On June 11, 1962, three prisoners escaped from the federal prison facility on Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay. What became of the three men has been a mystery for 48 years, for there was no trace of them once they left the island.
In 1979, this made a great movie, Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood in the role of Frank Lee Morris, reputed “mastermind” of the escape. But was that version of the story what really happened? Or was it romanticized for the movies?
There is some speculation that Morris was not the true mastermind; that it was instead another prisoner who never left the island, Alan West. West was the fourth team member who claimed the escape was his idea, and there is some evidence to support his allegation (ironically West died in 1979, the year Escape from Alcatraz was released).
On the morning of June 12, 1962, guards attempting to rouse Frank Lee Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin found that the only things occupying their cots were dummy heads the three had fabricated. Working thirty feet from the guards, the three not only fashioned heads, but also a 14’ x 6’ pontoon raft and four life jackets, manufactured from fifty waterproof raincoats they had collected from other prisoners.
Guards, prisoners, and a few others involved reminisce about the escape in The Real Story: Escape from Alcatraz, a 47-minute documentary previously featured on the Smithsonian Channel. Following a history of the planning and execution of the escape, which took six months, a carpenter and team of divers attempt a re-enactment, recreating and testing conditions the escapees would have faced.
Without leaving a shred of evidence, according to an FBI investigator, four men managed to dig through eight-inch-thick cement walls and create a workshop on top of their cells in full view of the guards. West had managed to have the view obscured with dozens of blankets hung from the bars around their work area—with permission from prison authorities.
There was nothing romantic about the four prospective escapees. They were all violent offenders and all had escaped from prisons around the country on numerous occasions. They were sent to Alcatraz because it was designed to hold prisoners other prisons couldn’t control. West and, especially, Morris were both intelligent; the Anglin brothers…well, not so much, but they were good swimmers.
While assigned to sweep a corridor behind the cells, West discovered a set of saw blades and files. He had also discovered that the concrete walls were not uniformly impregnable. The first task would be chipping holes at the base of their cell walls that were large enough for the men to pass through, going back and forth to their workshop.
On the evening of June 11, their preparations were complete and they commenced to escape to Angel Island. Unfortunately, West’s hole was not big enough for him to get through; he had spent the six months working only in his cell. Did he have cold feet and use the small hole as his excuse to stay behind?
Vintage newsreels tell of the massive manhunt and guards discuss the discovery that the men were missing and the exhaustive search of the island. The FBI concluded that the men drowned in San Francisco Bay, probably first suffering hypothermia.
In the recreation of the escapes, both a replica of the original raft was built and launched as well as more modern equipment. Three athletic young men wearing wetsuits did manage to row from Alcatraz Island to Angel Island in a well made raft that kept them out of the water. However, the replica raft made of old raincoats and glue did not fare as well; it lasted only a few seconds. Its failure meant that the three escapees would have had to float away, bodies fully submerged, clinging to the pontoons and kicking their legs.
Further evidence is introduced documenting water temperatures, tides, and winds, and the likelihood that the three fugitives could make it from one island to the next. Most experts agree that they could not have. Several days after the escape, investigators received a postcard signed by the three men, “Ha Ha. We made it.” Fingerprints and signatures did not match those of Morris and the Anglins.
While there is no evidence to support that the men survived the escape, there is no evidence to the contrary. The Real Story: Escape from Alcatraz sheds little more light on their attempt than did the lighthouse on Alcatraz Island. One would hope the real story would have a real ending, but as in real life, some questions may never be answered. However, later in 1962, one man managed to escape Alcatraz and make it as far as the Golden Gate Bridge where he was promptly picked up by the prison ship and returned to Alcatraz.
Did Morris and the Anglins surrender to the depths or are they all on a dairy farm somewhere in Wisconsin, still chuckling about their adventure? Viewers who seek a definitive answer to the mystery will be disappointed; those who would like a recap of the case will be entertained and amused (particularly by how relatively easy the escape was). The ending is not satisfying, but it’s better than a single bullet theory.