Escapes/Attempts: 36 Men in 14 tries with 5 Still Missing!
From 1934 to 1963, this special island gained national and international infamy as home to America ’s most notorious criminals – . . . . murderers, kidnappers, gangsters, bank-robbers, and other high escape risks.
These ‘incorrigibles’ were sent to this small isolated island exclusively from other federal prisons - where they had attempted to escape, started a revolt, or perhaps killed another prisoner or guard.
None ever came straight from a courtroom – these men were definitely the ‘criminal cream of the crop’…
However tough or important these convicts thought they were – Alcatraz had its own reputation to protect – and this prison facility was designed and built to be earthquake, fire and – of course – escape-proof!
With a total of just over fifteen hundred convicts doing time here during the entire federal penitentiary era – just 36 men are known to have attempted to escape – in 14 attempts – with 5 still missing!*
*7 were shot and killed in ESCAPE attempts, 2 drowned.
#1: 1936 – First Escape Attempt – Joe Bowers
Tough, early, Federal Prison rules included mandatory silence among prisoners – within the Cellhouse and Dining Hall – and it didn’t take long before the first desperate escape attempt took place in 1936 by prisoiner #210, Joseph Bowers.
In plain view of an armed officer, Joe Bowers made a break for it – and scaled a cyclone fence. Under prison policy, Bowers was fatally shot, in what might really have been an early – and ultimately successful – attempt at ‘suicide-by-Guard’! Just one year earlier, Bowers had failed in another attempt, in which he cut his own throat with broken glass.
Morris-Anglin Bros. -Greatest Prison Escape in U.S. History!
Monday, June 11, 1962 - Three daring USP-Alcatraz convicts successfully removed air-vents from concrete cells, climbed plumbing pipes to Cellhouse roof-top, then disappeared on a home-made raft - into the night, and the chilly San Francisco Bay waters…!
Frank Morris, made famous by Clint Eastwood in the hugely popular movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, and two brothers, John and Clarence Anglin - all considered high escape-risks – successfully engineered a complex and ingenius escape-plan which took over 7 months to complete – and involved the cooperation of some dozen or more fellow convicts.
Morris and Allen West, fellow convicts and both highly intelligent, noticed that the vents in each cell actually led to a three-foot wide vertical plumbing shaft – which then led to roof access – and hopefully freedom!
Removing the vents with tools taken from the prison shops, the four participants then fabricated impressive false vent-covers – which were also removable! The ‘team’ then artistically created papier-maiché dummy-heads - which would placed on their bed-pillows and fooled the night-count guards – repeatedly!
As two conspirators ’escaped’ nightly to the roof, two stayed ‘down below’ as lookouts. Up- top, an inflatable raft -and impresive ‘Mae-West’ life-vests were being fabricated from prison issue raincoats – hand-stitched, glued and vulcanized on exposed prison steam pipes.
On June 11, 1962 – possibly fearing a cell change- Morris may have sped up the plan, informing the others… ‘we go tonight!‘
The false vent-covers were routinely held in place with rubber cement, and on the night of the escape -when Alan West was unable to free his, the others left their ‘mastermind’ behind!
The three others made it up the plumbing corridor, squeezed out a roof vent – and were able to scamper across the length of the Cellhouse roof-top - to the north end of the building.
After descending some thirty-five feet down exterior vent pipes – and climbing up and over an 18-foot prison fence – the three escapees then scampered down 300 yards of dark, steep and rocky terrain – and reached the water’s edge!
What time they made it to that point – we’ll never know, but we do know that at mid-night – there was a sweeping three and a half mile-an-hour out-going tide- which would have made passage even on a functional raft extremely difficult. (Outgoing tides drain bay water out through the Golden Gate -to the treacherous Pacific Ocean and a deadly, rocky shoreline.)
If the escapees entered the water at 2:00 a.m. – just two hours later – there would have been a ‘slack’ tide – lack of flow in either direction -ideal for a swim or a trip in a raft! Could they have known the tides?
A converted accordian from the prison music program had been used to pump up the raft and life-vests, and was found – along with footprints – on a four-foot concrete sea-wall. (above)
At 7:00 a.m., when Officer Bill Long was summoned to roust some ‘late sleeper’s’ on B-Block – he approached quietly, then slid his large hand through the bars before slamming it down on the pillow - while loudly shouting ‘Morris!’ – a technique which usually worked very well!
This time, however, the man’s ‘head’ flew up in the air and flipped ‘once or twice’ before landing on the concrete floor – breaking into several pieces! “To this day, that was a real head that flew off!” Long comments – even after 46 years!
Escape sirens were sounded, the prison ‘locked-down’, and a massive search was launched immediately. Bloodhounds were brought to the island – while Coast Guard, Navy, SF Police vessels – and helicopters from the Highway Patrol – joined the Alcatraz search boats canvassing the Bay waters - for the next three days!. Only a home-made paddle, and a waterproof satchel containing contact names and photographs were recovered – just off nearby Angel Island.
Presumed drowned, and taken out to sea by the currents, their actual fate – to this day -remains a mystery…
NOTE: Frank Morris had the number 13 tattoed on his left index finger when he arrived on ‘the Rock’…
- and this was the 13th ESCAPE ATTEMPT from ALCATRAZ!
- Morris and the Anglin brothers would now be around 80 years old.