It is the most famous prison escape in history. It has been the subject of TV shows and a Clint Eastwood movie. But the question has never been definitively answered–did Frank Morris, John Anglin and his brother Clarence Anglin actually escape from Alcatraz Prison in a homemade rubber raft?
Alcatraz inmates Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin.
In 1850, the US Government designated the tiny island of Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay, as the location for a cannon fort to protect the entrance to the harbor. A lighthouse was also constructed. But the US Army realized that the island’s location, 1.5 miles out in San Francisco Bay and surrounded by rough currents and cold water (averaging 50-55 degrees), made it a perfect place for a high-security prison. By the time of the Civil War, the island’s cannons had disappeared, and the 22-acre island had become a military prison known as “The Rock”. In 1933, the Army transferred ownership of Alcatraz to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who used it as a super-high security facility where high-profile Federal prisoners (including gangsters Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly) and those who had demonstrated a propensity for rules violations or escape attempts (such as Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz”) could be kept.
Prison authorities considered Alcatraz island to be “escape-proof”, pointing out that the water was cold enough to kill a submerged man in less than half an hour, the nearest land was a mile and a half away, and the tidal currents were very strong in the channels. The prison also encouraged the belief in the prisoners that San Francisco Bay was inhabited by sharks, but in reality the only sharks in the area are small bottom-feeders that are harmless to people. The real dangers for potential escapees were the cold water and the currents.
But it had already been demonstrated that those dangers could be beaten. During its 80 years as a military prison, Alcatraz had seen a total of 80 prisoners make 29 escape attempts, during which 62 were captured during the attempt, one drowned, and 17 disappeared and were never heard from again. But in one of those attempts, in November 1918, four prisoners used a homemade wooden raft to get off the island. Military officials at first assumed they had been swept out into the Pacific Ocean by the strong currents and presumably drowned, but they were shortly later sighted at Sutro Forest, on the mainland, after having successfully crossed the treacherous waters. Only one of the four was recaptured. The other three disappeared.
During Alcatraz’s years as a Federal Prison, there were 14 escape attempts by 36 people (two prisoners attempted escape twice). Of these, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned, and 23 were recaptured. Five disappeared.
The first Federal prisoners to actually make it off the island were Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, who in December 1937 filed through the bars of their cell window, ran to the water’s edge, and swam for it. There was a thunderstorm raging at the time, and it was presumed by officials that they drowned in the rough waters, though no bodies were ever recovered. They are listed as “disappeared”.
In 1961, Alcatraz inmate Frank Morris began planning an escape. An orphan who had been in and out of jail for most of his life, Morris had an IQ of 135 and was a meticulous planner. He had been transferred to Alcatraz the year before after briefly escaping several other Federal prisons. His Alcatraz escape plan was one of the most elaborate and complex ever concocted.
Morris had noticed that the small metal ventilation grill in the wall of his cell opened out into a small utility corridor on the other side of his cell wall, and realized that if he could get through into the utility space, he could climb up to the outside roof of the building. But he would need a tool of some sort to dig his way around the metal grate and through the concrete wall. So he approached a number of other prisoners for help. Two recently-arrived Alcatraz inmates were brothers John and Clarence Anglin, who had known Morris in the Atlanta Penitentiary and who had been sent to the Rock for escape attempts. John Anglin also knew Allen West, who occupied the cell next to Morris’s. These four would be making the actual escape attempt. Other prisoners were recruited to help out with various parts of the plan–obtaining necessary tools or materials. In all, at least a dozen prisoners may have had some role in the escape.
After obtaining some metal spoons from the kitchen which they sharpened, the four began to carefully chip away at the concrete wall surrounding the metal ventilation grates. Then, to speed up the process, they made a series of improvised power drills from small motors they were able to obtain, including the motor from a broken vacuum cleaner. With these, they drilled a series of holes around the section of wall surrounding the vent and chipped away the cement between them (hiding the noise by playing the accordion), until they were able to lift out the whole section of wall. To hide their work from the guards during the day, they made replicas of the grate and wall from cardboard and cigar boxes, which slid into place and covered the holes.
Once Morris and the Anglin brothers had enlarged the holes to the point where they could crawl through and enter the utility space, they began working on the next phase of the plan. First, they drilled into the cement around one of the roof vents, until they were able to remove it and make an opening to the outside. Then, knowing that it was too dangerous to try to swim the freezing currents, Morris decided to make a raft to paddle the 1.5 miles to nearby Angel Island, before swimming the narrow channel from there to the mainland. Once ashore in San Francisco, they planned to steal a car, steal some civilian clothing, and make their escape.
To make the rafts, Morris made deals with other inmates to obtain over 50 rubber raincoats and a supply of waterproof glue from the prison workshop. Each night, the three would slip out of their cell through the holes they had dug in the wall, climb up to the roof of the cellblock where they could not be seen, and meticulously glue pieces of raincoat together to form an inflatable pontoon raft big enough to hold all four of the plotters. West was assigned the task of making paddles out of scraps of wood, and gluing together sheets of rubber from the raincoats to make life-vests for all of them. A musical accordion was modified to make an air pump that could be used to inflate the raft and the life-vests. Because West did not need to leave his cell to do this work, he dd not dig his section of cell wall all the way through.
To give themselves enough time to paddle away from the island, the plotters needed some way to fool the guards during the nightly bed-checks. So, using smuggled chicken wire, plaster, soap and toilet paper, they each made a lifelike fake head, which they painted with prisoner art kits and covered with real human hair smuggled in from the barber shop.
The dummy heads used in the escape
On June 11, 1962, after over half a year of meticulous planning and work, everything was ready. Morris gave word that they would go that night after lights-out. At 9:30pm, Morris and the Anglin brothers placed their dummy heads on their pillow, placed a duffel bag under their blanket to look like a sleeping person, crawled out through the removed grate, and met outside West’s cell to help him break through into the utility space. West, however, had used a cement mixture to cover parts of the hole to hide it from guards, and now it was too hard for them to break and he was unable to get through. Morris and the Anglins decided to leave without him.
After removing the metal vent and reaching the roof, the three ran across the building, carrying their raft, life-vests and paddles, then climbed down a pipe to the ground and dashed for shore, where they used the improvised air pump to inflate the raft and their vests–and pushed off into San Francisco Bay. They were never seen again.
At 7:15 the next morning, as one of the guards was doing a routine bed check, he came upon what he thought was Frank Morris still asleep in bed. Reaching in to smack him on the head to awaken him, the guard was shocked when the “head” rolled off the bed and onto the floor. At first, the guard thought Morris had been murdered by an inmate who had decapitated him, but a minute later he realized that the “head” was a fake, and sounded the escape alarm. A search of the prisoner’s cells quickly revealed that both of the Anglin brothers were gone too, that holes had been dug into the wall of their cell, and that Allen West’s cell had a similar hole. West was interrogated and revealed the whole plan (somewhat boastfully asserting that the whole scheme had been his idea). On the roof of the cellblock, guards found the tools, glue, and rubber raincoat scraps that had been used to make the raft.
Police boats crisscrossed the Bay searching for signs of the escapees. They found a crudely-made wooden paddle, a plastic bundle containing letters and photos belonging to the Anglin brothers, bits of rubber, and a crude rubber life-vest washed up on the shore of Angel Island. On July 17, five weeks after the escape, a Norwegian freighter departing San Francisco Bay reported seeing a dead body floating just outside the Golden Gate bridge, face down, wearing light blue clothing and a dark blue Navy pea coat–an exact match for the prison clothing worn by the three escapees.
Years later, two documents were found in the FBI archives, reporting that the rubber raft had been found intact and abandoned on Angel Island–and that a blue Chevrolet car had been reported stolen in the area by three men. The second report added the detail that footprints were seen leading away from the raft. No other documents, however, from the police, Coast Guard or FBI, mention any such findings. Most investigators have concluded that it is a mistaken reference to the pieces of material found onshore. Others have concluded that it is evidence of an FBI coverup.
A paddle and life-vest found floating in San Francisco Bay.
So, did the three men make it? It seems to depend largely upon what you want to believe. The FBI cited several reasons for concluding that they had all died in the Bay: the dead body found by the Norwegian freighter matched the description of prison clothing; the pieces of material found washed up on shore suggests the raft broke apart in the Bay and dumped the men into the water, which seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the improvised valve on the recovered life-vest had failed and was heavily covered with teethmarks, indicating an unsuccessful attempt to hold it closed in someone’s mouth; none of the three was ever heard from after the presumed escape–they never contacted any of their family members or friends, and never turned up anywhere else. But a large contingent of theorists continues to assert that Morris and the Anglin brothers made it to freedom–they cite the anomalous FBI report of footprints near an intact raft and a stolen car, and cite the examples of several people who have successfully duplicated the feat in homemade rafts, including the 1918 escape.
In March 1963, the Federal Prison at Alcatraz was closed down. It was becoming too expensive to supply (by boat) all the water, fuel, food etc that was necessary to run the prison. The remaining prisoners were transferred to other jails, and The Rock was abandoned. In 1969, the island was occupied by a group of Native American activists who claimed ownership. The activists set up an Indian cultural center on the old prison grounds and occupied Alcatraz until being removed by Federal authorities in 1971. A year later, Alcatraz was designated as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Guided tours are now given of the prison grounds.