The Great Alcatraz Mystery

The island of Alcatraz seen from San Francisco Bay.

In 1962, three men made a prison break from one of the most famous maximum-security prisons in the United States. (Image: Maciej Bledowski via Dreamstime)

Let’s talk about the most famous prison break from the most notorious maximum-security prison in the United States. The prison is located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, California. The island only has an area of 22 acres (9 hectares) and has very steep cliffs on all sides cutting into the ocean. It is surrounded by deep waters and located around one and a half miles (2.4 km) from the nearest shore. 

Due to isolation created by the cold, strong currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house soldiers convicted of crimes as early as 1859. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 176 civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison.

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In 1934, it was decided to turn the island into a federal prison designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons on the mainland of the United States. At 9:40 am on August 11, 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. They were escorted to the island while handcuffed in high-security coaches and guarded by 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals, and railway security officials.

Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers, some with sentencings of a few hundred years. Soon the island became known as the “Devil’s Island.”

During the 29 years it was in use, the prison held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including gangsters such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud who made his name as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Bumpy Johnson, as well as many other convicted criminals who were very good at breaking out of jails. So someone like Michael Scofield from the American television series Prison Break would have fit right into the profile of prisoners incarcerated at Alcatraz. 

Display on a concrete wall under a window covered in bars showing mugshots of notorious criminals housed at Alcatraz.
During the 29 years it was in use, the Alcatraz prison held some of the most notorious criminals in American history. (Image: RightFramePhotoVideo via Dreamstime)

The entire prison had 336 cells, none of which were connected to the outer walls, hence, there were no windows that could look outside. All barricades and doors inside the prison had special reinforcements so you could not pry them open with ordinary tools. Pipes connecting to the outside were plugged with cement and the prison was surrounded by guard towers with guns aimed at the prison. All guardhouses were surrounded by an iron fence and inaccessible from the outside. The prisoner’s dining room had tear gas spray built into the ceiling in the case of any riots.

Although the prison was maximum security, the occupancy rate was quite low hence it was guaranteed there would be one room for each prisoner with exceptionally good food thanks to the prison’s first warden James Johnston, otherwise known as “iron man.” Johnston believed that the main reason for riots and disorderly behavior amongst prisoners was due to the quality of the food. Just like you and me, we get grumpy when hungry. Therefore, the food was extremely delicious, plentiful, and nutritious.

The prison was also equipped with a collection of 15,000 books as well as musical instruments. Prisoners could enjoy music, painting, and if they behaved, they were allowed to watch a movie once a month. Basically, the prisoners lived a very comfortable life inside, so much so that some ordinary prisoners tried to apply for transfers to this prison. 

The geological location of the island made it almost impossible to escape, or so many thought. Since the time the prison was built, there were over 30 escape attempts. Twenty-three of those attempting to escape were caught, six were shot, and two drowned. But in 1962, that is, about 60 years ago, three people are thought to have successfully escaped from this prison. Actually, it’s more like they vanished from the prison and were never seen again. In fact, there were four people who planned to escape together, but one of them never made it out. These four people were Frank Morris, brothers John and Clarence Anglin, and Allen West. 

The old Guard Tower on Alcatraz Penitentiary island.
Since the time the Alcatraz prison was built, there were over 30 escape attempts. (Image: F8grapher via Dreamstime)

Let’s briefly introduce these four men. Frank Morris was particularly smart. He was abandoned by his parents who could not control him at the age of 11. He became known to law enforcement when he was 13 years old and was arrested for possession of drugs and firearms. Later, he was arrested for car theft and sentenced to 10 years for bank robbery. He escaped while serving his sentence and was arrested again for burglary. Finally, he was sent to Alcatraz. Morris had a high IQ of 133, which ranked him in the top 2 percent of the general population in intelligence.

The Anglin brothers were the children of farmers and aged only a year apart. The brothers were very good swimmers and amazed their family by being able to swim in waters at almost freezing temperatures. Not satisfied with farming, they began to dabble in crime from a young age. When they were 27 and 28 years old, they were arrested for robbing a bank, and one was sentenced to 15 years and the other 20 years. The two men were also sent to Alcatraz because they tried to escape from prison several times.

Finally, Allen West. West started to commit crimes from the age of 16 and had been arrested 20 times by the age of 28. So most of his life was spent in prison and also due to an escape attempt, he was sent to Alcatraz. 

The four men became acquainted with each other during a previous incarceration and at Alcatraz, they happened to be placed in adjacent cells. In December 1961, they began to plan one of the most intricate escapes of all time.

Of course, the oldest of the group and smartest was Frank Morris who became the mastermind behind the escape plan. First, the four men spent about six months in prison collecting and preparing tools and materials. These included glue, spoons, soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, hair from the barbershop, towels, raincoats, and vacuum cleaners. These seem like everyday household items, but you will be surprised to hear how they were used.

Using over 50 raincoats they stole from the prison, the inmates made four life jackets and a raft to assist with swimming as well as waterproof bags for personal belongings. The raincoats were cut up and glued together and heat was used to seal certain places. The raft was 14 feet long by 6 feet wide and fit four people. It was incredible such a large-sized object was not discovered by prison guards during this time.

A compartment on a boat with the word 'Lifejackets' painted in big black letters.
The inmates used raincoats they stole from the Alcatraz prison to make life jackets. (Image: Wendy Vote via Dreamstime)

A raft this size would be difficult to pump up, so what did they do? You may remember we mentioned earlier in the video that the men were allowed musical instruments if they behaved well. Morris took a concertina (an accordion-like instrument) which he later used as an air pump to inflate the raft.

And where did they get the idea to build a raft from raincoats? It was from a magazine in the prison library on survival in the wilderness. The article talked about survival methods using raincoats as floatation devices in the event you are trapped in floodwaters. Naturally, the men associated this with the raft idea. They also collected wooden boards to make oars for paddling. So all equipment was now ready.

Next, they started to dig a passage out of the cells. It wasn’t easy because the walls were all cement, so it would be impossible to do manually. Cleverly, the men used a metal spoon plugged into the vacuum motor which was made into a makeshift drill used to enlarge the vent under the sink. The men also made false vent and wall segments to conceal their work. The vents actually led to a utility corridor that had locked steel doors at either end.

They did the drilling during the daily music practice period so that the vacuum motor noise could be covered by the music. This was quite different from the movie Shawshank Redemption where the passageway took the prisoner many years to dig. For the Alcatraz men, it only took a few minutes each day as it was simply enlarging the vents in each of the four rooms.

The four men also made very realistic-looking dummy heads using soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, toilet paper, and human hair. Paint was used from the maintenance shop to make the faces seem realistic. The heads were placed in the beds together with towels and clothing placed under the blankets so it seemed that they were sleeping in their bunks. This way the men would not be missed during nighttime patrols of the cells.

On June 11, 1962, the night of the escape, the men climbed out of their respective vents. Morris had the raft which of course was not pumped up yet. Out of the four men, only Allen West did not make it out of his cell. Earlier when he was enlarging the vent with the makeshift drill he made it too big. Fearing being discovered, he used cement to conceal the area.

The interior of the prison on Alcatraz Island showing the prison cells.
Out of the four men, only Allen West did not make it out of his cell. (Image: Moreno Novello via Dreamstime)

However, on the night of the escape, West discovered that the cement had hardened. It was the middle of the night so he could not use the “drill” to dig through hence he had to dig manually. It took him a few hours and by the time he was done, the other 3 men had left without him. West then went back to sleep in his cell. 

The three men climbed the utility pipes to the top of the cellblock and gained access to the roof through an air vent. Guards reported hearing a loud crash as they broke out of the air vent, but nothing further was heard, and the source of the noise was not investigated.

They then climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cell house and made their way to the water. It is believed they left from the northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster building, a blind spot in the prison’s network of searchlights and gun towers. The inmates inflated the raft and headed out to the ocean in the direction of Angel Island two miles to the north.

Back at the prison, the inmates were not discovered missing until the next morning during roll call in front of their cells. When it was discovered the three inmates had not come out of their cells, the guards went in and touched their heads with the baton. The fake head fell out of the bunk and gave them a huge fright! An island-wide search was called 

Allen West fully cooperated with the investigation and was therefore not charged for his role in the escape plan. Multiple military and law-enforcement agencies conducted an extensive air, sea, and land search over the next 10 days. They discovered a wooden makeshift oar, the same one as West had in his cell; two life vests – one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate; personal letters, photos, and contact details of relatives in a waterproof bag belonging to the Anglin brothers; and shreds of raincoat from remnants of the raft.

Even though it was summer, the water in San Francisco Bay was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit on the night of their escape. Coupled with strong winds and currents, the authorities believed the men most likely succumbed to hypothermia and drowned in the cold waters. However, none of their bodies were ever discovered. 

Alcatraz island seen from the San Francisco Bay bridge at night.
Even though it was summer, the water in San Francisco Bay was around 50°F on the night of the escape. (Image: Celso Diniz via Dreamstime)

One month after the escape, a Norwegian ship passing through the waters discovered a floating body with a blue prison-like uniform about half a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. They saw it from afar, but only reported it to the police in October. The authorities theorized it may have been Frank Morris as the brothers would have helped each other out and if they drowned at sea, their bodies would probably be discovered close distance to each other. Wanted Posters of the men were issued all over the United States and the police received lots of information and tip-offs of look-alikes, but none were of the three missing inmates.

According to the final FBI report, inmate Allen West said that they had planned to steal clothes and a car upon reaching land. Later reports revealed that a blue Chevrolet was indeed stolen from the vicinity after the escape and appeared in Oklahoma, Indiana, Ohio, and South Carolina, where, three months after the escape, three men matching the escapees’ description attempted to acquire a residence in the woods. 

Six months later, another two inmates attempted to escape: John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker. Both worked in the cafeteria due to good performance. They bent the bars of a kitchen window in the cell house basement, climbed out, and made their way down to the water. They did not have any boats or floatation devices. Scott simply had two blown-up rubber gloves. He attempted to swim towards San Francisco, but the currents began pulling him out to sea. He was found with hypothermia by several teenagers on the rocks near Fort Point.

Meanwhile, Darl Lee Parker broke his foot while jumping off the cliff but managed to swim a short distance to a small rock formation not far from the island.

Actually, one of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no “man-eating” sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The main obstacles were the cold water temperature, the strong currents, and the distance to shore.

A great white shark surfacing from the water showing open jaws and teeth.
One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. (Image: Elizabeth Hoffmann via Dreamstime)

A number of children have managed to cross the waters and the fitness guru Jack LaLanne once swam to the island pulling a rowboat. So it would not have been impossible for the three inmates, Morris and the Anglin brothers, to make it to the other side. It is worth noting that the Anglin brothers were extremely fit and were champion swimmers from a young age.  

Supposed letter from Alcatraz escapee John Anglin

So for the next 50 years, things fell quiet and no progress was made with the three escapees from Alcatraz. Then, in 2013, the FBI received a mysterious letter from someone claiming to be John Anglin. The letter read: “My name is John Anglin. I escape from Alcatraz in June 1962. Yes, we all made it that night, but barely!” 

The author says Clarence Anglin died in 2008 and that Morris died in 2005. The writer tries to make a deal with the police, saying: “If you announce on TV that I will be promised to just 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. I am 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer.”

According to the letter, John Anglin lived in Seattle for most of his life and spent eight years in North Dakota. At the time the letter was sent he was reportedly living in southern California. The letter was given to San Francisco television station KPIX from an unnamed source. The letter was submitted to the FBI laboratory for forensic handwriting analysis. The handwriting samples of all three escapees, John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris, were compared to the anonymous letter, but the results were deemed “inconclusive.”

In 2015 the nephews of the Anglin brothers told the History Channel that the two brothers successfully escaped from Alcatraz in 1962 and did not drown as the FBI said they did. They gave the documentary a photograph that they claim proves John and Clarence Anglin were living on a farm in Brazil in 1975 and could still be alive today. 

The photo that the nephews handed over shows two men, with a striking resemblance to the Anglin brothers, standing next to a rock by the side of a road. The image was said to have been taken by Anglin family friend Fred Brizzi who bumped into John in a bar in Rio De Janeiro.

Map of Brazil with a yellow pin stuck in Rio de Janeiro.
A photo said to be of the Anglin brothers shows two men standing by the side of a road in Rio de Janeiro. (Image: Steve Mann via Dreamstime)

The picture was looked over by forensic examiner, Michael Streed, who analyzed the facial structures and compared them to two images of the escapees. He then passed on his findings to Art Roderick, a retired U.S. Marshall investigator who had been in charge of the probe into the men’s disappearance. Roderick told the Anglin family that it was “very likely” that the two men in the picture were John and Clarence Anglin. 

If it is true, this would be the only successful prison escape in the history of Alcatraz. Tidal experts now say the only way the brothers would have made it out of Alcatraz alive is if they started paddling in their makeshift raft in the waters between 11 p.m. and midnight during which tidal conditions and the wind give the highest chance of survival on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

The family friend, Fred Brizzi, claimed the brothers told him that they were towed behind a ferry. Investigators checked that the last ferry left just after midnight on the night of their escape. It is speculated they could have used the 120 feet of electrical wire that was reported missing from the dock to attach themselves to the rudder. There were also magazines found in their cells that guided them on mechanics and showed them how boats leave slips.

This theory is also backed up by a witness, Officer Robert Checchi, who was having a cigarette at a yacht club overlooking the Bay after his shift in Alcatraz. He looked out over the water after midnight and saw a white boat with no fishing rods or sails laying still for around 30 minutes. All of a sudden, it started moving toward the Golden Gate Bridge. The FBI discounted his account at the time, as they firmly believed the three men never made it to shore.

The Anglin brother’s nephew also said that over the years, his mother would receive Christmas cards the brothers sent to the Anglin’s family home in Florida and she continued to receive those for three years after the escape. The fate of Frank Morris remains unknown.

The FBI later revealed that in 1965, they received a lead that Clarence Anglin was living in Brazil, but they didn’t find any evidence when they sent agents to South America. Before the death of the Anglin brothers’ father in 2010, he reportedly told family members that he had been in touch with his sons from 1963 to 1987 at which point he lost contact. 

So there are many leads showing it is possible the inmates escaped successfully. There are two important factors. One is that the escapees had intricate planning, from the raft to the dummy heads, that showed their smart thinking and high IQs. Is it possible they shredded the raft on purpose? You can’t really carry a raft up the shore, can you?

Further, throwing away their personal items could also have been part of the plan to throw the police off their case, thinking that they drowned at sea. The second important factor is that the inmates were well fed so they had plenty of energy to carry out the swim. If the inmates were alive today, they would be around 90, 91, and 94 years old respectively. According to U.S. law, fugitives will continue to be hunted down until they are 99 years old or proven deceased.

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