The story behind the Alcatraz escape, history's most daring prison break

Reconstruction of prison mugshots from 1962

On the night of 11th June 1962, three hardened convicts broke out of the maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island and escaped in a boat they’d made from stolen raincoats. Officially, they were never seen or heard from again. However, many people, including the families of the three escapees, believe that they did get away that night and have lived for decades on the run.

The ringleader was seasoned criminal Frank Morris. Frank had been abandoned by his parents at the age of 11; by the age of 13 he’d already racked up his first criminal conviction. Throughout his teens, he was arrested and charged on multiple occasions for armed robbery and drugs offences. In and out of correctional facilities throughout his youth, Frank was serving a 10-year sentence for a bank robbery at the time of the escape.

Frank’s accomplices were the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, and Allen West. The Anglins came from a large family of seasonal agricultural workers who travelled up and down the country picking fruit and vegetables. Dirt poor, the two brothers turned to crime at an early age, first being caught for breaking into a service station at just 14. They started robbing banks and other businesses after their first brush with the law. They were both sentenced to 35 years after being convicted of robbing the Columbia Savings Bank in Columbia, Alabama. After repeated escape attempts from Atlanta Penitentiary, the pair were transferred to Alcatraz in 1960.

Allen West made up the last member of the escape party. A serial offender, Allen had been arrested over 20 times before finally being imprisoned for car theft in 1955. Transferred from Atlanta Penitentiary to Florida State Prison, Allen made an unsuccessful escape attempt and wound up in Alcatraz in 1957 as a result.

By the time they were all incarcerated in Alcatraz, the four men knew each other well, having all served time with each other on several occasions in other prisons. After they were all placed in adjoining cells where they could talk at night, they hatched a plan to escape.

Headshots of the Alcatraz escapees: Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin
Left to Right: Frank Morris, John Anglin, Clarence Anglin

Under the leadership of Morris, the four men planned to tunnel through the walls of their cells, build a raft and escape the island by sea. After collecting discarded saw blades from the prison workshops and metal spoons from the dining hall, they crafted a drill from a vacuum cleaner motor. They used their improvised tools to begin widening the holes around the ventilation ducts under the sinks in each of their cells, concealing their handiwork from the guards with painted strips of cardboard.

To hide the noise they made drilling through into the unguarded utility corridor behind their cells, Morris would play his accordion during music hour in the prison - an hour set aside each day for music to be piped into the prison as a method of calming the prisoners down.

Once they could fit through the holes, the men set up a makeshift workshop in the empty top level of their cellblock. Here they made the raft they would use to escape, as well as a set of life jackets. The raft and the jackets were made from stolen and donated raincoats, carefully stitched together and sealed by melting the rubber on the hot pipes in their workshop.

When it came to covering up their absence when they were in their workshop, the men ingeniously constructed papier-mache versions of their heads from soap, dust, toilet paper, and toothpaste. The heads were made to look realistic with paint from the maintenance workshop and real human hair collected from the floor of the prison barbershop. They were placed on the prisoners’ pillows while clothes and towels were stuffed under their blankets in the shape of their bodies. Any guard looking in would see them sound asleep in their beds, when in fact they were up on the top level building a 6x14 foot rubber raft and paddles from scraps of wood and stolen screws.

Finally, on the night of 11th June 1962, the raft was ready and it was time to initiate the plan. West’s hopes of escaping were quickly scuppered when he realised the cement he’d used to reinforce the concrete around the vent had hardened, preventing him from getting through the hole he’d made. By the time he’d managed to widen the hole again, his accomplices had gone. He went back to bed.

Meanwhile, Frank and the two Anglin brothers made their escape up a ventilation shaft to the roof of the prison. Their escape was nearly foiled when they made a loud noise breaking out of the shaft, but luckily the guards who heard it decided not to investigate. With the coast clear, the three men used kitchen pipes to descend fifty feet to the ground and climbed over two twelve-foot barbed wire perimeter fences. They headed to a shore on the northeast part of the island where searchlights could not pick them out. They inflated the raft using a modified concertina stolen from an inmate and, at about ten o’clock, they pushed off and headed in the direction of nearby Angel Island.

Officially, at least, they were never seen again.

The alarm wasn’t raised until the following morning when guards failed to rouse the three prisoners and entered their cells to discover the dummy heads. A huge search operation swung into action involving both civilian law enforcement and the military. The land, air, and sea surrounding Alcatraz Island and beyond were extensively searched over the next ten days.

Rows of jail cells inside Alcatraz prison
Inside Alcatraz prison by night

The Coast Guard reported finding one of the prisoners’ paddles on 14th June off the south coast of Angel Island and workers found a wallet containing details of the Anglins the same day. Six days later, shredded rubber believed to be from the prisoners’ raft was washed up on the shore near the Golden Gate Bridge; the following day a deflated life jacket was picked up by a prison boat floating fifty yards from Alcatraz Island. These scattered remnants were all that was ever recovered of the men and the tools they’d used to escape. Despite no bodies being found, the FBI quickly concluded that the three prisoners had drowned.

From the first year of the men’s escape right up until the present day, there have been plenty of people who say the FBI was wrong to pronounce the men dead. As early as Christmas 1962, various members of the Anglin family claimed they received cards and postcards from the brothers. The two men’s mother received a bunch of flowers sent to her anonymously every year up until her death in 1973, and her funeral was allegedly attended by two unusually tall
men wearing heavy makeup. Family members believe they were John and Clarence Anglin attending in disguise.

In 1989, one of the Anglin’s brothers, Robert, claimed two men turned up to view the body ofhis dead father, stayed for a while, wept over the body, and left. In the same year, two women contacted Unsolved Mysteries to say they had seen Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris on a farm near Marianna in Florida, though no trace of them could subsequently be found.

Over the years, many people outside of the Anglin family have come forward claiming to have seen or have had contact with the three escapees. A day after the men went missing, a local San Francisco police officer claimed to have seen a boat near Alcatraz Island that turned around and headed under the Golden Gate Bridge after a few minutes. The FBI looked into the claim and dismissed it.

Also in 1962, a man named Bud White came forward as a cousin of Frank Morris. He said he’d been employed by Frank to bribe some of the Alcatraz guards and that he’d met Frank in a park in San Diego several days after the escape. Bud’s daughter later said she had been at this meeting, but no evidence could be found to back this up.

1993 saw new supposed evidence come to light. Former Alcatraz inmate Thomas Kent told America’s Most Wanted that he’d helped plan the escape, but had declined to go with the prisoners because he couldn’t swim. He also stated Anglin’s girlfriend picked the men up and drove them to Mexico. Kent’s story was met with scepticism due to the fact he’d been paid by the TV network for his confession.

In the same year, another man named John Leroy Kelly claimed he had picked the prisoners up in a boat and then murdered them so he could keep the $40,000 that had been collected by their families that he was supposed to pass on to them. Kelly confessed all this on his deathbed and even provided a location where the bodies of the three men were supposed to be buried. A subsequent search unearthed no remains.

In 2015, History spoke to members of the Anglin family about the escape. As well as showing some of the cards allegedly sent by the brothers over the years, they also revealed the story of Fred Brizzi. Brizzi had been friends with the brothers since they were children and he claimed that he had seen the escapees in Brazil in 1975. Photographs were produced, supposedly of the two Anglin brothers, though identification could not be verified as both men were wearing sunglasses and the photo was in bad condition.

Finally, in 2018, the FBI confirmed that they had received a letter, allegedly written by John Anglin. In the letter, Anglin revealed that both Morris and his brother Clarence were dead. The remaining prisoner said he would hand himself in exchange for medical treatment. The FBI could not confirm the letter’s authenticity and they never heard from the writer again. Was this the final word from the last man standing of the 1962 escapees?

The FBI formally closed the case in 1979. The US Marshal Service, on the other hand, plans to keep the case open until 2030, when the men will all be over 100 years old. So, did Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers manage to escape from one of the most notorious prisons in the world and go on to live for decades as wanted fugitives? The answer is we’ll probably never know for sure.