The Amazing True Story Of The Great Escape From Alcatraz
Located just off the shore of San Francisco, California, Alcatraz prison is known as one of the most dangerous prisons in the world. A remote island surrounded by shark-infested waters is the perfect place to keep the planet’s most dangerous group of criminals – where are they expected to go? It is on record that at least 36 prisoners died trying to escape.
Not a single person managed to get past the guards or choppy waters until June 1962, when three men escaped. The gruesome details of their escape were not completely known until January 2018 when the FBI was forced to re-open their investigation after receiving a letter. Read ahead to find out the true story.
The Impossible Task
Is there anything more daunting than being sent to Alcatraz? The maximum-security prison was planted on a remote island as a way to keep the most dangerous and scary people on the planet. It became the home of America’s most seasoned criminal masterminds and violent thugs.
It seems amazing that three people could escape – let alone survive the swim to the coast. Official documents stated the three men died during their swim – but a new letter has forced a new investigation to take place.
Frank Lee Morris
The mastermind of the escape was a man called Frank Lee Morris. A true criminal, he was skilled, smart, and ingenious. He learned the hard way how to look after himself early in life after being orphaned at the age of 11. A turbulent childhood like his is not without its problems – he was a troublemaker who was first convicted of a crime at just 13 years old.
It is true that he was destined for great things with a mind like his, but destiny was not on his side. Instead of famous he became infamous – as the ringleader of the Great Escape from Alcatraz!
Not His First Rodeo
After a string of small offenses as a teenager, Frank Lee Morris served in prison in different penitentiaries around the country. He was moved from place to place until he arrived at Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is often nicknamed ‘Alcatraz of the South’.
While serving a 10-year sentence for a bank robbery, Lee Morris managed to escape. He could have considered it a practice round: after a whole year of trying to outrun the law enforcement, he was eventually caught and sent to the famous Alcatraz – where our story will continue.
After being sent to Alcatraz, also known as ‘The Rock’, Frank Lee Morris found two men – a set of brothers – that would ultimately join his team to escape. The brothers were called John and Clarence Anglin, and together with a man named Allen West the four of them joined forces.
The brothers were originally from Georgia but moved to Florida for work, while their parents followed. Their childhood was a nice one – every summer the four of them would even go cherry picking.
A Brothers’ Bond
John and Clarance Anglin were thick as thieves (pardon the pun) while they were growing up. As a cherry-picking family, they would often travel as far as Michigan to catch the delightful treats. While traveling, their bond would grow stronger as they swam in the lakes of Michigan, something to come in handy later.
However, they also had a darker side to them and were caught for bank robbery in 1956. Their arrest was far from the end for the brothers, however, as this story will tell you.
Before Frank Lee Morris
Before landing on ‘The Rock’ with the other members, the Anglin brothers had attempted to escape from Atlanta Penitentiary several times, without much success. Their continued rebellion got them sent to Alcatraz, which is where they met their other team-players.
After meeting up, the four of them attempted the plots of all plots – escaping from the most secure prison in the world. Together, the group had an impressive amount of experience in how to twist and turn their way around the guards and escape from their cells.
The plan in itself was simple: get out the cell and swim to shore. However, the practice would be deemed nearly impossible. As we mentioned, 36 prisoners had previously died while trying to accomplish the exact same feat – why would this be any different?
They would need to gather all their experience and knowledge, building an incredible amount of trust between them, to pull this off. They knew the odds were against them, with other prisoners calling them crazy. However, the line between crazy and genius is a thin one – one they were walking along nicely.
Coincidentally, all four prisoners had served in Atlanta Penitentiary before arriving at Alcatraz, which might explain how they quickly trusted each other to execute the plan. Either they considered themselves ‘home friends’, or there’s a chance they even knew each other from before their departure to California.
The four men all were placed in cells near each other had had nothing but time to plot their famous escape. It required all the resources and brainpower they could muster to pull it off.
Collecting The Equipment
How do you gather resources when you are stuck in your cell all day? Well, luckily for them, the prison also doubled as a factory. Prisoners could earn a ‘living’ by working on things for the US military, making furniture, clothes or shoes.
This gave them access to a substantial amount of resources that imaginative and intelligent people could use for an escape! Since the four of them were sent to Alcatraz for non-violent crimes, they managed to stay relatively under the radar from guards.
The four of them slowly started to put their plan into motion. Let’s give credit where credit is due: it required a lot of patience, skill, and intelligence to quietly collect the necessary resources for the plan they hatched up.
They knew that their absence would be felt once they departed their cell, so they worked on making life-sized dummies of themselves to keep in the bed once they left! They also needed a way to get off the island once they left their cell. The guards in those days were not as nice as they are today – they would have been killed on the spot.
Each member of the escape group had their own tasks to make sure the plot was successful. For example, the Anglin brothers were responsible for making the dummy heads for all four of the prisoners, while Frank Lee Morris was in charge of other tasks.
The heads were made out of soap wax, toilet paper, and real hair from the barbershop on site! Morris spent his time focussing on making an instrument that would inflate like a raft and life vest. They had all the parts in motion to make a succesful plot.
Each night, from about 5:30 pm to 9 pm, they had to physically chip away at the rock in their cell to access the ventilation system. When no one was looking, they would remove the grate from their room and chip away at it using stolen spoons or pieces of wood from when they worked during the day.
This would be the longest part of the plan since it would take weeks and months to subtly chip away, and remove, the rock they would pick for many hours each day.
The Good News
Lucky for them, Alcatraz was already considered old and crumbling, even in the 1960s. Saltwater would run through the pipes when prisoners showered and washed dishes, which over time would destroy the pipes. It also leaked into the walls which would soften them.
Thankfully, they knew this and organized when and where to chip away in the right places. Over time, it became easy for them to chip at the weaker parts and erode the hardened building. Prisons definitely aren’t like this today!
How did they get away with all the noise of the banging? Due to prison reform laws in the 1960s, prisoners were allowed to hold music hours in their cells each day. Using this to their advantage, Frank Lee Morris would loudly play his accordion each night to channel out any noise caused by the chipping.
Each night he would play louder and louder, as his group chipped deeper and deeper. It must have been annoying for all the other inmates, but it was probably the last thing on their mind! On the other side of the wall, there was an unguarded corridor with running pipes up and down.
The utility corridor behind the cells was basically an unprotected playground for the inmates. Once they eroded enough of the brick in their cell, while also making it wide enough to climb through, they would then have access to the area in which to climb up to the top.
Upon climbing up the three flights to the top of the roof, they would pray for the next steps. Once on the top of the building, they would have to open one of the shafts to access the roof. After finding one not cemented over, they started their planning.
The Tight Squeeze
It was May 1962 when the Anglin brothers, along with Frank Lee Morris, were ready to break through the walls in the cells. After months of chipping away, the holes were barely large enough to fit through, but it’s all they needed to get started.
They made their raft and life vests by stitching and gluing different raincoats together. By the time their plan was complete, they used 50 raincoats to make the items they needed. Every single one was necessary otherwise they would drown on the waters.
The Magic Signal
Now that three of the four men were all but ready, the gang still needed to wait for Allen West, who had not yet finished his hole in his cell yet. The walls were harder on his end and he was having some trouble catching up.
By June, two months later, he was finally ready. He gave the signal to the others to state that he was ready, but something happened that could have thrown the entire plan into chaos.
Ready, Set, Go!
Now that everyone was ready, the holes were cut, the hatch at the top was found, it was time to execute the plan. Would it work the way they wanted it to? No one had ever survived an escape from Alcatraz: they were about to be the first or they would join a long line of failed prisoners who no longer lived to tell the tale.
A life in Alcatraz wasn’t much better than death, so they took a gamble on their lives and prepared for the adventure ahead. Packed with resources and adrenaline, they set their decoys into place and got ready to go.
The First Hurdle
While Morris and the brothers escaped their holes fairly easily, it was Allen who was having trouble. He had claimed he had reached the right size, but it appears that he had misjudged. After months of waiting for him to finish the hole, the three of them got impatient.
After trying to help him for hours, they decided he would have to be left behind. Imagine all that work and all that preparation just to be left behind by the others? Did he just have his life saved, or doomed?
It must have been hard for the three remaining prisoners to leave one of their soldiers behind. It was the first of many challenges for the team. Without West, the raft was now one person lighter and the remaining three had a higher chance of surviving the journey on the water.
After deciding to leave him behind, the brothers and Morris start their climb up the 30 feet of plumbing to reach the roof with the available latch that wasn’t cemented shut. Was it still free?
Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers made it to the cell house roof pretty easily, considering the climb to the top. Adrenaline had kicked in full force while they reached the top, a whopping 100 feet. They were determined to keep going – if they fell to their death now it would have all been for nothing.
Slowly, they started their descent on the other side of the piping on the outside of the building. They landed by the shower area and bypassed the guards. Once they hit the coast they would need to stop to inflate their raft.
Sounding The Alarm
It was the last time anyone heard from Frank Lee Morris or John and Clarance Anglin ever again. It is estimated that they set off into the waters at around 11:30pm that night. By the morning, alarms were sounding throughout the island after discovering the decoys that were left in their place the night before.
Prisoners couldn’t believe it: had three people just successfully escaped off ‘The Rock’? It had never been done before, and no one knew if the three of them had even made it out alive or if they had drowned.
Playing Catch Up!
Hearing how the three of the men were successful, Allen West was inspired to join his friends. Once his hole was big enough he climbed through to meet his friends on the other side of the coast. However, he didn’t have a raft to ride along the water.
He got to the coast and had to decide whether or not to swim, and risk death, or return to his cell. Can you imagine being so close to freedom and yet so far away at the same time?
Allen West decided that he would return to his cell. It wasn’t worth the risk of certain death for him. They were gone – who would he have for support? In the following days after the escape, West confessed everything to the guards, and it’s how we know of their tale today.
According to him, the plan was to reach Angel Island, steal some clothes and a car, and each go their separate ways. Did the guards believe his amazing tale?
For the next 12 days, police in San Francisco were on high alert for three men who were planning on stealing a car. Their tip from Allen West seemed to be meaningless, however, since no car theft cases were ever reported in the area.
Had the men failed to reach the coast alive, or was this a story used as a decoy to trick the armed forces on the other side? It was all becoming confusing for the guards who were embarrassed to see their own prisoners escape.
The Freezing Ocean
No bodies were ever found in the water which suggests that the men made it to the other side successfully. There were a few personal items that matched the items from Alcatraz, but not ant bodies.
The chances of the escapees surviving such a journey were extremely rare: human bodies can only survive in freezing waters for around 20 minutes before they shut down completely. Since they only ever showered in warm water on the island, they would not have been used to the cold water.
After 17 years, the FBI officially closed the case in 1979. They assumed that the inmates most likely drowned in the waters around the San Francisco Bay – even though no bodies were ever found there were no signs they made it to the shore, either.
However, US Marshals are still keeping an eye out to this day. The Deputy Marshal told NPR back in 2009 that “there’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.” Nothing was ever found.
The ‘Current’ System
Approximately one month after the escape, a freighter reported that he saw a body 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. He claims that the body was wearing similar clothes to that of the Alcatraz inmates. But the report was delayed and the body was never actually seen. Was this a false flag designed to act as a deterrent?
In 2014, a group of researchers determined that that the currents at midnight would most likely act in favor for the inmates and that they would have survived.
Home For Christmas
A documentary on the History Channel that was broadcast in 2015 highlights further evidence of the Anglin Brothers’ survival. Their family had received a Christmas card with matching handwriting from the brothers.
Also, there is a photo from 1975 of two men in Brazil, who forensic experts largely agree to show the brothers. Amazingly, it is likely that they managed to travel all the way to Brazil unnoticed and continue to live out their lives safely and away from American police.
One Last Confession
There is another piece of strong evidence to suggest that the Anglin brothers survived. On his deathbed, their brother, Robert, confessed that he had been in contact with both brothers between 1963-1987 but had eventually lost contact with them.
Other members of their family had decided not to search for the brothers since there was an open Interpol investigation and their discovery would lead to their arrest and capture. The punishment would be severe, no doubt – why would they want that?
The Letter To Change Everything
In January 2018, it was revealed that the San Francisco Police Department received a letter in 2013 claiming to be from John Anglin. The FBI formally reopened the case and have been determined to find at least one of the three members of the escape group.
It is unknown why the FBI did not receive the knowledge of the letter until five years after it was sent – leading to even more mysteries that surround the case. Regardless, the information in it was shocking even for the biggest skeptics of the crime story.
One Last Confession?
The letter shares intimate details about the escape and the whereabouts of the prisoners. It explains that “my name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer…
…Yes, we all made it that night but barely!… Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” So, where did John say he was living in 2013?
Where Had He Lived?
Later in the letter, the writer who claimed to be John Anglin revealed where he had been living in the years following the escape. He writes: “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 [North Dakota]”.
The BBC analyzed some of the parts of the letter that was illegible and believes that he lived in Seattle, Washington “for most of my years” following the escape.
Amazingly, the letter claims that he was now living in Southern California – only a few miles from where he escaped! Could it be that one of the masterminds behind one of the biggest escapes in history was so close?
He explained that he was in very poor health and was asking for help. He tried to negotiate a way to get help, even if it meant going back to jail for his final years. Would law enforcement agree to such bizarre terms?
Making A Deal
The end of the letter simply stated: “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…”
However, before they agreed to any terms set out by the letter, law enforcement had to run forensic tests to determine whether this was the real John. Why would a random old man seek reentry into prison in his final days? They tried to get any information they could get.
A Desire For Verification
The FBI carefully examined the letter for any amount of DNA that might be left on it. They looked at the handwriting to see if it matched any previous letters or if there were fingerprints on it. By this time, the story was hitting the news.
CBS local station KPIX published the letter reported that all studies of the letter were inconclusive. Experts couldn’t agree whether the FBI’s response meant that they actually had results or not – so no one knows if it was true!
According to the US Marshal Service, it is possible that the men survived after the escape even though there is no firm evidence. However, their official statement says that they do not believe the letter is legitimate.
Apparently, the investigation will remain open until either they are proven to be dead or until they reach the age of 99. That way, they won’t be looking for someone who has most likely already died. To this day, there remains ‘no credible evidence’ that the men were still alive.
Hearing From The Guards
In March of 2018, a man named Jim Albright gave a revealing interview on ABC7 that sheds some light on the events. He was one of the guards at Alcatraz at the time, and 55 years after the event, he spoke to the news. He believes they drowned in the water and never made it to San Francisco.
“It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned, I really do.” He goes on to suggest that the letter was written by a desperate man seeking cancer treatment.
Even to this day, no one knows if the three men made it out alive. No evidence on either side of the argument has been strong enough to support the idea that they either lived or died. Either way, if all men survived and lived to today, they would be 86, 87, and 90 years old respectively.
They appear to have lived (if they did!) for a maximum of 55 years after their escape, meaning they had the potential to live out more than half their lives as free men, albeit on the run. What do you think happened?