Escape from Alcatraz06/08/07 |
Aerial view of Alcatraz Island,
In its heyday, it was the ultimate maximum security prison. Located on a lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz—aka “The Rock”—had held captives since the Civil War. But it was in 1934, the highpoint of a major war on crime, that Alcatraz was re-fortified into the world’s most secure prison. Its eventual inmates included dangerous public enemies like Al Capone, criminals who had a history of escapes, and the occasional odd character like the infamous “Birdman of Alcatraz.” In the 1930s, Alcatraz was already a forbidding place, surrounded by the cold, rough waters of the Pacific. The redesign included tougher iron bars, a series of strategically positioned guard towers, and strict rules, including a dozen checks a day of the prisoners. Escape seemed near impossible. Despite the odds, from 1934 until the prison was closed in 1963, 36 men tried 14 separate escapes. Nearly all were caught or didn’t survive the attempt. The fate of three particular inmates, however, remains a mystery to this day. Here is their story, which played out 45 years ago this month.* * * * | Side view of model head found in Frank Morris’s cell.|
Missing. On June 12, 1962, the routine early morning bed check turned out to be anything but. Three convicts were not in their cells: John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris. In their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair that apparently fooled the night guards. The prison went into lock down, and an intensive search began. | | |
John Anglin| Clarence Anglin| Frank Morris|
Homemade paddle recovered at prison.
A similar one was recovered on
Gathering the Clues. We were notified immediately and asked to help. Our office in San Francisco set leads for offices nationwide to check for any records on the missing prisoners and on their previous escape attempts (all three had made them). We also interviewed relatives of the men and compiled all their identification records and asked boat operators in the Bay to be on the lookout for debris. Within two days, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and related to the men was recovered. Later, some paddle-like pieces of wood and bits of rubber inner tube were found in the water. A homemade life-vest was also discovered washed up on Cronkhite Beach, but extensive searches did not turn up any other items in the area. Piecing together the plan. As the days went by, the FBI, the Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others began to find more evidence and piece together the ingenious escape plan. We were aided by a fourth plotter who didn’t make it out of his cell in time and began providing us with information. Here’s what we learned. * The group had begun laying plans the previous December when one of them came across some old saw blades. * Using crude tools—including a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner—the plotters each loosened the air vents at the back of their cells by painstakingly drilling closely spaced holes around the cover so the entire section of the wall could be removed. Once through, they hid the holes with whatever they could—a suitcase, a piece of cardboard, etc. | | View of ventilation grate through which prisoners gained access to utility corridor behind Cell Block “B”.| Portion of concealed area on top of Cell Block “B” Prisoners constructed
tools for their escape here.|
* Behind the cells was a common, unguarded utility corridor. They made their way down this corridor and climbed to the roof of their cell block inside the building, where they set up a secret workshop. There, taking turns keeping watch for the guards in the evening before the last count (see the crude “periscope” they constructed for the lookouts), they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build and...