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Alcatraz 1962: A Daring Escape or a Hastened Death?

Updated on March 9, 2013
The Rock as it looks today
The Rock as it looks today
The inside of Cell 138: the temporary quarters of Frank Morris
The inside of Cell 138: the temporary quarters of Frank Morris

Having earned the moniker of “The Rock,” its cold, ominous, and frightful aura was never underestimated. Alcatraz prison was thought to be completely inescapable. Like the riddle of the Sphinx, this maximum security edifice had never been solved by the best efforts of man. Located on its own island just off the coast near San Francisco, California, Alcatraz portended a cold watery grave for anyone who might actually conceive of a way to liberate himself from its walls. Moreover, showers inside the prison always produced warm water—no matter how the faucet was set; this was meant to hinder the inmates’ ability to acclimate themselves to freezing water (just in case they ever found themselves immersed in the waters of the bay outside the confines of the prison). Indeed, a “guest” on Alcatraz seemed to have an inevitable fate: serve the sentence and be released, or die within those invincible walls.

Over the 29 years that Alcatraz was in operation (1934-1969), 36 men were involved in 14 escape attempts. 26 were caught, and 6 were shot and killed during their attempted flight to freedom. That leaves the remaining four—three of whose fate has never been officially ascertained. The general consensus was that no one was going to leave The Rock of his own whim…that is until 1962.

On January 18, 1960, inmate #AZ-1441 was inducted into Alcatraz. His name was Frank Lee Morris. Surviving tumultuous formative years that included a successive series of foster homes, Morris announced his arrival to adulthood by committing his first felony at age 13. By the time he reached his late teens, Morris possessed a criminal record replete with a multitude of felonies including narcotics possession and armed robbery. From an early juncture in life, this man had become a professional resident of the correctional system. He began in a boys’ correctional school, and continually graduated to ever-larger (and progressively more secure) penitentiaries.

Morris was noted at every prison where he served time as having superior intelligence. As such, this career criminal had generated an impressive resume of escapes—a foreshadowing of his forthcoming masterpiece. In 1960, federal corrections officials determined that they had seen enough of Morris’ propensity for repeated escapes (termed “shotgun freedom” within the industry).They believed that The Rock would be the cure for this inmate’s wanderlust. Upon being made a permanent resident at Alcatraz, Morris sought out a small contingent of old friends…and kindred spirits.

Previously, brothers John and Clarence Anglin had served time with their brother Alfred in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta for the commission of an armed robbery. It was there that the two brothers first made the acquaintance of Frank Morris. Subsequently, John and Clarence were transferred to Alcatraz after a series of attempted escapes. Later on, upon his own arrival at The Rock, Morris renewed his association with the Anglin brothers. Having acquired his co-conspirators, the ingenuous Morris conceived, and set into motion, his elaborate and inhumanly-patient machinations.

An inmate in an adjacent cell named Allen West was also brought in on the scheme. Another member of this nationwide fraternity of infamy; West was acquainted with John Anglin from a stint in the State Penitentiary in Florida. West’s discovery of a collection of old saw blades while cleaning a utility corridor in December of 1961 accelerated Morris’ master plan. On a side note, legitimizing his reputation as an arrogant braggart, West (in later interviews) would take credit for being the mastermind behind the entire escape plot based on his contributions in acquiring various materials which were necessary for the escape.

The complex escape plan necessitated the design and fabrication of lifelike dummies, a raft, and life preservers. All of these items were constructed from 50 rain coats that were acquired from fellow inmates—both donated and stolen. Further requirements included crude handmade tools with which to dig as the first phase of the scheme was to tunnel through each cell’s 6 by 9 inch vent holes; having accomplished this, continued excavation would begin on the similar small vent opening located on top of the cell block.

When they weren’t in the process of covertly digging in shifts, the quartet was busily fashioning the dummy heads required in the scheme. The crude but lifelike domes were formed out of a homemade cement-powder mixture—consisting primarily of soap and toilet paper. Then, these models were painted with flesh-tone paint from the prison art shop. Finally, they were topped with human hair acquired from the prison barber shop. Further “arts and crafts” projects were completed as glue stolen from the prison glove shop was used to shape raincoat remnants into a raft and rudimentary life preservers. Among the other items created, the inmates had forged an impressive array of primitive hand tools over time. As each piece was completed, it was stashed in the small tunnel that now reached the top of the cell block.

After laborious months of preparation, the four men were finally ready to enact the plan. Having, after considerable time and effort, freed the ventilator grill at the top of the cell block; Morris decided that it was time for the gang to leave its accommodations. Therefore, on the night of June 11, 1962, three of the men embarked on a legendary escape. Allen West had not been as diligent or persistent in his digging out of the vent in his cell and last minute attempts by himself and the Anglin brothers to remove the cover from the vent with brute force proved futile. Therefore, West had to remain behind.

After placing their stand-in “heads” and stacks of pillows in their cots, the trio proceeded to climb 30 feet upwards through the plumbing system to the cell house roof; traversed 100 feet across the rooftop; then gingerly maneuvered down 50 feet of piping to the ground immediately outside the shower area. At this point, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers slipped into immortality by disappearing into thin air…as they were never seen again.

In a subsequent interview with authorities, Allen West divulged the unknown conclusion to Morris’ plan. First, the men would rapidly inflate the large 6 by 14 foot homemade raft with the accordion-like Cortina musical instrument which Morris had modified. Next, they would utilize the rudely fashioned paddles in their possession to propel the raft to nearby Angel Island. After a brief rest, the escapees planned to re-enter the bay on the opposite side of the island and swim through a passage known as the Raccoon Straits, eventually arriving ashore at Marin, California. Subsequently, they would steal a car, burglarize a clothing store, and then part company. Given that the trio has never been heard from again, a question arises: was this plan executed flawlessly, or did the felons meet their demise in the waters of the bay?

After several years of investigation, the FBI concluded that the elaborate plan had failed. The bureau cites the following reasons for this position:

1) No reports of stolen vehicles or burglarized stores ever emanated from Marin within twelve days of the daring escape.

2) The three men had no relatives with the financial resources to sail the bay night after night and assist them in their escape.

3) The men had no way to communicate a specific date for rendezvous with any accomplice from the prison.

4) The waters of the bay ranged in temperature from 50 to 54 degrees. Experts assert that exposure to these elements would begin to affect body functions within 20 minutes—greatly abbreviating an elongated swim.

5) Reputable members of the Anglin family maintain that they have never been contacted by John or Clarence since that fateful night.

Alternatively, separate investigators observe that no bodies were ever recovered. Moreover, as of 2009, the United States Marshall Service was still investigating the case. Also, to test the plausibility of surviving such a perilous undertaking, fitness guru Jack Lalanne once made the “impossible” swim all the way to Alcatraz Island while pulling a rowboat! Subsequently, two 10 year old children accomplished the same feat (minus the rowboat). Bear in mind that the three convicts were attempting to swim from Angel Island—a land mass located considerably north of Alcatraz which is much nearer to the mainland. Proponents of a successful escape also point out that raft remnants, makeshift paddles, and a few of the Anglin brothers’ personal items were found on Angel Island soon after the escape; the trio had made it that far. Finally, this contingent of believers contends that people who wish their identities to remain secret would seek to anonymously blend into the general population inconspicuously without contacting anyone who knew them—even family.

As with any unresolved mystery of this nature, the escape from alcatraz has been endlessly scrutinized and even romanticized. So much so, that Clint Eastwood played the role of Frank Morris in the famed film adaptation of Escape from Alcatraz. Moreover, The Rock is still open to tourists who flock to see the prison along with the tell-tale evidence of its most famous event. All of the continued attention fuels speculation still today: what was the fate of the three men who actually escaped Alcatraz?

Prison information card of Frank Morris
Prison information card of Frank Morris

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      Jay 3 years ago

      I hope they made it. I like the fact the authorites never found anything to catch them.

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