The Man Who Knew How To Escape The Deadliest PrisonBy Ryan F
Chances are, you have heard of the notorious fortress on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Once considered one of the deadliest prisons in the world, it is now back in the news due to a mysterious letter found in the first quarter of 2018. It forced the authorities to reopen investigations to know more about a group of men that attempted to escape the prison, and (apparently) succeeded as well. The news is of huge importance because the jail was known as ‘inescapable’. The prison break would go down as among the most famous in history, and the whereabouts of the men who escaped remain a source of controversy, wild theories, and legend. So, just who were these people who broke out of Alcatraz? It’s time to find out.
The History Of Alcatraz
Alcatraz had achieved the reputation of notoriety for being the strictest jail in North America, as over three dozen men had lost their lives trying to leave the prison. Located on Alcatraz Island, the prison was operational between August 1934 and March 1963.
Now, it is a popular tourist attraction as it has been converted into a museum that is visited by over 1.5 million tourists annually. The island was used for prisoners who caused problems at other jails. These include the likes of Bumpy Johnson, Whitey Bulger, Robert Franklin Stroud, and the main protagonist of this story, John Anglin.
John Anglin Enters The Picture
Anglin was not much talked about until a few years ago when he sent a letter to the San Francisco Police Department. The letter read: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.”
This was no ordinary confession, since everyone knew or rather thought that there were no ‘success’ stories of escape from the notorious prison. This was more shocking because according to the official reports, the three men had died while trying to escape. So were the authorities trying to hide the truth?
What Was The Truth?
The police department did not immediately know what to do with the new piece of information it had received. You can’t right away trust a letter, especially if it’s in contrast with what you have believed all your life. The letter could very well have been a part of a greater conspiracy.
The interesting bit is that the letter had been originally received in 2013, but the department kept it hidden under wraps for years until it was found out about several years later, causing the FBI to reopen the case in January 2018.
Everyone Knew The Past
The history of Alcatraz was not exactly hidden from anyone. According to the data found in the official journals, a total of 33 prisoners had tried to escape the prison and six of them were shot while trying to escape, two went missing, 23 were caught, and two had drowned.
But, now with the letter out in the open, the world knew that the figure was not correct and something was missing. The FBI decided to find out the truth and investigate the case one more time so that the mystery could be revealed.
The Plan That Worked
The plan was originally conceptualized by four men, including two brothers, Clarence and John Anglin, Allen West, and Frank Lee Morris. All four of them were friends, and were very well aware of each other’s stories as their cells were in close proximity. They would spend hours discussing the plan with each other.
Instead of living their life in prison, they decided to take the risk and give it a try despite all the risks involved. They knew it was not easy to escape the prison, but they wanted to make it happen and hence decided to come up with a foolproof plan.
The Mastermind – Frank Morris
Morris was among the deadliest in the group as he had a massive criminal record. Plus, he was also experienced in escaping prison, which is one of the reasons he was shifted to the island. He was known for his intelligence, and was the mind of the group.
Some experts believe that the escape would’ve never been successful if it wasn’t for the mind of Morris, who committed his first crime at the tender age of 13. He knew about prisons and guards in general and was quite confident that his attempt would be successful.
The History Of Morris
Morris was a troublemaker and declined to change despite life giving him many opportunities. He had been to the prison several times for different crimes, most importantly, robbery. Before landing at Alcatraz, he was prisoned in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which was known as “Alcatraz of the South” due to its high-level security.
Morris was to serve 10 years in prison for a bank robbery, but he ended up escaping the prison, and was on the run for about a year before being arrested for another bank robbery, after which he was shifted to Alcatraz.
Hiring The Right Men
Morris knew he needed people with the right skills in order to make his plan a success. He started looking for individuals and came across the brothers. They were born to a family of farmers and were used to visiting the north for cherry-picking and could walk longer distances.
This was a skill that Morris knew could be very useful during their escape. He found out more about the Anglins and knew they were the right pair but he needed another man. Morris decided to take Allen West under his wing and the gang of four was ready to start preparations.
The Skills They Needed
Escaping this deadly prison was no child’s play. Morris was the most experienced of the four but the other three also knew crimes better than most people. Clarence and John Anglin had experience as thieves and had other skills as well, including swimming.
They could use this skill to escape the prison as they knew they’d have to swim long distances in order to reach a safe zone. They were in jail due to an attempted bank robbery, which surprisingly wasn’t their first as they had years of experience performing a variety of crimes.
A Difficult Start
The group had to work in silence. They could not afford to let others know what they were up to. They faced several dangers, not only from the security system or guards at work, but also from other prisoners as they could have also leaked out their plan, which would have caused them to fail.
It was not easy for them to communicate with each other since they were in different cells and they could not afford to shout or speak loudly. But, they were sure they wanted to escape Alcatraz, which was back then known as ‘The Rock’.
Finding What They Needed
One of the first challenges they faced was collecting resources. They couldn’t escape from the world’s deadliest prison without weapons. Fortunately for them, luck was on their side as Alcatraz was used as a factory where prisons worked to make clothes, shoes, and furniture for the military.
Hence, they did not have to work very hard to find what they needed. This was made easier due to the fact that they were imprisoned for non-violent crimes and hence were not kept an eye on. Stealing what they needed, as a result, was easy for the team.
The Master Twist
Their plan appears to have been copied from a thrilling Hollywood movie. The group did not only intend to leave the prison, but they also planned on leaving dummies to replace them so that they had more time to escape.
This was very important because it was not uncommon for the staff to check cells before going to sleep. The gang could not afford being caught as that would have resulted in serious consequences. Prison guards were known for being unforgiving, hence this was going to be their only chance to escape.
Working As A Group
The group had divided responsibilities so they could easily achieve their goal. The brothers were asked to prepare the dummies, which looked pretty neat based on the footage with the FBI. They used soap wax, human hair, and toilet paper to create the dummy heads.
It took the team some effort to acquire all the items. Since they could not cut their own hair, they stole real human hair from the prison’s barbershop. The other most important duty was assigned to Morris. He was responsible for inflating the boat and taking care of life vests.
Digging Deep Inside
The plan was made possible due to the team’s long-term planning. They had to dig deep in order to escape, but it was not going to be an easy task due to the time and effort needed to break concrete. They were able to find wrenches and picks but the real issue was digging without making noise.
This is why they also used wood and spoons for this purpose. They worked every day for about 4 hours to create holes big enough to accommodate them. They chose to work from 5:30 PM to 9 PM due to a lack of activity during these hours.
Apparently Luck Was On Their Side
It is not easy to dig deep into concrete but they did not find the task very difficult since the building was already in a pretty bad state. Saltwater had seeped deep into the walls, and had weakened the structure. This is why they did not have to put in a lot of effort to get the job done.
Plus, the noise was also taken care of due to the prevalent laws back then that allowed prisoners to enjoy music for an hour. Morris took advantage of this and played the music loud enough for them to work without catching anyone’s attention.
On The Other Side Of The Hole
A lot of prison escape stories fail because it’s the ‘wrong room’ on the other side, but in this case, there was a corridor that was completely unguarded. Plus, the corridor had pipes that the team could use to move up or down.
They only had to climb three floors from the corridor and they’d be on their way out of the prison. They looked at the scenario and planned accordingly. Their main aim was to reach the prison’s roof without being detected.
Getting Out Of The Hole
A huge hole sitting in a prisoner’s cell can be a red flag. They made sure to cover their respective holes by using their clothes so that the holes could not be seen. They basically hung their clothes on the wall. This was enough to fool the guards.
The real trouble, however, was getting out of the holes as they were not very big. But in June 1962, they decided it was time to take a leap of faith and give it a try. On a fateful night, they decided to wait for the lights to go out so they could make their way out through the tunnel.
But It Didn’t Go As Planned
Morris and the brothers were able to fit into their holes and get out to the corridor but Allen could not go through. His hole was too small and he could not fit in. Morris tried to help Allen but it was of no use. He could not pull him and there was no option to get him out through the hole.
They kept trying until 9:30 with a lot of worries over their heads. All of them knew they were risking their lives and if they got caught, it would be the end for them. In such a scenario, they had to make a difficult decision.
Turns Into A Gang Of Three
After the group failed to help Allen, the three of them decided to leave him behind and continue their journey. This was a very risky decision, as Allen could’ve been caught causing the entire plan to fail. But, at this stage, they had no other option.
They could not continue to waste more time, hence they took this decision. Allen agreed to keep their secret safe, and the three men started their journey from there and climbed to the top to reach the roof. They had to break some shackles to open the door and they were finally out on the roof.
Finally On The Top
The three men were able to reach the top in time. They had to worry about a lot of things, including the raft that they made by using 50 raincoats. They stole the coats from the jail and worked on them to create life vests and the raft, but they were not too sure if it would work.
However, now with fewer men, their chances were higher than ever. Standing at a height of 100 feet, they could smell their new life. The team quickly got down and avoided the guards to reach the shore. But, was the raft going to work?
And They Were Gone
This was the last time anyone had seen the three individuals and it wasn’t until the next morning that the authorities came to know of their absence. Back in his cell, Allen was not sure if his friends had been successful.
He had no news of the escape and he was also worried about being caught as he knew the authorities would check his cell once they found that three inmates had escaped. Hence, he decided to risk everything and continued to dig his hole so he could also escape.
Allen’s Journey Begins
Allen was able to dig more and the hole was finally big enough to accommodate him. Without wasting any more time, Allen got out of the hole and climbed the roof. He was able to reach there without being caught but it was too late.
His friends had already left and now with no life vest or raft to fall back on, he knew it was going to be a difficult journey. Swimming such long distances was going to be quite a feat and Allen wasn’t sure if it was worth the risk.
And He Was Back In The Cell
Allen decided to come back to his cell instead of going to the shore. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to swim so he waited for the next day. He found out that the guards were not able to find the three men but he was also caught due to the obvious hole in his room.
Not being able to hide the truth anymore, he shared all the details with the authorities but we can’t be sure if they were ‘true’. He told them that the group had decided to go to Angel Island, steal a car and other items, and then head their separate ways.
No Signs Of The Men
The police searched the nearby area but could not locate the three men. There were also no reports of stolen cars or small robberies. The police weren’t sure if the three had changed their plan or if they could not survive the night and had drowned.
In addition to this, they were also not sure if Allen had been speaking the truth. According to reports, he had claimed to be the leader of the gang. The police could not verify the information Allen had provided but they had no option but to trust his words.
And They Were Presumed Dead
The police were able to find items belonging to the three men but no bodies were recovered. Since the water temperature was around 50 to 54 degrees, it was assumed that they could not survive the cold and had died.
This was based on science and prevailing circumstances. According to experts, a human could not survive for more than 20 minutes in such temperatures. Plus, the jail water was kept warm to prevent prisoners from escaping successfully as they could not handle the icy cold water. There were reports of some sightings but no dead bodies were recovered. After 17 years, the FBI decided to close the case on Dec. 31, 1979, presuming they could not have survived the attempt.
There Were Conflicting Reports
Various theories began to spring up over the years about the three escaped prisoners and their possible whereabouts. Some experts believed that the trio was able to escape, especially due to the presence of a photograph of the two brothers that was claimed to have been taken in 1975 in Brazil.
Plus, Robert Anglin, a sibling of the infamous duo, in his last days made a shocking confession. He claimed to have been in touch with the brothers between 1963 and 1987. However, according to him, he had lost touch since 1987.
The Letter Revealed The Truth
Robert or other family members could not attempt to find his missing brothers in Brazil, since the two of them were still being searched for by the police. The letter that had come to light revealed a lot of secrets. “Yes, we all made it that night but barely! … I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer.” the letter said.
“Frank passed away in October 2008. His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.” It contained more information on his whereabouts and how the trio could have survived: “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.” In addition to this, the letter also contained a shocking revelation.
It Contained His Current Address
No, it wasn’t a mistake. The letter clearly read: “Living in Southern California now.” The man, who identified himself as John Anglin, was willing to share all the details with the authorities, but it was conditional: he needed something in return.
He was sick and he had no other option but to get back in touch with the police so that he could be taken care of. But, since he had a lot of information, he could still leverage the situation. Hence, he decided to make a unique offer to the police via the letter.
He Was Willing To Be Jailed
The letter went on: “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 news was very exciting, but the police couldn’t be sure if there was any truth to the story. The letter writer could’ve been a scam. So, they decided to investigate the issue and analyze the letter to gather as much information as they could about the origin of the letter.
But The Results Weren’t Impressive
The FBI used DNA tests to verify the letter but the results were ‘were inconclusive’. With no other option, they decided to call the letter ‘fake’. Most other parties also thought the letter was from a ‘fake’ person looking for a way to get medical treatment.
The letter became public after it reached KPIX, a local CBS station in San Francisco. Once the matter caught steam, U.S. Marshals, which was the only body to have continued investigations, responded: “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.”
And The Truth Dies
The FBI decided not to accept the deal. Plus, they could not verify if the letter was real or fake due to missing data. A guard, who was present at the time of escape, believes the letter was fake but some reports suggest that due to changing currents, the trio might have survived the cold night.
However, with no further movement into the case, it’s fair to say for now that we are still no closer to truly finding out what happened to the three men and if the letter was really from John Anglin, as it claimed to be.