On the night between June 11 and 12, 1962, three criminals slipped undetected out of America’s top maximum security prison — and vanished forever. Or did they? More than half a century later, the escape from Alcatraz continues to baffle experts, and generates a storm of contradicting opinions and facts.
What really happened on that foggy night? How did these criminal masterminds defy all logic to achieve their unprecedented plan? And most intriguing of all, did they actually survive the waters of San Francisco Bay? In light of recent developments, it’s time to take a second look at one of modern history’s greatest mysteries.
An unassuming handwritten letter arrived at a small police station in San Francisco’s Richmond neighborhood. Its chilling, tantalizing words exploded off the page. “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.” Then, a jaw-dropping declaration: “Yes we all made it that night — but barely.”
It was just a new puzzling twist in over half a century of mysteries. The escape from Alcatraz is one of the most legendary prison breaks in history, and the fate of those involved remains unsolved to this day. But, as this cryptic note indicates, they may well have survived. So was it genuine, or was someone playing a twisted prank?
Every American law enforcement agency was still in the dark about the fate of the Alcatraz escapees. Just this one single letter was so shocking that the San Francisco Police Department kept it suppressed from public knowledge for five years. And it all came to a head in January 2018.
Since 2013, endless analyses of the letter’s handwriting and the murky details it describes had all come up inconclusive. It was convincing enough that the FBI decided to officially reopen investigation of the case. What made this revelation so incredible? Why, after 56 years, was this case still so earthshaking?
Jim Albright was the last guard to leave Alcatraz. Two months after that mysterious letter caused the FBI to reopen the case, he was interviewed by local San Francisco news for the 55th anniversary of the prison’s closure. Albright was asked what he thought about the three escapees’ fate.
He noted that the mysterious letter’s author had mentioned he was an 83-year-old with cancer, and Albright believes it was all a ruse to get medical help. “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother,” he said. “I believe they drowned. I really do.” So what really happened?
Perched in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was one of the most notorious prisons on Earth. This maximum-security fortress was where the roughest federal facilities in America sent their most dangerous criminals. By virtue of its location, it kept inmates in utter isolation.
Nicknamed “The Rock”, Alcatraz gained a reputation over 29 years as the end of the line. From its design to its severe regime of guards to its geography, it was a place no inmate would come back from. And many would find that out the hard way.
Alcatraz was not without its grim statistics of those who had tried, and failed, to escape. There had even been a rebellion, where prisoners took over a guard station, requiring intervention by the U.S. Marines. All 14 prison breaks had failed — and often the escapee lost his life.
Understandably, the guards had become convinced that Alcatraz was invincible, and escape would spell certain doom. But one attempt would be different. As it happened, the combination of personalities involved, each with his own expertise, would be more successful than anyone could ever have imagined.
Enter one Frank Lee Morris. By the age of 11, this Washington D.C. native had been orphaned, and any possibility of a bright future quickly crumbled. He used his remarkably high IQ for all the wrong endeavors; first booked at 13, he was already a seasoned criminal by 20.
But this cunning wayward youth would go on to infamy in a way no one could have imagined. He knew how to escape prisons. He’d done it before. And it was precisely this experience that would propel him to lead the most astounding prison break in modern history.
“My name is John Anglin…” the letter to the San Francisco Police Department began. The alleged writer, and his brother Clarence, were the other pieces of the equation in the escape from Alcatraz. And if Frank Lee Morris was the brains, the Anglin brothers were the muscle.
Born in Georgia to a family of thirteen children, their parents were migrant farm workers, traveling with the seasons in search of work. It may have seemed trivial at the time, but it was precisely this lifestyle that taught John and Clarence a critically important skill.
The Anglin parents took their clan north to pick cherries in the summertime, and their search for work took them all the way to Lake Michigan. It was there that John and Clarence learned to excel at swimming — and they did it all in icy waters.
Partners-in-crime from a young age, the two brothers were inseparable, to their own detriment. Just like Frank Morris, they were already on the run from the law by their early teenage years. Time after time, they escaped, robbed, were caught, and escaped again. But that was all about to change.
It was at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary that a chance meeting of criminal masterminds took place. While serving time for robbery, John and Clarence Anglin’s paths crossed that of fellow prisoner Frank Morris, who was serving a ten-year sentence. Like them, he had a habit of flying the coop.
The Anglin brothers continually tried to break out of prison in Atlanta. Morris was transferred to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and successfully escaped, but was caught again a year later for burglary. As punishment, he, and they, were shipped west to a fortress island from which there was no escape — Alcatraz.
But there was one last player: Allen West. He too was a robber, who had made his way through the Southern prison circuit, where he’d met John Anglin. West had a history of escape attempts. And now here he was, in the cell next to them, in Alcatraz.
West was known for his arrogance as well as his craftiness. He was serving his second sentence at The Rock, and had already been there for three years when Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers arrived. And one day while cleaning, he found some old saw blades.
It was purely by chance that West happened upon the saws that someone had forgotten, but they were not necessarily out of place. Inmates at Alcatraz had many resources at their disposal, as they made furniture and clothing for the US military.
West, Morris, and the Anglins were placed in adjacent cells in December 1961, and they had a huge advantage: they were imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Because of this, they were considered less suspect by the guards, and received less attention. But turning a blind eye would be their undoing.
It was the perfect storm of criminal genius. Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, and Allen West began carefully devising a scheme to do the unthinkable: they were going to break out of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island! The impossible feat would require painstaking care to plan.
Any mistake would cost them their lives: guards had instructions to shoot with live bullets. They could never know that something was afoot. To fool them, the team came up with a wild idea. They decided to leave life-sized dummies in their cots. But how would they make them?
Naturally, the brainy Frank Morris took leadership of the group, and each member received his own task. Everyone had to help gather the necessary tools, and each inmate was responsible to dig his own escape route. But crafting the dummies was John and Clarence Anglin’s job.
They used the crudest materials at their disposal. Shaving and mixing everyday objects like soap and toilet paper, they created a substance similar to papier-mâché. They painted them using prison art kits. Lastly, they needed hair — and they had the real thing! They swiped clippings from the prison barber.
A spoon, a saw, an old vacuum cleaner’s motor. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the team gathered any item that could be turned into a chisel. The unassuming everyday objects they thought to use are nothing short of incredible. It required a sharp eye — and a sharper blade.
Digging was a painstaking task. Any evidence had to be carefully concealed with cardboard. They took out the air vents from their cells, and widened the six-by-nine inch holes that were already there. Here’s the craziest part: as they would discover, it wasn’t as hard as it seems.
As the four criminals would find, the walls of Alcatraz itself worked directly to their advantage. The penitentiary was already old and falling apart. The saltwater from San Francisco Bay flowed into pipes for bathing and washing dishes, and it ate away at the pipes.
Leaks from broken pipes trickled into the walls and eroded their foundations, crumbling the cement and making it soft and easy to chisel through. But there was one last crucial detail they needed to figure out — how to disguise the sound of their work! So how did they achieve this?
How is it possible that nobody heard four different men boring holes in prison walls? Music hour! Recently-implemented prison reforms allowed prisoners time to listen to and play their own music. Perfect timing, as that music hour meant a fantastic din echoed through Alcatraz’s halls.
They generally worked on digging the holes for escape between the hours of 5:30 and 9 PM. Frank Morris had an accordion, and would contribute his own music as a cover-up. And as it turned out, the squeeze box had another use to help their escape plan.
Not only could Morris play his accordion to hide the sound of his teammates digging, but it could also be reshaped and used like a bellows to inflate an escape raft! One last piece remained to ensure a clean getaway in the water: fashioning a raft.
Amazingly, the team assembled a collection of more than 50 rain slickers. They glued and sewed the jackets together, and miraculously created an inflatable raft and life preservers. For the paddles, they used wood scraps. Finally, all the equipment was made. It was time to take action.
The air vents in the team’s prison cells led to a utility corridor, and by May 1962, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers had all dug holes in their cell walls that were just big enough to squeeze through. Once through, they would encounter the easiest step of their plan.
The corridor through the pipes was completely unguarded. This meant that the four inmates could easily scale its bars and make their way 30 feet up to Alcatraz’s roof. Under the roof, they gathered the materials they used for the rafts. But there was a problem.
Sure, the corridor under the prison roof was out of sight, but how would they be able to get onto the roof itself? The ceiling was lined with shafts leading to the roof. Unfortunately for the four inmates, almost all of these shafts had been cemented shut.
It appeared they were stuck. Desperately, they kept pushing at the openings of the shafts with a wrench to see if any would budge. Just one loose cover was all it would take — and after a nerve-wracking search, they found it. The plan was complete.
They had every last detail of the equipment, from the eyebrows on the faces of the dummies down to the oars. By June 1962, their escape route was ready. All they had to do was wait for Allen West to finish digging his hole.
Everything was prepared, and the team was ready to surge forward the moment that Allen West gave the signal that he had completed the hole from his cell. Night fell, and with it, indescribable excitement. But suddenly, disaster struck.
As the lights went out across Alcatraz Island on the night of June 11, 1962, Allen West signaled to the gang that he had finished digging. It was go time. The Anglin brothers and Frank Morris scrambled through their escape holes — but Allen West couldn’t make it!
West had made a fatal mistake. He had smoothed the concrete around his vent with cement, and it had hardened. He was stuck. Morris tried to help him, but to no avail. At about 9:30 PM, Morris asked West for a glass of water. He then made a harrowing decision.
In a few terrifying moments, the team realized they would not be able to help Allen West get out. They couldn’t let his problem jeopardize their one chance at freedom. Rafts and vests in hand, they had to complete their mission. West had to be left behind.
The three crossed at least 100 feet of roofing, and shinnied down to the ground along 50 feet of pipes. They crept past the guards outside the showers, down to the foggy shore. There, they inflated the rafts and vests. At 11:30 PM, they set off. They were never seen again.
Still imprisoned in his cell, Allen West refused to give up just yet. Determined, he scraped at the grating of the vent opening. Success: eventually it yielded, and West scrambled out onto the roof. There, he beheld one of the worst sights of his life.
The other three were nowhere to be found. They had already set sail. West knew he wouldn’t make it far swimming. It must have been an agonizing decision to make, but he reluctantly returned to his cell. He went to bed, waiting for what the dawn would reveal.
Alarms howled through the echoing hallways of Alcatraz Island. The morning wake-up call led guards to a chilling discovery: those were in fact the heads of dummies poking out from under the blankets, and now three wanted criminals were missing from the highest security prison fortress in America.
Ready and waiting for the rude awakening was Allen West. He immediately turned himself into authorities. The prison went on lockdown. Over the next ten days, a joint effort of the military, Coast Guard, and police combed the surroundings in search of the escaped inmates.
He’d probably spent the entire night wondering how to get around explaining the gaping hole in the vent of his cell. In the end, Allen West sang like a canary. He complied with authorities and explained the entire escape scheme down to its most minute details.
According to West, the plan was to row 2.4 miles to nearby Angel Island, and after resting, onward to Marin County. They would hijack a car, rob a clothing store, and then part ways. West crowed he was the brains behind it all. And there’s just a few problems with that.
For cooperating with police, West was not charged for conspiracy to escape. But there’s some crucial holes in his story. According to the FBI report, neither a carjacking nor burglary of a clothing store was reported in the Marin County area in the days following the escape.
West was known for his megalomania. Perhaps the others figured he would snitch, and decided on another strategy as they rowed away? In the week after the escape, pieces of raincoat and a paddle were found on the shore of Angel Island. Nothing more. Did they drown? Did they make it?
The waters of San Francisco Bay are fraught with peril. They’re deep and bitingly cold (between 50 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit the night of the escape), with sharp currents and occasional great white sharks. If the raft had failed, even life vests couldn’t have saved the three from hypothermia.
In July 1962, a passing Norwegian freighter reported a body 17 miles from Golden Gate Bridge, wearing what appeared to be a prisoner uniform. However, such a body was never recovered. The FBI’s case was closed on December 31, 1979. But the story was anything but over.
A 2015 documentary from the History Channel dropped several bombshells. Members of the large Anglin family claimed that for many years, they had received signed Christmas cards from John and Clarence. What’s more, the handwriting turned out to be authentic. Problem was, the cards could not be dated.
A decades-old rumor claimed the Anglin brothers had made their way to Brazil. That theory gained new light when a photo surfaced of the two brothers, supposedly snapped by a family friend near their Brazilian farm. According to forensics experts, despite the sunglasses, it’s probably them. So did they make it after all?
Of course, the other 11 Anglin siblings hope John and Clarence are alive. As he lay dying in 2010, Robert Anglin told his family a shocking confession: he had been in touch with his brothers, but had lost contact in 1987.
There’s also reports of two strange women in heavy makeup attending Mother Anglin’s funeral in 1978, which was naturally swarming with FBI. Though the surviving Anglins want to search in Brazil, they could be arrested for trying. To Interpol, the Alcatraz escape remains open.
And then, in 2013, that mysterious letter arrived at the San Francisco Police Department and set news headlines ablaze. If the cryptic text is accepted as real, then it offers a new baffling twist of events. Its supposed author, John Anglin, says he had been living in North Dakota.
He also announced the fates of his two fellow accomplices, Frank Lee Morris and Clarence Anglin: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” But that’s not all. He proposed a deal.
John Anglin, the Alcatraz escapee alleged to be the author of the 2013 letter, claimed he was living just a drive away from San Francisco, in Southern California. He said he was very ill with cancer, and wanted help, even at the cost of returning to prison.
Desperate for help, he offered the following: “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.” What would law enforcement decide?
Once the letter made it to the hands of the FBI, they scrutinized it for more clues. Understandably, absolutely no decision could be reached regarding the author’s proposal until it could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was indeed John Anglin.
The page was scoured for fingerprints. Its text was compared to handwriting samples from the three Alcatraz escapees. The results came up inconclusive, but according to the San Francisco news station that broke the story, this FBI analysis “means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”
Unlike the FBI, the US Marshals Service never officially closed the case of the escape from Alcatraz. They have stated that it is indeed possible that the three suspects survived, but they don’t think that the 2013 letter was real. Regardless, they issued a warning.
In a statement following the letter’s publication in 2018, the US Marshals Service harshly cautioned: “There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens.” They will keep searching until the suspects reach age 99, or are proven deceased.
Dutch programmers came forward with an incredible finding in 2014 that contradicted the FBI. They built a digital model to study water currents in San Francisco Bay around Alcatraz. They ‘released’ a raft northbound every half hour between 10 PM and 4 AM, the time frame of the escape.
A discovery: if the trio had left before 11 PM, they would have been swept to sea. But assuming the group left around 11:30 PM, the tidal currents would have deposited them right in Marin County! They may indeed have escaped, and survived!
Whether we choose to believe the sensational 2013 letter or not, far too many tantalizing questions remain totally unanswered. If we assume the trio who escaped from Alcatraz are alive (despite what the letter claims), then Frank Lee Morris is 92, John Anglin is 88, and Clarence Anglin is 87.
There is one glaring fact that remains: the case is still, for all intents and purposes, open. If they are ever discovered, they are still considered accountable for their crimes by all law enforcement agencies. All we can do is weigh the clues for and against, and decide for ourselves.
Sources: San Francisco CBS, www.alcatrazhistory.com, FBI Media