The Mind-Blowing Mystery Behind The Only Successful Escape From Alcatraz

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Alcatraz is located in the San Francisco Bay. For more than 30 years, Alcatraz was considered one of the fiercest prisons in the world. If you were sent to that secluded prison island, you were there until your time was up. No escapes were possible. Or so people thought. In June of 1962, however, three inmates decided to risk it all. In doing so, they became the only people to have ever escaped the island. How did they do it? Where are they today? Let’s take a closer look at one of the prison industries most famous mysteries.

The Mystery Resurfaces

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The three prisoners initially ‘escaped’ from Alcatraz in 1962. No bodies were ever found and nobody was ever captured. That left authorities to believe in one of two scenarios: the men truly escaped and stayed hidden for 50 years or the men died and washed away, out to sea. While both outcomes seemed to settle the mystery, a letter in January of 2018 would change everything.

John Anglin Says Hello

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The letter that the San Francisco police received allegedly came from John Anglin, one of the three men purported to have escaped Alcatraz.  In actuality, the San Francisco PD had been holding onto the letter since 2013. They didn’t want to admit to owning it until they could prove its authenticity. In 2018, the FBI re-opened the Alcatraz case.

The Island Fortress

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Your typical federal penitentiary is almost impossible to escape from. Alcatraz was not your typical prison. Instead, Alcatraz was a maximum security facility that was located over 1.25 miles away from the shore. In order to escape Alcatraz, a prisoner would have to bypass maximum security measures before swimming through choppy water in the dark, to shore.

Many Escape Attempts

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While Alcatraz was impossible to escape from, that didn’t deter people from trying. Over the 30 years that Alcatraz was in operation, countless prisoners would try to escape. All of them were either caught or found dead in the bay. Except for three.

Meet The Gang

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The trio of escapees included John and Clarence Anglin, Allen West, and a man named Frank Lee Morris. That’s right. While three men escaped, four men were involved in the plan. This motley group of lawbreakers all had cells close enough to one another that they could spend their free time devising a plan.

Frank The Mastermind

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Frank Lee Morris was first arrested and convicted at the age of 13. He would go on to serve time at prisons throughout the United States. He had even escaped from a few of them, one notably called ‘Alcatraz of the South’. Morris escaped Alcatraz of the South and lived for a year on the run, only getting caught again when he tried to rob a bank.

Planning The Escape

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After being convicted of bank robbery, Morris was sent to Alcatraz. He didn’t sit idly by in order to wait out his sentence. Instead, Morris quickly started to make plans while gathering his own resources. First up, he needed a pair of capable allies.

John and Clarence Anglin

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If you wanted to escape from a floating prison, you’d likely want to partner up with some strong swimmers. John and Clarence Anglin spent their childhood swimming around in Lake Michigan. Their childhood playtime would soon become a much-needed criminal skill.

Birds of a Feather

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You’re probably wondering what sent two good old Midwestern boys to Alcatraz, aren’t you? As it turns out, the Anglin brothers were a whole heck of a lot like Frank Lee Morris. The Anglin Brothers began robbing banks in their early 20s. They were eventually caught and shipped to a prison in Atlanta. After half of a dozen escape attempts, the Anglin Brothers were shipped off to Alcatraz. It was here that they met a man named Frank Morris.

Escaping Ain’t Easy

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It should be noted that life in Alcatraz was not easy. This wasn’t an episode of Orange Is The New Black. Time spent in Alcatraz was time spent working, and working hard. Inmates were forced to craft furniture, shoes, and clothing for the United States military. Any time spent planning an escape had to come directly out of their own ‘free time’, limited as it were.

Rounding Out The Group

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The Anglin Brothers and Frank Morris quickly came together. They rounded out their group by adding Allen West to the mix. Together, they would plan one of the most intriguing and iconic prison escapes in human history. But how did they do it?

Need A Decoy

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Reality is truly stranger than fiction. In order to make their escape work, the gang needed to keep the guards busy. In order to keep the guards busy, the inmates needed to convince the guards that they were still in their cell. While the inmates didn’t exactly have access to a craft supply store, they still managed to create semi-realistic dummies to put in their beds.

Almost Too Hollywood

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The next time you roll your eyes at a Hollywood film incorporating the fake-dummy-in-bed, remember Alcatraz. This lifelike dummy managed to fool prison guards at the toughest prison in the world. It’s almost hard to believe, isn’t it? The Anglin Brothers were the ones who crafted the heads to be left behind.

Digging An Escape

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With decoys in place, the gang still had to figure out how to escape! They managed to squirrel away instruments and tools from around the prison. Alcatraz was already in rough shape by this point, so it was easy for the gang to start hacking away at their walls.

Digging & Digging & Digging

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While Morris crafted life vests and a raft, the other three men would take turns digging for at least four hours every single day. Before long, they were making a sizable impact on their escape tunnel. Saltwater leaking through the walls would help to deteriorate the material, thus making their digging even easier.

A Musical Distraction

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In order to cover up the sounds of their escape, Morris would loudly play his accordion for hours at a time. The loud music would effectively drown out all of their sounds of digging.

Time To Escape

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After months of digging, each inmate had a hole in their cell big enough for escape. Well, except for West. West had seriously misjudged the hole size that he would need. The three other men tried to help him through, but they’d end up leaving him behind.

Raincoat Life Rafts

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In order to make it through the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay, the three men would glue together raincoats. This raft and their vests were absolutely integral to escaping the San Francisco Bay alive.

A Flawless Escape

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Their escape plan went off without a hitch. By 11:30PM that night, the men were getting into the water on their raft. It wasn’t until morning that the guards realized what had happened. 

Did They Survive

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While the case went cold, the FBI was quick to declare that the inmates had drowned in the bay. However, Anglin family members would receive a handwritten Christmas card from the Anglin Brothers, years after their escape. The handwriting was confirmed to be a match.

The Final Letter

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The Christmas card that the Anglin Brothers had sent also contained a single photograph, showing the two men presumably in Brazil. The letter that the San Francisco PD received in 2013 would reveal even more information. The letter informed the PD that the Anglin’s had survived their trip and that they had ended up hiding out for a while. The letter also said that John Anglin was alive in North Dakota but that he was dying of cancer. He offered to turn himself in, in exchange for medical care. 

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