Alcatraz: The Unsolved Escape Story

Alcatraz Island is a former prison located in San Francisco Bay, about a mile and a quarter offshore from the city. Alcatraz ran as a federal prison from 1934 until 1963 when Robert Kennedy ordered the prison to be closed for multiple reasons, including its cost to operate. Over its active years, Alcatraz was considered the prison for some of the worst criminals in the United States, being locked on an island seemingly unable to escape. Over its 29 years of operation, only 36 prisoners made escape attempts, 23 still survived their attempts at escape while six were shot and killed, which goes to show that it was almost impossible to escape Alcatraz. Although this was a widely held notion at the time, in possibly the most daring escape from Alcatraz Island, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin somehow were able to escape Alcatraz. It is widely believed that the three prisoners didn’t make it through their escape, a letter has emerged which alters the way we view this unimaginable escape.


The Letter

In 2018 the FBI confirmed that the San Francisco Police Department had received a letter back in 2013 from a man claiming to be John Anglin, one of the people who escaped from Alcatraz back in 1962.

The contents of this letter have changed the way this escape was viewed, going from been seen as an failed attempt to escape the high security prison, to possibly being one of the most epic prison escapes in history.

No Escape

Alcatraz Island held some of the worst American criminals during its time, such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Morton Sobell. The design of Alcatraz was the reason behind why they shipped all of the worst criminals to the San Francisco Bay.

The island was pretty much inescapable, crowded with high fences, gun towers, in addition to the island being over a mile away from land, was the reasoning people believed escape was nearly impossible. Although many believed this feat to be impossible, many prisoners still attempted to escape, with almost all of their attempts failing.

Miserable Treatment

Another reason Alcatraz was considered one of the worst prisons in America was due to the treatment of its inmates. Many people claim that the conditions at Alcatraz were far worse than that of many other high security prisons, with its living standards and food quality being far lower than others.

Prisoners of Alcatraz knew that they had it far more difficult than prisoners in other penitentiary’s, which is why they were always desperate for escape. Although most inmates were desperate to leave the hell that was Alcatraz, they all knew that escape was nearly impossible.

Escape Attempts Prior to 1962

Although most knew it was impossible, inmates still attempted to escape the penitentiary island to get back the freedom they longed for. As stated earlier, prior to 1962 there had been 36 escape attempts, with eight prisoners being killed by guards, and five died in the waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Although no one had successfully escaped up until 1962, the idea that people were willing to try to escape gave other prisoners hope of escape, which is why these attempts even occurred.

The Great Escape

A stated before, all these attempts for escape gave other inmates hope for themselves, which is why in 1962, one of the most miraculous escapes ever was attempted by three inmates. Brothers John and Clarence Anglin, along with Frank Morris planned an escape from the dreadful island.

These three men managed to devise a plan in which they would escape Alcatraz, and although we have no confirmation that they successfully escaped, this story is still well regarded as the greatest prison escape ever. Lets look into the three men who devised what is considered the most well known prison escape ever.

Anglin Brothers

John and Clarence Anglin were brothers who began a life of crime together at the young age 14, but only began teaming up to work together in the life of crime in the 1950’s. They targeted closed stores to rob because they didn’t want to injure anyone, and claim to have used a weapon only once during a bank robbery, but it was apparently only a fake toy gun.

This goes to show that the Anglin brothers were supposedly not violent people, but were only trying to make a living for themselves. The two served time in three prisons, attempting escape at them all but ultimately failing before being transferred to Alcatraz.

Frank Morris

Morris, an orphan at age 11, was convicted for his first crime at 13, and continued this trend throughout his teenage years, where he was later arrested for armed robbery, and narcotics.

After stints in multiple penitentiaries, Morris escaped the Louisiana State Penitentiary while in the middle of a 10 year sentence for robbing a bank. He was found and captured a year after escaping, which is when he was sent to Alcatraz. It is reported that Morris was in the top 2% of the population in intelligence, which definitely played a factor in his multiple successful escape attempts.

The Plot

The three prisoners plotted their escape of Alcatraz even though they knew the chances of succeeding were extremely low. It definitely helped their care that Morris was an apparent genius, and had already successfully broken out of prison in the past.

Although Morris was the main brain behind the plan, all three individuals were needed to successfully escape. They began to grow confident in their plan, and truly believed that they were soon going to be free from the hell that was Alcatraz.

Creative Inventors

The trios plan involved a lot of creativity and smuggling, but they finally found a way they could escape their cells. The three criminals created drills from a vacuum cleaner to create a whole where the air vent was in their cells.

This is where one should be asking how they got away with drilling a hole in the wall in their cell. This is where the plan got extremely risky in that Morris would play his accordion to cover up the noise of the drill. This is what enabled the three prisoners to get away with drilling holes in their cells.

Paper-Mache Deception

Using supplies from the Alcatraz art studio (yes, Alcatraz apparently had an art studio), the prisoners created fake paper-mache heads of themselves. While working on their escape, they would put the paper-mache head on the pillow and tuck the covers over it so only the top of the head would be showing.

They did this because in order to escape, they needed to continue drilling even inside the walls, so the paper-mache head would make it seam like the prisoners were still in their cell when the guards came around, when in reality they were in the walls of Alcatraz, digging towards their escape.

Rode the Raft

The next step after drilling for the three prisoners was figuring out a way to get across the water without drowning, freezing, or being caught during their escape. The three devised a genius plan which involved a lot of smuggling.

The three plotted to use raincoats to create a small type of raft, and bribed guards to acquire the necessary amount of coats. They then somehow turned all of these raincoats into a small inflatable boat, which is how they would make it back to the American shore.

The Actual Escape

Following months of preparation the three prisoners finally decided upon what night they would attempt their escape from Alcatraz. Everything needed to go perfectly for them to actually pull off this escape, so they knew they had to be efficient in carrying out their plan.

They wriggled their way through the holes in the wall they created, which were barely big enough to fit a full grown human. The hole they made got them outside the walls near the edge of the island, and after one last hop of a fence, it was finally time to put the raincoats to use, and finally be free men again.

The Search Party

After realizing that the three prisoners were not in their cells and had somehow escaped, the guards sounded the alarm and started searching for any possible clues as to where the three inmates fled to.

After a few days of searching for clues, the guards were unable to trace the prisoners, and wound up putting a warrant out for their arrest. Although this warrant was out there, no one was in the San Francisco area was able to identify any of the three criminals.

Possible Scenarios

During the search, most thought that the three prisoners had failed to make it across the San Francisco Bay, and drowned in the water on the way to the shore. There were a flurry of reasons as to why no one thought the prisoners survived their trip through the bay, one being that the water was incredibly cold, making it very difficult to navigate with the freezing water splashing all over you.

A few other reasons are that the current of the bay actually goes outward, into the middle of the ocean, in addition to their being many sharks waiting for a nice meal. These three reasons combined to make people believe that there was no chance that the prisoners successfully escaped Alcatraz.

A Mystery Unsolved

Although it is pretty much guaranteed that the prisoners made it to the water, due to the fact that one of their paddles was recovered, but the rest of their story is a complete mystery.

As the guards shifted their focus from finding the prisoners, to figuring out exactly how they escaped, they were shocked at how well planned and efficient their escape was.

All These Years Later

As time went by, and no clues were fond regarding what happened to the prisoners, the case came to a close. Due to the lack of clues regarding their whereabouts, it was widely assumed that the prisoners did not survive their escape.

But over 50 years after the daring escape, the FBI received a letter which brought this infamous case back into the spotlight. The letter they received was written by someone claiming to be John Anglin, and wanted to inform the FBI of their successful escape from Alcatraz over 50 years earlier. The question now is, how can we confirm that this letter was actually written by John Anglin?

The Story of Their Survival

According to Anglin’s letter, the prisoners made it to the Mexican border without being caught. The trio made their way down to Brazil, South America, where they lived out the remainder of their lives in peace and freedom.

Years before the FBI received this letter from Anglin, a picture surfaced of what was believed by many to be the Anglin brothers living seemingly peaceful lives in Brazil, to the shock of everyone including the FBI.

The Reason Behind The Letter

In his letter to the FBI, John Anglin claims that the two other prisoners, brother Clarence, and Frank Morris, had passed away in 2008 and 2005 respectively, and was the only remaining member of the trio alive.

The ultimate goal of Anglin’s letter was to make a deal with the FBI. It turns out that this man claiming to be John Anglin has cancer, and wanted to make a deal in which he’d turn himself in and serve his time in exchange for cancer treatment. Now, out of the blue, the case that was an unsolved mystery is thrown back into the spotlight.

Detective Work

Although the FBI didn’t believe that there was any truth to this letter, the possibility of finding the only survivor of this infamous escape from Alcatraz definitely intrigued them, making it impossible to ignore.

Although the idea of reaching out to the FBI in an attempt to cure cancer seemed somewhat feasible, they also figured that taking this course of action at his old age was a bit unrealistic, so instead of jumping to conclusions, they decided to go a different route.

What Are The Odds?

After doing their fair share of research, the FBI decided it was extremely unlikely that this letter actually came from John Anglin. They figured that it was not only unlikely that he would have survived this long, but also doubtful that he would turn himself in all of these years later.

To confirm their belief on the matter, the FBI ran a series of tests, including DNA, fingerprint, and even compared the writing of the letter to John Anglin’s writing when he was locked in Alcatraz. The results they received from these tests were extremely shocking.

False Hope

After running all of these tests, the FBI concluded that the letter they received was not actually from John Anglin. The DNA tests didn’t match to go along with the handwriting samples.

The FBI concluded that there was no way that John Anglin could have written the letter they received. The authorities figured that the letter was more of a joke to get the attention of the cops, and create a rather large story for the media. And now that this matter had been resolved, the case of the three prisoners still remained unsolved.

Back To a Cold Case

Although it seemed like there was some new hope in solving this case, every piece of evidence wound up crumbling this back into a cold case. Although it is an extremely popular story, one which many Americans would love to have concluded, this instance goes to show that the case will likely remain unsolved.

We are able to come up with our own conclusions as to what happened, with many people who have been involved with this case believing that there was no way these convicts could have made it past the bay. Even for the people that do believe they escaped and made it to freedom, there is a very low chance that any of the three are still alive today.

What Do You Believe Happened?

This story has been a major part of American pop culture and history, with Clint Eastwood’s rendition of the escape, titled “Escape From Alcatraz,” being regarded as one of the best movies ever created.

Everyone has their own opinion on what actually happened to Frank Morris, and Clarence and John Anglin, so what do you think happened to these infamous criminals?