Prisoner Who Escaped From Alcatraz Sends Letter To The FBI 50 Years LaterStories
Every once in a while, the smartest minds of the criminal world hatch ingenious plans to steal back their freedom. But was Alcatraz, San Francisco’s notoriously inescapable prison, invulnerable to such escape attempts? Well, one letter – claiming to be from someone who successfully escaped the prison – threatens to shatter this idea. Let’s dive into the San Francisco bay and try to get to the bottom of it.
Alcatraz was in operation from 1934 to 1963, during which time it was home-sweet-home to some of the most infamous criminals in American history. Its inmates included George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and even Al Capone himself. It was designed to be a prison for America’s most troublesome inmates, as its armed guards, towering steel walls and isolated location made escape seemingly impossible.
Even if an inmate made it out of the building somehow, they’d then have to find their way across the natural, freezing-cold moat of San Francisco Bay. The Bay was rumoured to have currents powerful enough to drown even the strongest swimmers in seconds, and that’s not to mention the Great White sharks.
With its reputation considered, you can imagine The San Francisco Police Department’s surprise when they received a letter in 2013 claiming to be from an Alcatraz escapee. But how could someone possibly escape from Alcatraz and live to tell the tale? Let’s rewind.
In 1962, four men planned an escape from Alcatraz. The mastermind behind the plan was Frank Lee Morris. A career criminal, Morris was convicted of his first crime at the age of 13. Before he was even old enough to buy cigarettes, he’d been arrested for everything from drug possession to armed robbery. But despite his troubled life, Frank was highly intelligent, scoring 133 on an IQ test administered in prison.
Unfortunately, he applied his high IQ almost solely to criminal endeavours. It made him a nightmare for prison wardens. In the late 1950s, he escaped from prison in Louisiana trying to avoid serving a 10-year sentence for bank robbery. When he was recaptured in 1960, he was sent straight to Alcatraz. If the cops ever jokingly told him to “try getting out of this jail!”, they’d have to eat those words less than two years later.
Escapees 2 and 3 were brothers and criminal partners John and Clarence Anglin, from Georgia. When the brothers were in their 20s, they branched out from their jobs as seasonal farmworkers and started robbing banks. They were initially successful, but as criminals, they had their quirks. The brothers claimed that the only weapon they ever used was a toy gun, as they disliked the idea of physically hurting anyone during their robberies.
But despite the toy gun, they were found with during their final robbery, they received 20-year sentences after the police apprehended them. They made repeated escape attempts from a facility in Atlanta before the guards grew tired of their shenanigans and sent them to Alcatraz.
The final piece of the puzzle, Allen West, went to jail for car theft and was also sent to Alcatraz after an unsuccessful escape attempt from a Florida prison. At the time of his transfer, he was 28 but had only an eighth-grade education. This might explain the unfortunate thing that happened to him later in this story. These four prisoners were next-door cell neighbours at Alcatraz, and after becoming acquainted, they were soon working on an escape plan.
Over the course of six months, each of them painstakingly, gradually widened the ventilation ducts in their cells. This is where the cleverness of Frank Lee Morris really flourished. Under his guidance, they chipped away using discarded saw blades from the prison workshops, spoons stolen from the mess hall, and an electric drill fashioned out of a vacuum-cleaner motor.
They hid their progress from the prying eyes of the guards by covering it up with cardboard, painted to resemble the walls. The noise their work created was masked by the din of the daily “music hour”; something Alcatraz staff had introduced to try and make things less grim.
When the holes were big enough to crawl through, the four men began slipping away every night to the vacant top level of the cellblock. There, they stealthily assembled life preservers and a six-by-fourteen-foot raft out of stolen raincoats, hand-stitched together and sealed using heating pipes.
Scrap wood would serve as their only way of steering against the powerful currents and frigid waters of the bay. The guards never noticed that the men weren’t in their beds every night thanks to the dummy heads they crafted and left on their pillows. They fashioned them out of a mixture of soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, and toilet paper. They even painted on faces and stuck on hair from the barbershop floor.
With everything in place, their plan was to paddle across the bay to land, where they could steal a car and drive off to freedom. Eventually, the big day arrived. Night fell, and each man wriggled his way to the roof. All but one, that is. Unfortunately for Allen West, he’d used cement to keep his vent in place so that the guards wouldn’t notice he’d removed it, and it’d hardened. By the time he got it off, it was too late.
Morris and the Anglin brothers had no choice but to leave without him. The escapees took their gear with them, climbed down a vent pipe to the ground, and then scaled a couple of 12-foot-tall barbed wire fences. Eventually, they reached the shore near the island’s power plant, which was a blind spot for all the searchlights and gun towers.
Using a concertina - a sort of miniature accordion - as a bellows, they inflated the raft and set sail into the uncertain night. Though he didn’t escape, it's thanks to Allen that we know so much about how those three prisoners got away. But did they survive their raft’s maiden voyage? Let’s look at the evidence.
In 2013, 51 years after Morris and the Anglin’s daring escape, the police received a letter from someone claiming to be John Anglin. The writer admitted to the escape and claimed that he was the last surviving member of the trio and that he was dying of cancer. In light of his seemingly-imminent demise, the writer offered the cops a deal. He would turn himself in if they promised to get him medical treatment and less than a year of jail time.
But was this extraordinary letter really from John Anglin? He would have been 83 in 2013, so it’s certainly possible that he would have been alive. Provided he survived the trip across the bay in 1962, that is. The letter was carefully examined for fingerprints and DNA, and the handwriting was expertly analyzed, but results were inconclusive.
Without certainty, either way, the letter’s origins may seem dubious at first. But there are convincing reasons to believe the trio made it off the island alive, which may give credibility to the letter. While the FBI officially concluded – in 1979 – that the three men drowned after their escape in 1962, their bodies were never found, and not everyone was convinced. The US Marshals Service, for instance, officially list the case as still open to this day.
When commenting on the case, one US Marshal named Michael Dyke noted that the bodies of two out of every three people who go missing in San Francisco Bay are eventually recovered. Seeing as none of the three escapees were ever officially found, dead or otherwise, this may give extra statistical backing to the claims of a successful escape. On top of this, a police officer on the night of the break reported spotting an illegal boat near Alcatraz at 1 AM.
This aligns with the escape, which likely took several hours and began at around 10 pm. Based on this, some theorize the trio had outside help of some kind. Indeed, a jailbreak like this would also require meticulous planning for life on the lamb after the escape was completed. Under the guidance of the demonstratively gifted escape artist Frank Morris, does that really seem so impossible?
What did seem impossible – to many at the time – was the thought of escaping Alcatraz on the water. The bay’s reputation made escape seem like a futile, deadly waste of effort. However, later on, in the same year as the trio’s prison break, another inmate named John Paul Scott shook up the bay’s reputation. Scott successfully swam from Alcatraz to Fort Point, below the Golden Gate Bridge.
He was re-captured, half-dead from hypothermia, but it proved that escape across the water was in fact possible. Plus, all Scott used were some water wings he’d made by inflating rubber gloves. Morris and the Anglin brothers had a raft! What’s more, nowadays, amateur athletes swim the bay all the time just for fun. The ‘perilous bay’ idea may, indeed, have been more of a scare-tactic myth than a real impassible obstacle.
But the evidence goes deeper still. Over the years, there have been many reported sightings of the escapees. At one point in the mid-60s, rumours about Clarence Anglin living in Brazil were so prevalent that the FBI actually sent agents down there to try and find him. In 1967, someone claiming to be a former classmate of Frank Morris told police that he’d bumped into him in Maryland and that he now sported a beard and moustache.
On top of that, family members of the Anglins have reported receiving countless unsigned postcards, seemingly from the brothers, over the years. The Anglins’ mother even received flowers from an anonymous source every Mother’s Day until she died in 1973, and two tall, odd-looking women in heavy makeup reportedly attended her funeral.
When their father died, two mysterious men with large beards showed up at the funeral home, cried in front of the casket, and then left. Could these have been the slapdash, comical disguises of two masters of escape and evasion? Years later still, in 1989, there were reports that the trio were in Florida. A woman called the Unsolved Mysteries tip line and said she recognized a picture of Clarence Anglin as a man living on a farm near her home. Another unrelated woman also reported seeing him in the same area.
When a third witness identified a sketch of Frank Morris and said she’d seen a man resembling him, in the exact same part of Florida, the evidence reached new heights. But could these witnesses merely be people pranking the police? Were conspiracy-prone individuals simply seeing what they wanted to see? Or could the trio really have survived their perilous raft trip and fled to the Sunshine State? The reliability of these accounts is questionable, no doubt, but the evidence stretches further than personal stories.
Arguably the strongest evidence of a successful escape is the evidence of an FBI cover-up. The FBI had claimed, at the time of the escape and in the decades that followed, that no evidence of a successful escape had ever been discovered. There was, they claimed, no evidence of a raft making it to shore, nor of any car thefts to facilitate a getaway. But despite official statements in 1962, it was later revealed that evidence of a homemade raft and paddle was found on Angel Island, north of Alcatraz, the day after the escape. Not only that but a 1955 blue Chevrolet was stolen that night, shortly after the escape, by no less than three men.
The choice to withhold this evidence until the early 2010s does seem to suggest a cover-up. After all, why would this information be withheld for decades if there was nothing more to the case, and the men drowned like the FBI said they did? It certainly arouses suspicion.
But there’s one last piece of evidence that some take as proof of a successful escape: a photograph, taken in 1975, which supposedly features both Anglin brothers. The photo was given to the Anglin family by an old family friend in the 90s, who claimed to have encountered the brothers in the 70s. The picture was recently examined by a facial recognition analyst, who concluded that the men it showed could indeed be the brothers.
If the photo really is them, then their escape was a success. And with the evidence of a cover-up, and countless reported sightings and contacts with the Anglin brothers, is a death-bed confession letter beyond possibility? Well, I guess that’s up to you.