Alcatraz has gone down in history as a prison that was impossible to escape. Every attempt ended in death, either by guard tower gunfire, or drowning in the San Fransico Bay. But in 1962, four men seemed to pull off the impossible, and a new piece of evidence might have finally revealed the truth of how they did it.
Frank Lee Morris was a criminal since he was 13-years-old. Since then, in his lifetime, he executed several robberies and bounced from state to state. Eventually, he was put into Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed "The Alcatraz of the South." Soon after, Morris broke out and was back on the run. He was caught about a year later; his history of escape put him in Alcatraz. Morris is still thought to be the orchestrator of the Alcatraz escape.
The other major players in this story are Allen West and the Anglin brothers: John and Clarence. Allen West was in Alcatraz for trying to escape his sentence. West had already been arrested over a dozen times before being transferred to "The Rock." John and Clarence had come from a large family and were known to be excellent cold-water swimmers. The brothers were also in Alcatraz for trying to escape their previous prisons. Now the gang was assembled and ready to hatch a plan.
At the time, Alcatraz doubled as a factory. The factory provided the four men ample access to tools and time to think about how to escape. The guards hardly noticed the four men since they were in Alcatraz for non-violent crimes. "The Rock" was also well equipped with resources to keep the inmates comfortable such as warmed showers, a music hour, and a barber shop. Every one of those things would play a part in their plan to escape.
Luckily, the prison was crumbling due to erosion from the surrounding salt water. During music hour, the four men would chip away at the walls of their cells. Each hole led into an unguarded corridor filled with climbable pipes. The Anglin brothers had the most impressive job: creating decoys. The two brothers fashioned crude dummy heads out of soap and hair to create passable decoys. In May 1962, the Anglin brothers and Morris had created large enough holes and stashed their raft on the roof.
On June 11th, 1962, West finally gave the signal that he had finished and the final preparations were made. West's hole wasn't large enough for him to squeeze through. That night, the other three tried to help West make his hold big enough but determined it was too big a risk and left him behind. This may have been the hardest decision of the escape, but there was too much danger to dwell on it for long.
The three men made it to the roof and lowered their raft and themselves down 50 feet to the shower area. This was probably the easiest part. The team then had to evade all the guards on the way to the shore. Quickly and as quietly as they could, they inflated their raft and shoved off. They would never be seen again.
West finally made the hole large enough to get through. West was faced with a dilemma: go back to his cell or swim for it. Swimming would risk drowning, like several before him. He decided to wait in his cell until morning. He was found in his cell with the hole and his "friends" missing. West was interrogated and revealed everything. He said he was the mastermind behind the plan. He also said the team was headed to Angel Island to steal a car and split up.
Once the entire prison had been searched, the FBI was called in. Angel Island was watched for two weeks for a car robbery but nothing was reported. This could mean West was lying or that the three others drowned. The FBI would continue to investigate for 17 years before concluding the three men had likely drowned. That doesn't mean clues didn't keep cropping up over the next several decades to give evidence to the men being alive, especially the Anglin brothers.
The Anglin family received Christmas cards from John and Clarence, but the dates the cards were sent couldn't be confirmed. The brothers had also sent a picture of themselves in Brazil to their family. One of the Anglin siblings confessed to being in close contact with his brothers from 1963 to 1987. Most intriguing of all the evidence was a letter to the San Fransico Police Department delivered in 2013. The writer claimed to be John Anglin.
The letter said Morris died in Argentina. John said his brother died in 2011. The writer makes a plea for help from law enforcement. He has cancer and is willing to go back to jail if the police department announces on TV John can have medical attention and will only be in jail for one year. The letter has been analyzed but the results are inconclusive. The FBI reopened its investigation January 2018. Is this a man looking for medical attention using a well-known name? We may never know for sure.