16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison

Trista - February 21, 2019

In X-Men: The Last Stand, a subject of national controversy is a little boy who, though a mutant, has the unique power of taking the special abilities of mutants away from them. The government uses him to create a “cure” for mutants so that they no longer pose a threat to national security. The little boy is of such importance that he is held at one of the greatest maximum-security prisons in the world: Alcatraz. A battle ensues in which not only the prison but much of the island on which it sits is destroyed.

There is a reason why Alcatraz has found its place in history as the most notorious maximum-security prison: it was the site of a prison break that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have happened. The band of career criminals that conspired together to pull it off had a history with each other, and all were known to be security risks. However, Alcatraz was supposed to be escape-proof, so no one paid attention. Keep reading to learn more about the notorious penitentiary.


16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
Notorious gangster Al Capone’s mugshot photo when he was a prisoner at Alcatraz. PBS.

16. “The Rock”

Alcatraz prison, colloquially referred to as “the Rock,” was located off of San Francisco Bay on a barren island. It initially served as a military prison and garrison throughout the 1800s, especially during the Spanish-American War and Civil War. In 1934, the Federal Bureau of Prisons acquired the island to use as a maximum-security prison. Its isolation and difficult access made the site ideal for housing some of the worst criminals in the country. Among other notorious criminals who spent time on the Rock include the notorious gangster Al Capone, along with Whitey Bulger and Frank Banghar.

Alcatraz was considered a “final destination” for criminals who would never again be released back into society. Those who lived there had nothing to lose, so there were at least 36 prisoners who attempted to escape. In one escape attempt, known as the “Battle of Alcatraz,” some prisoners started a riot, leading to the deaths of three prisoners and two officers. The riot didn’t end until the United States Marines arrived. There has only been one escape attempt that may have been successful, the notorious “escape from Alcatraz” by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. We still don’t know for sure if they actually did get off the Rock.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
A life preserver was used as a dummy to fool the prison guards. Gizmodo.

15. The Attempted Escape

On June 12, 1962, Frank Morris, along with the Anglin brothers, successfully escaped Alcatraz prison. However, we do not know if they survived the escape, as the waters of San Francisco Bay are particularly dangerous, especially in the wee hours of the morning. In the time since there have not been any confirmed sightings of any of them. The FBI concluded its investigation by claiming that they had drowned. However, the official story was inconclusive at best and based on circumstantial evidence. No bodies were ever recovered, and for over five decades, people speculated over what actually happened on that fateful night.

In 2013, the Richmond police station in San Francisco received a cryptic letter that said, “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.” It went on to say that they did escape successfully, though they barely survived. The letter was not disclosed to the public until five years later in January 2018; the secrecy surrounding the message, along with the lack of conclusive, forensic verification of who sent it, has spawned further speculation about whether the trio’s escape was successful. Many people believed that they had done the impossible by escaping from the Rock.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
A note from John Anglin to police. CBS San Francisco.

14. The Investigation Reopens

Upon receiving the letter, the Richmond police called the FBI. The FBI officially reopened the case, which had been closed for over four decades. Detectives thoroughly analyzed the handwriting based on known writing samples from all three of the escapees, but their results were inconclusive. To make matters more complicated, no evidence contradicted the claim that John Anglin and the other escapees were successful. Their bodies were never recovered from San Francisco Bay, but they could have floated out to the Pacific Ocean. The most famous prison break in history could have been successful, but there is no way to know for sure.

What is entirely possible is that the person who wrote the letter, claiming to be from John Anglin, was looking for a way to get medical attention. He was in his eighties and said that he had cancer. If he went to prison for escaping from Alcatraz, he would be able to get the medical help that he needed at the expense of Uncle Sam. What is equally plausible is that the men actually did survive the escape, but none of them were responsible for the letter. At any rate, the FBI officially labeled the letter as fraudulent and repeated its original conclusion: the men died in the waters off of San Francisco Bay. They had crude, hand-sewn life jackets and a life raft to prove it.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
Investigators looking for evidence regarding the escape. PBS.

13. John and Clarence Anglin

According to people who knew them, John and Clarence Anglin were inseparable and would not escape from prison if doing so meant leaving the other behind. They were two of 12 siblings, the children of migrant farm workers, and had developed a close bond in early childhood. Notably, they spent many of their childhood summers at Lake Michigan, where they became adept swimmers in the lake’s cold waters and strong currents. There, they could have quickly gained the swimming skills that they would have needed to swim through San Francisco Bay and ultimately find freedom successfully.

Together, the two brothers became career criminals at an early age and developed a rather prodigious RAP (record of arrests and prosecutions) sheet. They preferred to rob banks and stores, usually when closed so that they wouldn’t have to use a weapon. In fact, they only had to use a weapon one time, and that was a toy gun. They spent time in various federal prisons and penitentiaries before ending up at Alcatraz. Like so many other notorious career criminals, it was to be their “final stop.” However, their final stop turned out to be the most famous prison break in all of American history.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
One of Frank Morris’ early mugshots. YouTube.

12. Frank Morris

Frank Morris was orphaned in Washington, DC when he was 11 years old. Soon after that, he turned to a life of crime and went to prison for the first time at the tender age of 13. By the time he was only 20 years old, he was considered to be a career criminal. Unlike the typical career criminal stereotype, though, Morris was far from a blockhead. He had an IQ of 133, which put him in the top 2% of the entire population. Morris used that remarkable intelligence to help facilitate his life of crime, as well as repeated escape attempts. Alcatraz was not the first prison he escaped from, but it may have been the last.

During his multiple incarcerations, Morris used his prodigious mental faculties to plot ways to escape. After serving time in Georgia and Florida, he escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. When he was arrested a year later, he was sent to Alcatraz because the authorities deemed it to be escape-proof. Morris’ prison escapes were so formidable and notorious that he was the figure played by Clint Eastwood in the Hollywood blockbuster, Escape from Alcatraz. In fact, Morris was the one who masterminded the escape.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
The Anglin brothers, John and Clarence. Anglin Brother Museum.

11. Atlanta Federal Penitentiary

While he was serving time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Frank Morris happened to meet two brothers, Clarence and John Anglin. All three were career criminals, and they decided to stick together. Putting career criminals together, and moving them all to the same maximum-security prison – especially when one is a Houdini of prison breaks – is probably a bad idea. They were all sent to Alcatraz. But together, they had what they needed to get off of the Rock: Morris had the brains to mastermind an escape, and the Anglin brothers had the brawn actually to pull the thing off.

The trio was sent there, Morris for his repeated prison escapes, and the Anglin brothers for an all-around lack of respect for authority. Alcatraz was a veritable island fortress: if you got there, you weren’t getting off. It was surrounded by the turgid waters of the San Francisco Bay, whose waters remain in the thirties and forties. Anyone who might get through its impenetrable walls would face almost certain death. The Rock was considered to be escape-proof. Such a claim might have come across as a challenge to the likes of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, especially when faced with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives there.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
“The Rock” as it sits on San Francisco Bay. Foster Travel Publishing.

10. Reunion at Alcatraz

The Anglin brothers tried several times to escape from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, but all of their tries were unsuccessful. Frank Morris, however, was transferred to the Louisiana Federal Penitentiary, from which he pulled off a successful escape. When he was caught, he was sent to Alcatraz to serve a 10-year term. The Anglin brothers soon arrived, serving terms of 15 to 20 years. John arrived first, and Clarence came three months later. The lengthy prison sentences probably served as an impetus for their escape. They didn’t have anything to lose and were prepared to get out early, though not for good behavior.

A man named Allen West had arrived at Alcatraz three years before Frank Morris; in 1957, he was sent there after attempting (unsuccessfully) to escape from the Florida State Prison. He was there for car theft, having first served time (you guessed it!) Atlanta State Penitentiary before being transferred. He had been arrested nearly two dozen times throughout his life and, like the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, was considered to be a career criminal. He would not be a part of the actual escape but would be critical in orchestrating it. His name has also gone down in infamy.


16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
Mugshots of all four men involved in the escape plot. Mind Shadow.

9. The Escape Begins

The four men, all of whom had spent time at Atlanta State Penitentiary (three of them simultaneously), were housed in cells adjacent to each other. This arrangement was probably an oversight (or at least a lack of foresight) on the part of the prison administration, but the place was supposed to be completely escape-proof. After all, the people who went to Alcatraz usually had “escape attempt” on their RAP sheets. What the adjacent rooms did was provide the men with a means of working on their plan together. The extreme detail, along with incredible ingenuity that they paid to every single aspect of their escape plan has gone down in history.

Old saw blades were quite common at Alcatraz, as the authorities put the prisoners to work making things like furniture. Allen West realized the potential that they held and smuggled some back to their cells. Because the four prisoners were there for escape attempts, as opposed to violent crimes, the guards didn’t pay much attention to them when they were in their cells. They used these blades to begin sawing through the walls between their cells so that they could start planning and executing their escape. Without those saw blades, the exit may not have ever happened.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
The decaying building made the escape attempt easier. Bettmann/Getty Images.

8. Less “Escape-Proof” Than the Authorities Claimed

By the time that Allen West, Frank Morris, and the Anglin brothers arrived at Alcatraz, the place was in dire need of repairs. Rusty pipes were constantly leaking, and the salty sea water had eroded both the ducts and the walls, as well as metal vents. Despite the dilapidated condition of the island fortress, the much-needed renovations and repairs never came. The authorities relied on the Rock’s position within San Francisco Bay as a deterrent to escaping. Seeing as West had already been at Alcatraz for three years before meeting the trio of escapees, he was probably already familiar with the structural weaknesses of the building and was ready to exploit them.

In addition to the saw blades that West procured, the escape artists used everything that they could get their hands on, including spoons and parts from the engine of a discarded vacuum cleaner. Morris put the other three to work, with everything from getting the tools that they would need to figure out how to use them to cut through the rusted metal air vents. Progress was painstakingly slow, but as prisoners in what was possibly the world’s most maximum-security facility, they had nothing but time on their hands. They paid attention to the tiniest details, making sure to replace every grain of sand that fell with toilet paper or cardboard to hide what they were doing from the guards.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
Frank Morris played the accordion to hide the noise that they were making. Alcatraztherock.

7. The First Challenges Arise

Pretty quickly, the would-be escapees realized that chiseling away through rusted metal and crumbling concrete was a rather loud undertaking. Seeing as they couldn’t trust other prisoners with the secret that they were planning an escape, Frank Morris – ever the mastermind – came up with an ingenious solution. New reforms at Alcatraz gave prisoners the opportunity to enjoy music every evening, so to hide the sound of their instruments sawing away at metal and concrete, Morris played his favorite instrument: the accordion. The noise was so loud that no one could hear over it to ascertain what West and the Anglin brothers were doing.

Altogether, Morris definitely had a knack for solving problems and throwing people off the trail of what they were doing. He was far from your typical career criminal – the man was an absolute genius, and he used his intellect to aid his life of crime. He probably wasn’t the most popular guy in the big house, in any case. Imagine how peeved all of the other inmates had to have been at him for hammering away at the accordion for three or four hours every evening! The accordion would prove instrumental in other aspects of the escape, including inflating the rudimentary life raft that the men sewed together.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
A photo showing where the men sawed through an air shaft and took out the surrounding wall. Brownie Bites Blog.

6. More Challenges Arise

The metal air shafts that the men sawed through were 6 x 9 inches, so there was no way that they were going to fit through them. Once they took out the air shafts, they began working on the concrete wall around it. Every night, they replaced the wall that they had chiseled through with cardboard so that no one would be able to see what they were doing. Once they got through the air shafts and out of the fortress-prison, they would have to get across San Francisco Bay. To accomplish this impossible feat, they managed to acquire upwards of 50 raincoats. These raincoats would be sewn together to form a makeshift raft.

Seeing as the men had spent many time sewing clothes for the brave boys in the military while serving time at various prisons, all of them knew how to use a needle and thread. Once they were able to get through the air vents and into the walls, they set up shop and went there to work every evening. They sewed together all of the raincoats before vulcanizing the seams with the steam from pipes inside the prison walls. They got the idea from a Popular Mechanics magazine. To inflate the raft, the plan was to use the air from Morris’ accordion. They were regular McGyvers.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
Inside the walls of Alcatraz, where the escape artists did most of their work. Goodmad.

5. Covering Their Tracks

Another problem that the escape artists had to solve was hiding the fact that they were inside the prison’s walls instead of asleep in bed. They had to be inside their workshop for hours at a time to assemble things like their raft, and correctional officers perform routine checks at least every few hours. To overcome this challenge, they made dummies to put in their beds. The models wouldn’t be at all convincing up close, but for a guard who just wanted to check and see that there was a body in the bed, they got the job done.

The method of making the dummies came from the Anglin brothers. Every day, the men shaved and saved the hair, mixed in with shaving cream. They mixed the concoction with soap and toilet paper to make rather unhygienic papier mache heads. They topped the heads off with shavings gleaned from the prison barber and used art kits that prisoners had access to for painting the faces. Anytime they needed to head to their workshop, they strategically placed pillows under the blankets to look like bodies, then put the dummy heads at the top of their beds. The guards never caught on.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
The utility corridor in the Alcatraz prison. FBI.

4. Pipe Dreams

The easy part of the escape plan was getting into the air vents, where they did things like stitch together the lifeboat. They got out of their cells, but they had to get out of the entire prison in order to successfully escape. The air vents opened up into a utility corridor, which was unguarded. They scaled a series of pipes inside it to climb a full 30 feet up to the ceiling. Doing so by themselves was one thing. For the real escape, they had to do that climb while hauling a raft that weighed as much as 50 raincoats.

At the ceiling, the ventilator was screwed in. The men managed to get the rivets out and replaced them with some that they had designed out of a bar of soap. All in all, putting together the escape plan – from gathering their materials to sawing through the air ventilation shafts with Frank playing the accordion, to sewing a raft — took about six months. Soon, they would find out if their well-heeled plan would actually work. If it would, it would make all of the other prison escapes that they had taken part in look like child’s play.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
An image of what the prison guards found when Morris and the Anglin brothers didn’t wake up including the dummy bodies and heads. Earth Magazine.

3. Zero Hour: Time to Make a Break

On the evening on June 11, 1962, the most famous prison break in history began. The men went to their cells, put the dummies in their beds, and went through the air shafts and into the interior of the wall. At the last minute, though, Allen West had a problem: instead of using cardboard to cover his tracks, he had used cement. The entire area around the air shaft in his cell was cemented shut. After all those months of planning, all of the hard work that he had put into escaping from the Rock, he wouldn’t be able even to leave his cell.

West asked his buddies to help him, and Frank Morris came to the rescue. Unfortunately, by the time he was able to get into the utility corridor, from which he would climb to the roof and make his break, the other three men had long since left. West would be unable to survive the turgid bay waters on his own, so he returned to his cell. Instead of escaping, West got a good night’s sleep. In exchange for not being charged for his role in the escape, West cooperated fully with the investigation and proved key in helping detectives figure out how the exit had gone down.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
The dummy head found in West’s room. NY Daily News.

2. The Big Escape

West wasn’t going to be a part of the escape. The men had to get the raft and carry it with them up 30 feet of pipes, up to the top of the ventilation shaft. Up to this point, they had never actually opened the shaft, only loosened the rivets holding it in place. When they opened it, the rusted metal made a loud noise. The guards later reported hearing this noise, but because it wasn’t followed by anything else, they didn’t concern themselves with it. Once they were out of the shaft and on the roof, they quietly walked a hundred yards to the edge, then slid down 50 feet of pipes.

That evening was particularly foggy, making their job of getting through the guards who stood post at watchtowers easier. They quietly snuck past the guards, carrying their raft and crude wooden oars, and made their way to the turgid waters of the San Francisco Bay. Yet, that is where the trail goes cold (literally, quite cold). The FBI went on to claim that the inmates had drowned, citing a raincoat like the ones used in the prison as evidence. However, there was nothing more than circumstantial evidence. The men disappeared without a trace.

16 Steps These Criminals Took To Escape The Notorious Alcatraz Prison
The evidence that washed ashore didn’t include bodies. Facebook.

1. The Mystery Continues

The letter mailed to the Richmond police in 2013 read, “I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. 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 let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke.” The investigators declined to announce on television, possibly because they didn’t want to play any games with an Alcatraz escapee. To this day, we do not know who wrote the letter. However, there are clues that Morris and the Anglin brothers were successful in their escape.

In December of 1962, John and Clarence Anglin‘s received a Christmas card that said, To Mother, from John. Merry Christmas.” There was no indication as to his whereabouts. However, his brother Robert claimed to be in contact with both John and Clarence, until they eventually lost touch with each other. There are plenty of theories as to what happened to the Anglin brothers, one of which suggests that they went to Brazil. Even though the FBI officially closed the case, the US Marshals are still actively looking for credible evidence as to what happened to them. They will continue searching until the men turn 99 years old, at which point they will be presumed dead.

The mysterious letter to the Richmond police claimed that Frank Morris had died in Argentina in 2008, and he had used an alias for all the years since his escape. It also claimed that Clarence had passed away in 2011. Perhaps, having lost his two brothers in arms, John Anglin had decided that he had nothing left to lose and was ready to come clean. Alternatively, perhaps an amateur was looking to get attention from the FBI and national media. We may not ever know for sure what happened to them once they left the rocky shores of Alcatraz.

Today, there are many clues that theorists point to that indicate that, contrary to the FBI’s statement, the men actually did escape. Though the FBI issued a statement saying that the waters of San Francisco Bay were particularly bad that night, independent Dutch programmers claimed that the bay would have been conducive to an escape. Even if the men did die that night, they have certainly lived on in the imaginations of plenty of armchair historians and conspiracy theorists, as well as the active investigations of the US Marshals.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“New letter reopens the case of the Alcatraz escapees” by Matthew Black. History 101. June 19, 2018.

“Alcatraz Island.” – Wikipedia.

“June 1962 Alcatraz escape attempt.” – Wikipedia.