In 1933, Alcatraz Island Prison became the property of the United States Department of Justice. The island was first explored in 1775 by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named the island, Isla de los Alcatraces (“Isle of the Pelicans”). It was used as a military fortification in the early 1800s, then became a military prison, and then finally, a civilian federal prison which operated between the years of 1934 to 1963. The usual prisoners were those of high profile crimes such as Al Capone and George Kelly, also known as “Machine Gun” Kelly as well as inmates who made a habit of escaping other facilities.
The twenty-two acre island located in the choppy, shark infested waters of San Francisco Bay is about a mile and a half from shore. The officials at Alcatraz have always hailed the maximum security prison as inescapable. But was it? In 1962, brothers John and Clarence Anglin, and their friend, Frank Morris, all of whom had been a part of the prison system most of their lives, escaped, and there has been no definitive evidence that they did not survive.
According to Alcatraz History, the brothers, Frank Morris, and another inmate, Allen West, meticulously planned their escape for over six months. They read magazines that explained the time and direction of the tides and how to seal the seams of the more than fifty raincoats they had acquired to make a raft. Morris, declared by prison officials as extremely intelligent, was mostly the mastermind, although Allen West claimed he had been the one to figure out the plan. West had discovered several saw blades in a closet while on cleaning duty. They used the blades to dig around the vent holes in their cells, taking turns while one worked and the other kept watch. They could only work between the hours of 5:30 pm and 9:00 pm in order to be present for bed check at lights out.
The Anglin brothers worked on making paper mâché heads from soap and toilet paper and used paints from prison art supplies and genuine hair from the barber shop. The completed vent holes led the men to the rafters above the cell block where they set up a workstation to complete their tasks. They fashioned homemade oars and completed the raft which would be inflated by the air released from a concertina, an instrument similar to an accordion. The men also used raincoats to make rudimentary life jackets.
On June 11, 1962, the grill on top of the cellhouse was loosened, and the men were ready to escape. At 9:30 pm, the faux heads were brought down and placed in the beds to look like someone was sleeping. West had trouble loosening the vent in his cell, and, even with help from Clarence Anglin, they were not able to free him. The Anglins and Morris were forced to leave him behind as they climbed thirty feet of plumbing before they reached the roof where they crept one hundred feet to reach fifty feet of pipes, then climbed to the ground and over the fence. When West was finally able to free himself, he got to the roof and discovered his accomplices had already left, leaving him no other choice but to return to his cell.
The intention, according to West, had been to raft to nearby Angel Island, swim to the Raccoon Straits, and arrive in Marin County. There, they planned to steal clothing, guns, and a car to make their escape. The FBI watched for twelve days, but no such crimes were reported. While a packet of letters encased in rubber and a life preserver were found floating in the Bay, no bodies were found.
Coroners from California stated that a body could float for at least five weeks before sinking, and, because of the swift current, the loss of bodies in the Bay was common. Human bones were found washed up on the shore in 1963, and officials were convinced they belonged to one of the Anglin brothers and considered this proof that the men had not survived. In 2010, the family allowed agents to exhume the body of a third Anglin brother who had died of electrocution. The DNA did not match.
The family of the Anglin brothers had been harassed by the FBI and, in order to maintain their privacy, had not turned in pieces of evidence they had received. In 2015, the family came forward with their evidence to prove that the brothers did, in fact, survive. According to the New York Post, David Widner, a nephew of the men remarked, “[Alcatraz officials] were not willing to . . . say, ‘Maybe [the escapees] did make it.’ That gave me the motive to prove them wrong.”
The family had in their possession Christmas cards from the men with no return address, arriving postage due, for three years after the escape and the most intriguing evidence, a photo taken in 1975 by a family friend, Fred Brizzi, who grew up with them in Florida and claimed to have run into the brothers in Brazil. They asked Brizzi to take photos of them and their farm and deliver the photos to their family which did not happen until 1992.
A forensic examiner studied the picture of the two men and gave it to Art Roderick, a retired U.S. Marshall investigator who had been in charge of the investigation into the men’s disappearance for twenty years. Both agreed it was very likely the Anglin brothers.
Brizzi spent some time with the two and they showed him how they escaped, by body surfing, hanging on to a one hundred and twenty foot piece of electrical cable behind a passenger ferry headed for the mainland, an idea taken from one of the many magazines they read while preparing for their escape. Nothing is known of the fate of Frank Morris, and he had no living relatives to compare DNA with the bones discovered. If the Anglin brothers did survive, they would now be in their eighties.
Due to increasing costs of having to obtain supplies and fresh water from the mainland, Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963. In 1973, it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is now open to the public. But, perhaps the prison was made even more famous by the Anglins, Morris, and West whose adventure was immortalized in the 1979 movie, Escape From Alcatraz.