The Truth About What Happened During the Escape from Alcatraz
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, notorious for being one of the most ominous and secure prisons in the world. Escaping from it was said to be an impossible task. Over 30 inmates had tried to escape the infamous prison, all of whom were unsuccessful, but that changed on a fateful day in June of 1962.
On that day a group of three men jumped into the turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay trying to escape their captivity. Nobody knew what happened to them until the police received an anonymous letter decades later. The note changed everything people thought about the mystery escape, and it compelled the FBI to re-open their investigation into the case. To learn about one of the greatest escapes in history and what happened to the escaped inmates, keep reading.
A Letter from John Anglin
It was a normal day, no different than many other days at the San Francisco Police Department when they received a letter that would not only shock them, but the entire country. It read, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.”
This very case – their escape from Alcatraz – was and still is one of the most famous unsolved mysteries in American history. At the time of the escape, officials said that the three men died in the icy San Francisco waters the night of the escape. So how did this letter end up at the police station? Did the officials lie? And what was the point of sending the letter after all this time?
It Completely Changed Everything
The events of the mysterious Alcatraz escape left law enforcement perplexed for years, and now a letter which claimed to be written by one of the escapees made its way to a police station. The writer claimed that he could finally reveal what happened on that night in 1962, but could it be trusted? Would law enforcement finally be able to close the more than 40 years old cold case?
The letter was sent to the San Francisco Police Department back in 2013, but they kept it a secret for many years. Unsure why they kept it hidden, the letter did have enough information to cause the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get involved, and the re-opened the case in January 2018. But why was this so significant?
Thinking the Unthinkable
For decades, Alcatraz also called “The Rock” was known as the most resilient prison on planet Earth until it was closed in 1963. It was a maximum-security prison, and it was created for the sole purpose of making it impossible for some of the world’s worst criminals to reach society.
Over the course of the 29 years that it served as a prison, many of the inmates had tried to escape the island, but all of them had failed. This is why the Alcatraz escapees were so famous. How did they make it past the security of the toughest prison in the world?
Coming Up with a Plan
As tough as the prison was, the escape plan was very simple. Finding a way to do it, would be mission impossible and it would take a coordinated team to execute it. This was not the first time that prisoners had attempted such a feat; scores of inmates tried to escape from the maximum-security prison, so how was their plan different from the others that have failed?
How were these men going to pull off an escape that no other prisoner had ever done before? Of those who tried to escape, 23 of them were caught, 6 of them were shot, 2 of them drowned, and 2 more were missing or even worse, dead.
And So, it Begins
The most famous jailbreak in American history was planned by four prisoners. It included Frank Lee Morris whose crimes range from armed robberies and possession of narcotics. Allen Clayton West who was charged with grand larceny, and carjacking and the Anglin brothers John and Clarence were involved in several bank robberies. The men’s cells were close to each other, so they had a lot of time to come up with their escape plan.
The Anglin brothers knew of Frank Lee Morris as they all spent time serving together at a prison in Atlanta. Now that they were at Alcatraz, a seemingly inescapable prison, they knew that trying to leave would take all the courage that they had and all the resources that they could find.
Who Is Frank Lee Morris?
Frank Lee Morris, according to law enforcement, was a criminal mastermind with an I.Q. of 133. He was an orphan by the age of 11, and from then he lived in several foster homes. He eventually learned how to look after himself, and by the age 13, he was convicted of his first crime.
Morris was quite the troublemaker as a youngster and years later he would become an escape artist, breaking out of several prisons. He would have never imagined that one of them would be Alcatraz. The escape would make him one of the only people in the world to do so and the events of that day would go down in history.
Not His First Rodeo
During his adult life, Frank Lee Morris spent quite a bit of time behind bars in various states across the U.S. He eventually ended up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary which so happens to be nicknamed “Alcatraz of the South.” The nickname scared many prisoners, but not Frank who had something special planned for prisoners and the guards who worked there.
Frank was sentenced to 10 years at the prison for a bank robbery, but he had no intention of serving the full sentence. While many prisoners would try to get out on parole, he was thinking about something completely different – escape. Almost a year had passed before Frank was caught, and it was because he was involved in another robbery. Frank was sent back to prison, and this time, it was to the real Alcatraz.
The Anglin Brothers
Frank was only one member of the team, and he knew that if he were going to get off “the rock,” he would need some like-minded accomplices. Two of the other members were the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence. The last person to complete the team was a man known by the name of Allen West.
Both born in Georgia, the Anglin brothers, moved to Florida with their parents who, being seasonal farmers, frequently moved for work. Every June, during cherry picking season, the parents would move north, taking their 13 children with them, including John and Clarence. Never did they think that their activities in the north would come in handy for escaping Alcatraz.
A Criminal’s Skillset
John and Clarence were incredibly close growing up, and the two became even closer when they became adults. When their family would travel north for the cherry-picking season, as far up as Michigan sometimes, the two would go swimming in Lake Michigan, a hobby that they both were very good at.
Unbeknownst to them, swimming in those waters prepared them for a daunting journey that they would have to make later on in life. The brothers began robbing banks together when they were adults, and in 1956, they were caught and arrested for bank robbery. This event was only the beginning of the brother’s encounter with the law.
The Trio Forms
While at the Atlanta Penitentiary, the Anglin brothers attempted to escape several times. Because of their many attempts, the brothers were sent to Alcatraz, where law enforcement was confident that there would be no chance of escape. It was at their new “home” that they would meet Frank Lee Morris, the man with the plan to get them out.
Together with another inmate, Allen West, the four men had a vast amount of knowledge in escaping and attempting to escape different prisons. The group who lived in close quarters began to plan their almost impossible escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
Getting the Right Tools
At the time of the men’s escape, Alcatraz was not only a prison, but it also had a factory, and luckily so for the group of men. Alcatraz served the United States military making clothes, shoes, and furniture. The inmates serving their sentences had jobs, and they were exposed to a wide variety of resources.
The four men who wanted to escape were lucky because they were all locked up for non-violent crimes, which meant that they weren’t at the top of any of the watchful guards’ priority lists. Flying slightly under the radar meant they were able to get away with more than some of the other prisoners.
Putting the Plan into Action
The group of men slowly started putting their plan into action. The innovative yet high complex plan involved some serious work, and the men had a surprise in store for the guards. Not only would they escape one of the most well-guarded prisons in the world, but they were also going to leave behind replicas of themselves in the form of dummies.
The men’s plan needed to be bulletproof; they needed to make sure that they could escape the prison and get off the island while avoiding all of the guards. Back then, the guards were not as forgiving as they are now and an escape attempt by any prisoner would mean that they were shot with real bullets.
The Dummies They Left Behind
Each of the four men was responsible for different parts of the plan, apart from making sure that they could get out of their cells on the night of the great escape. The Anglin brothers – John and Clarence were responsible for making the dummy heads that would be left behind in the inmates’ empty beds.
The brothers made the base of dummy heads using soap wax and toilet paper. They used human hair which they stole from the prison’s barbershop. Frank Lee Morris was charged with reconstructing an accordion-like gadget in order to inflate the team’s rafts and life vests.
The Dig of a Lifetime
The team also had to create tools to dig themselves out of their cells and to remove the bolts on the air vents. Astonishingly, the men were able to make picks and wrenches out of regular items that they stole. Using wood from the workshop and spoons from the cafeteria, the men were able to make everything that they needed.
Every night from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m., they would slowly dig away at the wall, creating holes which were large enough for them to crawl through. They then removed the vents in their cells and later used the make-shift picks to make the holes even larger.
A Corrosive Alcatraz
The team had a slight advantage as the prison’s building was old and many parts were already beginning to deteriorate. Alcatraz used saltwater for the prisoners to shower and wash dishes, and it was that very water that destroyed the pipes that they were running through. The water eventually leaked through the prison walls, contributing to the building’s deterioration.
As time passed, the salt water eroded away at the cement of the building making it crumble and loosen up in different areas. The water running through the pipes was warm so that the prisoner would not get accustomed to the cold water, like that waters in the nearby San Francisco Bay area.
The 1960s Prison Reform
There is no way to dig holes in walls without making noise, and four men digging at the same time would surely be noticed by someone. Well, no one did. In the early 1960s, during the prison reform, inmates were allowed to have an hour of music. The music which was played by the different inmates created enough noise that the digging went unnoticed.
Frank Lee Morris owned an accordion, which he played very loudly whenever it was possible to cover up any sounds that the digging of cement would cause. The holes that the men dug led to the utility corridor behind the cells. The corridor was unguarded and filled with pipes going up and down the building.
The Unguarded Corridor
The unguarded utility corridor was like a huge jungle gym like the ones found on playgrounds. If the team could get their holes wide enough so that they could pass through, it would be an easy climb to the roof which was only three floors higher than where their cells were. From then on, the men would need prayers and a bit of luck to escape the prison alive.
At the top of the prison were large shafts, and the men would need to open at least one of them to get onto the roof. Many of those shafts were cemented shut so they needed to find one that they could use their make-shift wrenches to open.
Making the Squeeze
By May of 1962, Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers had dug away at enough of their walls to pass through, but just barely. Although it was a very tight fit, it was a big accomplishment and a necessity if they were going to escape the maximum-security prison.
The group also needed other items if they were to have a shot at making it out alive. They made life vests and a raft by sewing and gluing together the 50 raincoats that they had stolen from the factory. These items were some of the team’s most important pieces as they would have drowned in the bay below without them.
The Big Signal
With everything ready, all the men had to do was to wait for Allen West, the last member of the team; who was still digging the hole in his cell. Everyone was on standby knowing that their big escape could happen at any moment. The moment that they were waiting for came just a month later, but things were not going to go the way that they planned.
Allen West finished digging his hole on June 11, 1962, and he immediately gave his team members the signal. After months of waiting and planning, the men were finally able to escape, but none of them could have expected what was about to happen next.
Set the Wheels in Motion
On that very same day, just after lights out, the group of men set their escape plans into motion. The question on all of their minds; were they going to make it out of Alcatraz alive? Whether they had their doubts or not, the thought of being free was too tempting for any of them to back out.
Much like many other inmates, this group of men was willing to do anything to get out of the maximum-security prison that they had been calling home. They were willing to put their lives on the line, and so they did on that fateful night. As soon as the lights went out, they put their decoys in place and quickly got out of their cells.
Something Goes Wrong
John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Lee Morris all made it out of their cells with great ease, but Allen West was having some trouble trying to get out of his. Despite telling the group earlier on that his hole was big enough, Allen misjudged its size. Allen’s hole was too small for him to pass through it.
Frank who was probably on the same side as Allen tried his best to help him, but the cement around Allen’s hole would not give way. Around 9:30 p.m. after Morris was given some water to drink by West, they decided that he would have to stay behind.
Someone Gets Left Behind
After months of working together and building their friendship, it must have been extremely difficult to leave one of the team members behind. To be fair, they didn’t have much of a choice. If they made too much noise while trying to widening the hole in Allen’s cell, they would have caught the guards’ attention.
West decided to stay back, and in doing so, he took one for his team. His decision to stay back might have affected the load on the raft, making it easier for the others to float. The team which now had one less person, he climbed up nearly 30 feet of plumbing in the unguarded corridor to the roof of Alcatraz prison.
Down We Go
The three-man group made it to the roof of the cell house that they were in fairly quickly and easily. With adrenaline pumping through their veins and their hearts racing, Frank and the Anglin brothers began to cross almost 100 feet across a rooftop before they began their descent. They had to go down 50 feet of piping on the building’s side in order to get to the ground.
When they got to the ground, it was close to where the shower area was, and the quietly snuck past the guards who were stationed there. The group of men passed all of the guards and eventually made their way to the shore. It was there that they made an important stop to inflate the rafts and life vests that they made.
Sound the Alarm
The night of the escape was the last day that anyone inside of Alcatraz saw or heard from Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers. On that night, the men set off for the mainland in their makeshift raft around 11:30 p.m. It was only in the morning that they were discovered missing.
In the very early hours of the morning, the prisoners and the guards of Alcatraz maximum facility were woken up to sirens blaring throughout the halls. The sound was unfamiliar and confusing for many as no one had broken out of the prison before. They would soon find out that three fellow inmates escaped the impenetrable “rock.”
Allen West, the man who was left behind, may have been disappointed that he was not able to go with his friends, but that did not stop him from trying to join them. He continued to work on getting a larger hole and eventually he did. Overjoyed that he was able to squeeze through, Allen raced to meet the other members of his team.
Allen made his way out of his cell, climbed the pipe maze to the roof, but by the time he got to the top, the other three had already made it down the side of the building. He was faced with two difficult decisions; either he tried to go down and swim to his freedom, which would have killed him, or he would have to return to his cell.
Search the Prison
Allen West decided that the best thing for him would be to return to his cell and wait for when the others to be found missing. When the morning came, the guards sounded the alarm, and the entire prison was on high alert as they searched for Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers.
When the authorities came, Allen West cooperated, telling them everything that the men had planned, but was any of it true? Allen’s story could have been completely made up in order to buy his friends some time. Based on what he said, the men were headed to Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay area. Once they arrived there, they would steal some clothes, a car, then go their separate ways.
There was a big problem with Allen’s story; there were no reports of car robberies in the area, not for 12 days after the men had escaped. Many theories were proposed. Some people thought that they might have landed somewhere else either by choice or mistake. Some also thought that the trio of men might not have made it at all.
Allen West also told the authorities that the brilliant idea to escape the most impenetrable prisons in the world was his idea. He said that he was the architect and he took most of the credit for the great escape. The FBI was eventually called in, and a formal investigation began to find out exactly what had happened to Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers.
After searching in several different places, neither the men nor their bodies were found. They did, however, find some of the men’s personal belongings floating in the waters of San Francisco Bay the next day. On the night of the escape, the water temperature of the water was between 50 and 54 degrees. No matter what time of year it was, the water was always cold.
Experts were consulted on the matter, and they determined that an adult male could only survive in waters of that temperature for 20 minutes before the body begins to shut down. The water inside of the prison was kept warm intentionally, and the escapees could not have acclimated to the ice-cold waters that they had to swim through.
What Were the Currents Like?
Approximately one month after the men escaped, a freight boat reported seeing a body 17 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. It was said that the person’s body was clothed in a uniform which was similar to the ones worn by the inmates at Alcatraz. Because of the timing of his report, the body was never found.
Investigations into the case of the missing prisoners went on for years, but all efforts were futile. 17 years after the great escape, the FBI decided to close the case. It was concluded that the men probably drowned during their swim in the San Francisco Bay, but in the following years, there were many clues which seemed to prove otherwise.
A Christmas Card and an Overseas Trip
In a 2015 documentary which aired on the History Channel, there was evidence which supported the theory that the three men had successfully escaped Alcatraz. The Anglin brothers’ family received signed Christmas cards every year, and the handwriting on them was confirmed to be that of John and Clarence. The dates on the cards, however, could not be determined.
The Anglin family had more than that to go off on; they owned a photo of John and Clarence which was taken sometime in 1975 in Brazil. The photo was later analyzed by forensic experts, and even they determined that it was “more than likely” the escaped Anglin brothers. But that was not all; there was one piece of information that was not yet revealed.
Staying in Touch
The most significant bits of information that proved that the brothers survived the dangerous escape was not a photo or signed letter; it was a confession by Robert Anglin, one of their siblings. While on his death bed, he admitted that he had been in contact with his fugitive brothers from a year after their escape to 1987 when they lost touch with each other.
The members of the Anglin family were dissuaded from looking for their brothers because, despite the case being closed by the FBI, it was still an open Interpol investigation. If the brothers were found, they would be able to answer many of the world’s questions, but the punishment that they would face for escaping is indescribable.
“Yes, We Made it That Night.”
When the letter arrived at that police station on a seemingly regular day in 2013, claiming to be from John Anglin, it confirmed many of the rumors which have been created over the last several decades. In the letter, he wrote “yes we all made it that night but barely! … I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer.” He also talked about his fellow escapees saying that “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.”
Later on in the letter, the person claiming to be John Anglin went into detail about where he had been living since he and his friends managed to escape the maximum security prison. He explained “This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo” until 2003. Many parts of the letter were incomprehensible, but in a BBC report, they interpreted his letter saying that he spent many years after the escape living in Seattle. But that was not the most shocking revelation from the letter.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The letter from the person claiming to be John Anglin ended by saying that he was living in Southern California. The people who knew about the letter all wondered if it really was him, one of the men to pull off one of the greatest escapes in history. The also wondered how he could have been living so close to where he was kept captive.
According to the letter, the writer was extremely sick, and he was desperate to get the help that he needed, even if he would have to go back to prison to finish his time served. In the letter, the writer wanted to bargain with law enforcement, but would they accept it?
A Proposed Deal
“John” proposed a simple deal; get medical help in exchange for some prison time. His letter contained the terms of the agreement. It read: “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…”
Before law enforcement could agree to any of the terms, they would first have to investigate the letter. They would need to scrutinize every single detail of the letter to see if they could garner any and every single bit of information possible.
Making Sure It Was Him
The U.S. Marshals claims that the letter was brought to the FBI’s lab where it was carefully analyzed. They checked to see if there were any traces of DNA left of the piece of paper. The also checked for fingerprints, examined the handwriting, comparing it to letters which the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris previously wrote. What was the outcome?
KPIX, a CBS station located in San Francisco, was the first to publish the letter. According to their report, “The FBI’s results were inconclusive.” One of the security experts working at the station further elaborated on the FBI’s results on the letter’s authenticity by saying: “[it] means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”
Working on the Case for 17 Years
The U.S. Marshals Service thought that “it is possible” for the men to have survived both the escape and to have a life after. The letter was made public in January 2018, and a representative from the U.S. Marshals Service told The Washington Post that they did not think that the letter was genuine.
In the same Washington Post article, it was noted that “the Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it would do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99.” However, the FBI decided to close the investigation in 1979. It continued by saying “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.”
The Letter Revealed
The letter was publicly revealed by KPIX, a local San Francisco news after it was leaked to them by an unnamed source. In response to the letter being published, the U.S. Marshals office released a statement in order to help clear things up.
In it, they said, “there is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens after this escape.” After the FBI closed the case, the U.S. Marshals Services were the only ones who were still investigating the matter, so their take on the situation is extremely important. But no one knows what happened.
What Really Happened?
In 2014, with the use of a computer model, a team of researchers was able to calculate whether the inmates would have survived. They wanted to know if it was possible for them to survive if they left around midnight and if the water currents that night were in their favor.
Back in 2009, the Deputy U.S. Marshal, Michael Dyke told NPR that “there’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.” But there is a lot more to be heard from the people who escaped from Alcatraz.
The Last Guard to Leave Alcatraz
Jim Albright, the last guard to leave the maximum-security prison, revealed some very interesting details in an illuminating interview during the 55th anniversary of Alcatraz’s closure in March 2018. In it, he sat down with San Francisco’s ABC 7 to talk about his time working at Alcatraz. When asked about whether he believed the men survived or drowned in the water, he had this to say.
“It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned, I really do,” Albright said during the interview. According to him, the letter was written by a person who was trying to get treatment for their terminal cancer, rather than one of the men who escaped Alcatraz.
Escapees to Date
To this day, it is uncertain as to whether the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris survived their escape from Alcatraz back in 1962. It is also unclear as to whether law enforcement ever found out who the writer of the mysterious 2013 letter was.
If the three were alive to tell the tale, they would have been seniors by now. John Anglin would have been 86 years old. Clarence would have been 87, and Frank Lee Morris would have been 90 years old. If they were alive, according to the law, they would still be responsible for their crimes for another decade, and there was a possibility that they would be sent back to prison.