Escape From Alcatraz – 1962

By Penny Chavers

Cells inside Alcatraz Prison, an island prison in San Francisco Bay, off San Francisco, California, United States of America, North America (Getty Image #141816649)

It was once assumed that no one could escape from Alcatraz. In fact, officials bragged that it was not possible to escape from “The Rock” as they called it. Making it the topic of news reports, documentaries, and movies, the 1962 escape has definitely left its mark in history.

Alcatraz – A little history.

Alcatraz was named in 1775 by Spanish Lieutenant, Juan Manuel de Ayala called the Island “Island of the Pelicans” because of all the pelicans that used to flock there before prisoners started coming there. Criminals that were sent there were not just those who were the vilest and evil, as most people have thought, but a lot were sent there because they were in need of learning how to follow the rules. They just needed a wake-up call, so to speak.  

Al Capone, the notorious gangster, was among the first prisoners to be imprisoned there in 1934. After serving time first in Atlanta for tax evasion, he was transferred to Alcatraz where he thought he could receive special treatment as he did in Atlanta from bribing the guards. But that was not the case in Alcatraz, as he soon found out. Convict number 85, he had been broken like a wild horse and became such a model prisoner that he was allowed to play the banjo in the prison band.  

Mug shots of three prisoners that made a rare escape from Alcatraz (Image obtained from Pinterest)

Even though Al Capone succumbed to strict hard and fast rules of Alcatraz, others did not. Such was the case of four prisoners, Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin, and Allen West. 

Frank Morris: Born in Washington D.C. in 1926 and abandoned by his parents, he became an orphan at the age of just 11 years old. His criminal history started at 13, progressing as he got older with narcotics, armed robbery, and grand larceny. Despite his criminal history, he had an IQ of 133, ranking in the top 2 percent of the general population in intelligence. After his escape in Louisiana, while serving time for bank robbery, he was recaptured and sent to Alcatraz.

John and Clarence Anglin: Born in 1930/31 (a year apart) in Donalsonville, Georgia, John and Clarence were born into a large family of 13 children with seasonal farm workers for parents. Migrating between the north and the south, they worked picking cherries in the north and working the tomato fields in the south. The two of them were very close and, to the surprise of their siblings, became skilled swimmers in the freezing water of Lake Michigan. Clarence, at 14, was caught breaking into a service station which was just the beginning of their crime sprees of robbing banks as well as other businesses. In 1958, they were arrested for bank robbery using a toy gun (the only reported time they used a weapon) and were given 15-20 year sentences and based on their repeated escape attempts from the Atlanta facility, were sent to Alcatraz.

Adam West: Born in 1929, in New York City, Allen was imprisoned in Atlanta in 1955 for car theft. He was then sent to Florida, and after attempting to escape, he was sent on to Alcatraz in 1957. At the age of 28, he had the education of an eighth grader and was arrested more than 20 times in his life. 

Frank Morris’ cell at Alcatraz, complete with a dummy head similar to those created by Morris and the Anglin brothers. The dug-out air vent through which Morris escaped his cell is also visible. Credit: ©Mario Sánchez Prada, CC BY-SA 2.0

It was the year 1962, on June 11, when the four of them concocted an ingenious plan to escape the inescapable prison, “The Rock.” A total of 36 inmates, including these four, had attempted to escape. Out of these 36, 23 of them were captured, six were shot, two drowned, and supposedly the other five were missing and presumed dead. Frank Morris was the “brains” of the operation. It is believed that the four of them may have known each other from the Atlanta facility. Over a six month period, they managed to widen the vent openings in their cells by using saw blades they found around the grounds along with stolen spoons from the commissary, and a drill taken from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner.  

(Photo taken from alcatraztherock – Alcatraz News)

They hid their work using paint along with cardboard and muffled the sound with Frank playing the accordion. Using material from over 50 stolen or borrowed raincoats, they made life preservers and a rubber raft by stitching them together and then sealing them with heat from steam pipes. With a stolen accordion, they inflated the raft and made paddles from scrap wood and stolen screws. Climbing a ventilation shaft that led into a large fan and grille on the roof, they cut away the rivets holding them in place. To make sure no one knew they were gone while doing this, they used paper mache heads made out of soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, toilet paper, paint, and hair from the barbershop to make it appear that they were just sleeping in their beds.

Unmanned Utility Corridor (Photo via kiwi report)

On the night they planned to leave, West had gotten left behind. Because he used cement around his vent opening, it had hardened making the opening too small and the grill was stuck in place. By the time, he was able to get it opened up, the other three were already gone. He went to the roof but then returned to his cell and went to sleep.  Having cooperated with investigators and revealing the plan, he was not punished.

The other three, with all their gear, slid down the kitchen vent pipe, then climbed the barbed-wired fences, inflated their raft and launched out.

Was their attempt successful? Some speculate that they did while others believed they drowned. No bodies were ever found but pieces of the makeshift raft were found on a nearby beach along with a deflated life jacket. FBI concluded that they had drowned but there was a report of an illegal boat in the area early that morning but the FBI dismissed that report.

The case is still unsolved and remains open.

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.