Since the Civil War, Alcatraz, also called “The Rock,” had held captives on its lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. In 1934 during the peak of a major war on crime, Alcatraz was officially turned into the world’s most secure prison: The iron bars were toughened, guard towers were strategically positioned, and strict rules like checking the prisons multiple times a day were all followed. Add to that the fact that it was surrounded by the rough waters of the Pacific ocean. High-profile inmates like Al Capone and criminals with multiple escape attempts were usually sent here.

Despite the seemingly impossible odds of escaping, there had been 14 separate escape attempts involving 36 men from 1934 until it was closed in 1963. None succeeded, as they were either caught or killed during the attempt. However, there was one escape attempt that remains a mystery to this day. This happened in 1962.

The Escape Artists

There were four people involved in the escape.

Frank Morris
Frank Morris. (FBI)

First was Frank Morris, a seasoned criminal who acted as the leader of the escape attempt. Morris had been abandoned by his parents when he was 11. By age 13, he had already had his first criminal convictions. Morris was arrested and charged with armed robbery and drug offenses during his teenage years. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a bank robbery while attempting to escape. Because of that, he was sent to Alcatraz.

John Anglin
John Anglin. (FBI)
Clarence Anglin
Clarence Anglin. (FBI)

Next were the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence. They came from a large family that survived by doing seasonal agricultural work. They traveled up and down the country to pick fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, poverty pushed them into committing criminal acts. At the early age of 14 when they were caught breaking into a service station. Soon enough, they started robbing banks and other businesses, one of which was the Columbia Savings Bank in Alabama. There, they were busted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. They tried to escape multiple times from Atlanta Penitentiary. They were soon transferred to Alcatraz in 1960.

Allen West.
Allen West. (Earl Of SandwishCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The last member was Allen West. He was a serial offender arrested over 20 times. His last act was a car theft in 1955 before he was transferred from Atlanta Penitentiary to Florida State Prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1957.

These four criminals happened to be placed in adjoining cells that made it possible for them to talk and plan their escape.

Carrying Out The Plan

To sum up their plan, the four would tunnel through the walls of their cells by utilizing the holes around their ventilation ducts under the sinks, build a raft, and then paddle their way to freedom. The plan sounded simple had they were not in Alcatraz. But, how much more in the super-secured facility if they were caught escaping from regular prisons?

They started by collecting discarded saw blades scattered in the prison workshops and then stealing metal spoons from the dining hall. Next, they crafted a drill using the collected metals and a vacuum cleaner motor. Now, the training would be noisy while they tried to widen the holes around the vent ducts. The guards might also notice the ducts are getting wider. To resolve these, they concealed their work using painted strips of cardboard. For the noise, Morris would cover it up by playing his accordion during music hour.

Once they could squeeze themselves through the holes, they used the empty top level of their cellblock as their workshop. There, they crafted their raft and life jackets made from stolen and donated raincoats sealed together by melting the rubber using hot pipes. Now, to make sure that the guards would not notice that they were not in their cells every time they were up in their workshop, they skillfully crafted papier-mache of their heads made from soap, dust, toilet paper, toothpaste, and natural hair from the prison barbershop. Finally, they would place them on their pillows and make it appear like they were sound sleeping.

The profile of the dummy head was found in Morris’ cell. The broken nose resulted when the head rolled off the bed and struck the floor after a guard reached through the bars and pushed it. (FBI)

Escape Night

Their raft was set on June 11, 1962, and they were ready to leave the island. However, West’s hope of freedom was immediately crushed after he discovered that the cement he used to reinforce the concrete around his vent had hardened, and he couldn’t squeeze himself in. By the time he managed to widen the hole, his three accomplices had sailed, so he didn’t have a choice but to go back to bed.

Meanwhile, the three made their escape as planned. Before climbing the barbed fences, they used kitchen pipes to descend fifty feet above the ground. Then, they headed to the northeast part of the island so that searchlights could not spot them. Finally, at about 10 PM, they had their raft inflated and were ready to sail off toward the nearby Angel Island.

View of ventilation grate through which prisoners gained access to utility corridor behind Cell Block “B.” (FBI)

The next day, a massive search operation involving land, air, and sea surrounded Alcatraz, and more was done. The authorities searched for the next ten days but found nothing but one of the paddles, a wallet with one of the Anglins’ details, a shredded rubber, and a deflated life jacket. No bodies were also found, but the FBI concluded that they drowned anyway. All through the years, claims of seeing or interacting with the fugitives rose, but none of them had solid evidence to prove that they were indeed still alive.

The FBI closed the case in 1979 and turned over the responsibility to the US Marshal Service, which planned to keep the case open until 2030.