The Gut-Wrenching Mystery Behind The Only Successful Escapees From Alcatraz

Alcatraz has been known as the most menacing prison on the face of the earth. It’s secluded on an island and nearly impossible to escape. Or, at least that’s what they said.

That was until one day in June of 1962. A group of three men dared to do the impossible and their fate still remains unknown. Did they drown? Did they escape and create new lives for themselves under a different alias? Let’s take a deeper look.

Why This Is Being Talked About

This was a cold case for decades. No one really knew where the three men who escaped in 1962 really went. Police hadn’t heard anything.

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That is until the San Francisco police received a letter claiming the be John Anglin, one of the guys who escaped, in early January, 2018.

What The Letter Contained

The letter, if legitimate, could explain exactly what happened that June day. It could put to rest all of the conspiracy theories that have followed this case since 1962.

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The letter itself was written in 2013, but kept under wraps by police to verify its authenticity until 2018. That was when the FBI decided to re-open the case.

What Makes The Story So Compelling?

This story is truly incredible. Alcatraz was regarded as the toughest prison on the planet and housed some of the worst criminals.

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It was a maximum security prison that never had a prisoner escape. There were many attempts. Some were caught, others were found dead in the water after trying to swim across the bay.

How They Were Going To Do It

In theory, the plan was fairly simple. Actually, it was really simple. But, it would require the coordination of many people, which in Alcatraz would be nearly impossible.

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Like I mentioned, many have tried to escape before and none of them were successful. So, what was going to make these guys different?

Let’s Meet The Inmates

The members of the group were brothers John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Lee Morris, and Allen West.

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The four men all had cells near each other and spent much of their time devising this plan. This plan would take all of the courage they could muster up, and any resources they could get their hands on.

Frank Lee Morris

Morris was a troublemaker who was no stranger to crime and prison. He was convicted at the age of 13 for his first crime.

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Little did he know, he was destined for greatness. Just not the greatness most people want beside their name. He’d go down as the mastermind behind this Great Escape.

He’s Been There Before

As an adult, Morris served prison time in many different states for many different crimes. He had previously escaped from a prison in Louisiana that was dubbed the “Alcatraz of the South”.

Twitter / @local_opendoors
Twitter / @local_opendoors

He was caught a year after escaping for trying to rob a bank. After that capture he was sent to Alcatraz.

The Bros

Morris would not be able to do this by himself. He needed some help. That help came in the form of two brothers named John and Clarence Anglin.

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The brothers would spend a lot of their childhood swimming in Lake Michigan. It didn’t seem like an important point at the time, but it would help them in their escape.

They Had Criminal Skills

The Anglin brothers would start to rob banks together as young adults. They were caught and sent to an Atlanta prison. While there, they would try to escape many times, which resulted in them being sent to Alcatraz.

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That’s where they met Frank Morris, the ultimate mastermind of the group.

The Group Was Set

Together, with the help of another inmate named Allen West, they would plot the most iconic prison escape of all time.

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It’s important to note that when you’re a prisoner at Alcatraz, you have to do a lot of work. Inmates served the US military by making clothing, furniture and shoes.

Resource Management

Inmates would also have to work in a factory-type setting to mine some of the natural resources on the island.

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They started gathering resources from their excursions outside. They were slightly under the radar of the guards because they were non-violent offenders. When mixed in with the murderers, they looked like innocent angels.

And So It Began…

The gang started to put their plan into action. But, if they were going to do it, they knew they’d only get one shot and they’d have to make it count.

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They created human-like dummies that they would leave behind to buy them some extra time if a guard walked by.

It Was A Different Time

The guards weren’t the same as they are today. If one of them spotted you escaping, you would probably be met with a barrage of bullets.

Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons

Guards had to shoot many inmates who tried to escape before, and they weren’t going to stop any time soon. This decision the three men were going to make was do-or-die.

The Decoys

Everyone had their own responsibility. If this was going to work, everyone had to be on board and on time with their part.

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The Anglin brothers were in charge of making dummy heads to leave behind in the empty cells. They made them very carefully, and very discreetly, in order to not be caught.

The Next Step

Morris was in charge of modifying an accordion-like instrument to inflate the raft and life vests.

Twitter / @70sFilm
Twitter / @70sFilm

Together, they had to make tools to get out of their cells in the first place. They made picks and wrenches out of everyday items they were able to steal and gather, such as spoons and other utensils.

It Took A While

Thankfully for the escapees, Alcatraz was deteriorating rather quickly. They would work for about four hours every day, digging away at the hole.

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The salt water that flowed through the pipes would leak and make the walls easily crumble-able. The men removed the vents from their cells and used the picks to make the holes larger.

The Noise

While you might think that there would be a lot of noise coming from the chiselling, there wasn’t. Why? Because they would blast music to cover up the sound.

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Morris would play his accordion as loud as he could to mask any banging. Behind the cells was an unguarded utility corridor that had pipes leading up and down.

The Jungle Gym

The corridor behind the cells was basically a jungle gym. If they could get the holes wide enough so that they could fit through, it would be easy to get to the roof.

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Once they were on the roof, it would be an absolute free-for-all and who knows what would happen.

The Tight Squeeze

In May of 1962, the brothers and Morris had broken through the walls in their cells.

Twitter / @EagleStarNET
Twitter / @EagleStarNET

The holes were barely big enough for them to fit through, but that was all they needed. They made the raft and life vests by gluing raincoats together. The raft was needed or else the group would’ve drowned in the bay.

The Plan Sets Into Action

By June, Allen West had made his hole big enough and the plan was starting to take off. After, the lights went out the same day West made his hole big enough.

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They got their decoys ready to get out of the cells. The Anglin brothers and Morris got out of their cell easily, but West didn’t.

Misjudged

West underestimated how big he needed his hole. The others tried to help him from the corridor but it was useless. They had to leave Allen West behind.

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This would help the other three because it made the raft a little lighter. They made it to the roof and down the side of the building.

It Worked Perfectly

They were able to sneak past the few guards that they had to get by, and by 11:30pm that night, they were in the raft.

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It wasn’t until the morning that any guards noticed they were missing. Blaring sirens woke up the surrounding area. Allen West ended up getting out, but he rightfully went back to his cell and fully co-operated with the authorities.

A Dead Body Was Seen

After several long searches, there were no bodies found in the water. There were some personal belongings in the bay, but none of the three men.

Twitter / @EagleStarNET
Twitter / @EagleStarNET

Many experts suggested that despite how cold the water was, an adult male could survive for about 20 minutes in the water. A Norwegian freight-liner spotted a dead body near the bay wearing what looked like Alcatraz clothing, but it couldn’t be identified.

The FBI’s Conclusion

The FBI had concluded that they all drowned. But, a documentary in 2015 showed further evidence that the Anglin brothers probably escaped.

History Channel
History Channel

The Anglin family received a Christmas card signed by them in their confirmed handwriting. And, the family received a picture of what looked like the brothers in Brazil.

Another Piece Of Evidence

There was a deathbed confession by Robert Anglin (their brother), which confessed that he was in contact with them for a long time.

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But, that was the only evidence the Anglin brothers had survived until the shocking letter that came into the SanFran police department in 2013 that denied many rumors.

The Words Of John Anglin?

The letter states that they made it, but barely. He also says that (at the time) he was 83 years old, and had cancer.

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The note says that Frank Morris ended up dying in 2008 and that Clarence had passed away in 2011. He even gives where he had been living for the last seven years — Minot, North Dakota.

The Plea

The writer of the letter said that he’d tell them where he is living if he is granted a year of medical treatment in jail.

Twitter / @JoeSandoval18
Twitter / @JoeSandoval18

The letter was sent away in an attempt to verify whether it was real or not. They took fingerprints, but all of the evidence came back inconclusive.

A Cold Case

To this day it remains a cold case. There was a team of researchers in 2014 that managed to calculate what they might look like today.

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The US Marshal Service says that there is a chance they got away, but it isn’t probable. That sentiment is followed by the last guard to ever serve on Alcatraz.

Jim Albright

Jim Albright was the last guard to leave the island. He gave a revealing interview to local news in honor of the 55th anniversary since Alcatraz closed.

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He was there during the escape, and says that he really thinks that all of them drowned. He thinks the letter writer came from someone looking to get cancer treatment.

The Escapees Today

If the three escapees were alive, this is what they may have looked like. Hey, if you’re from North Dakota, you might even recognize one as your neighbor.

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They would all be nearing 90 years old at this point, but if they get caught, they’re still responsible for their crimes for at least another decade.

Bowers’ Desperate Escape

The first recorded escape attempt was in 1936 by a man named Joseph Bowers. Bowers’ was performing his assigned duty of burning trash at the incinerator when he made a run for it and scaled a fence.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

He was shot and fell to his death. Inmates argue over whether Bowers was really trying to escape or if it was a suicide attempt.

They Filed Through The Bars

Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe were tried to escape on December 16, 1937. Apparently, they filed through the iron bars of the prison’s mat shop. Luckily, it was foggy that day so they went undetected when they made it outside.

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Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

They reportedly jumped in the water and were never heard from again.

The Claw Hammer Attempt

In 1938, Rufus Franklin, Thomas Limerick, and James Lucas took a claw hammer in the woodwork shop and used to attack and kill one of the guards. They made it to the roof, where Franklin and Limerick were shot.

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Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As for Lucas, he was cornered and ended up surrendering as more guards arrived at the scene.

They Were Not The Most Secure

Five guys who were a part of D-Block, which was supposedly the prison’s most secure unit, attempted to escape Alcatraz in 1939. Somehow, they managed to escape their cell house and make it all the way to shore.

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Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

They were in the middle of building their raft when they were caught. One was killed, another was wounded, and the other three went into solitary confinement.

The Bars Were Tool-Proof

In 1941, four guys who were working in the industries area decided to jump the guards on duty. Afterward, they attempted to saw through the window bars to escape, but quickly learned they were tool-proof.

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Getty Images/Getty Images
Getty Images/Getty Images

The four men did the smart thing and surrendered right then. Two of the guys tried again at the Battle of Alcatraz.

Bernard Coy Started The Plan

The Battle of Alcatraz escape plan was originally devised by Bernard Coy (center), who was in Alcatraz for attempted robbery during the Great Depression. Coy’s assignment at the prison was cell-house orderly.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

As the orderly, Coy noticed that the gun-gallery was merely guarded by bars and the officer on duty had a set schedule.

Their Plan Went Into Action

In 1946, the kitchen orderly Marvin Hubbard lured officer William Miller over and Coy attacked him from behind. Coy and Hubbard then let two other prisoners out of their cells.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Coy then used a device to spread the bars of the gun gallery and slipped through. He stole a Springfield rifle.

They Kept Releasing Prisoners Along The Way

Coy used the rifle to intimidate officers and take them hostage as he went along with the plan. Eventually they made it back to the main cell block, where they released more prisoners.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Their next goal was to secure the key to the yard door, so that they could run to the island’s dock.

It Ended In A Shoot-Out

By the time they found the key, it was too late. The lock was jammed and the prisoners were trapped. Meanwhile, with many officers in cells, other officers were reporting to the scene.

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When it was clear the entire escape attempt was going to fail, they ringleaders of the plan decided to shoot it out.

All Of The Masterminds Were Killed

Eventually, some Marines were called in to help pacify the shoot out. At the end of the shoot out, two officers and three inmates were killed. Eleven officers and one un-involved prisoner were injured.

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

While the main ringleaders of the plan lost their lives, two who had survived were executed in the gas chamber for their involvement.