Escaping the Inescapable: Morris and the Anglin Brothers’ Escape from Alcatraz

Morris and the Anglin Brother's Mugshots | Courtesy of Icepop

Today, Alcatraz prison stands desolate in the San Francisco Bay, serving as a tourist attraction. Although the setting is tranquil, things were not always like this. Created for the sole purpose of housing the nation’s most dangerous criminals, it was designed to be inescapable. That is, of course, until three men, Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin set out to prove everyone wrong, and escape Alcatraz.1

All three of these men were seasoned criminals. Frank Morris had spent his youth bouncing from foster home to foster home. Lacking guidance, Morris turned to crime before the age of thirteen. He was repeatedly arrested for narcotics possession and armed robbery, and while serving a ten-year sentence for robbing a bank, he escaped the Louisiana state penitentiary. Authorities knew that Morris was extremely intelligent, and after this escape, he was sent to Alcatraz in 1960. On the other hand, John and Clarence Anglin grew up in Florida working on farms with their family. These two brothers were inseparable as children, and in the 1950’s, they began robbing banks as a team. While serving a similar sentence in the Atlanta penitentiary, the pair tried and failed to escape multiple times. These attempts earned them a reputation as troublemakers, and consequently, led to them being sent to Alcatraz. John arrived at the end of 1960, and Clarence arrived at the beginning of 1961. Upon arriving, there seemed to be nothing special about these inmates. They were repeat offenders with a reputation for troublemaking. However, it only took them one year to become arguably the most famous prisoners that inhabited the Alcatraz Penitentiary.2

The federal prison on Alcatraz Island that has been popularized by the media was established on August 22, 1934. However, Alcatraz has a long history prior to the prison’s founding. Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, and one mile away from the shore, the island of Alcatraz provides a 360 degree view of the surrounding bay area. In the mid 1800’s, gold was discovered in California, during the time period now known as the California gold rush, and people flocked here from all over world in hopes of acquiring wealth. However, they feared that the new found riches would lead to an attack on San Francisco. Recognizing the strategic positioning of Alcatraz Island, the United States government took control of the island. It was here where, in 1854, the U.S. government finished building the first lighthouse of the Pacific coast, and in 1859, they completed construction of a fully equipped fort. The island continued to be used as a fort until 1861, when the American Civil War began. Siding with the Union, the fort was transformed into a makeshift prison where war convicts and people against the Union were sent. Even after the Civil War, the island continued to be used by the U.S. military as a prison for convicted soldiers, and in 1907, the army officially made Alcatraz a military prison. It was not until 1933, that the army left the island, and the federal government took over and transformed it into the prison so well known today.3

Alcatraz Island | Courtesy of the National Park Services

Alcatraz became America’s first maximum security prison in 1934 when the doors officially opened for the nation’s most dangerous or notorious inmates. Among these were Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Although they were both infamous gangsters from the prohibition era, Al Capone was sent here for tax evasion, while George Kelly was convicted of kidnapping the rich Charles Urschel and holding him for ransom.4 Alcatraz also held less famous, yet equally dangerous men, such as Robert Stroud, James Bulger, and Albert Bates. The prisoners sent to this island were the worst of the worst, so it would make sense that this island be escape-proof. One of the key factors that contributed to this was its location. The island is situated in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, which is notorious for having extremely powerful tides and currents. These currents have the strength to pull men out to sea, or to toss them into the ocean. Normally this would not mean death, but the water in the bay is shark infested, and so cold that being in it for more than a few minutes can cause hypothermia. Together, the security in the prison and the treachery of the Pacific Ocean led many to believe that Alcatraz was inescapable.5

Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers were out to prove everyone wrong. Together with an accomplice, Allen West, the men began to execute their plan in December of 1961. Due to his extreme intelligence, Frank Morris is believed to have been the mastermind behind the ingenious plan. All four men chipped away at the ventilation ducts in their cells using stolen spoons and nail clippers. This process took months, since the tools were so small, and they hid their work from the guards using elaborately camouflaged cardboard cutouts that perfectly blended into the walls. Once the men were able to fit through the ducts, they set up a workshop on the roof of their cell block, which was an unguarded piece of the prison. They would take turns keeping watch with a homemade periscope while the others worked on stitching together about fifty raincoats into a raft and making paper mâché dummy heads that resembled them to place in their beds and fool the guards. After about six months of planning, everything came together on the night of June 11, 1962. Morris and the Anglin brothers placed the dummy heads on their beds upon lights out, and they crawled up to their workshop. Although Allen West was also in on their plan, the cover of his ventilator duct got stuck. Therefore, he was not able to leave his cell, and was left behind.6

A dummy head made by the prisoners | Courtesy of KTXS News

In the meantime, Morris and the Anglin brothers took their gear, and they climbed up to the roof of the prison. This was at least thirty feet high, but sliding down a kitchen vent pipe, the trio was able to get down safely. They then proceeded to climb the fence, and took off in their improvised raft. This incredible feat was performed undetected, and it was not until the lights went on the next morning that guards noticed they were missing. Immediately, a massive manhunt began, but it was too late. The men were nowhere to be found.7

This was not the first time that prisoners had attempted to escape Alcatraz. In 1946, there was another high profile, yet less commonly known case referred to as the Alcatraz prison riot of 1946, or the Battle of Alcatraz. On May 2, 1946, Bernard Coy set his escape plan in action along with Joseph Cretzer and Marvin Hubbard. They planned to overtake the prison. In order to do this, they took two guards hostage. They then freed the other prisoners, some of whom chose to participate in the revolt, and they searched for the key to the yard, since this was their intended mode of escape. However, the hostage guards refused to surrender the key, so the prisoners were trapped inside the building while marines surrounded the compound. In a standoff that lasted two days, this escape attempt was officially foiled on May 4, 1946. In the end, the three leaders were killed, as well as two prison guards. Two inmates were later sentenced to death for their involvement, and a total of fifteen others were injured.8

Although a search ensued for Morris and the Anglin’s, the men were never found, and many theories have subsequently emerged. In their official investigation, the FBI found it extremely unlikely that the men survived, and they concluded that they men drowned in the bay.9 Due to the violent nature of the San Francisco Bay tides, most presumed this to be true. However, experts believe they could have survived depending on timing. If they left between 11:30 PM to 12:00 AM, then the tides would have pushed them to shore. However, leaving at any other time would have meant being swept out to sea or tossed into the ocean. There is conflicting evidence whether the men actually made it to shore. According to West, the man left behind, the plan was to steal a car once on the mainland. However, the FBI never uncovered any thefts in the area during this time. A few days after the escape, authorities found the life raft constructed of rain jackets on a nearby island, Angel Island. Then about a month after, a fishing boat reported a body floating in the bay, but authorities were unable to identify the body.10

Supposed picture of Anglin Brothers in Brazil | Courtesy of NY Daily News

Although this paints a bleak picture for the men’s escape, family members of the Anglin brothers have reported receiving flowers or cards on special occasions. In addition, a nephew of the Anglins has turned into authorities a picture of two men believed to be the Anglin brothers on a farm in Brazil; although the resemblance is visible, forensic analysts were unable to confirm this theory.11 Skeptics believe the family has constructed these stories. More recently, in 2013 a letter reached the police supposedly from John Anglin claiming that all three of them survived that night, but just barely. He claimed that Clarence died in 2011, Morris in 2008, and that he had cancer, but would turn himself into police in exchange for medical treatment. The FBI closed the case about seventeen years after the infamous escape, but due to this letter, the case has since been reopened. There is no word whether the FBI followed this lead, but there have been no arrests since.12 Although much attention has been paid to the brothers, there have been no theories mentioning what might have happened to Frank Morris.

Whether the brothers and Morris survived their escape or not, they made it farther than anyone ever had. Together, these three masterminded one of the most daring escapes in history, yet their fate remains unknown. They are now immortalized, and many movies have been made based on their escape, such as Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. This is one of America’s greatest mysteries, and the answers might not even lie in America. More than fifty years later, it is impossible to not speculate that these men might still be alive and in hiding.

  1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2017, s.v. “Alcatraz,” by Leon L. Bram.
  2. Jane Fryer, “Is this the proof two audacious crooks did escape from Alcatraz?.” Daily Mail, October 14, 2015. Accessed May 2, 2018.
  3. Deborah Hopkinson, “Escape from Alcatraz,” Storyworks 23, no. 2 (2015): 5.
  4. Steve Boisson, “The rock,” Civil War Times 41, no. 5 (2002): 21.
  5. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary,” by Fay V. Williams.
  6. United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alcatraz escape (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of investigation, 1998), 688.
  7. John Campbell Bruce, A farewell to the rock; escape from Alcatraz (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 220.
  8. Ernie Lopez, To Alcatraz, death row, and back: Memories of an east LA outlaw (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 123.
  9. United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alcatraz escape (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of investigation, 1998), 1618.
  10. Luther B. Clegg, “Escape from Alcatraz: the mystery of the three men who escaped from the rock,” The Horn Book Guide 28, no. 2 (2017): 243.
  11. Jane Fryer, “Is this the proof two audacious crooks did escape from Alcatraz?.” Daily Mail, October 14, 2015. Accessed May 2, 2018.
  12. Rozina Sabur, “Alcatraz escape was a success, letter claims; FBI reopened case after a man purporting to be John Anglin says trio survived attempt to flee island prison,” The Daily Telegraph, January 25, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2018.

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This Post Has 71 Comments

  1. Such an intriguing story. I’ve heard so little about this story prior to this article and I wonder how on earth they could have made the fake heads, the hair looked so real! It kills me that we will never know what truly happened to these brothers. However, I was always told that the sharks in the bay were not man eating at all.

  2. I think that Alcatraz was probably a huge learning lesson for them, said Mr Widner. I don’t believe that had they made it out of there, that they would have risked committing any more crimes to get caught, to go back to Alcatraz.So maybe they did survive although one small irony is that if Morris and the Anglins had just waited, they wouldn’t have needed to risk their lives escaping from Alcatraz.

  3. I was unaware that Alcatraz island was first utilized by the military before it was home to the country’s first maximum security prison. Using both man’s and nature’s design, it was meant to be inescapable, but these men prove the old saying “where there is a will, there is a way.” Whether the three men actually survived and made it to Brazil, or they all died in the escape, the plan was solid.

  4. The idea of a prison like Alcatraz is probably what fuels the supermax prisons we see today. The article’s information provided about the prison itself sets the scene for what would grow into a very interesting story. It really takes a special type of prison to make the inmates want to escape it for the act of leaving alone, not for freedom or capital gain. There is no set “good” or “bad” character, the prisoners and the prison crew are both likable and described in detail, and this lack of “us vs them” really adds another layer of depth into the story.

  5. I love reading articles about crime, and this one was one of my favorites to read. I find it both astonishing and crazy that these three men made a daring escape from Alcatraz, which is supposed to be unescapable. It’s fascinating that Frank Morris is so smart to be able to make a plan to escape from the prison. I thought this article was really great.

  6. When I was about eleven years old, I heard for the first time of Alcatraz- the “unescapable” prison. Ever since, I developed an interest in this prison and some of the inmates in it; henceforth, I was familiar with the story of the escape from prison by three inmates. The story of Morris and the Anglin Brothers escaping from Alcatraz does not fail to impress me every time I hear it. What shocked me the most from the article is the fact that they escaped due to the harsh treatment they received in the prison and the challenges they had to face to escape, such as swimming with sharks. Also, their escape was very ingenious, and the article succeeds in portraying this aspect.

  7. Christopher Hohman

    This article is great. I do not think there was a dull moment while I was reading it. The pictures you used were also great. I find it incredible that three men were able to escape such a formidable prison. It really says alot about how smart Frank Morris must have been. If he was really the mastermind behind the plan then wow props to him. Whether or not they escaped is also an interesting point of discussion. I certainly hope not it sounds like these three were pretty dangerous criminals, if they had escaped then they may have posed a serious threat to the well being of others

  8. This was an interesting read and the author kept me interested the entire time I was reading this article. The possibility that the three men may have survived and the brothers might have fled to a farm in Brazil is suspenseful. It is terrifying to think that one of the factors of escaping Alcatraz is swimming with sharks I would not even attempt to leave. The article kept me excited and since I did not know the conclusion of this story I was intrigued to know the ending.

  9. I had heard the name “Alcatraz” countless times and seen many references to it, but I had never actually known the whole story. I usually always assume that people want to get out of jail because they miss freedom but hearing that a jail is so bad that people want to escape for that reason is new to me. Reading the three inmates plan is fascinating to me and the detail is what makes this article so well rounded.

  10. Alcatraz has always been so interesting to me and so I have heard of these men before. As much as I love reading about crime, this article still kept me very interested. It’s almost unfathomable to understand how people can be smart and resourceful enough to escape from some of the most high security places. Not only that, but it’s terrifying. To find means of building a raft and a fake head and just everything else they had to do shows true dedication, attention to detail and just brilliance

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