In 1934, the United States government repurposed a military prison to be an impenetrable fortress – the federal penitentiary known as Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock.” The only way to get to the prison on an island in the San Francisco Bay in California is by boat. It was said to be the only prison from which no prisoner could escape – thanks to the craggy rocks that surrounded the buildings, and the freezing waters all around.
The prison was a temporary home to many of America’s most known and feared criminals, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and Robert Franklin Stroud – known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” There were at least 14 escape attempts, including one incredibly violent attempt – but no one was successful. That is, until in 1962, three – almost four – men did the impossible.
How did anyone manage to break out of Alcatraz, the top-notch, high-security prison in California? Click ‘Start Slideshow‘ for the whole story – the ending has a twist that you might not see coming!
The Fortress That Was Alcatraz
As a military prison, Alcatraz has been around since the 1860s, and then it was expanded in 1910 with a new cellhouse. By 1934, Alcatraz had been built up to be one of the most secure federal prisons in the country. The prison was meant for those who were notorious for crime, and continued problems in other prisons. Alcatraz was one of the toughest and scariest prisons in the world.
Fighting among prisoners was common, and murders were frequent. Guards were often attacked, as were other workers in the furniture shop and tailor shop. Prisoners like Henri Young, who were already serving long sentences, would earn more time in the feared prison for crimes against other inmates.
Prison escapes were attempted, but never successful. Keep reading to learn about one failed attempt!
Over two days in 1946, six prisoners carried out one of the most daring and violent escape attempts in Alcatraz history. They managed to bowl over guards and get access to the weapons room where they were able to arm themselves. The plan was to get the keys to the door outside of the recreation yard, but didn’t. So, they held two guards hostage and tried to stand their ground.
The “Battle of Alcatraz” resulted in the death of those two guards, more than a dozen guard injuries, and another inmate being hurt. Three of the prisoners gave up after the hostage situation was over, but the other half continued to fight. The three who kept up the battle were killed, while the three surviving prisoners went to trial for their escape attempts; two were sentenced to death, while the youngest of the three received a second life sentence.
About 16 years later, another group of men banded together to escape. Click “Next” for the story!
Three Prisoners Disappeared
Alcatraz proved to be an escape-proof prison for the inmates who were living out life sentences there. Many of the prisoners held there were the most dangerous criminals who were causing problems at other prisons. Two of these prisoners were nonviolent inmates, but they were known for escaping other prisons. On the morning of June 12, 1962, guards discovered that three prisoners, who were kept in cells next to each other, had slipped out of the prison the night before.
Guards were fooled by the well-planned escape that included decoys, a raft and life vests made of raincoats, and makeshift tools that helped the men dig out of their cell walls. There was no sign of the escapees in the prison, on the rocks that surrounded the prison, in the frigid waters, or on the shores of the bay.
Was it the one and only successful escape from Alcatraz? Read on for more!
Although no other prisoner has been able to escape the federal penitentiary, it was looking like these three clever men did what no other before could. Thirty-six other inmates have tried to get free, but the majority of them were recaptured. Half a dozen of them were shot dead, two drowned in the bay, and others were listed as missing and only assumed they drowned.
One attempt that was nearly successful was made by John Paul Scott, who managed to get past security, the barbed fences, and avoided the sharp rocks of the island. He swam out to the southern point of the Golden Gate Bridge, but he was recovered there. Scott was spent and showing signs of hypothermia.
So, who were these men who successfully did what no other prisoner could? Click “Next” to see!
Frank Lee Morris was the definition of a lifetime criminal. After being orphaned and bouncing from foster home to foster home, he was nabbed for theft when he was 14 years old. He was sent to the National Training School for Boys, where he was to be reformed over about six years, but he was released in less than a year.
Morris continued to break the law for theft, breaking and entering, a bank robbery, possession of narcotics, and several escapes from prisons. He’s reported as having an IQ of 133, which practically makes him a genius – and the likely mastermind of the escape plan hatched for getting out of Alcatraz.
Two others managed to escape with Morris. Keep reading to learn about them!
Brothers John and Clarence Anglin grew up in a large family – the brothers had 11 siblings. They would travel from Florida to Michigan to pick cherries. The brothers were excellent swimmers, and had acclimated to the harsh cold weather of Michigan, taking dips in the icy waters of Lake Michigan – unknowingly foreshadowing their future.
In the 1950s, the brothers managed to rob several banks and stores, but neither used violence to carry out their crimes. After a few years of successful robberies, the brothers were caught and sent to a state prison in Florida, and then transferred to an Atlanta, Georgia federal prison. They attempted to escape the Atlanta prison several times, only to be recaptured, and finally were sent to Alcatraz, where they’d never be able to escape again.
Except that’s precisely what the Anglin brothers did. Click “Next” to see who helped them!
Allen Clayton West wasn’t new to the prison system. He was picked up for auto theft in 1955, and he served time at the Atlanta prison. Then he was transferred to Florida State Prison. He was known for his arrogance, and he’d met one of the Anglin brothers when he was serving in Florida.
After a failed escape attempt in Florida, correctional officers decided to not bother with him anymore and sent him to Alcatraz. After all, no one could escape from “The Rock,” so he, and the world-at-large, would be safe.
West knew Morris, too. Read on to learn more about his role in the escape!
It was in Atlanta that West met Morris and the Anglin brothers, but he was sent to Alcatraz three years before any of the others who worked together to escape the island prison. He wasn’t involved in any escape attempts at Alcatraz until the three were cellmates at the penitentiary.
West was involved in the escape plan, which began at the end of 1961 – four years after he arrived at Alcatraz, and only about a year after Morris and the Anglin brothers had been transferred there. As helpful as West was with hatching the escape plan, he was equally helpful with providing the details of the plan to federal investigators.
West wasn’t able to make it off the island – click “Next” to see what the plan was!
The Escape Plan
The inmates studied the prison carefully to figure out the best route to take to escape their cells. Many before had tried and failed to get off the island prison, but these men were smarter than the average criminal. And they were patient.
They began collected rudimentary tools to help them with their escape. Spoons were sharpened and then fortified with melted dimes, which made excellent small chisels to help them dig into their walls. There were spots in the walls that had softened because of moisture. It was a slow process, and they persistently picked at the holes until they were large enough for each man to fit through.
They also used a makeshift drill – keep reading to see how it was possible!
They managed to get their hands on a motor of a broken vacuum cleaner and used it to make a drill. During music hours, they would use the loud tool to help chip away at the walls. Their work started at 5:30 p.m. and continued until lights out around 9 p.m. They kept cardboard and other materials to hide the holes in their cells, which fooled the guards during checks.
Meanwhile, they also worked on creating decoy heads of themselves using soap, toilet paper, paint, and hair clippings from the prison barbershop floor. These papier-mâché heads were going to be used on their pillows to fool the guards when they made their escape.
Once everything was ready, the men made their move. Click “Next” to see how they did it!
How They Did It
With dummy heads in place to buy them time to escape during bed checks, the men slipped out of the holes in their cells. The holes emptied them out into a utility corridor that wasn’t guarded. West wasn’t able to escape with Morris and the Anglin brothers, though, because he couldn’t dig out quickly enough.
West had used cement to patch up the crumbling concrete around the hole he’d made, but when escape time came, it had hardened too much. He dug and the other prisoners kicked at the vent grill from the other side, trying to help loosen it. The men were losing precious time, though, so Morris and the Anglin brothers left West to fend for himself.
The other three, however, were well on their way out of Alcatraz. Read on to see what happened!
West continued to chip away at the hole, but by the time he had managed to get the vent grill off and climbed up onto the roof, the other men were gone. Since West had no way to get off the island safely, he could only return to his cell. West went back to bed.
The escaping prisoners had climbed upward and out of the service corridor to the roof. They quickly and quietly ran across the roof to a spot where they could maneuver down piping to get down from the prison’s roof, and off the island on a raft they’d made from raincoats.
The raft may have been the most important piece of their prison escape. Click “Next” to see it!
Not only were the prisoners working to clear man-sized holes in their cells to make their escape, they were also working on the accessories they’d need to successfully get off the island, across the waters, and to glorious freedom. In addition to the paper-and-glue heads they crafted to fool the prison guards, the men stitched together several raincoats to make life vests.
They used other stolen raincoats to combine and seal together with heat from steam pipes to create a 6-foot-by-14-foot raft. This was possibly the most important part of the plan – it would carry them to the shores of the bay safely. They had other accessories, too.
What good is a raft without a paddle? Keep reading to see what else the men used!
Morris, West, and the Anglin brothers spent time carefully constructing wooden paddles to help push them across the cold waters of the bay. They also managed to pilfer a concertina, which is a small accordion-like instrument. The bellows were just what they needed to inflate the raft.
Many say there’s no way the men could’ve survived the currents and cold temperatures of the waters of the San Francisco Bay, but one theory claims that if they left at the right time of night, it would’ve been absolutely possible. Morris and the Anglin brothers were known for being beyond smart. How possible is it that they survived?
Guards discovered that three prisoners had escaped. Click “Next” to see what happened!
By Morning, They Were Long Gone
The decoys worked to keep the correctional officers from investigating the inmates cells until morning. That gave the men at least seven hours to make their escape. By the time the guards had discovered the prisoners were gone, the inmates would’ve either successfully reached land and been well on their way to a new life, or dead, washed out to sea by the strong currents.
Naturally, guards searched the prison, and found that West had a similar hole in his cell. West fully cooperated with the investigation, which managed to secure him immunity from his own involvement in the escape plan. He explained exactly how they planned and prepared for months, and how they planned to ride the raft to shore.
Other prisoners celebrated the escape. Keep reading to see what the guards thought!
Of course, fellow inmates cheered the escapees on, and they’d helped along the way. One prisoner recalled getting paper out of the trash cans for the men, and passing along other materials to help with their plan. The inmates fully believed Morris and the Anglin brothers managed to get off “The Rock,” which gave them hope.
The guards, however, were sure that the prisoners didn’t survive. Alcatraz’s reputation as the only prison no man could escape was a point of pride. The men were certainly not in the corridors, on the roof, or anywhere else on the island. The only thing left to do was turn to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to start the search.
Once the FBI got involved, it was an all-out hunt. Click “Next” to see what they found!
The Search Was On
For 10 days, an exhaustive search was conducted by air, sea, and land to find the escaped prisoners. Several law enforcement agencies were tasked with finding the men. Wanted posters were made with the mug shots of the former inmates. They searched everywhere for the men.
Two days after guards discovered the empty cells, a coast guard vessel found one of the escapee’s handmade paddles floating in the water only 200 yards south of the Angel island shore. Another discovery was made that led some to believe the prisoners didn’t make it out of the bay alive.
What else was floating in the water near the paddle? Read on to find out!
A plastic-wrapped wallet was found near the Angel island shore, as well, that seemed to belong to one of the Anglin brothers. In it were pictures and addresses of the Anglin brothers’ friends and relatives. About 10 days after the daring escape, raincoat material was also found. Law enforcement believe it was bits and pieces of the raft the men used.
Although these pieces, plus a raincoat-life vest was also found, no human remains were ever discovered. The investigation continued for 17 years, but the FBI finally closed it in 1979, concluding that the prisoners likely drowned in the bay, their bodies washed out to sea and never discovered. However, there may be proof available that at least two of the men survived.
Had any of the men survived, where would they have gone? Click “Next” to find out!
Where are They Now?
Since the close of the investigation, others have come forward to tell investigators of how they helped the men escape. One former inmate claimed he knew how they did it – Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend reportedly agreed to meet the men on the shore and drive them to Mexico. Programs dedicated to proving that the escape was possible have recreated the event and proved that it was, indeed, plausible.
A man claiming to be a cousin of Morris came forward in 2011 to tell investigators that he bribed prison guards with envelopes of money. And following the escape, the man said he met with Morris at a park in San Diego. The man’s daughter said she recalled meeting “Dad’s friend, Frank” at the park.
The most convincing argument of their success is next. Keep reading to see!
In 2015, a documentary revealed greeting cards and photos from the Anglin brothers, who were reportedly living in South America. Forensic experts concluded that the photo taken in 1975 of two men who look a lot like the Anglin brothers that it likely was them.
One of the Anglin siblings reportedly admitted, while on his deathbed, that he had been in touch with the criminals and escapees through 1987. There’s still not enough evidence to prove that the men survived, nor is there enough evidence to prove that they didn’t. So, the mystery of how they escaped has been solved, but whether they managed to escape with their lives is inconclusive.
Alcatraz was closed one year after the escape, but its reputation persists. Click “Next” to read more about it!
Our Obsession with Alcatraz
Although the prison was shut down after the seemingly successful escape, it became a landmark, a tourist attraction, and a pop culture obsession. The story of how Morris and the Anglin brothers escaped the inescapable federal prison was ideal fodder for a film.
Clint Eastwood starred as Morris in the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz, which tells the entire tale from the prisoners’ perspective. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the men made it out of the prison alive and well.
Fictional accounts also abound. Read on for more on these Alcatraz movies and shows!
Although completely fictional, the film The Rock, starring Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris, brought Alcatraz back to the public eye in 1996. The plot involves the old prison island and a hostage situation. The FBI must rely on a federal prisoner for help – for he’s the only man to escape Alcatraz and must help them break into the prison to save the day.
A TV series titled Alcatraz tells a more supernatural fictional story about the prisoners and guards, who go missing from the prison in 1963 when they were all supposed to be transferred. The men who had disappeared begin to reappear in San Francisco, but none of them have aged. And the government was expecting their return.