Alcatraz Penitentiary is one of the most storied prisons in American history. Built in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, the now-defunct institution is home to prison tours during the day and ghost hunting tours during the night. And now, thanks to a group of archaeologists from Binghamton University, another mystery has been revealed. Using laser technology the team was able to explore the ground beneath the prison’s exercise yard, and what they found might just change the way we look at Alcatraz forever.
How The Island Got Its Name
Before revealing what the team from Binghamton University found, let’s travel back to 1775 when Alcatraz Island was first discovered. It was Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala who laid claim to finding it first and naming it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates to “Island of the Pelicans.”
It is through this writing that we get the name Alcatraz. The island is 22 acres with two high points, one 135 feet above sea level and the other 138 feet. It is between these high points that Alcatraz Penitentiary can be seen from shore.
The First Owner
Before becoming a world-famous penitentiary, Alcatraz Island was owned by Julian Workman. He was a ranch owner in 1846 when Alta California governor Pio Pico gave him the island. As part of their arrangement, Workman agreed to build a lighthouse.
Workman was never able to follow through on his promise. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s that he was never given a chance. Less than one year into his ownership California’s military governor John C. Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5,000.
Handed Over To The Military
In 1850, two years after California was sold to the United States, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be handed over to the military. This act turned the island into a military base, where it could be used as a defense to protect the bay.
The rightful owner of the land, John C. Fremont, expected the United States to pay him a hefty fee for the island. His investment was about to pay huge dividends. Or was it?
Using What Nature Provided
Tasked with building Fort Alcatraz as quickly as possible, Zealous B. Tower used what nature gave him. With his men, the crew took rocks from the island to build up the walls of the fort along its coast.
Once the walls were placed, weapons could be positioned behind them around the island perimeter. These weapons were placed on the west, south, and north of the naturally-built walls. There were also 111 armed cannons on the island, making it ready for anything.
The “Perfect” Prison
Alcatraz Penitentiary first began holding civilian prisoners in 1934. Thanks to the topography of the island and its distance from the shore, it was the perfect place for a prison. Anyone who tried to escape would find that freedom outside the walls was impossible to come by.
The waters surrounding Alcatraz are near freezing and the strong currents are backbreaking to swim against. Overall, there have been 14 escape attempts from the prison. No one involved successfully made it to the mainland.
A Failed Fight
Unfortunately for Fremont, the United States took the land from him, arguing that the deal he made to buy it was invalid. Fremont lost the island, and he was given no money in exchange.
To try and get compensated for his loss, Fremont began a long legal battle. Along with his fellow ranchers, he fought the ruling in a case that ran through the system until the 1890s. When a final decision was made, it was declared that Fremont had no right to the land.
A Three-Year Wait
With Alcatraz Island firmly in the grasp of the United States, it took another three years for anything to happen. In 1853, construction finally began on a new fort under the watch of Zealous B. Tower.
Although it took a few years for construction to begin, once it did, the building process needed to be fast. In 1848 the Gold Rush began, and people were flocking to San Francisco in the thousands! In just a few years, the population boomed from 300 to 30,000.
Defending The Bay
With so many people coming in so fast, building a defensive stronghold was a major priority. Not only did the military plan to fortify Alcatraz, but they also intended to build a stronghold on Fort Point, a nearby island.
The Alcatraz project was finished first, which was a good thing. It wound up being given the strongest fortifications. At the time, no one knew it would eventually become one of the world’s most notorious prisons.
The Perfect Location
As if blessed from above, the San Francisco Bay gave away the perfect island to build a defensive stronghold on. Engineers couldn’t believe their incredible luck. In 1852, the Pacific Coast Board of Engineers reported:
“Nature seems to have provided a redoubt for this [military] purpose in the shape of Alcatraz Island. Situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor, it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel Island to the north, San Francisco to the south and the outer batteries to the west.”
Armed To The Teeth
As if cannons, which were called columbiads, weren’t enough, Fort Alcatraz was also outfitted with caponiers, stone towers that projected from the shore. Anyone looking to take control of Fort Alcatraz would have been met with a degree of difficulty unmatched at the time.
One year after construction began, the citadel was finished. There were barracks located next to the fort’s lighthouse. The lighthouse was also the first navigational light ever placed on the Pacific Coast of the United States.
Defending The Lighthouse
The citadel was tasked with not only defending the island but defending the lighthouse as well. To ensure success against attack, it was built to accommodate 100 soldiers, and expand to 200 when needed. The windows of the barracks were designed for soldiers to fire through.
And if the fort was taken over, there were enough supplies in the citadel for those trapped inside to survive for four months. In that time, it can be assumed, backup would arrive, or the citadel would be breached and overtaken.
The End Of The Process
Although it was intended to be a quick process, the fortification of Alcatraz Island was not finished until 1859. There were many reasons that led to this, but the biggest one was a shortage of skilled labor workers.
At the time the fort was being built, people were flocking to San Francisco in droves, but not to build a fort. They wanted to find gold and get rich quick. This meant finding people to actually work on the island was much easier said than actually done.
An Opportunity Never Used
During the Civil War, 350 men were positioned at Fort Alcatraz. Their time there ended up being unproductive. The fort was never attacked during the war. There was one recorded plot by the Confederate army, but the assault never came.
In 1863, three men were detained and arrested in the plot to assault Fort Alcatraz. They were sentenced to ten years in prison – sentences they did not serve. Abraham Lincoln pardoned all three men when the war ended.
In modern times, of course, Alcatraz Island is best known for its penitentiary, and less for its military background. Interestingly enough, the two histories overlap. The first prisoners at Alcatraz were incarcerated soldiers in 1859.
During the Civil War, the stronghold was also used to imprison Confederate soldiers. Even though Fort Alcatraz wasn’t built to be a prison, the future of the island was clearly never in doubt. It was only a matter of time before that future became the present.
A Soaring Population
Before holding civilian prisoners, Alcatraz held prisoners of war. In 1867, a jailhouse was built on the fort. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the prison had a population of 450.
Over the next 15 years, the prison expanded with the addition of large concrete prison cells. That block of cells is largest structure still intact on the island. Finally, in 1933, the military portion of the fort was decommissioned and the entire operation was handed over to the Prisons Bureau.
James A. Johnston Was A Tough Warden
Alcatraz Penitentiary welcomed its first group of prisoners on August 11, 1934. This group was “special” and had been hand-picked by authorities to make the journey to the island. They had disrupted life at their previous penitentiaries and needed a change of location.
Watching over these men was Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and was the perfect man for the job. Life wouldn’t be easy for him, but he had a crew of 155 guards to help keep the peace.
Some Famous Faces
Once Alcatraz Penitentiary was fully up and running, it became the home of some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Al Capone and George Kelly are two of the most recognizable names, as well as one man labeled “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.
That man was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he is one of four criminals to ever be given the title. He is also the only one of those four to be taken alive by authorities.
As we said, there were a total of 14 escape attempts from 36 prisoners on the island. Of those, none officially made it to shore. Six were taken to the grave, 23 were captured alive, and two drowned. As for the other five, they are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”
That means that while there is no proof that anyone successfully escaped Alcatraz, it is possible. Considering the conditions surrounding the island, though, it is unlikely they ever made it to the shore.
An Escape Attempt Immortalized
Of all the escape attempts, the 13th is the most interesting one. It involved three men: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. They planned an elaborate escape and successfully made it into the ocean.
The attempt was immortalized on the silver screen in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The story doesn’t end there, though. In 2013, a letter “written by John Anglin” was delivered to the police. Is it possible these three men survived the freezing currents of the San Francisco Bay?
What Does It All Mean?
Once Alcatraz Penitentiary shut down, it became a major tourist attraction. Tourism, of course, is not what interested the Binghamton University team led by Timothy de Smet to the island. They wanted to know what was beneath the surface.
To look beneath the surface, the archaeological team used lasers to pierce the layers of concrete. With this incredible technology, they could see underground without causing any actual damage to the highly profitable and heavily-visited location.
Thanks to their laser technology, the team was able to see structures from the island’s military days that were still intact. Going beneath the structures revealed even more; it showed what the team described as “a bombproof earthwork traverse.”
This tunnel was still in nearly perfect condition in 2019 and included ventilation shafts to keep anyone traveling through comfortable. These structures were part of the military stronghold and had been lost in time until de Smet and his team “uncovered” them.
Importance Of The Discovery
Timothy de Smet had no idea what to expect when his team began using lasers to search under the island. He had hoped to find lost structures, but nothing in a condition so well preserved.
“We sought non-invasive, non-destructive means to ascertain if any historic archaeological remains lay beneath several parts of the island, like the recreation yard of the infamous penitentiary. We did not know what to expect,” he admitted. That’s not the only reason de Smet’s discovery was so important.
The Future Of Archaeology
Making such a momentous discovery could pave the way for an entirely new kind of archaeological surveying — non-invasive. This, maybe more than anything, was the greatest discovery that de Smut and his team made.
The future of archaeology is now looking as bright as ever according to de Smut. “With modern remote-sensing methods like these, we can answer fundamental archaeological research questions about human behavior, social organization and cultural change through time without costly and destructive excavation.”
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 paper-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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.