The Real-Life Story Behind The Great Escape From Alcatraz – By Stephanie Faratiana48 views
Once upon a time, Alcatraz was one of the world’s most notorious penitentiaries. Nobody thought that escape was remotely possible. We’ve heard the stories of at least 36 prisoners who tried to break out, but all had failed in the attempt.
Then, one day in June of 1962, the world was shocked. Three men took the leap into the dangerous waves of San Francisco Bay and nobody heard from them again… until one day.
In January of 2018, the police got a shadowy letter that turned everything they thought upside down and even compelled the FBI to restart their age-old investigation.
Keep reading to hear the harrowing and mind-blowing tale of the greatest escape—ever. What really happened to those men who managed to get out of Alcatraz?
- A Letter from John Anglin
It was on a day just like any other. Then, out of the blue, the San Francisco Police Department received a sensational letter that they just couldn’t believe to be true. It said, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.”
This very escape, the one that he claims to have pulled off, is one of the greatest mysteries in all of US history. When it happened, the officials claimed that the three men perished in the freezing waters. But who could say for certain? Was this letter true or just a fake trying to stir up some sensation? What was the motivation?
- The Incredible Post
For many years after the incident, this escape from Alcatraz left countless law enforcement agents completely clueless. And yet, out of no-where, this incredible piece of post came to the office, claiming that the truth may yet be known. What really happened on that night?
The San Francisco Police Department got the letter in 2013, but they had to keep quiet about it for many years. This is because it contained enough info for the FBI to get back to work on the case. They didn’t tell a soul until January of 2018.
- The Great Escape
Prior to shutting its doors in 1963, Alcatraz was the most feared and well-guarded jail in the entire world. This high-security prison was planned with the sole purpose of keeping the worst of the worst criminals well away from the rest of the world.
Over the course of its 29-year run, dozens of inmates had tried to get out. None had succeeded. How was it possible that these three men could break out of such tough security? What did they do that was so different?
- Careful Planning
While the careful planning stage was easy, putting it into practice was a whole different story. They would need everything to go off just perfectly if they wanted to be successful. Everyone who had ever tried to overcome this impossible feat had failed. What would be special this time?
Before this fateful night, nobody had escaped. 23 of the would-be escapees were caught in the act, six were shot to death, two drowned in the bay, and another two were said to be “missing or presumed drowned.”
- Putting It into Motion
The men who decided to put this famous plan into action were two brothers named Clarence and John Anglin, alongside Allen West and Frank Lee Morris. These four guys occupied nearby cells, meaning they had easy contact and plenty of time to cook up their grand escape plan.
It was not the first time these criminals had spent time together. The Anglin brothers were familiar with Morris from a prison in Atlanta. Now, together in Alcatraz, this plan would test their true mettle. Would they be brave enough? Could they pull enough resources together?
- Frank Lee Morris
Frank Lee Morris, a hardened criminal, was no stranger to breaking out of prison. Through his skills, brains, and slyness, he had escaped in the past. When he was orphaned at the age of 11 years old, he drifted from one foster home to the next, learning how to fend for himself and taking on an independent streak.
Morris was an agitator from an early age, and he was even convicted for the first time at just 13 years old. Still, nobody could guess what the history books would say about this troublemaker. He is now known as the man in charge of the Great Escape from Alcatraz.
- Regular Jail-Rat
Throughout his adult life, Morris was a regular jail-rat, evening spending time at the infamous “Alcatraz of the South,” Louisiana State Penitentiary. It may sound like a rough place, yet Morris was even tougher.
After robbing a bank, Frank Lee Morris was sentenced to 10 years of hard time. And yet, against all the odds, he escaped. He ran loose as an outlaw for a whole year before he was re-arrested, again during a robbery. This time, they didn’t want to take any chances. They sent him to Alcatraz.
- The Anglin Brothers
Frank couldn’t get off “The Rock” alone though; he needed some help. So, he recruited the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, alongside a man named Allen West. The brothers hailed from Georgia and were raised in Florida when their parents moved there for work. Mom and dad were seasonal workers, blowing around to wherever the next job was.
Every June, the entire Anglin clan, which contained 13 children in all, would head north to pick cherries. The skills that the brothers learned in these years would prove invaluable to escaping from Alcatraz.
- Skilled Criminals
John and Clarence were best friends growing up and would eventually end up becoming partners in crime. During their childhoods, the Anglins headed north to pick cherries, even heading up as far as Lake Michigan. At this time, the two brothers enjoyed swimming a lot and became expert swimmers.
That skill would certainly prove invaluable in their later years. Once the two grew up, they went into the bank robbing business. This lifestyle would eventually lead to their arrest in 1956.
But this was just the beginning…
- Creating the Team
While serving time in Atlanta, the Anglins tried to escape on many occasions. This got them a one-way ticket to Alcatraz.
Once they were locked up on The Rock, they got together with Frank Lee Morris, the ringleader of the escape. Along with Allen West, this team came together with a lot of jail-breaking experience between them. They began plotting the impossible task ahead of them.
- Getting Everything Together
Before they could put their plan into action, they had to get everything ready, including all the tools that they would need if they wanted to pull off their master plan. Luckily for them, Alcatraz wasn’t just a prison: it was also a factory.
There, prisoners made clothes, shoes, and furniture for the American military. From this work, they were able to sneak off some useful goods. Plus, this team was fairly lucky, being some of the few non-violent offenders locked up on “The Rock.”
The guards may have paid them less attention than some of the other more seemingly nefarious inmates.
- The Goods
Slowly, the team began to implement their scheme. It was complicated, even ingenious to a certain point. In addition to getting out of the toughest prison in the world, they also planned to leave back dummies to prevent the alarm from sounding.
Even beyond this, they had to think of how they would get off the island if and when they managed to escape the prison walls. How would they get past the guards?
Remember, the guards back then were no joke. If they saw the gang trying to escape, they would shoot on sight.
- The Dummies
Each teammate had his own part to play, even in addition to the daunting task of breaking out of their jail cells. The Anglins were set with the task of making decoy heads that they would leave behind in their beds.
Using toilet paper, soap wax, and hair that they stole from the Alcatraz barber shop, they created make-shift dummy heads. Morris, on the other hand, was set with the job of creating an accordion-esque tool that would blow up their life jackets and their raft.
- Digging Out
Another matter that they had to take care of was creating tools to dig out of their cells and unscrew the vent bolts. Somehow, they created makeshift picks and wrenches out of ordinary objects that they stole, like cafeteria spoons and pieces of wood from the workshop.
Each and every day, from 5:30 to approximately 9 PM, they toiled away, chipping a hole big enough to fit through. They took off the vents in their cells and then used their home-made picks to make the holes bigger.
- An Aging Prison
One thing that certainly helped the guys was the fact that Alcatraz was an aging prison. It was showing signs of age and deterioration. The saltwater that went through the pipes, both for washing dishes and showering, eventually wrecked the pipes, causing that same water to seep out into the walls.
As time went on, that salty water corroded the cement, making it loose and crumbly. On top of this, that water was a bit warm so that nobody could ever get accustomed to the frigid waters that they would encounter out in the Bay.
- Covering the Noise
You may be wondering why nobody heard them chiseling out the cement. The fact is that they were hidden behind a wall of sound. Because of prison reform in the 60’s, prisoners were given a music hour that created a raucous noise all throughout the prison.
Whenever he could, Morris would loudly play his accordion to cover up the sounds of the others banging on the cement. The holes led to an unguarded utility hall behind their cells that housed many pipes.
- Climbing Out
Once they finally made holes big enough to crawl out of, they could then go to the next phase of the operation: climbing up three stories to the roof. From there the real task would begin.
At the top of the utility hall, they needed to pry open one of the large shafts to access the roof. However, much to their chagrin, most of these shafts were cemented closed. At last, they found one that they could force open with their wrench.
- Raft and Vests
Once May of 1962 came around, the Anglins and Morris had chipped holes in their walls big enough that they could just squeeze through. That was all that was necessary.
During this time, they also fabricated some make-shift life vests and a raft by gluing and stitching together a bunch of raincoats. To make this, they used over 50 raincoats—and it certainly would be needed if they didn’t want to drown in the freezing waves.
- It’s Go-Time
Now that they had all of their instruments and plans in place, they just needed to wait for Allen West to chisel out a hole in his cell. At long last, in June of 1962, West sent out the signal to his cohorts to indicate that they had indeed finished digging his hole.
And yet, not everything would go according to plan. Nobody could have possibly predicted what happened next…
- The First Move
As soon as it was time for lights-out, the team made their first move. None of them could have known if they would make it out alive. Though they all worried for their own survival, they were too tempted by the idea of living on the outside, free as a bird.
They were ready to risk their lives to get out of Alcatraz. Their hormones were on fire, and they couldn’t contain their excitement at the thought of at last getting out. They moved quickly, set out their dummies, and climbed through the holes in their cells.
- Not According to Plan
Morris and the Anglins quickly crawled out of their cells, but it wasn’t so easy for poor Allen West. Though he had finally given the signal that his hole was good to go, it seems that he had a lapse of judgement in regard to the size of the hole and how easily he could fit through it.
Frank Lee Morris did everything he could to try and assist West, but he was stuck. By 9:30 PM, Morris requested that West give him some water. They then decided that they would have to abandon West.
- Man Down
After planning and preparing together for months, it was no easy task to leave West behind. But they were running out of time and options. If they made a lot of noise trying to increase the size of the hole, the guards would be on them in no time.
So, West was a man down. Who knows? Maybe it was a good thing that the raft would have to support one less man. The three remaining guys began climbing up through the plumbing in the utility hall, 30 feet towards the rooftop.
- The Final Descent
Once they had climbed on top of the jailhouse roof, their hearts were racing in their chests. The gang traversed no less than 100 feet over the roof, and then began their final descent. They scrambled down 50 feet of piping that was attached to the side of the building and eventually made it to the ground, near the shower area.
There, they stealthily crept past the guards. They went by unnoticed, and at last made it to the shoreline. There they began the final phase of their operation, inflating their life jackets and raft.
24. Sounding the Alarm
And that was that. Nobody ever saw or heard from the Anglins or Morris again. Around 11:30 PM, they braved the waters of San Francisco Bay in their makeshift raft, leaving The Rock for good. Nobody even realized that they were gone until the next morning.
Early that morning, the Alcatraz inmates awoke to the startling sound of the alarm going haywire. They were puzzled. Nobody, they thought, could possibly escape from this impenetrable place. It was impossible—or so they thought…
- Free at Last
Even though West had been left behind, he was still determined to break out with the rest of them. He continued to work on his hole, eventually slipping out to the utility hall. With excitement in his heart, he climbed up after the others.
By the time he got to the shore, there was nobody in sight. Then he was left with a difficult decision: try to swim to shore, a task that would most likely be the end of him, or crawl back to his cell.
- The Morning After
After some time, Allen West decided that life was too precious and went back to the safety of his warm jail cell. There, he waited until the morning after, when the rest of the prison came to the shocking realizing that three prisoners has broken out. The entire prison was searched for the trio.
West decided to cooperate and informed them of everything he knew. But nobody knows whether or not he told the truth. By his account, the gang was going to Angel Island, where they planned to jack a car, steal some clothes, and part ways.
- Problems Arise
However, some problems started to arise. There were no car robberies reported within twelve days after the team escaped. They must have landed somewhere else, either intentionally or not, or they drowned in those cold waters.
Allen West also informed the police that the entire plan had been his design, that he was the mastermind. They called in the FBI to start a formal investigation, trying to get to the bottom of just what had happened on that night.
- Frigid Waves
The authorities scoured the area for days and never found any bodies. Still, they found some personal items floating around the area over the next few days.
Now, that water was really cold, around 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. The San Francisco Bay is known for its year-long frigid waves. Experts say that a person could survive no more than 20 minutes. Even beyond that, the prisoners wouldn’t be used to such cold waters because the water in Alcatraz was intentionally kept warm.
- A Long Investigation
About a month after the grand break out, a Norwegian freighter claimed that they sighted a body about 17 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Apparently, the corpse was dressed in clothes that resembled those of an Alcatraz inmate.
However, since they never found the body and it took too long to file the report, they never found that corpse. A long and drawn-out investigation followed that eventually led to a countless dead-ends and an ultimate termination on December 31, 1979, a total of 17 years after the escape. The FBI decided that the prisoners probably drowned in the icy waters.
Nonetheless, disparate clues kept popping up over the years, and nobody could be sure what was true…
- A Merry Christmas
In 2015, the History Channel released a documentary that showcased new evidence that could confirm the successful escape of the Anglin brothers on that fateful night. For one, they had sent a signed Christmas card to their family, and experts confirmed that the handwriting matched that of the suspect’s. However, they just couldn’t confirm the actual date of delivery.
The Anglin family also showed a picture that was taken of the brothers in Brazil in 1975. After forensic analysis, experts confirm that the men in the picture was “more than likely” the infamous John and Clarence.
Yet this compelling tale was far from over…
- Family Contact
Another fact that eventually came to light that could confirm that they managed a success escape from the impenetrable Rock was a deathbed confession from another one of the Anglin brothers, a man named Robert. He claimed that he had contact with John and Clarence from 1963 to 1987 but eventually lost touch with them.
The truth is that the rest of the Anglin family hasn’t wanted to actively search for John and Clarence in Brazil because Interpol still has an open investigation on them. If they found their siblings, many questions could finally be answered, but they would have to pay for it.
- The Last Survivor
In the incredible 2013 letter from the supposed John Anglin, he both denied and gave credibility to some of the rumors that had been circulating regarding their escape. “Yes we all made it that night but barely!… I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer,” wrote ‘John Anglin.’ “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.”
A bit lower in the letter, he claimed that he could say where he’s been living since the great escape from Alcatraz. He writes, “This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota and a year in Fargo,” which he claimed that he had resided in until 2003. Some sections of the letter were illegible, and yet a BBC report claimed that the letter said he had lived in Seattle “for most of my years after the Escape.”
You’ll never guess what he said next!
- Back in Cali
The author who claimed to be John Anglin then included the simple phrase, “Living in Southern California now.” How could this be? This man, who had pulled off one of the craziest jail-breaks in all of history, was living a mere few hours south of San Francisco?
This supposed John Anglin was in terrible health and desperate for medical attention, even if he had to spend more time behind bars. The letter tried to strike a deal with the authorities. But would they go for it?
- A Strange Deal
The letter says, “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…”
Before they could agree to any deal, the authorities first had to look into the letter. They had to investigate the details of the letter and figure out if they could find any more information hidden in its contents.
The US Marshals said that the FBI lab carefully analyzed the letter to look for DNA traces on the paper, fingerprints, and clues in the handwriting that they could compare to other samples that they had. What did they find?
A local CBS station, KPIX in San Francisco, reported “the FBI’s results were inconclusive.” One expert claimed that the FBI’s conclusion “means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.” Nobody could truly verify the authenticity of the letter.
- No Credible Evidence
At one time, the US Marshals Service claimed that “it is possible” for the three men to have made it out alive. After publishing the letter in January of 2018, a representative from that service said to the Washington Post that they believed that the letter was not real. So, said the same article, “The Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it will do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99.”
Still, at the time that FBI ceased its investigation in 1979, they claimed that “for 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the US or overseas.”
- US Marshals Statement
At the time of the letter’s release, the local CBS station, KPIX, said that they couldn’t name the source of the sensational document. The US Marshals gave a statement in regard to this. They said, “There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens after this escape.”
Remember, the US Marshal had continued to pursue the case even after the FBI has closed their case, so we need to respect their opinion. Still, will we ever know what actually occurred on that fateful night?
- The Case Goes Cold
A team of researchers in 2014 used computer modeling technologies to determine that, if they had in fact left sometime around midnight, then the current would have helped them to reach land alive and well. But what actually transpired?
“There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people,” said Deputy US Marshal Michael Dyke during a 2009 interview with NPR. It looked like the case had run cold nonetheless.
- The Last Guard Left
Jim Albright, the final guard to leave the Alcatraz penitentiary, decided to give an interview with San Francisco’s ABC 7 in March of 2018 to honor the 55th anniversary of Alcatraz’s closing its doors. He was on active duty during the time of the escape, so they asked him whether they thought the men had survived, like in the account of the letter, or if he thinks they had met their end in the cold waters.
He responded, “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned, I really do.” According to his opinion, the author of the letter from ‘John Anglin’ is just someone who wants free cancer treatment.
- Nobody Knows
Still, up to this very day, nobody knows the truth about the fates of Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin. Did they make it or not? We also don’t know if the authorities ever contacted the author of the 2013 letter.
Either way, if they are still alive, John would be 86 years old, Clarence would be 87, and Frank would have just celebrated his 90th birthday. Even if they are old men at this point, the authorities will still be looking for them for at least one more decade.
(source: MSN International)