The Incredible Story Behind The Only Successful Escape From Alcatraz
Alcatraz is known to be one of the most dangerous prisons on earth. It's on its own island, which makes it nearly impossible to escape. Or that's what we thought. In June 1962, three men attempted the impossible, and we still haven't found them until today. Did they drown while escaping? Did they manage to escape and create new identities for themselves? Let's delve a little deeper.
Why This Is Being Talked About
This case went cold and stayed so for decades. Until this day, the three escapees are still the most wanted list with photos of what they would probably look like today. No one had any idea where the men who escaped in 1962 went. Police had no clues, but in early January 2018, they received a letter from a man claiming to be one of the escapees, John Anglin.
What The Letter Contained
If the letter was legit, it could explain what happened the day they escaped. Also, it could squash the various conspiracy theories that have popped up since 1962. The letter was actually written in 2013, but the police kept it a secret to check its authenticity until 2018 when the FBI decided to re-open the famous case.
What Makes The Story So Compelling?
This story is absolutely incredible. Alcatraz was known as one of the toughest prisons on earth, and it was home to some of the worst criminals ever. It was a maximum-security prison which no one had ever escaped from. Some attempted to but were caught, and others were found deceased in the water after trying to swim across the bay to escape.
How They Were Going To Do It
In theory, the plan was pretty simple. Actually, it was very simple. However, it would require many people to coordinate with one another, which is almost impossible in Alcatraz. As mentioned earlier, many attempted to escape, but none were successful. So, how were these guys going to do it?
Let's Meet The Inmates
The escapees were brothers John and Clarence Anglin, as well as Frank Lee Morris and Allen West. The four men were all housed next to each other, so they spent a lot of time coming up with their plan. The plan would require all the courage they could muster up and any resources that they could somehow get their hands on.
Frank Lee Morris
Troublemaker Frank Lee Morris was no stranger to crime and prison time. At the tender age of 13, he was convicted for his first crime. However, he would ultimately be destined for greatness, but not the greatness that many people want to be associated with. Frank was the mastermind behind the entire escape.
He’s Been There Before
As an adult, Morris went to many different prisons in different states for various crimes he committed. Before the "Great Escape", he managed to escape from a Louisana prison that was nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the South". Only a year after escaping, he was caught by authorities as he attempted to rob a bank. Following his arrest, this time, he was sent to the real Alcatraz.
Frank would not be able to manage the escape by himself, so he would need to ask others for people. Those ended up being brothers John and Clarence Anglin, his neighbors in Alcatraz. As children, the Anglin brothers spent a lot of time swimming in Lake Michigan. At the time, it didn't seem like an important point, but it ended up helping them escape.
They Had Criminal Skills
When they got a little older, as young adults, the Anglin brothers started to rob banks together. They got caught and police arrested them, sending them to a prison in Atlanta. While they were there, they made multiple attempts to escape, which resulted in them being sent to Alcatraz as it was believed to be a prison that was impossible to escape from. There, they met Frank Morris, the ultimate mastermind of the whole plan.
The Group Was Set
Together, along with another inmate called Allen West, they would come up with the most iconic prison escape ever. It's important to understand that when you're a prisoner at Alcatraz, you're forced to do a lot of work. Inmates basically work for the US government for free by producing clothing, shoes, and furniture.
Also, inmates were required to work in a factory-type setting to mine natural resources that were present on the island. So, the group began to gather resources from outside. As they were non-violent offenders, they were a little under the radar of the guards. Alongside killers and rapists, they seemed like innocent little angels.
And So It Began…
The group began to put their plan into action. But if they were going to attempt this escape, they knew that they would get one shot and one shot only, so they would have to make it count. They created dummies that looked like humans so that if a guard walked by, they would think that they're sleeping, which would buy the escapees time.
It Was A Different Time
The guards were not like today. If any of them saw you trying to escape, they would probably start firing at you with a barrage of bullets. This happened to many prisoners who attempted to escape before, and they would continue to do so with anyone else who tried to run away. So, the three men had to make a decision that was do-or-die.
In the group, every person had their own responsibility. If this plan was going to work, everybody had to get on board and play their part. The Anglin brothers were responsible for making the dummy heads to leave behind in the empty cells. They had to do this very carefully and discreetly as they could easily get caught as they created the decoys.
The Next Step
Morris, on the other hand, had to create an instrument that resembled an accordion to inflate the raft and life vests. The group first had to first create tools to escape from their cells. They managed to make picks and wrenches from objects they were able to steal and gather, like spoons as well as other utensils.
It Took A While
Thankfully, Alcatraz was in bad condition and was deteriorating quickly. So, every day, they would work for around four hours digging the hole they would escape from. Due to saltwater flowing through the pipes leaking, the wall was easy to crumble. The men used the picks from their vents to make the holes bigger.
While you may think that the chiseling made a lot of noise, it actually didn't. How come? Well, because they would play loud music to muffle the sound. Thanks to Prison Reforms in the 1960s, prisoners were allowed to play some music. To mask the banging, Morris played his according as loud as he could. Behind the cells, there was an unguarded utility corridor with pipes going up and down.
The Jungle Gym
Also, behind the cells, there was a corridor similar to a jungle gym. If they could make the holes big enough to fit through, it wouldn't be difficult to reach the roof. To do so, they only neede to get past one large shaft, and to their surprise, it was made out of cement. Once they would get to the roof, it would become a free-for-all, and only God knows what would happen.
The Tight Squeeze
In May, 1962, the brothers managed to break through the walls of their cells. The walls were hardly big enough to pass through, but it was all they needed. To make the raft and life vests, they glued raincoats together. Without the raft, the group would drown in the bay. Unbelievably, in an issue of Popular Mechanics, there was a life-vest demonstration, and somehow, it didn't get censored by the guards.
The Plan Sets Into Action
By June, Allen West had made the whole large enough, and the plan was starting to materialize. The same day that West made his hole big enough, the lights went out. They placed their decoys and got ready to leave their cells. The Anglin brothers and Morris did so easily, but West didn't. He was unlucky as the walls on his end were harder, so it was more difficult to break through.
West underestimated how big the hole needed to be. From the corridor, the other members of the group attempted to help him, but it was impossible, so they had to leave Allen West behind. Ultimately, this would help the group in their escape as it made the raft a bit lighter. After leaving their cells, they managed to make it to the roof and down the side of the building.
It Worked Perfectly
They managed to sneak past a couple of guards, and by 11:30 pm that night, the three escapees were on the raft. The guards only noticed they were missing the next morning. The guards sounded the sirens, and although Allen West did ultimately manage to get out, he had to go back to his cell and co-operate with the guards.
A Dead Body Was Seen
The authorities searched for a long time, but no bodies were found in the water. However, they did find personal belongings, but none belonged to the three escapees. Although the water was freeezing, according to many experts, adult men can survive around 20 minutes in it. A Norwegian freight-liner saw a dead body floating near the bay, and it looked like it was wearing Alcatraz clothing, but it couldn't be identified.
The FBI’s Conclusion
In conclusion, the FBI assumed that all three had drowned. However, a documentary in 2015 had evidence that the Anglin brothers probably made it out. The Anglin brothers sent their family a Christmas card, and it was confirmed that it was written in their handwriting. Also, they sent their family a photo of them in Brazil, or in a place that looks like that.
Another Piece Of Evidence
Also, on his deathbed, Robert Anglin (their brother) confessed that he had been in contact with his two brothers for a long time. However, this was the only evidence that the brothers had escaped and survived until the famous letter arrived at the San Francisco Police Department in 2013, which squashed many rumors.
The Words Of John Anglin?
According to the letter, the brothers barely made it. Also, in the letter, John Anglin states that he is 83 years old and suffering from cancer. His brother, on the other hand, died in 2008, and Clarence passed away in 2011, according to John. He even told the authorities where he had been living for the last 7 years, which was in Minot, North Dakota.
Also, the person who wrote the letter said that he would tell the police exactly where he was living in the condition that he was granted a year's free medical treatment in jail. In the letter, he said the following: “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…” The letter was examined thoroughly to verify its authenticity. The cops took fingerprints, but none of the evidence reached any conclusion.
A Cold Case
The case remains cold until today. In 2014, a team of researchers managed to create an image of what the escapees may look like today. According to the US Marshal Service, there is a chance the brothers got away, but the probabilities are low. Jim Albright, the last guard to ever serve on Alcatraz, also agrees with this point.
Jim Albright was the last person to ever leave the island. In honor of Alcatraz' 55th closing anniversary, he gave a revealing interview to local media. He was present during the escape, and he assumes that all the escapees drowned. He claims that the letter was probably written by somebody trying to get free medical treatment.
The Escapees Today
If the three escapees made it out alive, this is what they may look like. Hey, if you're a North Dakotan, one of them may even be your neighbor. Today, they would be around 90 years old, but if they were caught, they would still be responsible for their crimes for at least ten more years. While their escape is clouded in mystery, they are not the only ones who tried to escape from Alcatraz. Let's look at some more of these attempts at freedom.
Bowers’ Desperate Escape
The first-ever attempted escape was in 1936 by a man called Joseph Bowers. Bowers' was doing his "job" at the prison burning trash at the incinerator when he made a run for it and climbed a fence. Authorities spotted him, shot him, and he fell to his death. Some inmates claim that this wasn't really an attempt to escape, but more like a suicide attempt.
They Filed Through The Bars
On December 16, 1937, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe attempted to escape from Alcatraz. To do so, they filed through the iron bars of the prison's mat shop. They were lucky as it was foggy that day, so they went through undetected and made it outside. The two jumped in the water, and they were never heard from ever again.
The Claw Hammer Attempt
In 1938, Rufus Franklin, Thomas Limerick, and James Lucas used a claw hammer that they got from the woodwork shop to attack and kill one of the guards. They then made an escape to the roof, but they ultimately ended up being shot. Lucas, on the other hand, was cornered by the guards, so he had to surrender.
They Were Not The Most Secure
Five men who were housed in D-Block, which is the prison's most secure unit, tried to escape from the prison in 1939. They somehow were able to escape their cell and make a run for it, all the way to the shore. However, as they were building their raft, they were caught by the guards. One of them was killed, another one injured, and the three others went into solitary confinement.
The Bars Were Tool-Proof
In 1941, four men who worked in the industry area of the prison decided to jump the guards on duty. After beating them up, they tried to saw through the window bars to escape, which didn't work as those were tool-proof. The four men had no choice but to surrender right there and then. Two of them, however, attempted to escape again at the Battle of Alcatraz. The battle lasted two days, and it ended really badly.
Bernard Coy Started The Plan
Originally, the mastermind behind the Battle of Alcatraz was Bernard Coy (center) who was thrown in Alcatraz following attempted robbery during the Great Depression. At the prison, Coy was assigned to keep the cell houses clean. As he was doing his job, he realized that the gun-gallery was only guarded by bars, and he learnt the officer on duty's strict schedule.
Their Plan Went Into Action
In 1946, the kitchen orderly Marvin Hubbard managed to lure official William Miller over, and Coy knocked him out from behind. Following this, the two men let two other prisoners free. Coy then spread the bars with a device he had and managed to slip through. Also, he stole a Springfield rifle from the guard and provided his accomplices with an M1911 pistol, keys, and gas grenades.
They Kept Releasing Prisoners Along The Way
To intimidate the officers, Coy used a rifle, and he even took some of them hostages along the way. Also, once the men made it to the main cell block, they began to release more prisoners. In total, they released around twelve other convicts. Next, they wanted to get the key to the yard door so that they could make a run for it on the island's dock.
It Ended In A Shoot-Out
However, by the time they found the key, it ended up being too late. Unfortunately, the lock didn't give access to the yard door, so the prisoners were trapped with nowhere to go. Meanwhile, many officers reported to the scene. When the escape attempt was clearly going to fail, the ringleaders decided to have a shoot-out with the guards.
All Of The Masterminds Were Killed
To help with the shoot-out, guards enlisted the help of Marines. By the end of the shoot-out, three inmates and two officers were shot dead. Also, eleven officers and a prisoner who was not involved were injured. Two of the ringleaders were shot dead, but two survived, and they were ultimately executed in a gas chamber.