Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was built in 1860 as a military citadel and prison and was once among the most dreaded prisons in America. It is a veritable fortress, perched on a rocky Island in San Francisco Bay. It is surrounded on all sides by ice-cold water and rimmed in jagged, dangerous rocks. The original builders of the prison were sure that the bay was the best guarantee that nobody would successfully escape. Though that didn’t deter prisoners from trying for their freedom.
It was said that once a convict arrived on Alcatraz island, his first thoughts were on how he was going to escape. The prison operated as a federal penitentiary for 29 years, from 1934 to 1963. The official claim is that in the years it operated, no prisoner successfully escaped, though many attempted and were caught or killed in the act. Then, on June 11th, 1962, three prisoners mysteriously vanished…
Frank Lee Morris, an uncharacteristically intelligent career criminal, was born in Washington, D.C. on September 1, 1926. Orphaned at a young age, he spent much of his formative years being tossed around in foster homes. From the age of 13, he began a life of crime that had him arrested and convicted of numerous crimes ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery In 1960, Morris was caught while committing a burglary, and sent to Alcatraz as inmate number AZ1441.
The Anglin Brothers
Morris’ cellmates, Alfred and John Clarence, were born into a family of thirteen children in Donalsonville, Georgia in 1930. Their parents were seasonal farm workers who moved the family around the United States most of their young lives. They began robbing banks and other establishments as a team in the early 1950s. They chose targets that were closed to ensure that no one got hurt. Eventually, they were arrested and imprisoned in Georgia. However, after repeated failed attempts to escape, the brothers were transferred to Alcatraz in 1960.
The fourth accomplice, Allen Clayton West was convicted of car theft in 1955, but after an unsuccessful escape attempt in Florida, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1957. West was a lifelong murderer and career criminal. Allen was the only conspirator who did not participate in the actual escape, because he was unable to finish removing the ventilator grill in his cell in time. He died still serving a life sentence at the age of 49 of acute peritonitis.
Frank Morris hatched an idea and the four prisoners spent months thinking up the plan. They would spend months digging their way through the ventilator shafts of their individual cells. Then, once they had their decoys in place, they would sneak out in the middle of the night and make their way to the bay, where they would sail away without anyone noticing they were missing. The plan was simple, at least on paper…
The guards did nightly bed checks across cell blocks. Morris and his accomplices sculpted dummy heads from a home-made papier-mâché-like mixture of soap and toilet paper, then gave them a realistic appearance using paint from the maintenance shop and hair from the barbershop floor. They then piled clothing and blankets underneath the covers of their bunks and positioned the heads on the pillows, to give guards the illusion that they were sleeping peacefully during the bed check.
In the months leading up to the escape, the four convicts would use the time during “music hour”, a time in the early part of the evening, where anybody who had a string instrument could play, to dig out the ventilation ducts in their cells. They used anything they could find, discarded saw blades, stolen spoons from the commissary, even an improvised drill made from a vacuum cleaner motor. They concealed their work with cardboard and other items. In time, the holes were wide enough for the men to crawl through…
Just as the prisoners left their cells for the last time, a problem occurred. Allen West was unable to slip through the hole in his cell wall. The others, unwilling to wait, decided it was their only shot and left him behind. Allen West, the original instigator, though not mastermind, of the plan, was left behind. Though he admitted his involvement to authorities, he never gave up his accomplices’ entire plan or their plans for after they made it to the mainland. He died with his secret.
The widened air duct holes opened into an unguarded utility corridor behind the cell tier. From that service corridor, Morris and the Anglins climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof. A loud crash echoed throughout the prison as they broke out of the shaft, but since nothing further was heard, guards decided not to investigate the source of the racket. Hauling their gear with them, they descended a 50-foot wall by sliding down a kitchen vent pipe to the ground. Freedom was close. All they had to do was climb the 12-foot barbed-wire perimeter fences…
Whilst in prison, the men had amassed a number stolen and donated materials, including more than 50 raincoats which they turned into makeshift life preservers and a 6-by-14 foot rubber raft. They sealed it together with heat from the nearby steam pipes and carefully stitched it shut. They built wooden paddles, and stole a small accordion-like concertina from another inmate to serve as a make-shift bellows to inflate the raft. At some time after 10 o’clock, they inflated their raft at the northeast shoreline, near the power plant. Which was a blind spot in the prison’s network of searchlights and gun towers.
Searching the Bay
When the breakout was finally discovered the next morning, it triggered an extensive search. The search for the three escaped convicts was one of the largest manhunts ever. The guards were ordered to go out onto the bay and search the entirety of Alcatraz island. From there, they headed to nearby Angel island, where they scanned the beaches for anything that may have washed ashore. It soon became clear that they weren’t going to find Morris or the Anglins. They had indeed escaped…
No Bodies Found
During the first 24 hours, the search for the missing criminals turned up empty. Authorities had found no bodies, no boats, nothing. The outgoing tide had hit about a half hour after the three prisoners were believed to have set sail. The prison guards believed that they were taken by the current and dragged out into the Pacific Ocean. Still, the Anglin brothers were skilled swimmers, a trait they developed whilst swimming in the frigid Wisconsin lakes in their youth.
The successful dummy head ruse had worked. The plan had given the convicts an entire night’s head start on authorities An extensive air, sea, and land search involving multiple military and law enforcement agencies was conducted over the next 10 days. Four days after the escape, a Coast Guard picked up a paddle floating about 200 yards just off of Angel Island. On the same day, in the same general location, workers on another boat found a wallet wrapped in plastic. It contained names, addresses and photos of contacts on the outside…
On June 21, after finding the torn shreds of raincoat material on the Angel Island beach, the coast guard and federal marshals intensified their investigation. The following day, a prison boat picked up a deflated life jacket made from the same material, 50 yards from Alcatraz island. No human remains were ever found. Months after the investigation, however, new evidence emerged.
A Norwegian ship, sailing through the bay, had spotted a body floating 20 miles past the Golden Gate bridge. Though they had seen it on the day of the escape, they initially thought nothing of it. That was, until they heard about the escape from some local fisherman. They had been unable to retrieve the floating body at the time, but their description of it matched that of Frank Morris. Had the Anglin brothers escaped the same fate?
The day after the escape, a man claiming to be John Anglin phoned the San Francisco law firm that was known at the time to represent Alcatraz inmates. “I’m John Anglin,” he said. “Do you know who I am?….No? Read the newspaper.” The man then hung up. Alcatraz inmate Clarence Carnes claimed that he received a cryptic, though telling postcard a few weeks after the escape. In it, they gave the pre-arranged code words that confirmed their successful escape. The card read, “Gone fishing.”
It is believed that Morris and the Anglin brothers had help from the outside. That they had arranged to meet the contact of a fellow convict within Alcatraz. Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the underworld king of Harlem, had arranged for a boat to pick up the escapees on Angel island. According to Clarence Carnes, the boat then took the convicts to Pier 13 in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point district. But had they actually been picked up at the rendezvous?
In 1993, a former Alcatraz inmate named Thomas Kent told the television program America’s Most Wanted that he had helped plan the escape.. He said that it was Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend who agreed to meet the men on the mainland and drive them to Mexico. He declined to participate in the actual attempt, he said, because he could not swim. As of 2015, thanks to the Anglin brothers’ nieces, it is believed that the Clarence and John Anglin, now likely in their 80s, are alive and living in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Though the facility has been closed as a correctional institution since 1964, it is still a popular and mysterious location in San Francisco. Tourists, paranormal researchers, and crime historians flock daily to the well-preserved prison to investigate its many hidden secrets and explore the eerie place, that was once the site of the greatest escape in modern history.