Even the most intelligent and scheming criminals struggled to escape from the stone-cold Alcatraz Island. Except for three inmates, who managed to pull off the Great Escape. Keep reading to learn the real story behind this ongoing mystery.
Alcatraz, also known as "The Rock," was once home to some of the world's most dangerous criminals, as it was formerly a maximum-security prison. Dozens of inmates tried to escape, but none of them actually made it off the island alive.
However, three prisoners escaped from their cells but were never seen again, and their bodies were never found. But in 2018, everything was questioned when the authorities read a letter that could've solved this mystery.
Discovering the Unthinkable
In January of 2018, Alcatraz's unescapable reputation was questioned when the San Francisco police opened a mind-blowing letter, leading to a further investigation. It read, "My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June of 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris."
John Anglin was a legendary name on the island; He and two others had escaped from their cells in 1962, and their fates were never discovered. Officials who worked at the prison at that time were convinced that they'd died in the icy waters. This letter brought up countless questions, starting with, "Was it true?"
The Letter That Questioned It All
The news of the long-gone men absolutely shocked law enforcement, as successfully escaping from Alcatraz had been known as an impossible task. In the letter, John Anglin claimed that he could finally reveal the details of his escape, but officials weren't sure if his story was true or not initially.
Were they finally going to solve the ongoing mystery of what happened to the men? The letter had actually been received in 2013 but had been put aside for years, for unknown reasons. But supposedly, once it was opened, its information caused the Federal Bureau of Investigations to re-open the case in 2018.
An Unescapable Prison
Until it closed in 1963, Alcatraz had a reputation as the toughest prison on the planet. It was literally designed to make it impossible to escape from, or so officials had thought. With maximum security and a body of water surrounding all sides, even the most intelligent criminals couldn't find a way out.
Many prisoners had attempted to escape but never made it far from the gloomy island. So, how exactly did these men manage to get past the high security and survive in the icy San Francisco waters? If the letter was indeed true, then John Anglin and his buddies would have officially made history.
The Initial Plan
Plenty of inmates devised plans to get out of the prison and either failed or drowned, so what was different about this newfound escape plan? In the past, 23 other escapees were caught in the act, six were shot mid-escape, two drowned, and two others were deemed "missing or presumed drowned."
The men who planned this famous escape were John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Lee Morris, and Allen West. Their cells were close to one another, so they had plenty of time to devise their master plan together. Supposedly John and Clarence knew frank from another prison, so they got together to create a plan like no other.
Frank Lee Morris had previous experience escaping from prison, so he was the mastermind behind this plan. He was incredibly clever and knew how to work with what he had. Frank had been an orphan since he was 11-years-old, so he learned how to look out for himself at a young age.
Jumping around different foster homes also led to Frank becoming a bit of a troublemaker. At age 13, he was convicted of his first crime, and evidently, he continued on that path for years to come. He certainly achieved greatness, but in a non-traditional way, as the ringleader of the Great Escape from Alcatraz.
Not His First Rodeo
While Alcatraz was the toughest prison that Frank Lee Morris spent time in, it wasn't the only one. After serving time in multiple states, he wound up in the Louisiana Penitentiary, also known as "Alcatraz of the South." He never failed to surprise the authorities, no matter how much security kept a tight watch on him.
Frank was serving 10 years in the Louisiana Penitentiary for bank robbery, but somehow, he managed to escape as he always did. Frank was on the run for about a year and was finally caught when he committed yet another robbery. So this time, he was sent to the one and only Alcatraz.
The Anglin Brothers
To escape from "The Rock," Frank needed to assemble a team, so that's where John and Clarence Anglin came in. Before Alcatraz, the Anglins frequently went cherry-picking during their childhood, which later came in handy as criminals. They were also excellent swimmers, a skill that would be crucial when escaping an island.
During their adult life, the brothers started robbing banks together, and they were eventually caught in 1956. So, they were sent off to Alcatraz, which was meant to be their final destination, but the Anglins had other plans, which didn't include sitting in a jail cell for the remainder of their lives.
The Unstoppable Group
Before the Anglins went to Alcatraz, they spent time at the Atlanta Penitentiary, where they attempted to escape multiple times. Hence why they were sent to Alcatraz, as this prison had maximum security. That's when the brothers met Frank Lee Morris, who became the mastermind of their group.
Frank, the Anglins, and another inmate named Allen West each had prior experience escaping or attempting to escape from prison. So, they got together and began devising the plan that would eventually get them off the island, a task that had been deemed impossible.
Perks of the Prison
Alcatraz wasn't just a maximum-security prison; It was also a factory, so the four men used this to their advantage. The inmates worked in the factory, and there were plenty of resources as Alcatraz produced materials for the U.S. military, including furniture, clothing, and shoes.
Since all four men had been incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as robberies, they were considered the lucky ones. They flew slightly under the radar and weren't as closely watched by the guards, as many other inmates were seen as significantly more dangerous.
Preparing for Their Mission
Slowly but surely, the group pieced together their master plan to accomplish the unthinkable. Not only did they have to create an original escape plan, but they also needed to cover their tracks for when they were gone. This meant leaving behind human-like dummies to fool the guards.
Getting out of the prison was only the first step; Once they managed to get past the guards, the men needed a way to successfully get off the island. The guards were far from forgiving, so if they were to be caught on the outskirts of the prison grounds, they would likely be shot.
Covering Their Tracks
The team divided up the responsibilities leading up to their escape, so they'd be ready to get out of their cells on the big night. The Anglin brothers were responsible for building the dummy heads to leave in the empty beds, and there was quite a bit of pressure to make them as life-like as possible.
They used soap wax and toilet paper to form the heads, complete with real human hair that they managed to steal from the barbershop located in Alcatraz. Morris was in charge of acquiring an accordion-like machine to inflate the raft and life vests to survive the San Francisco waters outside the prison.
The Dig To Freedom
The group needed to somehow make tools to dig through the ground and unscrew the vents' bolts to physically escape from their cells. Being the handy and clever-minded men they were, they successfully built picks and wrenches out of everyday items they stole, such as spoons and wood.
They typically prepared for their escape from 5:30 PM until around 9 PM every evening, chipping away at holes until they were big enough to crawl through. Each man removed the vents in his cell and used the picks to make the holes even larger, so the first step in getting out would be ready on their big night.
Alcatraz Was Already Crumbling
In addition to doubling as a factor, Alcatraz had another perk for the genius escapees. Since the prison was so old and hadn't been well-maintained, the walls were literally crumbling to pieces. Saltwater from the pipes often leaked into the walls, making it far easier to break through them.
Over the years, the saltwater eroded the cement, causing it to crumble and loosen. Since this water was used in the inmates' showers, it was somewhat warm, which also helped damage the prison's structure. Little did officials know, their lack of maintenance would actually help these men escape from "The Rock."
Hiding the Noise
You might be wondering how these men managed to do all of this industrial work without drawing attention to themselves. Well, luckily for them, the prison reforms during the 1960s allowed inmates to have a music hour, so when all of their music was playing at once, no one could hear the banging and drilling.
Morris played his accordion as loudly as possible whenever he could to cover up the sounds of his allies chipping away at the cement walls. Once they were finished, the holes they dug would lead to an unguarded utility area made up of numerous pipes.
Since the utility corridor was unmonitored, all the men had to do was successfully climb through the holes in their cells and then climb up three floors to reach the roof. Well, at least to accomplish the first stage of their mission. Once they made it to the roof, the group would have to hope for the best.
After reaching the roof, the men needed to open one of the large ceiling shafts to get out of the building. Many of these shafts were cemented shut, making this step more difficult than anticipated. They eventually found one that wasn't sealed with cement, so they opened it with a wrench.
After countless hours of preparation, in May of 1962, the group was ready to embark on a seemingly impossible mission. The Anglin brothers and Morris successfully broke through their cell walls and could squeeze through holes that were barely big enough, but they'd manage to make it work.
They built a raft and life vests by gluing and stitching over 50 raincoats together that they'd stolen from the property. The flotation devices were crucial to the mission because if the men had no way of floating through the bay, they'd essentially have no chance of surviving since the island is far from any other land.
Waiting for the Signal
With everything in place, the Anglins and Frank just needed to wait for Allen to finish digging his escape hole, so he could give the signal, and they could get moving. In June of 1962, Allen finally gave the others the sign, and it was go-time, but the plan didn't go as smoothly as they'd hoped.
Allen gave the rest of the group the official signal on June 11th, informing them that he'd successfully completed his hole and would be able to escape from his cell. So, the men were ready to set sail off the island, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
Putting Their Lives on the Line
After lights out, the gang put their plan into action, but would any of them actually make it out alive? They'd dreamed of a life of freedom in the outside world, so they were willing to risk it all for the chance to be free. With adrenaline at an all-time high, they moved quickly to set up their dummies and leave their cells.
The Anglins and Morris escaped their cells easily, but West had some trouble. He'd informed the others that his hole was big enough to crawl through, but evidently, he'd misjudged the size and would need to make it larger, with little time to spare. So, Morris did everything possible to try and help West with his exit.
Only Three Men Made It Out
At around 9:30 that night, as Allen was still trying to get out of his cell, he'd soon have a harrowing decision to make. Frank and the Anglins decided that they'd have to leave Allen behind. This certainly wasn't ideal, but if they made too much noise fixing the hole, they'd risk drawing the guards' attention.
Being a team player, West accepted his fate and gave the others permission to continue their mission without him. Having one less man would likely help them, making the raft lighter. So, the three men started climbing through 30 feet of plumbing in the utility corridor in hopes of reaching the roof.
Outsmarting the Guards
Morris and the Anglin brothers made it to the roof of the cell house without difficulty. They were relieved, but their hearts were racing, as they weren't even close to freedom just yet. Next, they had to climb down the 50-foot pipes on the side of the structure to reach the ground.
They reached the ground near the shower area and then had to silently sneak past the guards, which would make or break their future. The group successfully outsmarted the guards and finally headed towards the shore. The next step was inflating the raft and life vests to actually exit the island.
Sayonara, Alcatraz Island
The three men successfully inflated the raft and the vests and set sail at around 11:30 that night, officially escaping from Alcatraz. That was the last anyone ever saw of Frank, John, and Clarence, but no one actually knew what they'd been up to. The following morning, prison officials discovered that the men were missing.
The island's residents were woken up by deafening sirens, signaling that there was an emergency. But many inmates and workers were confused, as they'd never expected anyone to actually escape from "The Rock." Like we've said from the beginning, Alcatraz was built to ensure criminals couldn't escape.
While Allen West had agreed to stay behind, he was still determined to find a way out. Later that night, after more chiseling, he managed to squeeze through the hole in his cell, hoping to catch up to the other escapees. He climbed to the roof like he'd initially planned to do, but the other men were long gone.
He was left with another tough decision; Either attempt to swim to freedom, which he likely wouldn't survive, or go back to his cell and remain a prisoner. Allen decided to return to his cell and wait until officials discovered that the men were missing in the morning.
The Morning After
As Allen was sitting in his cell, the entire island was filled with chaos, as authorities were aggressively searching for Morris and the Anglins. West cooperated with law enforcement officers and supposedly told them everything, but did he actually tell them the truth?
That's something we may never know, but West claimed that the other three men headed to Angel Island and planned to steal a car and some clothing once they got there. He also told authorities that they planned to go their separate ways when they safely reached land.
Things Didn't Add Up
While West's story about the other men seemed believable, there was one problem. No car robbery had been reported in the area for 12 days after the mysterious escape. So, this meant that Morris and the Anglins wound up somewhere else, or they more-likely didn't make it.
Allen took the fall for the entire plan, telling authorities that he'd come up with the idea to escape and was the scheme's ring leader. A formal investigation was opened to hopefully discover whether or not the trio had survived. No matter their fate, officials were determined to get to the bottom of this.
After multiple extensive searches of the surrounding waters, no bodies were found. However, some personal belongings were seen floating around the bay. The San Francisco Bay is known to have freezing cold water, and during the night, it typically reaches a temperature of 50 to 54 degrees.
After a thorough investigation, it was determined that an adult male could survive for about 20 minutes in the bay before their body functions would start to shut down. Since prisoners used somewhat warm water for their showers, their chances of surviving in this freezing temperature were unlikely.
Looking for Leads
About a month after the famous escape, a Norwegian freighter spotted a body approximately 17 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. They said the body was supposedly clothed with what had been worn by Alcatraz inmates, but the report was filed late, so the body was never actually found.
Officials continued investigating for years, but on December 31st, 1979, the FBI closed the case after 17 years of searching. It was concluded that the escapees had most likely drowned in the bay, as they hadn't yet reached any other strong leads. But more information would later surface, causing a lot more speculation.
In 2015, a documentary on the History Channel revealed further evidence that the Anglin brothers had successfully made it out of Alcatraz. Their family received signed Christmas cards from John and Clarence, and the handwriting was confirmed as theirs. However, the date that the letter was received was undetermined.
The Anglin family also shared a picture of the brothers taken in Brazil in 1975, which was closely analyzed by forensic experts. They determined that it was "more than likely" that John and Clarence were the men in the photo. And that wasn't even the last of the evidence.
The Anglins Had Been in Touch With Family
Soon after the Christmas card resurfaced, another family member showed reason to believe that the brothers had survived. One of their siblings, Robert, had written a deathbed confession, revealing that he'd been in touch with John and Clarence from 1963 until 1987, but eventually lost touch again.
Regardless of temptation, the entire Anglin family was forbidden from searching for their missing loved ones in Brazil since the Great Escape from Alcatraz had been an open Interpol investigation for decades. If John and Clarence were to be found, many questions would indeed be answered, but what would happen to them?
Story Behind the Great Escape
When the unexpected letter that John Anglin had supposedly written was finally opened, many things were cleared up. "Yes, we all made it that night but barely!" he wrote. "I'm 83-years-old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina." As for John's brother?
"My brother died in 2011," he claimed. John also stated, "This is the real and honest truth. I could tell you that for seven years of living in Minot, North Dakota, and a year in Fargo." Parts of the letter weren't legible, but the BBC interpreted it to read that he'd also lived in Seattle "for most of my years after the Escape."
Hiding in Plain Sight
The letter also stated that John was "Living in Southern California now," which shocked investigators even more. This genius criminal had managed to escape from the toughest prison in the world, and supposedly, he'd been living just a few hours away from Alcatraz Island all these years.
Based on the letter, it was evident that John was in poor health and was quite desperate for medical attention. He said that he'd even risk going back to jail if that's what it took to get medical help, as he seemingly couldn't take care of himself anymore. John even tried to make a deal with the authorities.
Making a Deal With the Devil
The more that officials read the letter, the more shocked they became. "If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to you to let you know exactly where I am," John wrote in the letter. "This is no joke."
But before any deal could be made, authorities needed to further investigate all parts of the letter. Was it actually coming from John Anglin? And if so, was there any additional information they could take from it before taking the next step and potentially contacting him?
Looking Deeper Into the Letter
According to the U.S. Marshals, the letter was given to the FBI lab for further examination. They wanted to see if there were any traces of DNA or fingerprints left on the paper. Investigators also analyzed the handwriting by comparing it to writing samples kept from all three men's prison time.
Ultimately, "the FBI's results were inconclusive," according to the San Fran Cisco local CBS station, KPIX. A security expert from the station revealed that the investigation "means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo." While the letter gave some potential answers, there were still many questions.
Lacking Credible Evidence
The U.S. Marshals had previously stated "it is possible" that the escapees had survived. But after the letter was published in January of 2018, a representative told The Washington Post, "The Marshals Service has continued to investigate leads and said it will do so until the men are proven deceased, or until they turn 99."
They weren't so confident that the letter was legitimate anymore. After the FBI shut down their investigation in 1979, they said, "For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest these men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas."
Did the Escapees Turn Their Lives Around?
Supposedly, the letter was never meant to be published, as officials still weren't sure if it was truthful or not. After it was released by the CBS station in San Francisco, the U.S. Marshals issued a statement to provide some clarity, as the news of the Great Escape had fascinated and shocked the public.
"There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens after this escape," the U.S. Marshals shared. Since the Marshals were the only ones still investigating the case, their opinion was valuable to many people.
Still Searching for Answers
In 2014, a research team used a computer model to calculate the three men's likelihood of surviving. They determined that if the inmates had left the island around midnight, then the water currents would have been in their favor, and their chance of survival was pretty high. So what actually happened once they escaped?
There were still many questions that needed to be answered, and "There's an active warrant, and the Marshals Service doesn't give up looking for people," explained Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke in 2009. With that being said, the investigation was far from over.
Last Man Standing
Authorities approached Jim Albright, a former guard during the Great Escape, as he was the last guard to leave the island when the prison closed. During an interview with San Francisco's local ABC station in 2018, Albright discussed the escapees' fate from his perspective.
"It depends on whether you're talking to me or you're talking to their mother," he said. "I believe they drowned, I really do." Albright explained that he was convinced the letter wasn't actually from John Anglin; He was under the impression that a desperate individual wrote it hoping to get cancer treatment.
The Mystery Lives On
To this day, it is still undetermined as to who sent that letter in 2013. Yes, it's possible that it came from John Anglin, but there was never enough evidence to confirm it. And investigators are still uncertain whether or not John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Lee Morris survived the Great Escape from Alcatraz.
Do you think the authorities ever contacted the individual who wrote the letter? If these three masterminds did indeed survive, they'd be nearly 90-years-old today, and they'd still be held responsible for their crimes if they got caught. So, it looks like the mystery of this mind-blowing escape from Alcatraz will live on.