Home News Stories 2007 June A Byte Out of History - Escape From Alcatraz

A Byte Out of History - Escape From Alcatraz

A Byte Out of History
Escape from Alcatraz

06/08/07

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island, January 1932.
Aerial view of Alcatraz Island,
January 1932.

In its heyday, it was the ultimate maximum security prison.

Located on a lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz—aka “The Rock”—had held captives since the Civil War. But it was in 1934, the highpoint of a major war on crime, that Alcatraz was re-fortified into the world’s most secure prison. Its eventual inmates included dangerous public enemies like Al Capone, criminals who had a history of escapes, and the occasional odd character like the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

In the 1930s, Alcatraz was already a forbidding place, surrounded by the cold, rough waters of the Pacific. The redesign included tougher iron bars, a series of strategically positioned guard towers, and strict rules, including a dozen checks a day of the prisoners. Escape seemed near impossible.

Despite the odds, from 1934 until the prison was closed in 1963, 36 men tried 14 separate escapes. Nearly all were caught or didn’t survive the attempt.

The fate of three particular inmates, however, remains a mystery to this day. Here is their story, which played out 45 years ago this month.

* * * *

Side view of model head found in Frank Morris’s cell.
Side view of model head found
in Frank Morris’s cell.

Missing. On June 12, 1962, the routine early morning bed check turned out to be anything but. Three convicts were not in their cells: John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris. In their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair that apparently fooled the night guards. The prison went into lock down, and an intensive search began.


John Anglin Clarence Anglin Frank Morris
John Anglin
Clarence Anglin
Frank Morris

Homemade paddle recovered at prison. A similar one was recovered on Angel Island.
Homemade paddle recovered at prison.
A similar one was recovered on
Angel Island.


Gathering the Clues.
We were notified immediately and asked to help. Our office in San Francisco set leads for offices nationwide to check for any records on the missing prisoners and on their previous escape attempts (all three had made them). We also interviewed relatives of the men and compiled all their identification records and asked boat operators in the Bay to be on the lookout for debris. Within two days, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and related to the men was recovered. Later, some paddle-like pieces of wood and bits of rubber inner tube were found in the water. A homemade life-vest was also discovered washed up on Cronkhite Beach, but extensive searches did not turn up any other items in the area.

Piecing together the plan. As the days went by, the FBI, the Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others began to find more evidence and piece together the ingenious escape plan. We were aided by a fourth plotter who didn’t make it out of his cell in time and began providing us with information. Here’s what we learned.

  • The group had begun laying plans the previous December when one of them came across some old saw blades.
  • Using crude tools—including a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner—the plotters each loosened the air vents at the back of their cells by painstakingly drilling closely spaced holes around the cover so the entire section of the wall could be removed. Once through, they hid the holes with whatever they could—a suitcase, a piece of cardboard, etc.

View of ventilation grate through which prisoners gained access to utility corridor behind Cell Block “B”. Portion of concealed area on top of Cell Block “B” Prisoners constructed tools for their escape here.
View of ventilation grate through which prisoners gained access to utility corridor behind Cell Block “B”.
Portion of concealed area on top of
Cell Block “B” Prisoners constructed
tools for their escape here.
  • Behind the cells was a common, unguarded utility corridor. They made their way down this corridor and climbed to the roof of their cell block inside the building, where they set up a secret workshop. There, taking turns keeping watch for the guards in the evening before the last count (see the crude “periscope” they constructed for the lookouts), they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build and hide what they needed to escape. More than 50 raincoats that they stole or gathered were turned into makeshift life preservers and a 6x14 foot rubber raft, the seams carefully stitched together and “vulcanized” by the hot steam pipes in the prison (the idea came from magazines that were found in the prisoners’ cells). They also built wooden paddles and converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate the raft.

Periscope made to spy on guards while prisoners worked. Inside view of discarded raft found at prison.
Periscope made to spy on guards while prisoners worked.

Inside view of discarded raft found
at prison.

  • At the same time, they were looking for a way out of the building. The ceiling was a good 30 feet high, but using a network of pipes they climbed up and eventually pried open the ventilator at the top of the shaft. They kept it in place temporarily by fashioning a fake bolt out of soap.

ceiling ventsoap bolt
View from catwalk above Cell Block B
showing route prisoners took to access
the roof of Cell House
Ventilator cover on roof. Agent points to
“bolt” made of soap that disguised that
the real bolt had been removed.


The escape.
On the evening of June 11, they were ready to go. The prison informant, though, did not have his ventilator grill completely removed and was left behind. The three others got into the corridor, gathered their gear, climbed up and out through the ventilator, and got on to the prison roof. Then, they shimmied down the bakery smoke stack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, and snuck to the northeast shore of the island and launched their raft.

45’ high bake oven chimney stack used by prisoners to descend from roof of Cell House to lower level. Lower right corner of picture shows the area from which the prisoners likely entered the water to escape.
45’ high bake oven chimney stack used
by prisoners to descend from roof of Cell House to lower level.
Lower right corner of picture shows the area from which the prisoners likely entered the water to escape.


What happened next remains a mystery. Did they make it across the Bay, get to Angel Island, and then cross Raccoon Strait into Marin County as planned? Or did the wind and waves get the better of them?

Solving the mystery. Plenty of people have gone to great lengths to prove that the men COULD have survived, but the question remains: did they? Our investigation at the time concluded otherwise, for the following reasons.

  • Crossing the Bay. Yes, youngsters have made the more than mile-long swim from Alcatraz to Angel Island. But with the strong currents and frigid Bay water, the odds were clearly against these men.
  • Three if by land. The plan, according to our prison informant, was to steal clothes and a car once on land. But we never uncovered any thefts like this despite the high-profile nature of the case.
  • Family ties. If the escapees had help, we couldn’t substantiate it. The families appeared unlikely to even have the financial means to provide any real support.
  • Missing in action. 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 mystery continues…We officially closed our case on December 31, 1979, and turned over responsibility to the U.S. Marshals Service, which continues to investigate in the unlikely event the trio is still alive. If you have ANY leads or information to share, please call Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke of the Northern District of California at (415) 436-7677. It’s one mystery we’d all like to solve!

Resources:
- Alcatraz photo gallery
- FBI History website
- More Byte Out of History stories