two annual events.

John Paul Scott Had An Accomplice

Scott was at Alcatraz after being convicted of bank robbery and possession of unregistered firearms. Sentenced to 30 years in prison, Scott was at Alcatraz for three years before he officially tried to make a break for it.

a prison cell at alcatraz
Anna Irene/Flickr
Anna Irene/Flickr

Though he is the only man who has proven a successful escape is possible, Scott did have an accomplice. He had made friends with an inmate by the name of Darl Lee Parker, who was convicted of bank robbery and hijacking. For Scott and Parker, their escape plan was nearly foolproof.

They Bent The Bars Of A Cell Window

John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker were both assigned to culinary duty during their imprisonment at Alcatraz. While on duty one evening, they snuck down to the storage room below the kitchen where there was a cell block with a latrine.

a window at alcatraz
April Killingsworth/Flickr
April Killingsworth/Flickr

They managed to bend the bars of the window above that latrine and shimmy their way out of the window. From there, Scott and Parker climbed down a rope to the water below. At this point, they were still yet undetected by the prison guards.

They Blew Up Some Rubber Gloves To Float

Scott and Parker’s initial plan was to float to the San Francisco shore. In order to do that, they blew up some rubber gloves that they stole from the prison and used the blown-up gloves as water wings to stay afloat.

a view of alcatraz island
Jonas Bengtsson/Flickr
Jonas Bengtsson/Flickr

By the early morning, Scott and Parker’s escape attempt was noticed but by then they were already a considerable distance from the prison. Though they made it out together, they wouldn’t make it to freedom together. One of them was left behind.

Parker Only Made It To Little Alcatraz

Once Scott and Parker made it to the water, they immediately attempted to swim and float to the San Francisco shore. But shortly after the escape, Parker had to give up and stop since he had broken his ankle within that time.

little alcatraz rock formation
Javier Branas/Wikimedia Commons
Javier Branas/Wikimedia Commons

He was made it to a rock formation about 100 yards away from the prison called Little Alcatraz. That’s where he was recaptured by authorities only 20 minutes after prison guards realized that the two had even managed to escape.

Scott Spent The Rest Of His Life In Prison

You’ve already read what became of John Paul Scott. Though he successfully made it to shore, things didn’t turn out as he had hoped. Because he was suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion, he was taken to the Letterman General Hospital to recover but was immediately returned to Alcatraz when he was able.

a view of alcatraz prison
Pelle Sten/Flickr
Pelle Sten/Flickr

Up until then, a swimming escape from Alcatraz seemed impossible. But because Scott managed to do so successfully, many believe this is further proof that Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers’ escape was successful.

Joe Bowers Tried To Climb The Fence

On April 27, 1936, inmate Joe Bowers was working his labor job burning trash at the incinerator. It was then that he thought that no guards could see what he was doing, and decided to make a break for it. He began climbing up over the fence at the island’s edge, scrambling to get up and over as quickly as possible.

a fence at alcatraz
Pam Quinn/Flickr
Pam Quinn/Flickr

However, he was spotted, with the guards commanding him to get down from the fence. Bowers refused their order and continued to climb. Moments later, he was shot by a correctional officer in the West road guard tower. Bowers then fell almost 100 feet onto the shore below, succumbing to his injuries.

Three Inmates Killed An Officer Attempting To Escape

In May 1938, Thomas Limerick, Jimmy Lucas, and Rufus Franklin were working in the woodworking shop in the model industries building. They took advantage of the tools they had on hand and attacked unarmed correctional officer Royal Cline with a hammer.

a view inside alcatraz
Dale Cruse/Flickr
Dale Cruse/Flickr

Unfortunately, Cline died from his injuries, allowing the three men to climb onto the roof. It was there that they tried to subdue the officer in the roof tower. The inmates weren’t fast enough and Limerick and Franklin were both shot, with Limerick dying from his injuries. Lucas and Franklin were both sentenced to life for the murder of officer Cline.

Four Inmates Took Hostages

In 1943, inmates James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter took two correctional officers hostage while working in the industries area. The four then climbed out of a window, making a break for the water’s edge. However, one of the hostages was able to inform the other guards about the escape attempt and the officers began shooting at the escapees who were swimming away.

a prison block at alcatraz
Danny Bradury/Flickr
Danny Bradury/Flickr

Hunter and Brest were both caught and Boarman was fatally shot, sinking to the bottom of the bay. Hamilton was assumed to have died but was hiding in a shoreline cave for two days until he was eventually apprehended.

Huron Walters Noticed Something About The Guards’ Schedule

Serving 30 years in Alcatraz for robbery, assault, and auto theft, Huron Ted Walters had a lot of time to think and observe the guards. After some time, he realized that there were fewer guards on the weekends and that their attention was usually on the recreation yard.

a fence inside alcatraz
Brad Cerenzia/Flickr
Brad Cerenzia/Flickr

So, on Saturday, August 7, 1943, he made a plan to cut through two of the security fences while working in the laundry room. Unsurprisingly, his makeshift wire cutters broke halfway through his escape. So, he decided to climb the fences and fell on the second, injuring his back. By the time he made it to the water, his injuries had slowed him down to the point that he was captured by the Captain of the Guards.

John K. Giles Dressed Up As An Officer

While working at the Alcatraz wharf in 1945, prisoner John K. Giles managed to acquire a U.S. Army Technical sergeant’s uniform. It is assumed that he managed to piece one together from bags of laundry sent to the island to be cleaned by the inmates.

Alcatraz guards
Carl Sundstrom/Wikimedia Commons
Carl Sundstrom/Wikimedia Commons

He then boarded a ferry that went from the prison and around San Francisco Bay,. After leaving for Angel Island, it was discovered that there was one person too many aboard the ferry. Giles was quickly apprehended on Angel Island and sent back to Alcatraz.

Every Morning Was The Same

Obviously a life in prison is not the most ideal. Every morning when they woke up, prisoners had to sweep their cells clean and get dressed in time for the headcount. They would have to stand at their cell ready to be accounted for by the prison guards.

prison cells in alcatraz
Pelle Sten/Flickr
Pelle Sten/Flickr

It was not often that a prisoner didn’t appear for this headcount and if that was the case, it was obvious that they had attempted an escape, not many of which were too successful (as you already know).

They Spent Most Days Working

Once all the prisoners were accounted for, they all marched together to the mess hall for breakfast. After breakfast, the inmates were sent out to their respective duties. Some worked on the docks, while others worked in the laundry or in any of the other industrial areas of the prison.

a view of an alcatraz kitchen
Pedro Cambra/Flickr
Pedro Cambra/Flickr

When they weren’t working, inmates were allowed to spend time studying in the prison library. After a long day of labor, the inmates were then given dinner, which surprisingly wasn’t all that bad.

The Inmates Ate Very Well

It may have been prison, but Alcatraz was known for being a culinary marvel, serving up big meals to the inmates. They had a unique food policy implemented by warden James A. Johnston, who believed that good food bred good behavior.

alcatraz inmates ate spaghetti

As a result, the inmates got to have meals of roast pork shoulder, short ribs, spaghetti bolognese, corned beef, meatloaf, and other hearty meat dishes. It was a staff of convicts who were employed in the kitchen and some might say that they had the best job in the entire prison.

The Convict Cooks Could Be Creative

The inmates who were assigned to culinary duty had very little supervision when it came to making the dishes. As long as they prepared the daily meals according to nutritional guidelines of the Bureau of Prisons, the staff could get as creative as they wanted based on their skill levels.

prison food
Martin Guibert/Flickr
Martin Guibert/Flickr

Back in the ’40s and ’50s, processed foods weren’t widely available like they are today, which meant that most of what the inmates ate was freshly prepared. Everything from the bread, to desserts, to the fried chicken and pork chops was made for the inmates.

The Inmates In The Kitchen Had The Best Job

The kitchen staff also found a way to make alcohol using potato peels and other food scraps that they could ferment. The inmates in this job swiped yeast and cans of plums to make beverages that would suit their thirst for alcohol.

a kitchen in alcatraz
Mack Male/Flickr
Mack Male/Flickr

The inmates who were assigned to kitchen duty were also the only ones who were allowed daily showers, in addition to having one of the more pleasant jobs on the premises. They also were widely respected by both guards and fellow inmates, as they were the only ones trusted with sharp objects on a daily basis.

No Sources Of Fresh Water

Water surrounds Alcatraz like ants on a melted popsicle. The cold waters of the San Francisco Bay give off a chilling breeze throughout the night, every night, but too bad that water isn’t for consuming. There is no source of fresh water located on the island.

Pedestrians cross Hyde Street in front of Alcatraz Island on October 2, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Alcatraz Island and all federal museums and parks across the nation are closed for a second day due to the partial government shutdown.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That’s why close to one million gallons of water were shipped to the island every week, along with food, supplies, and fuel. It was an expensive prison to run!

Watch Out For The Sharks!

Would you rather try and escape prison by outswimming sharks, or would you instead do your time? Well, a popular myth about Alcatraz is that escaping was near impossible thanks to the man-eating sharks in the water.

A Great White Shark is attracted by a lure on the 'Shark Lady Adventure Tour' on October 19, 2009 in Gansbaai, South Africa.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The guards made this legend come alive to try and keep the prisoners from attempting to run. If they were smart, they would’ve known that the only sharks in the San Francisco Bay were harmless bottom feeders. They had higher chances of dying due to the cold waters.

Keep The Showers Warm

During its active years, Alcatraz was the only prison that gave the prisoners warm water. It wasn’t to be kind; it was to make sure they become used to hot water from the showers and not anything cold.

View of the shower and toilet in the Almoloya prison where Joaquin Guzman Loera

This too was a ploy to keep the captured from trying to escape. The belief was that the prisoners wouldn’t be able to cope with the frigid bay water once they attempted to swim away — first sharks, now this.

The First Lighthouse On The West

Long before it served as a prison, Alcatraz Island was the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast. Built in 1852, the lighthouse was supposed to help the ships that frequently arrived while navigating the bay.

The ruins of the Warden's House stand beside Alcatraz Island Lighthouse at the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

After sustaining damages irreparably from the 1906 earthquake, a new tower came along with a sturdier design. It’s still operational today as well if you were wondering. That’s part of the reason why it’s such a good tourist trap.

Keeping The Convos Tight

Visiting inmates at Alcatraz came with a strict set of rules that included dictating what the guests and prisoners talked about with each other. For starters, only the warden approved who came to visit. Secondly, they didn’t allow any physical contact.

View of the courtyard and buildings in the prison of Ensisheim, eastern France, on December 12, 2009 during a visit of a French official.iew of the courtyard and buildings in the prison of Ensisheim, eastern France, on December 12, 2009 during a visit of a French official.

As far as conversations go, they couldn’t talk about current events of prison life. If someone were to violate anything, no more visitors would be allowed. It’s probably best they spoke about the weather.