Alcatraz Prison, near San Francisco, was a super tough jail on an island. People thought it was the worst prison globally because it was surrounded by dangerous waters and sharks. 36 prisoners died trying to escape, but no one ever made it until June 1962. Three clever folks finally escaped, and the FBI had to figure out how it happened in 2018 after getting a mysterious letter. Keep reading to learn the whole story.
The Unattainable Task
Alcatraz is like the ultimate scary prison. It’s on a faraway island and was built to lock up the scariest and most dangerous criminals. It’s meant for the toughest and most violent lawbreakers in the U.S.
Frank Morris Lee
The main guy behind the escape plan was Frank Lee Morris. He was a smart and skilled criminal who had a tough childhood. He became an orphan at 11 and got into trouble, getting convicted of a crime at just 13. Despite his rough start, he grew up to be a real pro at planning and pulling off tricky stuff.
Not His First Bull Ride
After a series of small crimes as a teenager, Frank Lee Morris ended up in different prisons across the country. He was moved around until he landed in the “Louisiana State Penitentiary,” nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of the South.’
Once at Alcatraz, or “The Rock,” Frank Lee Morris teamed up with two brothers, Clarence and John Anglin. Later, they joined forces with another guy named Allen West, forming a four-man crew.
The Bond Between Two Brothers
Clarence and John Anglin were close growing up, even working together as a cherry-picking family in Michigan. Their strong bond developed further during their travels, where they swam in Michigan’s lakes—a skill that would prove handy in their later escape plan.
Before Frank Lee Morris
Before ending up at Alcatraz, the Anglin siblings faced a series of failures trying to escape from the Atlanta Penitentiary. Their repeated attempts at rebellion led to their transfer to Alcatraz, where they eventually teamed up with the others.
The plan was simple: break out of jail and swim to the shore. But it was nearly impossible. Remember, 36 other inmates had died trying the same thing before. So, why would this time be any different?
Interestingly, all four escapees had been in the “Atlanta Penitentiary” before ending up at Alcatraz. This shared past might be why they quickly trusted each other and executed the plan. They could have seen themselves as friends due to their common background or maybe even knew each other before heading to California.
Collection Of The Vital Equipment’s
Stuck in their cells all day, the escapees needed resources. Luckily, the jail also acted like a factory. Inmates could earn a ‘living’ by working for the U.S. army, making clothes, furnishings, or shoes.
The four of them began slowly putting their plan into action. Credit is due to their skill, patience, and intelligence. Gathering the resources discreetly for their secret plan required a lot of clever moves.
Every member of the escape team had specific roles to make the plan work. The Anglin brothers played a key part in making dummy heads for all four prisoners, while Frank Lee Morris handled other tasks.
Every night, from about 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., they had to slowly chip away at the rock in their cells to reach the ventilation system. When no one was watching, they removed the grate from their cell and used stolen spoons or bits of wood gathered from their daytime work to nibble away at the rock.
Here Comes the Good News!
Fortunately, even in the 1960s, Alcatraz was an old facility and starting to fall apart. When inmates showered and washed dishes, saltwater passed through the pipes, slowly damaging them. This leakage also seeped into the walls, softening them over time.
You might be wondering how they managed the noise from chipping away at the walls. In the 1960s, inmates were allowed to have music in their rooms every day as part of prison reform. They used this to their advantage—Frank Lee Morris played his accordion loudly every night to cover up the noise of their chipping.
The utility corridor behind the cells was like a free area for the prisoners. After chipping away enough bricks in their cells and making a wide enough gap, they could access the utility corridor and climb to the top.
The Tight Squeeze
In May 1962, the Anglin siblings and Frank Lee Morris were ready to break through their cell walls. The holes they’d chipped away were just big enough, after months of work, to start their escape plan.
The Magical Signal
At this stage, three out of the four inmates were ready to go, but they had to wait for Allen West. He hadn’t finished the hole in his cell because the walls were tougher on his side, making it harder for him to catch up with the rest of the gang.
1, 2, 3 GO! Ready, Set, Go!
No one had ever survived an escape from Alcatraz. They were about to either become the first successful escapees or join the long list of inmates who never made it out alive.
The first obstacle
Morris and the Anglin siblings made it through their holes easily, but Allen, the fourth member, was struggling. He thought he had the right size, but it seemed he had miscalculated. After waiting for months, the three others grew impatient for Allen to finish his cell hole.
Leaving behind their fellow inmate-turned-brother, Allen West, must have been tough for the three remaining inmates. It was their first big challenge. Without West, the raft was lighter, giving the three a better chance of surviving the journey across the water.
The Anglin siblings and Frank Lee Morris easily reached the roof of the cell house. Adrenaline must have surged as they made it to the top, a daunting 100 feet. They were driven to keep moving—if they fell to their death now, all their efforts would have been in vain.
The Alarm Sound Rings Out Loud
After reaching the top, it was the last time anyone heard from Frank Lee Morris, John, and Clarence Anglin. They likely set off into the sea, probably around 11:30 pm that night. When the decoys left in their cells were discovered the next morning, alarms rang out across the island.
Time to Play Catch Up!
Encouraged by the success of the other three, Allen West decided to join them. Once his hole was big enough, he climbed through, hoping to meet up with his friends on the other side of the shore. However, he didn’t have a raft to travel across the water.
Time To Come Out Clean…
Allen West opted to go back to his cell. The risk of facing certain death without the support of his friends was too much. Realizing he was alone, he confessed everything to the wardens in the days following the escape. This is how we have come to know the full story today.
In the 12 days that followed, the San Francisco police were on high alert for the three men planning to steal a car, based on the tip from Allen West. However, no incidents of car theft were ever reported in the region, and the information seemed inconsequential.
The chilly Ocean
When a search was conducted, no bodies were found in the water, suggesting that the escaping prisoners likely made it to the other side. A few personal items that matched Alcatraz’s belongings were discovered, but there were no signs of bodies.
Case Is Closed!
The FBI officially closed the case in 1979 after 17 years. Their conclusion was that the prisoners likely drowned in the waters around San Francisco Bay—despite the absence of bodies, there were also no signs they successfully reached the shore.
The Present System
About a month after the escape, a freighter reported seeing a body 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, dressed identically to the Alcatraz escapees. However, the report was inconclusive as the actual body was not sighted. It raises questions about whether it could have been a hoax intended to discourage further pursuit.
Home For Christmas
In a 2015 History Channel documentary, additional evidence suggesting the survival of the Anglin Brothers emerged. The family received a Christmas card from the brothers with matching handwriting, adding a new layer to the mystery.
Another compelling piece of evidence supporting the survival of the Anglin brothers surfaced. On his deathbed, their brother, Robert, confessed that between 1963 and 1987, he had been in contact with both brothers but eventually lost communication with them. This revelation adds weight to the possibility that they successfully evaded capture.
The Letter That Changed Everything
In January 2018, it was revealed that a letter from someone claiming to be John Anglin was received by the San Francisco Police Department in 2013. This led to the official reopening of the case by the FBI, and since then, efforts have been focused and determined to locate and capture at least one of the three escapees.
One Last Confession?
The letter, purportedly from John Anglin, provided specific details about the escape from Alcatraz in June 1962, involving the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris. The claim was made by someone stating to be John Anglin and mentioned being 83 years old and in poor health due to cancer. This letter has added a mysterious twist to the story and reignited interest in the case.
Where did he live?
The letter, attributed to John Anglin, continued to reveal details about his life after the escape. According to the letter, the writer claimed, “This is the honest and real truth. I could tell you that for (7) seven years, I have been living in Minot, North Dakota, and a year in Fargo [North of Dakota].” These specific details add to the mystery and speculation surrounding the fate of the escaped prisoners.
Remarkably, the letter claims that the writer was currently living in the Southern part of California, just a few miles from where he originally fled. This raises intriguing questions about whether one of the masterminds behind one of history’s greatest escapes had been living in close proximity for all those years. It adds a layer of mystery and speculation to the ongoing investigation.
Striking A Deal
The letter concluded with a conditional offer: “If you announce on TV and promise that I will go to jail for no more than a year and get medical care, I will write back to let you know precisely where I am. This isn’t a joke…” The writer seems to be proposing a deal in exchange for revealing more information about their whereabouts. The conditions add an element of suspense and negotiation to the unfolding story.
A Need For authentication
The FBI scrutinized the letter closely for any trace of DNA that could be left on it. They carefully examined the handwriting to see if it matched any of the letters sent earlier and checked for fingerprints. The reports of these recent events were making headlines by this point, adding a new layer of intrigue to the ongoing investigation.
The U.S. Marshal Service acknowledged the possibility that the men survived their escape, even though no convincing evidence was found. However, their official statement indicated skepticism about the authenticity of the letter. The case remains surrounded by mystery, with various perspectives and uncertainties about the fate of the escapees.
The Guards Perspective
Jim Albright, a former guard at Alcatraz, gave a revealing interview on “ABC7” in March 2018, shedding light on the events. Speaking 55 years after the escape, he expressed his belief that the escapees must have drowned in the water and never made it to San Francisco. Albright’s perspective, based on his experience at the time, adds another viewpoint to the ongoing debate about the fate of the escaped prisoners.
Indeed, to this day, there is no conclusive evidence to confirm whether the men survived their daring escape from Alcatraz. The lack of solid evidence makes it challenging to determine definitively whether they lived or died. If they did manage to make it out and are still alive, they would be in their late 80s and early 90s today, adding an element of mystery and intrigue to one of the most famous prison escapes in history.