Alcatraz, nicknamed ‘The Rock’, is a notoriously harsh former prison house situated on an island off San Francisco’s coast. Although the site had been a US military base since 1853, 90 years ago on 1 January 1934, the US government made the site a Federal prison. During this time, Alcatraz held some of America’s most infamous criminals, including the gangsters Al Capone, Robert Stroud and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
Surrounded by treacherous waters, outfitted with the latest security technology, and strictly managed, Alcatraz was deemed ‘escape-proof’. During its 29 years in operation, there were 14 recorded escape attempts involving 36 inmates, yet no successful escapes have ever been officially confirmed. Among the attempts, 23 inmates were captured, 7 were fatally shot as they fled, and at least 3 drowned.
However, one escape attempt resulted in the disappearance of escapees Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin. Presumed drowned, their bodies were never recovered, leaving their fate shrouded in mystery. Amidst such tight security, how did these men break out of Alcatraz, and is there a chance they’re still on the run?
The men involved
Following its designation as a Federal prison, Alcatraz was reinforced with tougher iron bars, and a series of strategically positioned guard towers. Along with strict rules on inmates behaviour which included multiple checks each day of the prisoners, it was the ultimate maximum security prison.
Frank Morris, a convict with a history of bank robbery, burglary, and repeated prison escapes, arrived at Alcatraz in January 1960. Later that year he was joined by John Anglin, followed by John’s brother Clarence in early 1961. Their fellow inmate, Allen West, had been incarcerated at Alcatraz since 1957.
The 4 men knew each other well from prior incarcerations. Assigned to adjoining cells, the men spoke at night and began hatching an escape plan, with Morris, known for his intellect, taking the lead in the planning.
On 12 June 1962, a routine morning bed check revealed that three prisoners were no longer in their cells. Instead, each cell contained a dummy papier-mâché head, which had deceived the night guards into thinking the prisoners were in their beds. Upon the discovery, Alcatraz immediately went into lockdown, and an intensive search was launched.
The FBI were called into help, leveraging their nationwide offices to review their records of the missing prisoners and provide any information on their previous escape attempts (all three had made them before). They also interviewed the prisoners’ relatives, and advised nearby boat operators to lookout for debris. The next morning, sailors on a merchant freighter reported seeing a body floating in the bay, yet this slipped beneath the waves before it could be recovered.
On 14 June, a packet of letters related to the men sealed in rubber was recovered, and the Coast Guard found some paddle-like pieces of wood floating in the water.
Six days later, bits of rubber inner-tube washed-up on the shore near the Golden Gate Bridge, and the next day a homemade life-vest was also discovered near Cronkhite Beach. Over the next 10 days, the land, air, and sea surrounding Alcatraz and beyond were extensively searched – to no avail.
How did they escape?
With the aid of the Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others – including inmate Allen West, who had not made it out of his cell in time to join the escapees – the FBI gradually pieced together the intricate escape plot.
Reportedly, the men had begun planning their escape the preceding December after stumbling upon discarded saw blades from the prison workshops and metal spoons from the dining hall. Using these to craft a makeshift drill from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner, they carefully loosened the air vents under their sinks, concealing the drilled holes with painted cardboard. (To hide the noise they made drilling, Morris played his accordion during music hour – an hour each day when music was piped into the prison to calm the prisoners.
Behind the cells lay an unguarded utility corridor, which they accessed, eventually reaching the roof of their cell block. The men crafted papier-mâché versions of their heads (made from toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, along with flesh-tone paint from the maintenance workshop and real human hair collected from the floor of the prison barbershop), and stuffed clothes and towels under their blankets, to fool guards into thinking they were asleep in their beds when instead they were on the roof, secretly building and hiding the tools needed for their escape.
Their months of undetected labour included crafting over 50 prison-issued World War Two-era raincoats (made from cotton with rubber backing) into makeshift life-jackets and a rubber raft, with its seams stitched together and sealed by the prison’s hot steam pipes. They also constructed wooden paddles and repurposed a concertina stolen from another inmate to inflate their raft.
Using a network of pipes, they were able to climb to the ceiling (approx 9 metres high) and pry open the ventilator at the top of the shaft, temporarily securing it by fashioning a fake bolt from soap.
On the evening of 11 June 1962, their raft was ready and they initiated their plan. Allen West was thwarted when discovering the loose cement used to reinforce the concrete surrounding his vent had hardened, preventing his escape. However, the three others squeezed through their cell’s vents, got into the utility corridor, collected their equipment, and crawled up the ventilator pipes to the prison roof.
From there, they slid down the bakery smokestack pipe at the back of the cell house, scaled two 12-foot barbed wire fences, and stealthily made their way to the island’s northeast shore where searchlights couldn’t pick them out. From there, they launched their raft into the Pacific Ocean – all undetected by the prison’s security system.
What officially happened?
What happened to the escapees remains a mystery. They had planned to reach Angel Island, then cross the Raccoon Strait into Marin County, yet the FBI’s investigation concluded that it was unlikely they made it.
Whilst some believed the men could have survived, the FBI claimed that the strong currents and cold Bay water stacked the odds against them, especially when pieces of raft and paddles washed up near Angel Island which they claimed indicated the men had drowned or died of hypothermia.
Inmate West had revealed the men’s plan was to steal clothes and a car once making it to land, yet seemingly no matching thefts were uncovered. The men’s families lacked the financial means to support the men, and over 17 years, no credible evidence emerged suggesting the men were still alive. Surveillance never detected them in their hometowns or at family gatherings.
The FBI officially closed the case on 31 December 1979, transferring it to the US Marshal Service, who vowed to continue the investigation until 2030, when all the men would be over 100 years old.
Why do some think the escapees actually made it?
Since the escape, doubts persist regarding the FBI’s claim of the escapee’s deaths. No bodies were recovered from the Bay, and the US Marshals Service suggested the raft and paddle might have been found on Angel Island itself, with footsteps leading away. Furthermore, a stolen car matched descriptions of a vehicle taken by 3 men in Marin County, who reportedly almost caused a collision that night.
Over 50 years later, the Anglin family also provided evidence the men might have survived. Clarence and John Anglin’s mother had apparently received Christmas cards and postcards signed by them for 3 years after the escape, along with a bunch of flowers sent to her anonymously every year until her death in 1973. At her funeral, two very tall men in heavy makeup were believed by family to be Clarence and John in disguise.
Numerous investigations followed tips, including a 1975 photo by a childhood friend, claiming to depict the Anglin brothers at a bar in Brazil. An analyst hired by the Anglin family verified the photograph’s legitimacy, although the FBI did not.
In 1989, Robert Anglin (brother to Clarence and John) claimed two men turned up to view the body of his dead father, wept, and left. That same year, two women claimed to have seen them on a farm in Florida, although no trace was found.
Someone claiming to be John Anglin wrote a letter to San Francisco’s police department in 2018, declaring that all three prisoners had survived their escape, but that he was the only one still alive, and would hand himself in in return for medical treatment. The FBI doubt the letter is real following inconclusive handwriting analysis, and never heard from him again.
In June 2022, age-processed images of the men, who by now would be in their nineties, were released. These are significant, indicating there may be a potentially credible tip that at least one of the men is still alive, and highlighting the manhunt continues.
Not long after the escape, Alcatraz was closed in 1963 – apparently due to financial reasons. However, mysteries continue to surround Alcatraz as many of the prison’s documents remain missing. The fate of Alcatraz’s most notorious escapees remains unknown.