In its heyday, Alcatraz was the ultimate maximum security prison.
Located on a lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” has 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 Ocean. Its 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 attempted 14 separate escapes. Nearly all were caught or didn’t survive.
However, the fate of three inmates remains a mystery to this day.
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 Anglin, 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 lockdown, and an intensive search began.
John William and Alfred Clarence Anglin were born into a family of 13 children in Donalsonville, Georgia. Their parents, George Robert and Rachael Van Miller Anglin, were seasonal farmworkers. In the early 1940s, the family moved to Ruskin, Florida, 20 miles south of Tampa, where the truck farms and tomato fields provided a more reliable source of income. Still, every June, they would move north as far as Michigan to pick cherries. Clarence and John were reportedly inseparable as youngsters.
The brothers were arrested in 1956 for robbing a bank in Columbia, Alabama, given 15-20 year sentences, and sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary, where they first met Frank Morris and Allen West. Later they were transferred first to the Florida State Prison and then to the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. When the pair tried to escape from Leavenworth, they were sent to Alcatraz with John arriving on October 21, 1960, and Clarence arriving on January 10, 1961. Inside of a year, they began to plan an elaborate escape attempt with Frank Morris and Allen West.
Frank Lee Morris (1926-??) was born in Washington, D.C. and was orphaned at age 11, spending most of his formative years in foster homes. He was convicted of his first crime at the age of 13, and by his late teens had been arrested for crimes ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery. Morris was exceptionally intelligent, ranking in the top two percent of the general population as measured by IQ testing. He served time in Florida and Georgia, then escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary while serving 10 years for bank robbery. He was recaptured a year later while committing a burglary and sent to Alcatraz in 1960. He, along with John and Clarence Anglin, escaped in June 1962 and were never seen again.
Also involved was a fourth conspirator who didn’t make it out that day. His name was Allen Clayton West. After having been convicted of car theft in 1955, he was sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary, and then to the Florida State Prison. After an unsuccessful escape attempt in Florida, he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1957. On the eventful day of the escape, West was unable to finish removing the ventilator grill in his cell in time and was left behind.
Once the escape was realized, the FBI was notified immediately and asked to help. The San Francisco office began to check nationwide for any records on the missing prisoners and on their previous escape attempts. The agents also interviewed relatives of the men, compiled all of 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.
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. The investigators were aided by Allen West who didn’t make it out of his cell in time.
The agents discovered that 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 conspirators 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.
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 on the evening before the last count, they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build and hide what they needed to escape. The prisoners used more than 50 raincoats that they stolen to build makeshift life preservers and a 6×14 foot rubber raft, the seams of which were carefully stitched together and “vulcanized” by the hot steam pipes in the prison. They also built wooden paddles and converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate the raft.
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 made out of soap.
On the evening of June 11th, they were ready to go. Allen West, 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 smokestack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, and snuck to the northeast shore of the island and launched their raft.