The sun rose before 6:00 a.m. over the forbidding structures of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on June 12, 1963. The maximum-security prison sat on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and was reputed to be escape proof. The day started off routinely enough for the warders in charge of the jail, but that normality was soon shattered. Three prisoners were found to be missing from their cells and were nowhere to be seen.
Escape from the Alcatraz Island facility was supposed to be an impossibility – that was the whole point of its isolated location. It was more than a mile away from San Francisco and surrounded by deep water that was dangerously cold and subject to strong currents. The high-security jail was reserved for a special category of inmate – those felons who had caused the most problems elsewhere within the federal prison system.
Alcatraz opened for its reluctant clientele in 1934, but there had actually been a military prison on the island site since the 1860s. After it became a federal penitentiary, the jail became home to some of the most infamous gangsters in the U.S. Disreputable characters such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Franklin Stroud – also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz – all enjoyed its hospitality.
In her 2011 book, Criminal Justice Essentials, criminology author Sue Titus Reid summed up Alcatraz succinctly. She described the jail as, “the great garbage can of San Francisco Bay, into which every federal prison dumped its most rotten apples.” And three of those rotten apples – Frank Morris and siblings Clarence and John Anglin – were the men who were absent from the roll call on that June day in 1962.
Until Morris and the Anglin brothers disappeared, no prisoner had ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz. Not that some hadn’t tried – there had been 13 previous attempts down the years, involving some 33 felons. The most serious of these efforts had been in 1946; a dramatic and notorious incident that came to be known as the Battle of Alcatraz.
That 1946 escape attempt involved half a dozen prisoners. Assaulting and subduing the prison warders, the six inmates managed to take control of their cell house. Consequently, the dangerous felons had access to the weapons store and they duly armed themselves. The escapees had planned to get to the island’s dock and commandeer a boat, but were unable to find the keys which would let them out of the prison walls.
Half of the men gave up at this point but three decided to fight it out. The desperate trio took two warders hostage, both of whom they subsequently murdered. Two platoons of U.S. Marines were called in by the prison authorities. A pitched battle ensued, which saw the use of mortar fire, grenades and machine guns, and the fate of the three would-be absconders.
All three prisoners who had violently resisted recapture were killed outright. In addition to the murdered guards, another 17 warders were injured during the incident. Of the three surviving escape conspirators, two went to the gas chamber at San Quentin while one was given a life sentence. Security measures were substantially improved at Alcatraz as a result of the men’s murderous escape attempt, ensuring that no-one followed their example for some time to come.
But when Morris, the Anglins and Allen West – a fourth plotter who ultimately didn’t take part – planned their escape, they eschewed violence. Rather than attempting to break out by brute force, they had a much more subtle plan. And it was a strategy that would take them months of painstaking effort and considerable ingenuity to accomplish. It later emerged that Morris, a 35-year-old bank robber, was the brains behind the operation.
Frank Lee Morris, it has been reported, was of exceptionally high I.Q. with testing showing him to be in the top two percent of the U.S. population for intelligence. He was born in Washington DC in 1926, but was orphaned by the age of 11, with his first conviction coming at the tender age of 13. His subsequent criminal career featured everything from armed robbery to drug offenses. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1960 after escaping from Louisiana State Penitentiary while serving a ten-year sentence for holding up a bank.
John Anglin was born in 1930 in Donalsonville, Georgia, and his brother Clarence came along the following year. The boys’ parents were casual farm laborers who followed seasonal work up and down the country. One thing of note – and quite possibly relevant to their escape attempt – was the fact that both were strong swimmers, well used to taking dips in icy waters.
The Anglins took to crime in the 1950s, robbing banks and other businesses. The brothers claimed that they would always opt to rob places after-hours to avoid the possibility of injuring anyone. Nevertheless, both were apprehended in 1956 and sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison. The two served time in various jails but their repeated escape attempts landed them both in Alcatraz within a year of each other at the start of the 1960s.
The FBI subsequently stated that the men, who were in adjacent cells, had first hatched their escape plan in December 1961. Apparently, the felons had happened across some discarded saw blades. They bided their time, researched their options and gathered supplies. Utilizing the blades, the four would-be jawbreakers first hacked their way out of their cells by way of ventilation holes. They were able to disguise these widened gaps with painted cardboard. They now had access to a services passageway that they knew the warders did not patrol.
Above this corridor was a small unused room at the top of their cell block, and it was there that the foursome set up a makeshift workshop. Taking it in turns to keep a lookout, they then fabricated an inflatable raft using some 50 rubber raincoats they had stolen from around the prison. Ingeniously, the used a drill they had constructed using parts from an old vacuum cleaner. Morris would drown out the sound of their labors by noisily playing an accordion. They later adapted the instrument so that it could be used as a pump to inflate their improvised seafaring craft.
Climbing up pipes on the walls the four were able to reach the roof where they broke through a ventilator shaft, giving them access to the outside world. They made a fake bolt from prison soap to give it the appearance of still being secure. After six months of hard work, Morris and the gang were almost ready to make their break. But they knew that for the best chance they had to disguise the fact that they were gone for as long as possible. The four were well aware that guards checked on the sleeping prisoners throughout the night.
Consequently, the foursome made perhaps the most amazing of the various artifacts they had so far thrown together with begged, borrowed and stolen items. They fashioned crude facsimiles of their own heads, using a paste made from toilet paper and soap and adding actual human hair. This was enough to trick the warders. Now Morris and the Anglins made good their escape, leaving West behind after his cell’s ventilator cover stuck shut.
And so the big question is, what happened next? The trio undoubtedly got out of their cell block and away from the island successfully. But did they manage to traverse the freezing and treacherous one-and-a-quarter mile channel that separated Alcatraz Island from the mainland? For years afterwards, the FBI insisted that the three men must have drowned because such a crossing was impossible.
In fact, the FBI passed what it considered a cold case over to the U.S. Marshals Service in 1978. Despite the widely held view that Morris and the Anglins must be long dead, the marshals still thought of them as being at large. Don O’Keefe is United States Marshal for the Northern District of California, and was quoted on the organization’s website in 2012. He stated, “The ongoing U.S. Marshals investigation of the 1962 escape from Alcatraz federal prison serves as a warning to fugitives that regardless of time, we will continue to look for you and bring you to justice.”
And it seems the U.S. Marshals department was correct in considering the case to still be live. In a dramatic development in 2013, police in San Francisco received a curious piece of correspondence. In part, the letter read, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962. Yes we all made it that night, but barely!” The letter went on to say that John’s brother, Clarence, had died in 2008 while Morris passed away in 2005. In a move that would infuriate surviving relatives of the three men, the police concealed the existence of the letter until January 2018.
So can we believe the mysterious missive? Even if John Anglin did pen the letter, he is most likely dead now. According to the text, “I am 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer.” Apparently U.S. Marshals analyzed the handwriting, saying that the results of this investigation were inconclusive. But perhaps the trio had the last laugh – Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was closed for good the year after their escape. Subsequently, the jail was turned into a tourist attraction. Maybe Morris and the Anglin brothers even took one of its guided tours at some point. Nonetheless, they would also have been able to see their efforts immortalized in a 1979 movie. The dramatization, Escape from Alcatraz, starred Clint Eastwood as Morris and it was often shown on TV. In the film version, it is heavily implied that Eastwood made it to freedom.