One of my earliest memories is of being driven across the Golden Gate Bridge as a child and seeing the notorious Alcatraz prison for the first time. Until March 1963, it was the most secure prison in the US and housed the nation’s most dangerous inmates.
Alcatraz’s security came from its island location, which made it almost impossible to escape from, but that didn’t stop 36 prisoners from attempting it. They are all believed to have failed, however, three of them got extremely close to succeeding in 1962.
Brothers Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin escaped by working tirelessly over a six month period to widen the ventilation ducts in their cells using discarded saw blades, stolen spoons, and a drill made from a vacuum cleaner motor.
The clever trio disguised the noise they were making with Morris’ accordion playing and hid their tracks by covering the ducts with cardboard and paint. Once they were able to get out of their cells, they set to work building a raft to get off the island.
This involved creating life jackets and a raft from 50 raincoats, which they stitched together using steam from the pipes. Finally, they made a set of paddles from scrap wood before attempting their seemingly unsuccessful great escape.
To cover their tracks, they even made dummy heads to put in their beds with real human hair from the prison barber.The heads themselves were constructed from a paper-mâché-like mixture of soap and toilet paper, and paint.
Once the heads were in place, the brothers descended 50 feet out of the prison by sliding down a pipe before jumping the fence at the prison guard’s searchlights blind spot. It was then that they inflated their raft and made their bid for freedom.
After this point, it’s not known what happened to the men. While searching for them, the FBI found remnants of the raft and reached the conclusion that they had all drowned, with their bodies being swept out into the Pacific Ocean.
However, there have been a number of hints over the years that they did indeed achieve the impossible and escape.In 2012, the Anglins’ family said that they had all survived, however, they had “cut ties” with them.
A sibling revealed their existence on his deathbed when he said that he had been in touch with them from 1963 until 1987. He even provided the photograph below which he said shows them alive in 1975.
Perhaps more tellingly, John Anglin sent a letter to the FBI in the mail 50 years after his escape in 2013, explaining that he would hand himself over for a small prison sentence on the condition that he got the medical treatment he needed at the time.
Despite being received in 2013, the letter has only recently been released to the public.
This is what the letter said:
“My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris.
I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes we all made it that night but barely! Frank passed away in October 2005. His grave is in Alexandria under another name. My brother died in 2011.
If you announce on T.V. that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke this is for real and honest truth.”
The letter was subsequently tested for fingerprints and traces of DNA. It was also compared with John’s handwriting from prison, although all of these tests proved inconclusive – suggesting that it could actually be genuine.