Hard at Work
Inmates at Alcatraz worked long hours full of hard labor.
These prisoners spend their day weaving cargo nets in 1955.
An Unbelievable Escape
Alcatraz was the most frightening prison imaginable. This maximum-security prison was designed with the sole purpose of keeping the most dangerous criminals away from normal society. Somehow, three prisoners managed to evade all of the prison’s advanced security functions and escape.
The Alcatraz escape has become of American history’s most famous unsolved crimes. After the fact, the local officials claimed that the three escapees drowned in the cold water, but recently there have been clues that the prisoners (who are now elderly) managed to get away and lived. A letter that arrived in 2018 has caused the FBI to reopen the investigation. What is the real story?
Frank Lee Morris
Frank Lee Morris was known for his great mind and ability for planning. He was cunning, highly skilled and extremely intelligent. When he was 11, Morris became an orphan, after which he was moved from foster home to foster home. Those years taught him self-reliance and independence.
But Morris was also drawn to trouble. At the tender age of 13, he was convicted for his first crime. He was set to make his mark on the world in a most unexpected way. Frank Morris will forever be known as the man who orchestrated the great escape from Alcatraz.
A Repeat Offender
As he got older, Frank Lee Morris kept up his criminal activities and served time in prisons in a variety of states, eventually ending up in the state penitentiary of Louisiana, known as “Alcatraz of the South”. This sounds quite intimidating, but Morris was planning a big surprise.
Frank Lee Morris was serving 10 years for bank robbery when the unthinkable happened – he managed to escape! Morris successfully evaded the authorities for almost a year before he was captured during another robbery. He was arrested and put away, but this time he was sent to the notorious Alcatraz.
The Anglin Brothers
Frank Lee Morris knew that a good prison break cannot be handled alone. He needed a team and found them when he got to “The Rock”, a common nickname for Alcatraz. The team was made up of Morris, two brothers named John and Clarence Anglin and another convict named Allen West.
The Anglin brothers were born in Georgia and grew up in Florida. Their parents were seasonal farm workers and the family traveled the country in search of farming jobs. The Anglin family, two parents and 13 children, would go North and pick cherries every June.
John and Clarence Anglin were inseparable as children, some would say they were as thick as the thieves which they ironically became as they grew up. Every year when they were children, their family would head North for work picking cherries, sometimes even getting all the way to Michigan.
In those summers, the Anglin brothers would swim in the icy waters of Lake Michigan and were well known for their superior swimming skills. They had no idea how important being a good swimmer would be for them in the future. In their early 20’s, the brothers started pulling off bank robberies together but were caught and arrested during a bank job in 1956. But that was just the beginning for them...
During their incarceration at the Atlanta Penitentiary, the Anglin brothers were caught trying to escape on numerous occasions. This led to them being sent to Alcatraz, which was a maximum-security prison. While there, they met Frank Lee Morris who was the leader of the team.
The group of four, which also included fellow inmate Allen West, had plenty of personal experience on how to escape or try to escape from various prisons. They pooled their knowledge and started working on a plan to achieve the impossible – an escape from “The Rock”.
The Escape Plan
The plan for the escape was quite simple, but the means to pull it off were nearly impossible. They would need the perfect coordination of the whole team to make it work.
This was not the first escape attempt of this kind. Over 30 inmates had tried to escape Alcatraz island over the years and none had succeeded. What would make this attempt any different?
It is known that all four team members were jailed at the penitentiary in Atlanta at one time. There is a possibility that they knew each from their time there. John and Clarence Anglin definitely met Frank Lee Morris while they were in Atlanta.
The four men also had adjoining cells while they were locked up in Alcatraz and a long long time to think up their grand plan of escape. The plan they came up with would demand every ounce of their bravery and all the resources they could possibly collect.
Collecting the Materials
Alcatraz at that time was not just a prison but also a factory, which was great luck for the group. The inmates worked as part of their sentence giving them access to the materials at hand. And there were a lot of them, because Alcatraz worked for the US military making furniture, clothing and shoes.
The four-man team had another advantage, they were non-violent offenders, something which was extremely rare in Alcatraz. This gave them the advantage of slightly less scrutiny from the guards which allowed them more freedom to operate.
The team started putting their plan into action bit by bit. It was complicated, and some would even say ingenious. They were not only going to escape the virtual fortress of Alcatraz, they were going to make look-alike dummies to leave in their place.
Getting out of the prison was not enough, the gang also had to find a way to get off the island and avoid the guards. Prison guards back then did not have the same compassion as today, their orders were to shoot on sight and any escape attempt was a deadly gamble.
Each team member oversaw a different part of the plan, but they all had to also to find a way to get out of their cells on the night chosen for the escape. The Angling brothers were responsible for making the fake heads to leave behind in the empty bunks.
The heads were created roughly but efficiently from soap wax, toilet paper and actual human hair picked off the floor of the Alcatraz barber shop. Morris had the job of fixing up an instrument similar to an accordion so that it would inflate life vests and a raft.
The crew also worked together to create tools to dig out of their cells and unscrew the bolts from the vents. It’s hard to believe, but they managed to make picks and wrenches from items they snagged around the prison like wood from the workshop and cafeteria spoons.
Each day the team would work from 5:30 PM to roughly 9 at night, chipping away at their cells and trying to make holes big enough to fit through. To speed along the process, they removed the vents in their cells and used the picks to make the holes bigger.
The gang was quite fortunate that the prison was already old and in bad shape with weak crumbly walls. The saltwater that ran through the pipes for showering and washing dishes was slowly destroying the pipes and leaking into the prison walls.
Over the years, the salt wore down the cement and eventually caused it to crumble. The prison authorities also kept the water slightly warm to keep prisoners from getting used to the cold temperatures out in the icy waters of the San Francisco Bay.
You are probably wondering how so much banging and chipping could be going on without anyone being the wiser. The truth is that the escapees cleverly used prison reform to their advantage. In the 1960’s, it was decided that inmates should be allowed an hour of music each day. Nothing could be heard over the disharmony that ensued.
Morris also played his accordion as loudly as possible whenever he could, and the racket was enough to conceal any noises made by banging or the chipping of cement. The holes in the back of the cells led to an unguarded utility corridor full of pipes that were going up and down.
Climbing the Jungle Gym
The utility corridor was unguarded and full of bars like a jungle gym. If the prisoners opened the holes in their cells wide enough to get through, they could easily use the bars to climb the three stories to the roof. After that, they would just have to hope for the best.
At the top of the building, they needed to use one of the large shafts for roof access. They were shocked to discover that many shafts were sealed off with cement. After a panicked search, they managed to find an unsealed shaft and used their homemade wrench to pry it open.
The Anglin brothers and Morris managed to break through the walls of their cells by May of 1962. The holes they made were barely large enough for them to fit through, but they managed to squeeze their way out.
The gang made their life vests and the raft by stitching and gluing raincoats together. They used more than 50 raincoats for the job. These were a vital part of the plan without which they would most certainly drown in the cold bay waters.
The gang was all set and all that was left was to wait for Allen West to finish carving out his escape hole. Then they would be ready to move when the right moment arrived. In June 1962, the signal to begin the escape finally arrived but things did not go as planned.
Allen West finally finished digging an escape hole large enough for him to go through on June 11, 1962. He let the other members of his gang know, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
The Plan is Set in Motion
The gang anxiously waited for lights out that day to set their plan in motion. They wondered if any of them would make it to the outside alive. The risks were clear in their minds, but the draw of a life of freedom away from Alcatraz was just too strong.
They were willing to risk everything, including their lives, to get away from “The Rock”. Their hearts raced, and adrenaline coursed through their bodies at the very thought of escape. As soon as the lights went out, the crew set up the fake dummies and set out to squeeze out of their cells.
Things go Wrong
Morris and the Anglin brothers slipped out of their cells without difficulty, but Allen West couldn’t seem to get out of his. He had let the others know that the hole he made was ready, but it seems he made a miscalculation of the size or the work necessary to enlarge the hole.
Frank Lee Morris worked from the utility corridor while West worked from the inside. They tried everything, but the hole just wasn’t big enough and West was stuck. Around 9:30 PM, over a glass of water from West’s cell, they both decided that West would have to be left behind.
One Man Left Behind
After many months of working together and a general feeling of comradery, leaving West behind could not have been an easy decision, but the group was not left with a whole lot of options. The hole wasn’t budging and any additional noise making it bigger was likely to bring about the guards’ unwanted attention.
Although reluctantly, West ended up taking one for the team and maybe even made the escape possible due to less weight on the raft. The three remaining escapees were finally ready to start their climb. They used the plumbing pipes in the utility corridor and climbed up 30 feet towards the roof.
The climb to the jailhouse roof went fairly easily for Morris and the Angling brothers. After which, they had to make a heart pounding crossing of over 100 feet of rooftop before they could begin their descent. The three men climbed down 50 feet of pipes on the building’s side to reach the ground.
They came down next to the showers and quietly snuck past the guards stationed there. The three remaining team members used their wits and preparations to evade all the other guards on duty as they made their way to the shore. They had to stop there in order to inflate the raft and life vests.
Raising the Alarm
Following that day, Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin were never seen again. They headed out to sea in their improvised raft at roughly 11:30 PM and fell off the face of the earth. The prison authorities didn’t even notice they were missing before the following morning.
Early the next morning, blaring sirens rocked the prison of Alcatraz and woke up all the inmates. There was great confusion, and nobody could believe that anyone had actually tried to escape “The Rock”. They all knew such a thing could not be done, but they would soon discover that three inmates had achieved the impossible and gotten away.
Last Man Out
Allen West was down but not out, and he had not given up on his plans for escape. Even though he was left behind, he continued working on enlarging the hole in his cell enough to squeeze through and he finally succeeded. West was ecstatic, he left his cell and started to follow the rest of the team.
After leaving his cell, West climbed to the rooftop but by the time he made it to the top the others were nowhere to be seen. He had no raft or help and had to decide whether to take a chance and swim for it, and most likely lose his life or return to his cell.
No Car Found
But there was one problem with the confession, no cars were reported stolen in or around Angel Island in the twelve days following the escape. Which means either they planned to stop at a different location and West lied, or they landed somewhere else accidentally or Morris and the Anglin brothers never reached the shore.
During his confession, West bragged to the authorities that the whole plan had been his idea and that he orchestrated the great escape. That was when the authorities got the FBI involved. They opened an official investigation to determine if the three convicts survived the escape attempt.
The Bay Search
The bay was searched intensively but no bodies were ever recovered, although some personal items were discovered floating in the water the following day. The water the night of the escape was quite cold, ranging from a temperature of 50 to 54 degrees. The San Francisco Bay is characterized by frigid water all year long.
According to the experts, an adult male would be able to survive roughly 20 minutes in the cool water before it caused a breakdown in bodily functions. Also, the escapees would not have been able to prepare for the frigid water temperatures while at Alcatraz because the officials kept the water warm in part to deter from escape.
On December 31, 1997, 17 years after the escape, the FBI investigation was finally dropped. They concluded that that the prisoners probably drowned in the San Francisco Bay despite the bodies never being found. The US Marshals, however, have kept their investigation ongoing.
The Deputy US Marshal said to NPR in an interview in 2009: “There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.” In fact, that was not the last that was heard about the three people who allegedly escaped from Alcatraz.
Following the Currents
About a month after the escape, a body was spotted about 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge by a Norwegian cargo ship. According to them, the body was in clothes similar to the Alcatraz prison uniforms. However, it took a while for the report to be filed and the body was never recovered.
In 2014, a group of researchers used a computer model to calculate the currents flowing on the night of the escape. According to their findings, if the gang headed out around midnight, the water currents would actually assist them on their way to shore and they had a good chance of survival.
Signs of Life
A History Channel documentary aired in 2015 brought to light new evidence that seemed to support the Angling brothers having survived the escape. A signed Christmas card was sent to their family and handwriting analysis was a match for the brothers. Unfortunately, no one could determine the date of delivery.
The Anglin family brought to light another key piece of evidence, a picture of the two brothers in Brazil shot in 1975. This picture was analyzed by forensic expert who stated that it was “more than likely” John and Clarence Anglin.
Another piece of the puzzle was supplied by Robert Anglin, one of the Anglin siblings, who confessed on his deathbed that he had been in touch with John and Clarence from 1963 through 1987 but claimed that they later lost touch.
The Anglin family did not seek out their long-lost brothers in Brazil, because the escape from “The Rock” is still an open Interpol investigation. If they were to locate and inadvertently lead police to their siblings, they would face severe repercussions.
The famous great escape of Alcatraz made new headlines in January 2018 when the FBI shockingly announced that they were reopening the case. The decades old cold case was suddenly brought back to life by intriguing new evidence.
The new evidence was a letter sent to the San Francisco Police Department in 2013 signed by a man claiming to be John Anglin, one of the Alcatraz escapees. It is unclear why the letter didn’t come to light for five years, but its contents were both intriguing and shocking.
John Anglin’s Confession
The letter begins: “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!”
Anglin continues: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” But where was Anglin now, and why was he suddenly reaching out? The letter reveals everything.
Where was He?
The letter written supposedly by John Anglin goes on to reveal where he has been in the many years since he “escaped” Alcatraz prison. The letter continues with “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 until 2003”.
The letter was unreadable in parts, but a special BBC report interpreted the contents and found that Anglin had lived in Seattle “for most of my years after the Escape.” But it is the next revelation the letter contained what was truly unbelievable!
Close Enough to Touch
The letter supposedly written by John Anglin also revealed the man’s current location “Living in Southern California now.” It is almost impossible to believe that a fugitive from the law and participant in one of the greatest prison breaks of all times, was currently living only a few hours from San Francisco.
The man who wrote the letter was extremely ill and desperate for some help even if that meant jail time, but was the letter writer really John Anglin? The letter ended with a highly unusual deal offered to the authorities. Would they be willing to agree to these unbelievable terms?
The Real Deal?
These are the terms set in the letter: “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…”
But before the deal was even considered, the letter itself had to be investigated to see if any other information about its authenticity and origin could be discovered. An intensive analysis was done of every aspect of the letter in an attempt to unlock its secrets.
The US Marshals handed the letter over to the FBI, who then tested the paper extensively. They checked for trace DNA evidence, dusted for fingerprints and ran handwriting analysis, using the three escapees' writing samples from when they were locked up. But did they find anything?
San Francisco’s local CBS affiliate, KPIX, published the letter and reported on the investigation. According to them “the FBI’s results were inconclusive.” A security expert on the channel gave the following perplexing quote as to the letter’s authenticity saying the FBI’s conclusion: “means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”
Over the years, the US Marshals’ position has been that “it is possible” Morris and the Anglin brothers survived the escape. But after the letter came to light in January 2018, one of their representatives questioned the letter’s legitimacy to The Washington Post, claiming he believed it was a fake.
A quote from the Post’s article stated: “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.” The FBI saw things differently, when they decided to call off the search in 1979, this was their take: “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.”
The Last Man on Alcatraz
Jim Albright, the very last guard to leave Alcatraz prison, was interviewed by ABC 7, a local TV affiliate in San Francisco to commemorate 55 years to the prison’s closing in March 2018. He worked there during the escape and was asked about his beliefs regarding the men’s fate. Does he think they drowned, or did they survive as claimed in the letter?
This is what he had to say: “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned, I really do.” Albright believed that the man who wrote the letter as John Anglin was a very sick man who needed treatment for his cancer and was using the famous escapee’s name to get help.
U.S. Marshals Respond
The only reason the public even learned about the letter was its publication on KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. The station received a copy of it from an anonymous source. After the letter was published the US Marshals made the following statement.
“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.” The US Marshals are the only ones still on the case, so they probably know what they are talking about. What do you think happened? Will the truth ever come out?
Inside Alcatraz: historic photos of America's most notorious prison
This is a shot of the Alcatraz recreation yard.
Prisoners could use the yard to play sports like handball and baseball or just to enjoy the fresh air in the few hours they were allowed to use it for.
Prisoners on their way back to their solitary cells.
The year this was shot is unknown.
A mugshot of notorious gangster and Alcatraz inmate Al Capone.
While serving time at “The Rock”, Capone was stabbed by another inmate with scissors from the prison barbershop. He was injured but survived and finished serving his sentence in 1939.
The Snitch Box
A picture taken in 1956 of a guard operating one of the prison’s “snitch boxes”, as named by the prisoners.
The boxes were both static and portable and were used to detect metals such as weapons and contraband.
The Inmate Band
Daily life in Alcatraz also had a few bright spots. Here you can see rehearsals for the Alcatraz inmate band.
The band includes four saxophone players, two trumpets, a guitarist, and a trombonist.
The Alcatraz mess hall food was not known for its diversity.
This menu from 1956 is typical with one type of meat, sides and dessert offered.
The Mess Hall
This shot, taken in 1955.
This shot shows a guard watching the inmates entering the mess hall for a meal.
This stark and simple cell was used for solitary confinement and contained only a sink, toilet and bed
Prisoners were kept in isolation with no light except for mealtimes. Date the picture was taken is unknown.
Here we see inmates baking bread in the prison kitchen, though the loafs seem slightly burned.
Date of the photograph is unknown.
A Military Garrison
Before Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary it was used as a military garrison.
In this shot, taken in 1902, officers and ladies stand and sit along the dock.
In 1902, military prisoners stand and await their assignments.
This shot also taken before Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary it was used as a military garrison.
Hard at Work
Inmates at Alcatraz worked long hours full of hard labor.
These prisoners spend their day weaving cargo nets in 1955.
The Rubber Shop
Photo of prisoners working in the Alcatraz rubber shop.
This Photo is from 1955.
A Rare Sight
This shot taken in 1948 showcases a rare occurrence at Alcatraz – a celebration.
This is a retirement party for legendary Alcatraz warden James A. Johnston. He was the first and longest running Warden in the history of Alcatraz.
During their incarceration the inmates were encouraged to learn new skills and a trade so that they would be able to find work and contribute to society after their release.
In this picture from 1954, inmates work on sewing machines and make pants.
This shot, taken on Christmas day of an unknown year, shows a prison cook prepared to serve a holiday meal to the inmates.
The menu is full of special holiday treats.
Arthur R. Barker
This prison record from 1963 belongs to Arthur “Doc” Barker, the son of Ma Barker and a member of the infamous “Bloody Barkers” gang.
Barker was shot and killed by a guard while trying to escape Alcatraz.
The Battle of Alcatraz
Marvin Hubbard, Bernard Paul Coy, and Clarence Carnes seen here are three of the four inmates who instigated “The Battle of Alcatraz”, a riot which started after an escape attempt and lasted for three days.
During the riot, two guards, Hubbard, Coy and another inmate lost their lives.
Along for the Ride
These pictures of Sam Shockley (left) and Miran Thompson (right), were taken before their time in Alcatraz.
Shockley and Thompson joined the riot leaders at the beginning of the “Battle of Alcatraz” and were later executed for their part in the bloodshed.
The riot was finally quelled by two units of marines led by C.L. Buckner.
He is seen here reading a 1946 newspaper about the riot that he and his men helped quell.
This mugshot shows Alcatraz inmate Miran Thompson.
He was sentenced to 99 years in prison for kidnapping and murder. After the riot, Thompson was held accountable for his part and was sent to solitary confinement to await punishment.
Here you can see Marine Major Albert Arsenault describing his experiences while quelling the prison riot in Alcatraz.
This Photo was taken in 1946.
A shot of the would-be escapees who survived the riot: Clarence Carnes, Sam Shockley, and Miran Thompson.
In 1948, Shockley and Thompson were sent to the gas chamber for their part in the “Battle of Alcatraz, while Carnes received leniency and was sentenced to life in prison.
In this photograph taken in 2017, the remains of the prison on Alcatraz Island are clearly seen.
Today the prison is a tourist attraction with guided tours arriving daily.