The Great Escape: the incredible story of the three inmates who ran away from Alcatraz
Alcatraz used to be one of the world’s toughest prisons and running away from it was basically impossible. Despite several attempts of escape (at least 36 before 1962), nobody had managed to escape from such fortress. This was true until June 1962, when three inmates were able to get out of the prison and plunge into the dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay. Nobody had known what happened to them, until a mysterious letter, sent to the police in January 2013, shed a new light on the famous episode and forced the FBI to re-open the case. If you wish to find out more about this true story that inspired books and movies, keep reading: you will discover what really happened to the inmates who escaped from Alcatraz.
- Contact From John Anglin
It was one of those mysteries that remained unsolved for years, until in a regular workday an incredible letter was received at the Police Department in San Francisco. “My name is John Anglin -the letter read- I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris”. Until then everybody had believed the official version of the story given by the police: three man attempted an escape from Alcatraz and died in the icy waters the same night. Is this what really happened in 1962? This letter seemed to have a totally different version to offer.
- The Letter That Changed Everything
The escape of the three inmates from Alcatraz kept the police in check for years. Decades after that night, a mysterious letter suddenly was changing the whole story, providing a new version of what really happened in 1962. One might wonder why a letter received in 2013, 50 years after the escape, should be trusted. What San Francisco Police Department received, had actually been written years before and had been kept under wraps for a long time. Nobody knows why this document had been left unopened and neglected for so many years, but undoubtedly the letter contained enough information to make the Federal Bureau of Investigations re-open the case in January. What was so important about the information written in this letter?
- The Unthinkable Escape
Until its closure in 1963, Alcatraz had been considered the toughest prison in the world. Inmates were living completely isolated from the outside world, as the building had been designed to host a maximum-security prison. This did not prevent prisoners to attempt an escape from time to time: they had constantly tried and failed to get off the island over the 29 years the prison was in service. No one could escape from there until 1962, when three inmates made the impossible possible and managed to break past the toughest security procedure of the time.
- The Plan
As much as simple, the escape plan was not easy to follow and required the coordination of an entire team to pull off. The three escapees were fearing that this would be another failed attempt, as it had happened many times before. In the past other inmates had tried to pull off their plans without success. Out of the people who tried the ambitious escape, 23 were caught, 6 were shot while trying to run out, two drowned and another two were classified as “missing or presumed drowned”.
- The Beginning.
The team who tried the incredible escape was made of four people: brothers John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Lee Morris and Allen West. During the time spent in the prison, the four inmates were neighbours and had cells near each other. They had all the time in the world to come up with an escape plan. John and Clarence Anglin first met Frank Lee Morris in a prison in Atlanta. They knew each other enough to organize the details of that big adventure and do the teamwork that was necessary to succeed.
- Frank Lee Morris
That was not the first time Frank Lee Morris tried to escape from prison. His childhood had been not lucky at all. He became an orphan when he was 11 years old and since then he had been hosted in several foster homes. Smart and very intelligent, he learned pretty soon how to take care of himself. However, he was very fast at losing his temper and making troubles. He was first convicted at the age of 13. Someone thought he was destined for great things, but this turned out to be true in an unexpected way. He did make history, but for being the ringleader of the group of people who escaped from Alcatraz.
- Prison was his second home
After serving prison in several American States, Frank Lee Morris ended up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Alcatraz of the South”. The prison was known to be a high security penitentiary, but Frank Lee Morris, who was serving a sentence of 10 years for bank robbery, managed to escape. The wanted man ran around for almost an year, before he got caught again while he was committing another robbery. He was sent back to prison, but this time to the most notorious prison of the world, Alcatraz.
- Building up a team
When he arrived at “The Rock”, as the Alcatraz prison was also known, he tried to build up a team. Behind the bars he met two brothers, named John and Clearance Anglin, and another man who went by the name Allen West. The Anglin brothers were from Georgia, but their family had moved to Florida for work. Their parents were seasonal farm workers and were always ready to move to wherever workers were needed. The Anglins had 13 children who were traveling with them during their journeys. Every June they travelled north for cherry-picking: that was a perfect time for the brothers to plan their escape from Alcatraz.
- Criminal Skills
John and Clarence grew up big and strong. When they were kids, they followed the family traveling north for cherry-picking. They often went as far north as Michigan. Here, in the lake Michigan, the brothers learned how to swim and they soon became very skilled at it. This would turn out to be very useful later on during their escape. As young men, John and Clarence became famous as bank robbers. After several crimes committed together, they were finally caught and arrested in 1956. And that was the beginning of a long career of robbery and imprisonment.
- The Group Forms
While serving their sentence at Atlanta Penitentiary, the Anglin brothers made several attempts to escape from the prison. This is why they were sent to Alcatraz, the maximum security prison. This is where they met Frank Lee Morris, who became the mastermind of the group. They shared the same long experience of attempts to escape prison. So did Allen West, another inmate who soon joined the group. Day by bay they made the most ambitious plan, in which no one had never succeeded before: escaping from the Rock.
- Collecting The Resources
Inside the Alcatraz prison there was also a factory where some inmates were allowed to work: at the Rock there was a substantial amount of resources to be had. In the factory prisoners made furniture, clothes and shoes for the US military forces. As they had been sentenced for non-violent crimes, the four would-be-escapees were not under control all the time. With so many prisoners to be watched, the guards paid less attention to this four.
- The Items
It was not easy to make an escape plan in Alcatraz and it took them a lot of time. You need to be smart and accurate to build a project like that. As well as escaping, they were also thinking about leaving behind human-like dummies. If they managed to get out for the prison, they would also need to figure out how to leave the island and avoid the guards. At that time prison guards were stricter than today: they would easily shoot you if you were caught running away from prison.
- The Decoys
Each member of the team had his own responsibility in the planning of the escape. Getting out of the cells is not the only challenge you have to face, when escaping a prison. The Anglin brothers had to make dummy heads to leave behind in the empty beds. They used soap wax, toilet paper and real human hair taken from the barber shop in Alcatraz. Morris was in charge of modifying an accordion-like instrument to inflate the raft and life vests, which would be used to leave the island.
- The Dig
One of the challenges they had to face was to make tools to dig out of their cells and unscrew bolts on the vents. Everyday items were used to make picks and wrenches: they had to steal spoons from the cafeteria and wood from the workshop. A long daily job started: from 5.30 pm until 9 pm, the four worked hard to chip away holes in the wall, big enough to crawl through. In order to make larger holes, they removed the vents in their cells.
- Alcatraz Deteriorating
At the time the inmates were planning the escape, Alcatraz was already an old building, crumbling down in many places. There were holes in several parts of the prison walls, into which salt water was running, after destroying the pipes. The salt water also managed to erode the cement and make it into crumbles. As the water available in prison was slightly warm, inmates were not used to the frigid temperatures of San Francisco Bay.
- The Noise
How did they manage to dig out holes in the walls, without anyone noticing? Did anyone hear the noise during that banging and chipping away? The truth is that everybody was listening to something else: in the early 1960’s prisoners were allowed to have a music hour, which created a loud and confused noise throughout the prison. This noise was loud enough to cover Frank Morris, while he was playing his accordion and chipping away the cement. Behind the cells there was a corridor with pipes going up and down. It is this corridor that the inmates were trying to reach.
- A Jungle Gym
That corridor was basically a jungle gym: all they had to do was making holes in their cells, big enough to go through them. Once reached the pipes, the prisoners would be able to climb up three floors to the roof. After reaching the top of the building, armed with a large shaft, they should then be able to get onto the roof. The majority of the shaft were cemented shut, but eventually they managed to find one that was not cemented and to use it and get it open.
- The Big Squeeze
In May 1962 Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers managed to break through the walls. They were tiny holes, but big enough for them to crawl through and reach the top of the building. Before the escape, they glued and stitched raincoats together in order to make the raft and the life vests. These items would be used to get off the island safely, without drowsing in the bay.
- The Signal
Out of the 4 escapees, everyone was ready but Allen West who was still digging the hole in the wall. They had agreed on the escape signal that would be made, as soon as everyone was ready. That signal finally came in June 1962 but what happened afterwards was not exactly what they had planned. The signal was given by Allen West on 11 June 1962, after he managed to dig a big hole in his cell’s wall. After that something went wrong.
- The Plan Sets Into Action
When the evening came and the lights went off, the 4 inmates started to get ready for their adventure. The main question each of them was asking himself was: would I make it out alive? The smell of freedom had kept them going for weeks and months. Now that freedom was few minutes away, they were even ready to risk their lives in order to escape form Alcatraz. The minute the lights went off, the tension was very high and they were more than ready to start the biggest challenge of their life.
- The Plan Goes Awry
Whereas the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris managed to get out of the cells quite easily, Allen West was struggling to find his way out. He thought that the hole was big enough, but the night of the escape he found out that this was actually not the case. No matter how hard Morris tried to help him out, the cement did not budge at all. At 9.30 pm Morris asked for West to pass him a glass of water. After that they had to make the hard choice: leave their friend behind and keep going.
- One Left Behind
This was not an easy decision for them to make, as they had been working together for months preparing for that day. However, the three inmates had not choice: if they had kept trying to make the hole bigger for West to go through, the noise would have grabbed the attention of the guards and that would have be the end of their adventure. Also, being three rather than four would make it easier to escape on the raft. The group of four became a threshold. They started the climb and they manage to go up 30 feet in the utility corridor.
The inmates managed to reach the cell house roof quite easily. They did not stop climbing and they crossed at least 100 feet of rooftop. After that the descent started: they went down 50 feet of piping on the side of the building to the ground. They set foot on the ground near the showers and then silently passed the area watched by the guards. None of the police officers saw them and they managed to reach the shore. The next thing to do now was inflating their raft and live vests, before facing the big challenge of crossing San Francisco Bay.
- The Alarm
That was the last day anyone saw Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers. It was around 11.30 pm when they jumped on their raft and left the island, not to be seen again. But the alarm was not lunched until the following morning, when the blaring sirens woke up all the inmates of Alcatraz. That was a big surprise to everybody, as no one could imagine what had actually happened the night before. Escaping form Alcatraz was considered impossible. But they had to change their mind after that night.
- Finally Out
Even though his mates left him behind, Allen West did not give up at all. He kept digging all night to enlarge the hole in his cell. And eventually he made it and managed to squeeze through. He reached the top of the roof and ran after the other three, but Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers had already gone. He had to make a decision: either plunge into the sea and try to escape by swimming or going back to his cell.
- Waiting ‘Til Morning
He eventually decided to return to his cell and wait until morning, when the escape was discovered. As soon as the alarm went on, every corner of the prison was searched in order to get hold of the escapees. Allen West decided to cooperate with authorities and revealed the plan he had been working on with the other three inmates. According to him, the destination of the escape was Angel Island, from where they wanted to steal a car, along with some clothes, and then continue the journey each on his own. It is hard to say whether or not what he told the authorities was true.
- The Issue
There was a problem with the story Allen West told the guards: within 2 weeks after the night of the escape, nobody had reported a car robbery in the area. So what happened to the escapees? Either they landed somewhere else by mistake or on purpose or they died during their journey on the raft. Allen West told the investigators that he was the mastermind of the plan and the escape had been his own idea. The Alcatraz authorities called in the FBI and they opened a formal investigation to find out whether the Anglin brothers and Frank Lee Morris were still alive.
- Freezing Waters
The whole area surrounding Alcatraz was searched and personal belongings of the three escapees were found floating in the bay waters. However, their bodies where nowhere to be found. As the temperature in San Francisco’s Bay goes down to 50 – 54 degrees, experts claimed that it was impossible for a human adult male to stay in such chilly waters for more than 20 minutes. After such period a body would start to deteriorate. Also, the escapees were not used to low temperatures at all, as in Alcatraz the water was intentionally kept at warm temperature.
- Calculating Currents
One month after the night of the escape, a body was seen about 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. The sighting of the corpse was reported by a Norwegian freighter, who claimed that the body was wearing clothing similar to the uniforms worn by Alcatraz prisoners. However, the corpse was not found, as the report was filed late. The investigations went on for years but without success, until the FBI closed the case on 31 December 1979: 17 years had passed by since the escape of the three inmates. The version of the authorities was that the inmates had drown in the San Francisco Bay while trying to reach the shore. But what came up years after would not match this conclusion at all.
- A Christmas Card re-opens the case
In 2015 a documentary was released by the History Channel, in which strong evidence was shown that the Anglin brothers escape had been accomplished successfully. Their family confirmed to receive Christmas cards the years following the escape. The handwriting was checked and found to be authentic, even though the date of delivery could not be determined. As a further proof, the family showed a picture of the two brothers, taken in Brazil in 1975. The photograph was analysed by experts who claimed that the people depicted in the picture were “more than likely” John and Clarence Anglin.
- Close Contact
There was also a witness who testified that the Anglin brothers had managed to escape alive from the Alcatraz prison. Robert, a sibling of the family, before dying confessed that he had been in touch with both brothers from 1963 to 1987, but had not had any news afterwards. As the escape from Alcatraz is still an open Interpol investigation, members of the Anglin family have been banned from searching for the missing sibling in Brazil. They would face a very hard punishment, should they be found.
- Where Has He Been?
The letter that popped up in 2013 was a shock for everybody. The sender claimed to be John Anglin and the content of the missive seemed to confirm the success of the inmates’ escape, but also denied some of the rumours spread throughout the years.“Yes, we all made it that night but barely!- reads the letter- I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer.” The sender also provided information about the other two escapees: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011”. The writer also provided details about where he had been living after the escape from the prison. “This is the real and honest truth – he also states in the letter – I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo, until 2003″. Parts of the letter were impossible to read, but a report by the BBC interpreted it to say that John Anglin had lived in Seattle for most years after he managed to escape from Alcatraz. But the real shocking information was still to come.
- California Dreamin’
At the end of the letter the sender says: “Living in Southern California now”. How could that be possible? Escaping from one of the toughest prison in the world and living most of your life a few hours away form San Francisco Bay. In the letter John Anglin claims to be in very bad health and was searching desperately for help. He even agreed to go to jail, in order to be helped. The sender also tried to negotiate a deal with law enforcement in a very unusual way. Read on to find out whether they agreed to the sender’s terms.
- Let’s Make A Deal
“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…”. These were the terms the sender of the letter offered the investigators. The letter was first under investigation, to establish the authenticity of it. Every single detail was analysed in order to get any sort of information.
- Time To Verify
The letter was taken very seriously by the law enforcement: the FBI examined the content very carefully in order to find any traces of DNA or fingerprints left on the paper. The handwriting was also checked accurately and compared to writing samples from all the three escapees. The results of these searched were inconclusive. This is what claimed KPIX, a local TV station in San Francisco: “The FBI’s response means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo in terms of the authenticity of the letter”.
- No Rest ‘Til 99
Before the letter showed up, the US Marshals Service had admitted the possibility that the three inmates might have survived after escaping from Alcatraz. However, after the letter was published in January 2018, a member of the Service, interviewed by The Washington Post, claimed that they did not believe the document to be authentic. He also assured the readers that “the Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it will do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99.” This was not in line with what the FBI declared when closing their investigation in 1979: “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.”
- U.S. Marshals Respond
The content of the letter was revealed publicly by the local CBS TV station in San Francisco: the name of the source, however, was never revealed. Replying to this letter, the US Marshals claimed: “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”. It is important to remember that the US Marshalls were the only ones who kept the case open and continued to investigate. Despite this, they were not able to provide a definite version about what happened to the three inmates that had escaped from Alcatraz.
- A Cold Case
The case also grabbed the attention of scientists: in 2014 a team of researchers, by taking into consideration time and temperatures of the day of the escape, came up with a conclusion. If the three escapees ran off around midnight, the water currents may have been favourable and dragged them safely on shore. In 2009 deputy US Marshal declared during an interview: “There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people,”. There was still a lot to be clarified about the destiny of the three people who managed to escape from Alcatraz.
- The Last Man On Alcatraz
There was still one version missing in this story, the point of view of the guards. Jim Albright, the last officer to leave Alcatraz, was interviewed by San Francisco’s local ABC affiliate ABC 7, in March 2018. That marked the 55th anniversary of the closure of Alcatraz prison. When asked whether he thought the inmates died during the escape or managed to survive, he replied: “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned, I really do”. Talking about the letter sent by John Anglin, the officer explains that this could have been written by someone trying to get treatment for his cancer and not the true escapee.
- The Escapees Today
The destiny of the three escapees, Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin is still a deep mystery. It is not clear whether or not they managed to survive the night they escaped form the Alcatraz prison. To this day we also don’t now if the law enforcement ever contacted the sender of the letter. If still alive, John Anglin would be 86 years old, Clarence Anglin 87 and Frank Morris 90. Regardless their age, they are still responsible for their crimes for at least another decade.