Alcatraz, aka The Rock, was a prison located on an island near San Francisco. The most hardened criminals were sent there because the prison was said to have been impossible to escape from. Over the years, 36 inmates tried to escape but didn’t succeed. Some were caught, and others died. All this changed in June 1962. A group of three men went into the waters of the San Francisco Bay, and their fates remained unknown. Then the man who escaped Alcatraz sends FBI letter after being free for 50 years. This has resulted in the opening of an investigation.
The San Francisco Police Department received a letter that left every member of the forced shocked. The letter read, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.” Until receiving this letter, law enforcement officials were sure that the three men died in the icy waters on the night of their escape. Now the question was whether or not the letter was true. The officials weren’t sure if the letter was legit, or if there was an ulterior motive.
2013 FBI Investigation
The letter arrived at the San Francisco Police Department in 2013, and for a year, it was kept a secret. The reason it was kept a secret is unknown, but it contained enough credible information for the Federal Bureau of Investigations to reopen the investigation in January 2018. Many people wondered what the letter contained that now, after all these years, the FBI took notice.
Anglin and his crew weren’t the first to try to escape from Alcatraz. The maximum-security prison housed the worst of the worst because it was said to be impossible to break out from successfully. In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a prison, many tried unsuccessfully. Out of the inmates who took the risk, 23 were caught in the act, six were shot trying to leave, two drowned, and two others were listed as missing or presumed drowned.
When John attempted to escape, he did so with four other inmates, including his brother Clarence, Frank Lee Morris, and Allen West. The four men had cells near each other, which gave them time to come up with a good plan. John and Clarence were brothers, and they knew Frank from their time in prison in Atlanta. It is believed that Frank Lee Morris was the mastermind because he had successfully broken out of prison in the past. He was skilled, highly intelligent, and cunning. These were all qualities that were essential in pulling off such a dangerous plan.
Frank Lee Morris
Frank was orphaned at the age of 11, and then was moved from foster home to foster home. During this time, he learned to be independent and also how to take care of himself. Without parental guidance, he also became a troublemaker. By the time he was 13, he had already been convicted of his first crime. When he got older, he had previously served time in multiple prisons around the country.
Eventually, he ended up in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was also known as the “Alcatraz of the South.” This prison was said to be too secure for a person to escape from, but Frank did the unthinkable. He was serving a 10-year prison sentence for bank robbery, and he escaped from the prison. After his escape, he was on the run for about a year before he was caught committing another robbery. When he was captured, the authorities didn’t want to take any chances, so they sent him to Alcatraz.
The Anglin Brothers
Frank couldn’t pull off the escape on his own, and he enlisted the help of the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence. The brothers were born in Georgia, and their parents moved to Florida for work. Their parents were seasoned farmworkers, so they often moved to wherever they were needed. John and Clarence were tow of 13 children, and every June, the whole family would move north for the cherry-picking season. This time in their lives would come in handy later in life during their escape. The brothers were very close growing up, and the family would often go as far as Michigan for the cherry-picking season. During those days, the brothers would swim in Lake Michigan, where they became very strong swimmers. When they got older, they started robbing banks together. In 1956, they were caught.
The Atlanta Penitentiary
The brothers were sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary, and while there, they tried to escape many times. This is why they were sent to Alcatraz. It was there that they met Frank Lee Morris. The three men also became close with another prisoner, Allen West, and when the group was formed, the men started talking about escaping from “The Rock.”
Collecting Their Resources
Fortunately, Alcatraz was more than just a prison. It was also a factor that served the U.S. military. The factory made furniture, shoes, and clothes. All of the men were in jail for non-violent crimes, which kept them off the radar, and the guards didn’t pay as much attention to them. The men worked hard to put a plan together that was highly complex. Not only were they going to escape from prison, but they were also going to leave behind human-like dummies so that the guards wouldn’t know that they were gone. After getting out of the prison walls, the men had to figure out how they were going to get off the island without being caught. They knew that if they were caught trying to get off the island that they would be shot on sight.
Everyone Had a Job
Each of the men had a job other than getting out of their cells on the night of the escape. It was the Anglin brother’s job to make the decoy dummies. They made them out of soap wax, toilet paper, and human hair that they stole from the barbershop. Frank was in charge of modifying an accordion-like instrument to inflate life vests and rafts. The men also had to make their own tools to dig out of their cells and unscrew the bolts on the vents. They managed to make their picks and wrenches out of items that they were able to steal, including spoons from the cafeteria and wood from the workshop.
The men were going to have to dig their way out of their cells. Every evening, between 5:30 pm until 9 pm, the men would chip holes in the walls that were large enough to crawl through. After removing the vents in their cells, they used their picks to chisel the holes larger and larger. Because the prison was so old, the walls were already crumbling in many places. This made their job much easier. Saltwater ran through the popes for showering and washing dishes, which eventually eroded the pipes and caused water to leak into the walls. Over time, this loosened the cement, causing it to loosen and crumble.
You would think that all this noise would have alerted the guards immediately, but it didn’t. Thanks to prison reforms in the early ’60s, the inmates were allowed a music hour that created a lot of noise in the prison. Frank would play his accordion so loudly that it would over the noise created by his fellow escapees. The men had to tunnel out behind the cells. Behind the cells was a utility corridor that was left unguarded, and there were pipes that led up and down. The unguarded corridor was like a jungle gym. If the men could make it there, they could climb three floors to the top.
Once they were on the top, they would have to open up one of the shafts to take them to the roof. Most of the shafts were sealed, but they found one that was wasn’t. Using their wrenches, they were able to get it open.
In May of 1962, Frank and the Anglin brothers had broken through the walls in their cells. The holes that they created were barely big enough for them to squeeze through, but they made it. They knew that the choppy waters of the bay would likely kill them, so they made a raft and life vests by gluing and stitching raincoats together. They used a total of 50 raincoats to make what they needed. Now that everything was ready, they just had to wait for Allen to finish his escape hole. When everything was ready, the group had to be prepared in a moment’s notice. On June 11, 1962, Allen gave the signal that his hole was complete, and it was time to escape.
On June 11th, at lights out, the men got ready for their escape. They knew that they could be killed trying to get away, but the thought of living out in the free world was too exciting to pass up. When the lights went out, the men set up the decoys in their cells. The Anglin brothers and Frank got out of their cells easily, but Allen was having trouble. He thought that his hole was big enough to get through, but he misjudged the size. Frank tried to help Allen as much as possible, but the cement wouldn’t move.
At 9:30 pm, Frank asked Allen to pass him a glass of water. It was then that they realized that they would have to leave Allen behind. The men didn’t want to leave Allen behind. They had all worked together for months, but they didn’t have another option. If they made too much noise trying to widen Allen’s cell, they would have been caught.
Without Allen, the Anglin brothers and Frank made it to the cell house roof with ease. The crossed the 100-foot rooftop and made their descent. They climbed down 50-feet of piping on the side of the building to the ground. On the ground, they passed the shower area quietly and managed to get past the guards. Finally, they got to the shore and inflated their raft and life vests. It was around 11:30 pm that they set off into the water, and they were never heard from again. It wasn’t until the following morning that the guards discovered that they were missing. In the early morning, the prisoners at Alcatraz were woken up to the sound of blaring sirens. Most were confused because nobody had escaped from prison successfully.
Allen didn’t want to be left behind, so he didn’t give up. He kept working on making his hole large enough to squeeze through, and he finally succeeded. After getting passed the cell wall, he ran after the other three. He got to the rooftop, but by the time he got there, the other three were gone. He only had two choices. Also, he could have tried to swim off the island, which could have killed him, or he could go back to his cell. Allen decided that he didn’t want to risk death, so he returned to his cell. In the morning, he heard the alarm and knew that his fellow inmates were successful in their escape.
Everyone knew that Allen was close to the three escapees, so they questioned him. He cooperated with the authorities, but nobody knew if he was telling the truth. He claimed that the three were heading to Angel Island where they would steal a car, clothing, and then go their separate ways. The only problem with his story was that no cars had been stolen in the area. The authorities had a few different theories. Allen could have been lying, the escapees could have landed somewhere else by mistake or on purpose, or they didn’t make it. Allen told the authorities that it was his idea to escape, and he came up with the plan. A formal investigation was open to determine if the three men had actually survived.
The authorities searched the bay for bodies but found nothing. They found personal belongings the next day but weren’t sure if the men would have survived. The night of the escape, the water was between 50 and 54 degrees. Experts believed that a man could last about 20 minutes in the cold water. The prison kept the water in the prison warm intentionally so that the men wouldn’t be acclimated to the cold water. A month after the escape, a Norwegian freighter reported seeing a body 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge wearing clothing similar to those worn in Alcatraz. The report was filed late, and the body was never found.
In 2015, the History Channel documentary revealed evidence that the Anglin brothers survived. Their family received signed Christmas cards, and the handwriting was confirmed to theirs. In 1975, The Anglin family received a picture of the two brothers in Brazil. Forensic experts analyzed the photo and determined that it was more than likely John and Clarence. When Robert Anglin, the escapee’s brother, was on his deathbed, he admitted that he had been in contact with his brothers from 1963 until 1987, when they lost contact.
The last piece of evidence that the brothers survived was in the 2013 letter. It was written by John, and it read, “Yes, we made it that night, but barely. I’m 83-years-old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina, under another name. My brother died in 2011.” In the letter, he also revealed what he had been doing since his escape. He claimed to have lived in Minot, North Dakota, for seven years and in Fargo, North Dakota, until 2003. Parts of the letter were illegible, but it is believed that he wrote that he lived in Seattle for most of the years after his escape.
At the end of the letter, he claimed to be currently living in Southern California. He included a deal that he hoped the authorities would take him up on. He asked that the authorities announce on TV that John would go to jail for no longer than a year and that he could get medical attention. If they did this, he agreed to write a letter telling the police where he was. Before the authorities could do anything, they had to look into the details of the letter and analyze it carefully.
The FBI says that their investigation was inconclusive. Many people believe that the men died on the night of their escape, but we may never know.