Dubbed “The Rock,” Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary is located off the coast of San Francisco, California. It was known to harbor some of the worst criminals inside its maximum-security walls. It was said that no one could escape from here while it was in operation from August 11, 1934 till March 21, 1963, but was it really? According to a letter that the FBI received in 2013 from a prisoner, it would seem that three criminals managed to escape the inescapable.
After being built in 1910, it was known as a United States Army military prison in 1912. But the island officially became part of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in August 1934 after undergoing a major renovation to ensure that those who were locked up remained behind bars. Alcatraz was 1.25 miles from San Francisco Bay. Aside from the high security measures, the waters were so treacherous that no inmate would have dared attempted an escape from the strongest prison in America, at least, that’s what those in charge of Alcatraz thought.
Alcatraz became home to the most ruthless inmates in American history, (more than 1,576 of them.) The prison was designed to hold criminals that no other federal prison could deal with. Among those troublemakers were the likes of Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who spent more time here than any other inmate. There was also Robert Franklin Stroud the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, Whitey Bulger, and of course, Al Capone.
It is believed that 36 inmates tried but failed to escape Alcatraz, but for several years, the prison has dealt with an unsolved mystery. In 1962, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and their accomplice, Frank Morris did escape, but their whereabouts were never fully explained. Then, California police got a letter years after the FBI closed their investigation. It was supposedly written by one of the escaped inmates who wanted to surrender in exchange for medical assistance.
The man who wrote the letter called himself John Anglin and wrote that Morris had passed away in 2008 and Clarence had died in 2011. He also discussed how they had barely broken out of Alcatraz, and how Anglin was now willing to turn himself in, but only if he received a minimal prison sentence and cancer treatment. But there was more in the letter.
The letter said: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962, with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes, we all made it that night but barely! 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.” But was this letter legit?
The U.S. Marshals investigated the letter, and they had the FBI use DNA testing. They even searched for fingerprints on the letter. They also compared Anglin’s handwriting, but the results were unclear. Authorities don’t believe that the three men survived their escape attempt. But then there’s the letter that suggests otherwise. So now, they’re starting to question whether these three, or anyone, had managed to escape from Alcatraz, And if they had, then how?
John was sent to Alcatraz in 1960 after trying to break out of prison several times, and his brother Clarence joined him in 1961 for trying to do the same thing. The two were also doing time for robbery. Eventually, they met a robber and drug dealer named Morris, who was sent to Alcatraz in 1960 after escaping a Louisiana State Penitentiary. He ran from the law for a whole year until he was caught during a burglary. It became clear, these men belonged in prison.
The trio put their heads together and came up with a plan to get out of “The Rock” once and for all. Over a span of six months, they spent every night trying to widen the ventilation duct openings in their cells. They used stolen spoons, and blades found in the grounds of Alcatraz. They even created a drill using a damaged motor from a vacuum. Morris played his accordion to numb the work noise while the others concealed their progress using paint and cardboard.
Their intricate plan had eventually opened a hole into a utility corridor behind the cell, and it was unguarded. The trio climbed up to the roof of their cell block and set up a workshop. There, they created a bunch of items like life preservers and a 6-by-14-foot rubber raft using over 50 raincoats and other material which had been donated or stolen. They even used steam pipes to seal the stitched seams. But those weren’t the only items that the inmates used for their escape.
Whenever they worked outside, and even after their escape, the men would use dummy heads with materials like soap and toilet paper to create a papier-mache version of themselves. They even used hair from the barbershop and paint from the maintenance area to make them more realistic. So when the guards checked in on them every morning, they had no clue they were looking at fake dummies and beds that were stuffed with a bunch of sheets.
The last time the trio were seen alive was on the night of June 11, 1962. Then they headed to the service corridor and climbed to the roof using the ventilation shaft. They slid 50 feet using a vent pipe from the kitchen and climbed two 12-foot-barbed-wire fences. They evaded the searchlights and gun towers by hiding in the perfect blind spots. From there, they inflated their raft and took off through the thick fog. Their goal was to head to Angel Island, which was two miles north of Alcatraz.
As impressive as their efforts were, a pile of bones washed up on the coast, and many assumed that it was the trio’s remains. But DNA testing later proved that this wasn’t the case. In 1979, the FBI closed the case and made the following statement: “We officially closed our case on December 31, 1979, and turned over responsibility to the U.S. Marshals Service, which continues to investigate in the unlikely event the trio is still alive.”
There’s a mile of water full of unforgiving currents between Alcatraz and the nearest land, which is why it was considered impossible to escape. Exhaustion and cold waters would have killed them eventually, or the currents would have hurled them further out to sea. But some believed that if they left around 11 PM and midnight, they might have been able to avoid the violent currents, in which case, their escape plan would have worked, and that’s exactly when they escaped.
Anglins’ sister, Mary Widner, had this to say about her brothers and Morris’ escape: “I’ve always believed they made it, and I haven’t changed my mind about that.” In 2015, John and Clarence’s two nephews went on record to say that they believed that their uncles were living in Brazil during the 80s. They also claimed that Whitey Bulger, who was also in Alcatraz at the time of the escape, had written to them claiming he had trained them on the how to escape and avoid being recaptured. “He taught them that when you disappear, you have to cut all ties,” he said. “He told me in a letter, ‘This is the mistake that I made.’ He added, ‘These brothers undoubtedly had done exactly what I told them to do.’” But whether the trio really survived is anyone’s guess…