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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
He was caught a year after escaping for trying to rob a bank. After that capture he was sent to Alcatraz.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inmates would also have to work in a factory-type setting to mine some of the natural resources on the island.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone had their own responsibility. If this was going to work, everyone had to be on board and on time with their part.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While the main ringleaders of the plan lost their lives, two who had survived were executed in the gas chamber for their involvement.