The True Story Behind the Great Escape From Alcatraz

Alcatraz, as you may have heard, is notoriously known for being the most remote and isolated prison in the world. Situated on an island (located in San Francisco Bay), the prison was meant to be impossible to escape. In its history as a prison, 36 inmates have attempted to escape, yet none of them succeeded. That is, up until June of 1962.

Three men escaped “The Rock” by jumping into the turbulent waters of the San Francisco Bay and hoped for the best. Those men were never to be seen again – their fates unknown for over 50 years. Many believed they didn’t survive the swim. And then rumors started to spread about their surviving and changing their identities. But the jury was always out on what really happened to the three inmates.

Then in January of 2018, the police received a mysterious letter. The letter’s new information led the FBI to reopen the investigation. Care to know what happened? Here’s the remarkable and true story of The Great Escape.

A Great Escape

Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison, designed to keep the most dangerous criminals away from normal society. Yet, somehow three prisoners managed to dodge all of the prison’s security systems and actually escape. This famous Alcatraz escape has become one of American history’s most notorious unsolved crimes.

A Great Escape

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

After the escape, local officials claimed that the three prisoners drowned. Recently, clues have surfaced that indicate that the prisoners (now elderly) may have actually survived and gotten away.

The clues came from a letter that arrived in 2018, causing the FBI to reopen the investigation, after 56 years.

Frank Lee Morris: the Mastermind

Frank Lee Morris was one of the three prisoners. He was known for his intellect and ability for planning. He was cunning, skilled and very intelligent. At the age of 11, Morris became an orphan, to which he went from foster home to foster home. It was during those years that he learned self-reliance and independence.

Frank Lee Morris: the Mastermind

Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Morris was drawn to trouble. When he was 13, he committed his first crime and was arrested. And that was the start of his long criminal path that eventually led to Alcatraz, and ultimately to his escape.

Frank Morris will go down in history as the man who orchestrated the escape from Alcatraz.

Doing the Unthinkable

With age, Frank Lee Morris continued in his criminal activities and served time in prisons all over the country, eventually ending up in Louisiana’s state penitentiary, known as the “Alcatraz of the South.”

Doing the Unthinkable

Source: Direct Expose

At the time, Frank Lee Morris was sentenced to 10 years for bank robbery, but it was during this sentence that he made his first escape. Morris successfully avoided the authorities for just under a year before he was caught while attempting another robbery. He was arrested taken back to prison. This time to Alcatraz.

The Anglin Brothers

Frank Lee Morris realized that a good prison break wouldn’t be successful if done alone. He needed a team. It was in “The Rock”, that Morris met his accomplices – two brothers named John and Clarence Anglin, as well as another convict named Allen West.

The Anglin Brothers

Source: Newsmax

The Anglin brothers were born in Georgia but grew up in Florida. Their parents were farmers, and their family would travel the country in search of farming projects. The Anglin family, two parents, and 13 children would go North to pick cherries every June.

Little did these parents know what would become of their two sons…

John and Clarence, a Team from the Beginning

John and Clarence were inseparable as kids, thick as the thieves, as some might say. Every summer, when the family traveled North, the Anglin brothers would swim in the ice cold waters of Lake Michigan, becoming known for their extraordinary swimming skills.

John and Clarence, a Team from the Beginning

Source: Anglin Brothers Museum

Call it foreshadowing – these two were setting the scene for their future escape. In their early 20’s, the brothers started heading down a path of crime, pulling off small bank robberies together. They were caught and arrested in 1956. But that was just the beginning…

The Fab Four

While the brothers served time at the Atlanta Penitentiary, they were caught trying to escape on many occasions, gaining a reputation rather quickly. They were sent to Alcatraz, the maximum-security prison. And it was there that they met Frank Lee Morris.

The Fab Four

Source: Alcatraz Cruises

The group of four, including Allen West, was a team of individuals who each had personal experience on escape attempts from more than one prison. They gathered their knowledge and started working on a plan.

The goal? To escape from Alcatraz.

The Ultimate Plan

Their plan to escape was quite simple, but the logistics involved and the means to pull it off were going to be close to impossible. The mission would entail the flawless coordination of the entire team to make it work.

The Ultimate Plan

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

This was, let us remind you, not the first escape attempt of its kind. Over 30 inmates have tried to escape the prison island over the years, yet none were successfully executed. So what made them think their plan would be any different?

It Started in Atlanta

All four members of this escape team were jailed at the Atlanta penitentiary at one point in time. It’s unknown, however, if they all knew each other from that prison before Alcatraz. But John and Clarence definitely met Frank Lee Morris while they were serving time in Atlanta.

It Started in Atlanta

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

During their time in Alcatraz, the four inmates had adjoining cells which must have given them more of an opportunity to assemble and plan their big escape.

Another advantage for the team was their access to materials…

Access to Materials

Alcatraz at that time was a factory as well as a prison, which was a good thing for the group. As part of their sentences, the inmates worked in the factory, which gave them access to all the materials at hand. And there was no shortage of objects as Alcatraz worked for the US military, producing furniture, clothing, and shoes.

Access to Materials

Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Each of the four members were actually non-violent offenders, which was rare in Alcatraz. This also gave them an advantage of slightly less inspection from the guards. And thus they were allowed more freedom to operate.

Complicated Yet Ingenious

As time went by, the team started slowly putting their plan into action, which was complicated but some might even say ingenious. Not only were they going to escape the fortress of Alcatraz, but they were also going to need to leave look-alike dummies in their place.

Complicated Yet Ingenious

Source: Rumor Daily

The plan was layered; getting out of the prison was only part of it – they also had to get off the island and dodge the guards. And back in those days, guards’ orders were to shoot on sight. Therefore, any escape attempt was a deadly risk.

To make sure they did it right, each member had his own task…

Team Work

Each team member was responsible for a different part of the plot, and each inmate had to find a way to get out of his cell on the chosen night. The Anglin brothers were responsible for making fake heads which were to be left behind in the empty beds.

Team Work

Source: Browniebites.net

The dummy heads were created from soap wax, toilet paper, and human hair that they picked off the floor from the Alcatraz barber shop. Morris’s job was to fix up an instrument akin to an accordion for the purpose of inflating life vests and a raft.

Makeshift Digging Tools

The crew also worked together to make tools for digging themselves out of their cells and unscrewing the bolts from the vents. They actually managed to make picks and wrenches from items they found around the prison, like wood from the factory workshop and spoons from the cafeteria.

Makeshift Digging Tools

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

Their daily schedule started at 5:30 pm and they worked until 9:00 pm at night, chipping away at their cell walls making holes that would be big enough to fit through. To speed up the process, they removed the vents and used the picks to make the holes larger.

Luckily for the squad, the prison was in bad shape…

The Prison Was in Bad Shape

Fortunate for them, Alcatraz was an old prison and already in bad shape with weak walls that crumbled easily. The saltwater that would run through the pipes was slowly corroding the pipes and leaking into the prison walls.

The Prison Was in Bad Shape

Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images

With time, the salt wore down the cement. Apparently, the prison authorities kept the water slightly warm to keep inmates from getting used to the cold temperatures of the ice cold waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Disguising the Noise

You might be wondering how it’s possible to bang and chip away without making it obvious. Well, the group was clever in its approach. In the 1960s, the inmates were allowed an hour of music each day. It was during that time that they made a noise.

Disguising the Noise

Source: Sky News

Morris also played his accordion loudly whenever he could, which also concealed any noises they made making the holes. Those holes led to an unguarded utility corridor full of vertical pipes.

Those pipes were their way out…

Climbing to the Roof

The utility corridor that they were going to land in was unguarded and full of pipes. Their plan was to climb the pipes up three stories to the roof. And once they were on the roof, they would hope for the best and continue their escape out to the water.

Climbing to the Roof

Source: FBI.gov

On the building’s roof, they had to use one of the large shafts for roof access. But they would be surprised to see that many shafts were sealed off with cement. They would end up finding an unsealed shaft and use their homemade wrench to pry it open.

May 1962

In May of 1962, the brothers and Morris did a test run and broke through the walls of their cells and got out. The holes they made were just barely large enough for them to fit in, but they somehow managed to squeeze their way out.

May 1962
(Original Caption) Here is one of the cells in Cell Block B in Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay from which three prisoners escaped 6/12. Here is an officer showing the inside of removable section of exit cover.

They made life vests and a raft by stitching and gluing raincoats together. They had to use more than 50 raincoats. These coats were a crucial part of the scheme because they wouldn’t be able to survive the freezing waters without them.

Once out, they had to wait for Allen, the fourth member…

Waiting for Allen West

The three were all set, but they had to wait for Allen West to finish getting his escape hole ready. Once West was ready, they were going to carry out the plan. By June of 1962, the time came, but things weren’t going as planned.

Waiting for Allen West

Frank Lee Morris. Source: Fandom

West finally finished digging the hole. He informed the other members of his gang, but none of them would have predicted what happened once the escape was in action.

June 11, 1962

On June 11, 1962, the gang waited for lights out. All they could think about was if they would succeed and make it out alive. The risks were obvious, but the chance of freedom was just too tempting. Their possible death was worth the gamble.

June 11, 1962

Source: FBI.gov

They were going to risk everything to get away from “The Rock”. Hearts racing, adrenaline coursing through their bodies, the night of the escape arrived. And as soon as the lights went out, the crew planted the dummies in their bunks and squeezed out of their cells.

But as they say, nothing goes as planned…

Things Take a Wrong Turn

Morris and the Anglin brothers successfully slipped out of their cells, but Allen West couldn’t get out of his. He needed to tell the others that the hole he made was ready, but it looks like a miscalculation was made of the size of the hole.

Things Take a Wrong Turn

Source: FBI

Frank Lee Morris was working from the utility corridor while West was working from the inside. As much as they tried to get him through, the hole just wasn’t big enough, and West was essentially stuck. By 9:30 pm, they both decided that West would need to be left behind.

Leaving West Behind

Deciding to leave West behind couldn’t have been an easy decision after many months of working together, but the group wasn’t left with many options. Time was of the essence at that point.

Leaving West Behind

Frank Morris. Source: FBI.gov

West clearly didn’t want to stay behind, but he took one for the team and stayed behind, which made the escape more feasible for the three due to less weight on the raft.

The remaining escapees were ready to start their climb up to the roof…

On the Way Down

The climb up to the jailhouse roof went well for Morris and the brothers. But then they had to cross over 100 feet of the rooftop before they could even begin their descent to the bay. The three men started climbing down 50 feet of piping on the side of the prison to reach the ground.

On the Way Down

Source: FBI.gov

They reached the ground and snuck past the guards’ station. The three team members had to avoid all the other guards on duty as they made their way to the bay’s shore. It was at the shore that they had to inflate the raft and life vests.

Never to be Seen Again

It was after that day that Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again. After they headed out to the bay in their makeshift raft at around 11:30 pm, they vanished. The prison guards didn’t even notice they were missing until the following morning.

Never to be Seen Again

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

But by the next morning, sirens blared across the prison. There was total confusion and awe among the prisoners as well as the guards. Nobody imagined how anyone could actually escape “The Rock”.

They escaped, that was for sure. But now the question was: what happened to them?

He Made it Out After All

Allen West didn’t give up on his plans to escape. Despite being left behind that night, he continued working on digging the hole in his cell and eventually managed to squeeze through. West left his cell and started to follow the rest of the team.

He Made it Out After All

Source: News.com.au

After leaving his cell, West climbed up to the roof, but when he got to the top, the others were already gone. He had no raft, so he had to either swim for it (and risk losing his life) or going back to his cell.

Did He Tell Them Everything?

Allen West decided to play it safe, and he returned to his cell and wait for the morning to see what happened to his team. And so the next morning, after the alarm was raised, every inch of the prison was searched.

Did He Tell Them Everything?

Source: Odyssey

West was given no choice but to cooperate with the authorities. And whether or not he told them everything is still unknown. He did claim, however, that his friends were on their way to Angel Island and were planning to steal clothes and a car.

The plan was for each man to go his separate way…

A Problem with His Confession

There was one problem with West’s “confession.” No car was reported stolen in or around Angel Island within the twelve days following the escape. That means that either they stopped at a different location (and West lied), they landed somewhere else by accident, or Morris and the brothers never even reached the shore.

A Problem with His Confession

Source: Direct Expose

West boasted to the authorities that the whole scheme had been his idea and that he orchestrated the escape. It was then that the prison authorities got the FBI involved. An official investigation was opened to determine if the three convicts survived or not.

The Search of the Bay

The bay around the prison was thoroughly searched, but no bodies were recovered, although some personal items were found floating in the water. The water on the night of the escape was cold, ranging from a temperature of 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Search of the Bay

Photo by Bettmann / Contributor/ Gett Images

According to experts, an adult male would only be able to survive 20 minutes in the bitter waters before there would be a breakdown in bodily functions. And it’s not like the inmates would have been able to prepare physically for the temperatures at Alcatraz because the officials kept the water warm.

So what happened? Did they drown or did they make it out?

17 Years Later…

On December 31, 1979, which was 17 years after the escape, the FBI’s investigation was officially closed. They concluded that that the prisoners drowned in the San Francisco Bay, despite their bodies never being found.

17 Years Later…

Source: PBS

But the US Marshals, however, kept an ongoing investigation. The Deputy US Marshal said in an interview in 2009: “There’s an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn’t give up looking for people.”

Following the Currents

About a month after the escape, there was a body that was spotted by a Norwegian cargo ship about 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. According to those on the ship, the body was in clothes that looked like a prison uniform. But that report took a while to be filed, and the body was never discovered.

Following the Currents

Source: Newz Magazine

Then in 2014, researchers used computer software to calculate the currents flowing on the night of the escape. According to their findings, if they headed out at midnight, the water currents would actually help them in the direction of the shore, and their chance of survival was actually pretty good.

Eventually, a documentary was made which shed new light on the investigation…

Some New Startling Evidence

In 2015, a History Channel documentary was aired that brought to light new evidence that supported the theory that the Anglin brothers survived the escape. A signed Christmas card which was sent to their family was analyzed, and the handwriting was a match for the brothers. But no one could determine the date it was sent.

Some New Startling Evidence

Source: YouTube

And then a new piece of evidence changed everything: a picture of the two brothers shot in Brazil in 1975 was found. Forensic experts analyzed the photo and stated that it was “more than likely” that both John and Clarence Anglin were in that picture.

A Death Bed Confession

Another piece of the puzzle was given by another Anglin brother – Robert Anglin. Robert actually confessed on his deathbed that he had been in touch with both his brothers John and Clarence from 1963 until 1987 but later lost touch with them.

A Death Bed Confession

Source: CBC.ca

The Anglin family didn’t seek out their long-lost brothers in Brazil due to the fact that the escape was still an open investigation. And if they were to locate their siblings, they would face dire repercussions.

And yet another letter was about to be discovered…

The Next Letter

The notorious great escape made news headlines in January 2018 when the FBI announced that they were reopening the case! The decades-old investigation was suddenly brought back to life due to intriguing new evidence.

The Next Letter

Source: CBS News

A letter was sent to the San Francisco Police Department in 2013, which was signed by a man claiming to be John Anglin. The reason why the letter wasn’t reported for five years is unknown, but its content was shocking.

Anglin’s Confession

The letter began: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes, we all made it that night but barely!”

Anglin’s Confession

Source: KFGO

Anglin continued: “Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” Too many questions were left unanswered…

Is the letter from the real John Anglin? Where was he now? And why was he confessing?

Where was John Anglin?

The letter, supposedly written by John Anglin himself, continues with: “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, North Dakota until 2003”.

Where was John Anglin?

Source: Network World

The letter was actually quite unreadable in some parts, but a special BBC report interpreted the letter’s contents and found that he wrote that he lived in Seattle “for most of my years after the Escape.” He went on to reveal even more…

So Close Yet So Far

The letter also revealed his current location in which he stated that he was “living in Southern California now.” It’s unbelievable that a fugitive from one of the greatest prison breaks of all time was currently living only a few hours from the prison island.

So Close Yet So Far

Source: New York Post

He claimed to be extremely ill and desperate for some help, aware that it could mean jail time. The letter concluded with a very unusual deal offered to the authorities.

Would they agree to his terms?

An Unusual Deal

The terms set in the letter were: “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…

An Unusual Deal

Source: Rarenewspapers

Before they even considered his proposal, the letter had to be investigated to determine its authenticity and origin. A thorough analysis was done, and every aspect of the letter was looked at.

The Letter’s Authenticity

The US Marshals handed over the letter to the FBI. They checked for traces of DNA, dusted for fingerprints, and ran a handwriting analysis using the three escapees writing samples from when they were in prison.

The Letter’s Authenticity

Source: Daily Mail

According to San Francisco’s local CBS affiliate, KPIX, “the FBI’s results were inconclusive.” A security expert gave a quote as to the letter’s authenticity which said the FBI’s conclusion: “means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”

“It’s Possible”

The US Marshals’ position on the letter was that “it is possible” that Morris and the Anglin brothers survived the escape. But after January 2018, one of the representatives questioned the legitimacy of the letter, claiming that he believed it was a fake.

“It’s Possible”

Source: Brain Sharper

A quote stated: “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.” The FBI didn’t agree as they decided to close the case in 1979. They stated: “For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas.

The Last Man From Alcatraz

Jim Albright was the very last guard to leave the Alcatraz prison, and he was interviewed by ABC 7 to commemorate 55 years of the prison’s closing in March of 2018. He worked in prison during the escape and was asked about his take regarding the men’s fate.

The Last Man From Alcatraz

Source: The Mercury News

He said this: “It depends on whether you’re talking to me or you’re talking to their mother. I believe they drowned; I really do.” Albright believed that whoever wrote the letter was a very sick man who indeed needed treatment for his cancer and was actually using the famous escapee’s name to get medical help.

The Fates of the Three

The fate of Frank Lee Morris and John and Clarence Anglin are still unknown, remaining a mystery. Law enforcement never revealed anything further about the letter. Time will tell if they ever tried to contact the man.

The Fates of the Three

Source: Fandom

For now, even if the men were to be found, John Anglin would be 86, Clarence Anglin 87 and Frank Morris would be 90. Despite their elderly statuses, they have still wanted fugitives and will be held accountable.

We’re all waiting for the next piece of the puzzle…