New letter reopens the case of the Alcatraz escapees
In 2013 a small handwritten note arrived at Richmond police station in San Francisco. It was unassuming and opened in the same casual manner as any bill or advertisement. It didn’t have a return address. There was no way the officer could’ve known opening it would reignite a mystery that surrounds an escape from America’s most notorious prison — the one which the convicts involved were never found. The first words on the note jumped from the page: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.”
1. The investigation reopens
The investigation had been put to bed almost 40 years ago. This much is known: In the early morning hours of June 12, 1962 John and Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris escaped from Alcatraz prison. They had been preparing for months beforehand. There have been no confirmed siting of the trio since.
The original FBI investigation concluded the men drowned after they recovered a lone rain jacket, used as a makeshift life preserver and pieces of a wooden paddle. It was inconclusive at best, fueling speculation that sparked a 56-year mystery that survives to this day. But the plot was about to thicken when the FBI received something unexpected in the mail.
2. The note
In January 2018, the long-accepted story that the three men had drowned was challenged when the content of the 2013 note was revealed. “Yes we all made it that night — but barely,” said the note. That statement contradicts what maybe a long-standing myth; that no one has ever successfully escaped “The Rock.”
The note only adds to the speculation and makes us wonder that if law enforcement was so sure of their original conclusion. And if so, why keep this handwritten note hidden from the public for five years? And why was there no attempt made to follow up with John Anglin or verify this possible lead?
3. The trail
After local law enforcement received the letter, they placed a call to the FBI. Evidently, the letter was so compelling that they decided to reopen the investigation 40 years after they had closed it. Heavy handwriting analysis only produced inconclusive results when compared to the known handwriting samples from all three escapees.
And no physical evidence exists that counters Anglin’s statement. After all, their remains were never recovered, though its fully within the world of possibility that they are somewhere in the Pacific. Clues are littered in history, as there is plenty of surviving evidence that suggest what exactly happened on that fateful June morning in 1962 and gives us a glimpse into their ultimate fate.
4. Bad company
The Rock’s unique geographic location made it an ideal place to build a prison. Originally a Civil War fort because of the island’s strategic position in San Francisco Bay, it was converted into a military prison during and after the war. It’s isolated location made it a difficult location to get into and out of.
It remained in the hands of the military until 1934 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons acquired it for civilian use. For the next 29 years, it housed some of the most violent and ruthless criminals the nation every knew. The likes of Al “Scarface” Capone, Frank “The Owl” Banghar, and Whitey Bulger are just a few that called the prison home.
5. The Battle of Alcatraz
Known as an “end of the line” destination for criminals serving long stretches, Alcatraz saw at least 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Because it was seen as a final destination, prisoners had a little extra motivation to try and escape, despite conditions that made it nearly impossible. They had nothing to lose, really.
In fact, the most successful attempt prior to this one was called “The Battle of Alcatraz.” In that instance, prisoners started a riot and took control of the cell-house. Two officers and three prisoners were killed, and the attempt only ended when the Marines intervened and battled it out with inmates. To have any chance at success in escaping, prisoners would have to have special skills.
6. The orphan
Frank Lee Morris was one of those prisoners with special skills. Morris was orphaned at the age of 11 in Washington D.C., and shortly thereafter he began his life as a criminal. Experts say Morris had extremely polished mental faculties and was said to have an exceptional IQ of 133.
This was disturbing because he used his intelligence not to pursue an honest living, but rather to embark on a path that was always on the wrong side of the law. He was also smart enough to recruit others. Theft, robbery, and burglary became his trades, but his true specialty was escaping prisons. The guy was a prison Houdini.
7. The mastermind
Morris entered his first prison at the age of 13, and by age 20 he was considered a career criminal. All of this activity landed him in prison off and on for his entire adult life. While serving time, he didn’t sit around and count the days until his release; he figured out ways to speed up his departure.
He was the mastermind of the Alcatraz escape. And he had plenty of practice rounds before his stay at Alcatraz. He also pulled off several escapes from other correctional facilities in the Eastern United States. He was so compelling in fact, that he was later portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the Hollywood classic, Escape from Alcatraz.
8. The brawn
One such prison where he was a temporary resident was Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. While serving there, he met the acquaintance of two men named John and Clarence Anglin. The Anglin brothers, similar to Morris, were career criminals who stuck together. In hindsight, maybe they should have separated these guys when sentencing them.
While Morris was decidedly the brains of the escape that would take place years later, the Anglin brothers were the brawn. Together they would form a partnership that pulled off one of the most daring prison escapes in American history, a story that is told to the over 1.4 million visitors that visit the prison each year.
9. Brothers to the bone
The Anglin brothers were reportedly inseparable, and the one thing they could not (or chose not) escape was each other. The sons of migrant farmers, they had some 11 other brothers and sisters. One thing investigators and armchair detectives often point to is their travels north to Lake Michigan in the summertime.
There, they picked cherries, and learned how to swim in the strong and frigid waters of the great lakes. Being strong swimmers may have been essential to survival, as the waters in San Francisco Bay are notoriously rough and cold. Swimming in the Great Lakes would have been great training for the treacherous waters they found themselves in years later.
10. Career criminals
The two brothers began a life of crime at an early age and followed a similar pattern to that of Morris. Robbery was their way of life, and this built them up quite a RAP sheet and landed them in and out of federal prison during their late adolescence and early adult lives.
Their typical robbery took place at banks and establishments that were closed to make sure they didn’t have to use a weapon. In fact, they only used a weapon one time: a toy gun. While not necessarily violent, the two brothers had a long RAP (Record of Arrest and Prosecution) sheet, and were guests at several federal prisons.
11. Thick as thieves
The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary served as the staging ground for what would happen at Alcatraz. The Anglin brothers tried several times, unsuccessfully, to escape the grounds. Frank Morris, on the other hand, would later be transferred to Louisiana Federal Penitentiary where he successfully managed to escaped and went on the run for a year.
Perhaps they were driven by their long prison sentences, and the reality of prison life made them act. Morris was serving 10 years, while the Anglin brothers were serving 15–20 years. The term “Thick as Thieves” certainly applies here, as the three men all shared a passion for early exodus.
Because of their repeated escape attempts and a general lack of respect for authority, the three men were perfect candidates for the federal prison where escape was impossible: Alcatraz. The maximum-security level prison was regarded by the guards who worked there as America’s most escape-proof prison.
On top of that, the facility itself is an island fortress designed to keep inmates from ever leaving the island. Braving the waters was a bad idea, as temperatures in San Francisco Bay can dip into the 40s. The building itself was reinforced with barbed wires and watchtowers that were stations for armed guards.
13. A fisherman always sees another fisherman from afar
Morris arrived at Alcatraz in 1960, and later that year John became an inmate. Three months after that, Clarence arrived. As luck would have it, they all managed to be placed next to each other. Not only that, but there was a fourth character in the prison who would also become a player in this real-life crime saga.
Also sharing a wall with one of the trio was Allen West, who came to Alcatraz in 1957 after he tried to escape from a prison in Florida. All four already had something in common when they got there! It was a quadfecta if there is such a thing (there isn’t), or perhaps even a perfect storm.
14. Making the band
At first glance, the fact that these four prisoners were housed right next to each other seems like a glaring oversight, or a poor attempt at a joke. Especially considering the brothers had committed together in the past. But as fate would have it, they were all in cells in close proximity with each other.
But in reality, it’s a testament to the fact that Alcatraz was the place prisoners get sent who have a knack for escaping – because escape was supposed to be impossible. To pull it off, these men were going to need some extreme ingenuity, and the extremes they went to for every little detail is legendary.
15. Tools of the trade
It was West who got the ball rolling when he came across some old saw blades that were apparently abandoned. Equipment like this was not uncommon at Alcatraz, as prisoners made items such as furniture and clothing for the US Military. They were the perfect tool for cutting through the walls.
West, ever the escape artist, saw opportunity where others only saw mundane object. Smuggling them into their cells, and keeping them hidden was not too difficult for the inmates. They enjoyed less attention from the guards, a perk they enjoyed because of the fact that they were not violent offenders.
16. Old bones
The inmates had another major factor that was on their side. Alcatraz was a decrepit old pile of bricks by the time they arrived. Pipes were rusted and leaked, walls were eroded from pipes leaking salt water, and seals to vents were eaten away by salt water in the air.
The prison was in desperate need of repairs and renovations, but none ever came. The assumption was that prisoners wouldn’t be that motivated to try and escape given the prison’s status as an island. West would’ve certainly been privy to the prison’s dilapidated state, having served a previous stretch at Alcatraz.
17. American ingenuity
Once the saw blades were acquired, it was Morris who put the other men to work. And his plan didn’t just include finding a way out; it was quite a bit more comprehensive than that. The mastermind had his tools to perform the impossible, and he knew he’d need a lot more at their disposal if his plan was going to work.
They used spoons, a saw, and even pieces from an old vacuum cleaner’s motor to create chisels. Then they went to work clawing away at the seals of their air ventilation screens, little-by-little, bit-by-bit. They were meticulous, replacing every fallen grain of rubble with a cardboard, or toilet paper filler painted the same color.
18. Busy bees
The air ventilation screens were 6” x 9” — hardly enough room to fit a full grown man. So they had to chisel them wider. Once the chiseling was complete, the walls were “replaced” with cardboard, and the holes wide enough for their bodies to squeeze through, the next phase of their plan began to take shape.
Between the four of them, they managed to acquire over 50 raincoats that had an unlikely purpose: They were going to build a raft. In order to fit four men, the raft was going to have to be big, and the seams needed to hold to keep them out of the water with conditions rife for drowning.
19. How to Escape from Prison magazine
Having made clothes and taught how to assemble shoes during stretches at various prisons, the men were extremely adept at sewing. The 50+ raincoats they had collected during their tenure at The Rock were meticulously stitched together, then vulcanized using the heat from steam pipes circulating in the walls of the prison.
While you may think this brilliant idea has Morris’s name on it, it was actually conceived from a Popular Mechanics magazines later found in one of the prisoner’s cells. And as if that was not enough, they even figured out the perfect tool for inflating the raft: Morris’s own accordion. Pretty clever.
Another brilliant aspect of their planning was how they masked their absence from their cells. Afterall, they needed to be in the ducts and vents for extended periods of time. After chipping away a hole long and big enough to squeeze through, the men were able to come and go as they pleased (albeit not very far).
If, by chance, a random guard came around and had a look inside the cells, he would see what appeared to be quiet inmates sleeping on their racks and carry on with his rounds. In reality, the four men went to extreme efforts to create dummies that were very convincing.
The Anglin’s took the initiative on this project and managed to produce a paper mache using several materials. The men shaved everyday, collected the shaving cream mixed with hair, and then blended it together with toilet paper and soap. It wasn’t the most sanitary of methods, but it got the job done.
From this material they created dummy heads. They then used art kits available to prisoners to paint them. Pillows under the blankets provided the dimensions of a body. And as a final touch, they even collected discarded hair clippings from the barber and glued it to the tops of the heads. Not bad fellas.
22. Out of the cell
The men were able to get out of their cells, but getting out of the cell block was a different story. The next phase of the plan was actually the easiest part. The air vents they expanded conveniently led into a utility corridor, which would prove to be a critical part of the escape.
The long hallway was completely unguarded, and the men were free to climb the bars and pipes to the roof at their leisure. It was no small climb — it was 30 feet to the ceiling. Once there, the easy part was over. Getting outside would be a completely different challenge.
23. All pieces in place
The pipes they climbed to get to the roof should have also provided their way out. Instead, every single ventilation duct the pipes led to had been cemented shut at the top. But then there was also the ventilator itself, and the men poked at the rivets around it. After all, it had to be installed somehow, didn’t it?
They really just needed one to be loose for them to be able to pry it open and breathe the air of freedom. Once they found their opening, they re-secured the rivet using a bolt fashioned out of soap. After six months of preparation and gathering of materials, their plan was complete!
24. Zero hour
It was the night before June 12, 1962 and all through the prison, not a creature was stirring except four disgruntled inmates preparing to risk their lives to escape their prison sentences. They placed the dummy heads in their beds and tucked in extra pillows to give the illusion of a body under the blankets.
The men detached the ventilation screens, removed their makeshift wall, and shimmied through the holes into the adjacent corridor. Once in there, they stalled, because there was a problem. Only three of them could make it out their cells! West was stuck. Can you imagine how he felt in that moment, after all those months of planning?
25. And then there were three
West may have overthought his attempt to mask his efforts. Instead of using cardboard and various materials like the others did in their mock heads, he decided to use cement to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, cement has the pesky tendency to harden. When that happened, West had a big problem.
He couldn’t get out his cell! He asked the men to wait for him, and Morris tried to help him. Eventually he did make it out of his cell, but by the time he reached the corridor and climbed to the roof, his three mates were long gone. Seeing no point in carrying on with the plan, West went back to his cell, sealed his ventilation screen, and went to sleep.
26. Onward and upward
With West out of the picture, the three men had no choice but to carry on without him. The men grabbed their gear, climbed the bars and pipes in the corridor, and bang! They smashed open the ventilation shaft. It had only been loosened before, this loud move was necessary to open it.
While the noise was reported as being heard by the guards, they didn’t investigate because it wasn’t followed by any other noises. The cell-house was large, and when the three men got to the roof, they had a hundred feet to walk. Quietly, they tiptoed to the roof’s edge and then shimmied down 50 feet of pipes.
Guards were posted outside and making the rounds as the men hit the ground. They quietly snuck passed the guards outside of the showers and made their way to shore. It was foggy that night – as it often was in the Bay — another example of things working to their advantage.
Donning their makeshift life preservers and fashioned wood paddles, the three men hopped into their 6’ x 14’ rubber raft, and braved the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay. And that is where the trail for investigators ended. Until 56 long years later, when the letter made it way to the FBI.
28. 56 years later …
“Yes we all made it that night — but barely,” said the letter. US Marshals, the FBI, and local law enforcement came to their own conclusion: The men drown and never made it to shore. The FBI also came to their own conclusion that the letter by the supposed “Anglin” was a fake.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many known handwriting samples of the Anglin brothers. They weren’t after all, penning long-form essays on the regular. While that decision is not based on any physical evidence, they believe the man was just looking for medical attention. It’s possible that’s true, given the content of rest of the letter.
29. Unsolved mystery
“I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer,” the letter reads. “If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke.”
Instead of playing along with the instructions in the note, investigators did not make the announcement, and the note’s author may already be gone. Even if it wasn’t Anglin, law enforcement still doesn’t know who penned the note, and does not seem especially concerned to getting to the bottom of it.
30. I know why the caged bird sings
One of the reasons we know so much about this case is West. After returning to his cell for a good night’s sleep, he was immediately seized by authorities and questioned. West cooperated, and told investigators about all the gritty details. There is no loyalty among thieves, but it seems possible that West was getting some pretty hard questioning.
In exchange for his cooperation, and since he did not actually escape, West was not further punished. As for Morris and the Anglins, God only knows what became of them. The parents of John and Clarence said they received a Christmas card in 1962 that read, “To Mother, from John. Merry Christmas.”
31. Dead or alive?
Not only was there the Christmas card, but theories abound that the Anglin’s ended up in Brazil. A photo of them, supposedly snapped by a family member, exists. Their brother Robert also claimed on his death bed that he had been in touch with John and Clarence, but lost contact with them in 1987.
If that wasn’t enough, Dutch programmers contradicted the FBI when they released a study that found the tides suitable for escape! The men may have made it after all. “Frank passed away in October 2008,” the note said. “His grave is in Argentina under another name. My brother died in 2011.”
32. Active investigation
The US Marshals Service has committed to finding the men until they find credible evidence as to their fate, or the men turn 99 years old. The mystery may never be solved, leaving us to only speculate as to what became of them. Perhaps the world will never know for certain.
However, one thing is certain: They initiated a daring escape from a prison deemed inescapable, and filled the pages of history with their brilliant plan and craftsmanship. “If they are not alive,” said a nephew named Dave Widner to a local newspaper, “then why is the government still looking for them?” It’s a mystery that will continue to be discussed by armchair historians for years to come.