A 50-Year Prison-Escape Mystery
Located 1.25 miles off of the coast of San Francisco, California, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was one of the most famous prisons of its time. It was open from 1934-1963. Many concluded that the jail was escape-proof. Even if convicts could a find a way outdoors, they would be met by daunting cliffs and freezing waters. In 1962, three men proved they escape was possible. Only now have investigators been able to figure out how these men escaped.
Don’t Rock the Rock
Alcatraz was built in 1860. It was a military citadel and prison. A fortress on an island, its builders were certain that the freezing bay and dangerous cliffs would prevent any prisoners from successfully breaking out of jail.
According to legend, the first thought any prisoner had upon arriving at Alcatraz was escape. The prison claims that no prisoner has ever been able to escape without being caught or killed. On June 11th, 1962, three crafty criminals put the claim in jeopardy.
Criminal 1: Frank Morris
Frank Morris was born on September 1st, 1926, just three years before the Great Depression. Orphaned at a young age, Frank’s youth consisted of being tossed around in different foster homes like an unwanted belonging.
At around age 13, Morris’ career as a criminal began. Morris would be arrested and convicted of a cascade of crimes, including narcotics possession and armed robbery. In 1960, Morris was in the process of committing a burglary when the police arrived. For punishment, Morris was sent to Alcatraz. He was now inmate number AZ1441.
Criminal Number 2 and 3:
Clarence and John Anglin were brothers. They were born in Donalsonville, Georgia in 1930. They were two of 13 children. The Anglin’s parents were seasonal farmers, which meant they were constantly moving the children around the United States in order to secure employment.
In the 1950s, Alfred and John launched their criminal careers. Together, they robbed banks and stores. Conscientious robbers, the brothers robbed places that were closed so that no one would have to get hurt. Soon, the brother wound up in a Georgia prison. After a number of failed escapes from the Georgia prison, the brothers were transferred to Alcatraz in 1960. The brothers and Morris shared adjacent cells.
The Failure of Criminal Number 4
Allen Clayton West was born on March 25, 1929. In 1955, he was sentenced to an Atlanta jail for car theft. Soon, he was transferred to a prison in Florida. After a failed attempted to escape the Florida prison, West was sent to Alcatraz. As he entered Alcatraz in 1957, West became inmate AZ1335.
West was the only one out of the four who did not make it out of the prison. Unable to finish removing his cell’s ventilator grill in time, West was left behind. West cooperated with the ensuing investigation and was not charged for his role in the escape attempt.
Morris, the orphan prisoner, had an idea about how to escape. He told the other three his idea and they spent the next months turning the thought into action.
The plan was to dig their escape through the ventilator shafts in their cells. Dummy decoys would be left behind in their beds as they snuck out in the middle of the night. They’d head to the bay and then sail away. To the prisoners, none of this seemed that complicated or impossible.
The prison guards’ many duties included nightly bed checks for all prisoners. To trick the guards, Morris and the other three prisoners mixed soap and toilet paper to create home-made papier-mâché. They then used the papier-mâché to sculpt dummy heads.
To add to the dummies’ realism, the criminals applied paint, which they got from the maintenance shop, and hair, which they acquired from the barbershop floor. They then piled on clothes and blankets and positioned the heads so that any passing guard would be left with the impression that the prisoners were sound asleep.
Music Hour Becomes Digging Hour
One perk of the prison was Music Hour. During this time, any prisoner who had a string instrument was allowed to play it. Instead of using this time to make music, Morris and his team used it to dig out the ventilation ducts in their cells.
To assist in their digging, the four convicts used any sharp object they could get their hands on. They used rejected saw blades, stolen spoons, and they even figured out how to fashion a drill from a vacuum cleaner motor. To hide their work, they employed cardboard and other times. Soon, the holes were big enough for the men to crawl through.
As the prisoners began their escape, Allen faced a huge problem: he couldn’t actually get through the hole he had made. Rather than wait and risk being caught, Morris and the Anglin brothers left Allen in his cell.
Allen didn’t give up, though. But by the time he was able to make the hole big enough, the others had gone. Allen returned to his cell and went to sleep. Later, West confessed his involvement in the escape, but he never shared his partners’ plans for what they would do when they made it ashore.
A Crash Is Ignored
The air duct holes lead to an unsupervised utility corridor behind the cell tier. From this sport, Morris and the Anglins brothers were able to make it to the roof by climbing up the ventilation shaft. As they broke out of the shaft, a powerful crashing sound filled the prison.
Though the crashing sound could be heard by all, the guards choose not investigate the source of the noise since no further crashing sounds were heard. Closer to freedom, the three men used a kitchen vent pipe to get down a 50-foot wall. Next up: climb the 12-foot barbed-wire perimeter fence.
The Raincoat Raft
Before escaping, the men had collected more than 50 raincoats. They turned these raincoats into life preservers and a 6-by-14 foot rubber raft. Using heat from the steam pipes nearby, they sealed it together and then meticulously stitched it shut.
The convicts built wooden paddles and stole an inmate’s concertina (an instrument that resembles an accordion) that could be used to inflate the raft. At around 10pm, Morris and the brothers inflated the raft along the northeast shoreline. As powerful as Alcatraz was, they had their blind spots. The northeast shoreline near the power plant was one of them.
The Morning After
The next morning, the guards quickly discovered what had happened. The escape trigged a gigantic search, one of the largest and most fervent searches ever conducted.
The guards searched all of Alcatraz Island. Then they went to Angel Island and investigated the beaches. Despite the intense hunt, neither Morris nor the Anglin brothers were found.
The Pacific Ocean Theory
With no bodies and no clues, the authorities began to develop a theory about the fate of the three escapees. About a half hour after the three criminals escaped, outgoing tide hit. The guards conjectured that the prisoners were usurped by the current and dragged into the Pacific Ocean.
A thorn in this theory was the swimming abilities of the Anglin brothers. Having spent time in Wisconsin, the brothers honed their swimming skills in the states’ frigid lakes. It wasn’t impossible for the Anglin brothers to use their skills to survive treacherous and tumultuous waters.
By employing dummies, Morris and the Anglin brothers were able to get an entire night’s head start on the guards. Soon, both the militarily and law enforcement agencies joined the manhunt.
Four days after the escape, a Coast Guard came across a floating paddle near Angel Island. On the same day the paddle was found, other searchers found wallet wrapped in plastic. Shorty after, shreds of raincoat material and a deflated life jacket were also discovered.
Is That Frank?
During the escape, a Norwegian ship was sailing through the bay. Someone on the ship spotted a body floating near the Golden Gate Bridge. Though the body had been spotted on the day of the escape, no one bothered to report it until a local fisherman told them about the jailbreak.
Unable to properly secure the body, those who saw it offered a description that matched the description of Frank Morris. Questions arose: Did Morris die in the water? Did the Anglin brothers die too, or, being being better swimmers, did they somehow survive?
John Anglin Speaks
Only a day after the escape, a San Francisco law firm associated with Alcatraz prisoners received a phone call. The man on the phone claimed to be John Anglin. “I’m John Anglin,” the man stated. “Do you know who I am? No? Read the newspaper.” Then the man who claimed to be John hung up the phone.
A few weeks after the escape, Clarence Carnes, an Alcatraz prisoner, claimed that he received a postcard from the Anglin brothers.The card said, “Gone fishing.” This, supposedly, was code that confirmed their successful escape.
The Underworld King v. The Girlfriend
There are theories that Morris and the brothers had outside help. Some say that the underworld king of Harlem, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, helped secure a boat to transport the convicts from Angel Island to Pier 13 in San Francisco Hunter’s Point District.
In 1993, former Alcatrz prisoner Thomas Kent went on America’s Most Wanted to tell the world that it wasn’t Bumpy but Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend who met up with them on dry land and then drove them to Mexico.
A Mystery Is Clarified, A Movie Is Made
As of 2015, due to informative provided by the Anglin brothers’ nieces, many believe that the Anglin brothers are alive and living in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. They are most likely in their 80s. Supposedly, as early as 1965, the FBI has been aware of rumors that the brothers are in Brazil.
To cement the daring escape’s place in America’s cultural history, a movie was made about Frank and the brothers in 1979. The movie, Escape from Alcatraz, starred Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris. According to the film, the escape was a success.
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