Three Alcatraz prisoners escape from the island: The Rock.” John and Clarence Anglin, as well as Frank Morris. The mystery is whether they made it or died attempting.
Alcatraz, a stronghold built on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay, was one of America’s most feared prisons. The bay’s ice-cold, dangerous water was the best guarantee that no one would survive. No one did…until June 11, 1962.
Three men Escaped
That night, three men escaped from their cell and disappeared into the bay in a makeshift raft. Frank Morris, the cunning escape mastermind, along with John Anglin and his brother Clarence, were never seen again.
Authorities later uncovered raft fragments. It had disintegrated at sea. The three convicted individuals looked to have swum for it. Were they successful? The discussion rages on.
Captain of the Guards in Alcatraz from 1946 to 1955, Philip Bergen, believes survival is impossible:
“If they fell into the ocean, they would perish within thirty minutes.” They succumbed to hypothermia and drowned.”
However, Patrick Mahoney, the captain of the ferry that connects Alcatraz to the mainland, has some reservations:
“I had a feeling they didn’t make it, but I assumed we’d find a body.” We didn’t discover a body.”
No one has reported seeing Frank Morris, John Anglin, or Clarence Anglin in the long years since that June night in 1962. They may have outlasted the odds and escaped from Alcatraz.
Don DeNevi, an Oakland professor, co-wrote a manuscript about the escape with Clarence Carnes, an Alcatraz inmate. Carnes landed on the Rock at the age of eighteen and stayed for over two decades. He was a close confidante of the three fugitive inmates. Don DeNevi expressed it best:
Carnes was Alcatraz’s most important inmate
“Carnes was Alcatraz’s most important inmate.” Because he knew how to keep his mouth shut, he had earned the respect of nearly all the other inmates. He was, in a sense, Alcatraz’s godfather.”
Carnes told DeNevi that the escape scheme began with an inmate named Allen West, who was assigned to paint the cellblock’s top tier and ceiling.
A dummy was used to fool guards…
While working there, West realized that with some effort, he could most likely get access to the jail roof via the ceiling ventilation shaft.
The ventilation duct was built with crossbars on the inside. It was impossible to cut or squeeze past the bars. But West realized that if he cut the duct from its surrounding support and shoved it out, he could easily climb to the roof.
West solicited the assistance of John and Clarence Anglin, both convicted bank robbers with a history of eluding capture in other institutions. According to DeNevi, the Anglin brothers also possessed the following abilities:
The plot’s key figure was an inmate named Frank Morris. Carnes had told Morris about a utility tunnel that stretched the length and height of the cellblock, according to former Captain of the Guards at Alcatraz, Philip Bergen.
Inside the corridor, heating and water pipes built a makeshift staircase to the ventilation shaft. During “music hour,” Morris and the others felt they could dig through their cell walls to this subterranean corridor. Bergen recalls this aspect of Alcatraz’s daily routine and explains how the escapees took use of it:
“There was what they dubbed a “music hour” in the early evening.” And anyone with a string instrument could participate. When that music is playing, it effectively deafens the officer conducting his inspections. The inmates who were digging were simply digging.”
Each of the Anglins, West, and Morris made a hole in the back wall of their cells. West also made artificial ventilation fronts to conceal their operation.
The inmates devised yet another great ruse to avoid detection during head counts. Don Eberle, who led the FBI investigation into the escape, described the clever ruse:
“They agreed they’d have to create dummy heads to keep in their bunks in case one of them wasn’t there when the guard came by.” This happened at a time when the lights were dim and it would be difficult to distinguish anything other than a face in the bed.”
One of the many prisoners who assisted the escapees was inmate Leon “Whitey” Thompson:
“Morris asked me how you combine body tones, since you see, I’m an artist, and I did a lot of oil painting on Alcatraz.” I start to wonder why he’s so interested in flesh tone, and then I realize it’s all because they required a flesh tone color for the dummy heads.”
The dummies were constructed using soap, concrete powder, and stolen paint. For added authenticity, one of the Anglins worked in the barbershop and swiped some hair to paste on the dummies’ heads.
Morris and the Anglin brothers left their cells at night for eight months to bore out the ventilation shaft and gather the equipment they needed for their escape. Clarence Carnes, who spent 18 years on the Rock, was impressed by their efforts:
Clarence Carnes noted in his manuscript, “… many times throughout the years I’d met folks who had tried to escape.” Their error had been insufficient forethought and haste. They were defeated because they were not comprehensive in their thought. However, not this time.”
The countdowns, routines, and monotony were no different for the guards on patrol during the Spring of 1962. Many detainees, though, were convinced otherwise. They assisted the four escapees in their preparations during the days, directly under the watchful eyes of their captors. One of their most crucial tasks was to pass them raincoats in discreetly.
The four prisoners used the raincoats to build life preservers in their cells at night, which they subsequently hid in the escape tunnels. The Anglins and Morris took turns building a raft out of pilfered raincoats at a covert workspace disguised by blankets.
The time to escape finally arrived….
The convicts quietly exited their cells for the last time. They immediately ran into their first issue… Allen West couldn’t get through the opening in his cell wall. The others were impatient to wait. Allen West, the plan’s original originator, was left behind.
Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers safely slipped their cells into the utility corridor. There, they climbed up the heating pipes to the ceiling, popped out the ventilation ducts they’d cut from the ceiling during the past eight months and made their way to the roof. Still undetected, they ran across the roof, and climbed down outside the prison. They headed toward the water.
One of the numerous difficulties the escapees encountered was figuring out how to inflate their massive raft. Frank Morris had devised a brilliant concept. He had acquired a concertina, a tiny accordion, for use during the daily music hour. The FBI investigator, Don Eberle, revealed how the instrument was utilized during the escape:
The raft gradually began to fill. When it was finished, the three guys pushed it into the sea near Alcatraz and stepped aboard. Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin had successfully escaped from the Rock.
The dummy heads that the convicts had left behind in their cells fooled any guards who happened to look in. When the breakout was finally found, it launched a massive manhunt, one of the greatest in history. Patrick Mahoney, a former Alcatraz guard, was among those involved in the search:
The search crews came up empty-handed throughout the first 24 hours. Then they started finding pieces of the escapees’ raft. A makeshift oar was also discovered floating between Alcatraz and Angel Island. This paddle matched one left behind in the cellblock by the inmates.
A rubber-wrapped parcel was discovered floating near Angel Island two days after the escape. It had an address book, 80 family portraits, and a money order from one of the escapees. Some, such as FBI agent Don Eberle, began to suspect the escapees’ survival:
On the day of the escape, a Norwegian ship saw a body drifting 20 miles past the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite being unable to locate it, their description of it matched that of Frank Morris.
There is, however, some persuasive evidence that at least one of the guys survived. A man purporting to be John Anglin called a San Francisco law firm known to represent Alcatraz inmates the day after the escape. Eugenia MacGowan was a lawyer with the firm. She answered the phone:
Clarence Carnes, an Alcatraz convict, said that he received a post card from the escapees a few weeks after the break. They used it to reveal the pre-planned code words that confirmed their escape. The card read, “Gone fishing.”
Carnes suspected Morris and the Anglin brothers had outside assistance provided by an inside inmate. He stated that Harlem’s underworld ruler, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, had arranged for a boat to pick up the escapees. According to Carnes, the boat then transported the inmates to Pier 13 in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood. Former Alcatraz Captain of Guards Philip Bergen had reservations about the story:
Allen West was extensively questioned about Bumpy Johnson. He was also pressed to uncover any further contacts who could have assisted the inmates. He denied the existence of any. According to fellow Alcatraz convict Leon “Whitey” Thompson:
The stories recounted by Alcatraz inmates did not impress FBI agents like Philip Bergen. He still believes the men perished seconds after hitting the water:
Even though Alcatraz closed its doors many years ago, the iconic June 1962 breakout remains a mystery to investigators. Thousands of leads have been pursued throughout the years, but to no avail. Will this infamous case ever be solved? For the time being, the three fugitives’ arrest warrants remain active, and the quest for answers continues.