Officially, there were never any successful escape attempts from California’s notorious Alcatraz Prison. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, Alcatraz is located on the tiny island of the same name in San Francisco Bay. It is about one and a quarter miles from the mainland, outside reasonable swimming distance and surrounded by strong ocean currents. This location afforded it formidable defenses against escape. Between 1934 and 1963, when the prison was operating, only fourteen attempts were made; most of the escapees involved were shot by guards or recaptured.
One exception, however, came in 1962. Prisoners Frank Lee Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin had spent months developing an elaborate plan to get out of the imposing structure, as well as a way to cross San Francisco Bay to the mainland with a makeshift raft. After lights-out on the night of 11 June 1962, the trio decided that the time was right and set their plan in motion. After that, however, they were never seen again.
Arguably the ringleader of the event was Morris, who spent his childhood in a series of foster homes and his teen years on the wrong side of the law. Rumored to be highly intelligent, Morris certainly demonstrated a knack for breaking out of prisons.
This cleverness was insufficient to keep him out of them for long, though. The cycle of Morris getting into trouble and getting out of prison caused Federal officials substantial frustration, and eventually it was decided that this escape spree would end with Morris’s imprisonment at Alcatraz.
On 20 January 1960, the 33-year-old Morris was sent to The Rock. There, he reconnected with some old friends from a federal prison in Atlanta, brothers Clarence and John Anglin. Along with a third brother, the Anglins were in Alcatraz after having been arrested for grand larceny and bank robbery. Both Clarence and John were loud and outspoken. Also, like Morris, they were experienced escape artists.
Though Morris had probably started looking for potential ways to escape the minute he arrived, it would be nearly two years before he and the Anglins began to organize their efforts. They were also joined by fellow inmate Allen West who knew John Anglin from time spent at a Florida state prison. The four prisoners’ cells were relatively close together, which facilitated their plans.
The escape plan had several parts. In preparation, the men constructed a set of papier-mâché heads using materials found around the prison, including real hair clippings collected during their visits to the inmates’ barbershop. The men worked on the model heads in pairs: one kept a lookout for guards. By placing these heads in their beds on the night of the escape, the prisoners hoped to keep their absence from being noticed during the head-count that would take place that evening.
The route towards freedom would be a rarely-used utility corridor which ran behind all of their cells. The prisoners thus proceeded to chip away at the wall – a relatively easy task considering that the wall was water-damaged. They used resourceful invented tools, such as an extra motor from a prison vacuum-cleaner and a chisel created from a spoon reinforced with the metal of a coin. They worked on the holes only during music hour so that the noise would not be obvious, and concealed their work behind rudimentary false walls; in the relative darkness of the cells, this was enough to deceive the prison guards. The next challenge was an air vent covering the corridor. The vent included several fans, so the prisoners removed these and replaced them with false grilles carved from bars of stolen soap.
The easy access to this corridor provided space for construction relating to the next stage of their escape project. Leaving the island by swimming would not be feasible, so the men required a raft in order to reach the mainland. They conceived of a design created from about fifty prison-issued rubber raincoats – some stolen, others donated. The men frequently snuck out of their cells to work on the raft on top of the cellblock. When it was finally completed, it was six feet wide and fourteen feet long. To go with it, the men also built their own life-preservers and plywood paddles.
All this took several months to prepare. Finally, just after lights-out at 9:30 PM on 11 June 1962, Morris decided that the group was ready to make its escape. He and the Anglins retrieved the dummy heads from their hiding place atop the cellblock, placed them in the beds, collected the raft, accessories, and a number of possessions, then left their cells for the last time.
Allen West had been unable to join them, though the reasons for this are unclear. Some sources say that he had not dug enough to loosen his grille properly; others claim that he had reinforced his flimsy false wall with concrete and it had set, sealing him inside his cell. Regardless, the other three went ahead without him. Climbing a set of pipes, they took their raft and belongings thirty feet up to the prison roof, then climbed down the side of the building to the water’s edge. There, they inflated the raft with a stolen concertina, a musical instrument similar to an accordion. At sometime around 10 PM that night they climbed aboard, shoved off, and started paddling. They have never been seen since.
The following morning, guards discovered that the prisoners were missing and that the beds were occupied by disembodied artificial heads. They immediately alerted the FBI. After discovering that Allen West had originally been part of the plot, agents pressed him for information. The plan, he said, had been to paddle to nearby Angel Island, then swim the Raccoon Straits to the Marin Headlands, near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. From there, they intended to steal a car, find a clothing store to rob, and then go their separate ways.
The investigation that included this interview was immense, but there was simply no sign of Morris or of the Anglin brothers. No car-thefts or clothing-store robberies were reported locally in the days following the breakout, and the men did not seem to have had any friends or contacts in San Francisco who could have assisted them with their escape.
Later, fragments of the makeshift raft and some of the prisoners’ personal items were discovered on the shore of Angel Island. These were carefully wrapped to make them waterproof, leading investigators to suspect that the men had drowned since they would not have willingly abandoned their possessions. Also, some time later, a dead man in a prison uniform was discovered at sea. Though authorities suspected it to be the body of one of the three escapees, it had deteriorated too much to be identified.
Officially, the three are recorded as missing and presumed drowned. Red & White Fleet, the company that manages the ferry to present-day Alcatraz, has offered one million dollars for the recapture of the three men; however, there has been no conclusive evidence that any of them survived. The FBI noted that the three men had previously been repeat offenders, but were never arrested again after their escape attempt. This observation cast further doubt on the possibility that they had survived it.
Some recent attention to the story has come from its 2003 appearance on the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters. The San-Francisco-based program examines urban legends via experiments. To investigate what might have happened to Morris and the Anglin brothers on that night in 1962, hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempted to replicate the events of the escape attempt. They constructed a raft using raincoats made from similar material; they waited for a day with similar ocean currents in San Francisco Bay; and, with a third man standing for the third member of the original crossing, they successfully paddled the distance.
The MythBusters’ experiment prompted a new hypothesis suggesting that the men could have reached the Marin Headlands directly with their raft, and ocean currents could have carried their possessions to Angel Island afterwards.
Therefore, the show’s hosts ruled that it was “plausible” that the prisoners may have survived their intricate escape attempt.
Most recently, the story of the escape was re-broadcast on America’s Most Wanted in November 2005. Though the men were officially pronounced dead long ago, the lack of closure to the case keeps the legend alive. So far there has not been any strong evidence to support either outcome, and there perhaps never will be. While it seems likely that the three men perished at sea, some can’t help but wonder whether the clever escape artists – who would all be about eighty by now – could have managed to successfully steal back their freedom after all.