The Story of the Alcatraz Escape

By Nupur Kudapkar

The United States Penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was a high-security federal prison 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, California, with a 312-person capacity that operated from August 11, 1934, until March 21, 1963; and on June 12, 1962, an early morning routinely bed check showed that three convicts John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris were not in their cells which led to an ongoing search and eventually made the case one of America’s most beloved mysteries. 

John Anglin and Clarence Anglin had found themselves within the depths of Alcatraz for committing a bank robbery in 1961, one year earlier in 1960 Frank Morris had been transferred there for convictions for bank robbery, burglary, and other crimes and repeated attempts to escape various prisons and in 1957 Allen West was moved into the maximum security prison due to car theft and attempting to escape another state prison. All four of these men had found their passion for committing crimes from a very young age and by chance had ended up at the same prison in the middle of San Francisco bay and had evidently planned an escape. The water in San Francisco’s bay remains at a constant temperature of between 48-54 degrees Fahrenheit all year round and the budget to fix trying was limited, therefore, the prisoners had to get creative. The prisoners had to make a plan of deception, they painted dummy heads made from a plaster-like mixture of soap, concrete, human hair, and other materials then laid these dummies in their beds to fool the prison guards and it worked because 36 men tried 14 separate escapes and nearly all were caught or didn’t survive the attempt making these three men the outliers. Even though they had their dummies in place they still had to break out of the prison itself and therefore in December, they concocted a plan. They requested cells next to each other and once approved it was found that they each had ventilation grates in the back of their cells and though doing construction for the prison, the escapees learned that the wall surrounding the grate was less than six inches thick which made it possible for them to loosen the air vents by drilling closely spaced holes around the vent so that section of the wall could be removed. They did such with whatever materials they could find such as spoons and even a homemade drill with a vacuum motor. The prison had dedicated time for inmates to play their instruments which is when it is thought the prisoners drilled their holes, they hid the holes with whatever they had on hand including instruments, suitcases, cardboard, etc. By destroying this vent, the men could get to a utility corridor located directly behind the cells which were unguarded, this would lead them to their secret workshop where they would take turns keeping watch for guards through a primitive periscope. They kept this workshop hidden through blankets (which was approved because they told the guards that without the blankets the dust from working would enter the other floors) and kept a variety of materials to build what they needed to escape. Some of these materials included but were not limited to, over 50 raincoats to make a 6×14 life preserve in which the seems were stuck together and vulcanized by hot steam pipes, a concertina to inflate the life preserve (which was ordered by Morris in April), wooden paddles, and more. That night as the prisoners broke out of their cells, West would not join them because he could not break through the portion of will wall leaving him behind. After the trio broke through the wall and they met up at the secret workshop their way out of the building was through an air vent at the top of the thrift foot high ceiling. However, through a network of pipes, they were able to climb up and out of the prison and onto the top of the roof. Following the escape out of the actual prison there was a noise reported around 10:30 pm which may have been the prisoners opening the vent to leave yet this caused no alarm and the escapees continued. They climbed down the food via a pipe and then climbed the 15-foot fence making their way to the north shore of the island. Their plan to escape the island was simple, after inflating the raft they would sail to Angel island which was two miles north of the island then they would sail again across raccoon straight which would eventually bring them to the mainland where they would steal a car and clothes. The next morning June 12, 1962, Alcatraz guards found the dummies and put the prison into a state of lockdown once the three were discovered missing. Guards, then found the secret workshop, holes in the cells and ceiling, and footprints on the roof and pipes after making this shocking discovery, the FBI, Coastguard, and the Bureau of Prison Authorities started a widescale search however, the Anglin brothers, Morris, and the raft were never found. 

Surrounding his prolific unsolved mystery are two conspiracy theories. One: the men perished on their journey to the mainland. Two: the men successfully escaped and survived. For the first theory, there proves to be an overwhelming amount of evidence. The bay’s water is frigid and the strong currents that the water held would have easily worked against them, in addition, their goal to take the raft north to Angel Island would have been extremely difficult because they had paddles but no rudder. In fact, in a piece done for PBS, Dutch scientists built a raft similar to the prisoner’s raft and conducted an experiment in which they concluded that two men would have had to work together in order to keep the raft inflated leaving only one to paddle. Noting that the weather on that particular night was 47 degrees Fahrenheit and the temperature of the water was 54 degrees Fahrenheit, if for some reason the raft sunk or the men went overboard they would have only lasted two hours in the icy water before losing consciousness. To further this theory, on June 12th bits of wood resembling a handmade paddle was found in the water near Angel Island and it was found to have belonged to the escapees then later on June 14th, bags made from raincoat bags were found halfway between Alcatraz and Angel Island which contained photos of the Anglins and their family, nine pieces of paper with a list of people to contact on the outside, and a letter written to Clarence Anglin. A day later on June 15th, a homemade life vest was found floating near Cronkite beach and seven days later on June 22nd no more than 100 yards from the eastern coast of Alcatraz another vest was found, and the ties were well knotted. To add, all three of the men had little money yet there was no evidence of any thefts or holdups tied to Morris or the Anglins related to food, clothing, or transportation plus the FBI stated that there was no credible evidence in the United States or Abroad that the men lived. In fact, in mid-July of 1962, six weeks after the escape a Norwegian shipping freighter the S.S. Norefjell spotted a body in the ocean about twenty miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge but they did not report it until they returned back in the fall, therefore, the body was never recovered.

 All of this evidence together helps prove that the men did not survive but then there is the latter theory, the men survived. Every year a triathlon in which people do a mile-and-a-half swim in the same waters around the same time of year that the prisoners escaped. Although they had rafts many people successfully swam the length without a raft or life jacket meaning that it is fully possible that they swam and in fact, the rush of adrenalin and the need to survive might have aided them in the swim and overall escape. If they did die in the bay, as many others have before their bodies would have floated after a few days but again, no bodies were ever found. To recall, in the same experiment done by the Dutch scientists, they found that the time between 11:30 pm to 12 am would be the perfect time in which the trio needed to launch the raft in order to have a chance to make it to land and since and since they got out at around 10:30 om it is quite possible but then they would have had to let the current take then to Horseshoe Bay rather than trying to reach Angel Island. It was also found that items found would drift back once the tides reversed to Angel Island which is where some of the items were recovered. Now here’s the shocking part of the second theory, David Widner, nephew of the Anglin brothers said that his uncle Robert Anglin (John and Clarence’s other brother) confessed on his deathbed to his sisters that they did not have to worry about their brothers because he had been in touch with them and they were okay. Winner added that his grandmother (the brother’s mother) would sometimes receive roses with her son’s signatures on the card following the escape. Shockingly, multiple Family members of the Anglin brothers claim that at family funerals there are mysterious women wearing veils and/or heavy makeup which could have been the undercover Anglin brothers coming to pay their respects which is why many family members believe that they survived the escape. In addition to those sitings, a 2015 history channel show claimed that a photo taken of two men in Brazil depicted the two brothers alive- 13 years after the escape. The picture came from Fred Brizzi a childhood friend of the brothers who gave it to the family sometime in the 1990s claiming that he ran into them at a bar on his trip, although the FBI has denied this statement it is hard to conclude due to the fact that the two men in the photo are wearing sunglasses. As for Frank Morris, a letter was released to the public in 2018 after being held for five years. The letter says, “My name is John Anglin, I escape (sic) 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” (Fox News). The letter went on to say that Clarence died in 2008 and Morris died in 2005. Therefore, Morris’s fate was unknown due to the fact that he stayed very under the radar if he did survive because there are no sightings or evidence of his reappearance like the Anglin brothers. As for Allen West, he cooperated with officials in the search and served his sentence across three different prisons following Alcatraz. He was released in 1967 but only for one year until he got concurrent sentences of five years, one to three years, and life for grand larceny and robbery he died in 1978. The FBI officially closed the case on December 31, 1979, but the cause will remain open until the fugitives are found, a record of death is given, or they reach 99 years of age.