This escape was attempted by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. All of these men were in Alcatraz for Armed Robbery and were serving life sentences.
Escapees from Alcatraz by Salticidae [Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
From a young age, the Anglin brothers were in and out of jail. Just teenagers, the brothers broke out of many Reformatory Schools
. Before Alcatraz, they had been imprisoned in Atlanta State Penitentiary. They were caught attempting a breakout from Atlanta and so Alcatraz was deemed appropriate for them. Several months later, Morris joined the pair in Alcatraz.
The plan was originally conspired by four men, the fourth being Allen Clayton West. West is believed to be the mastermind behind the plan.
West had a job in the prison maintenance industry and so, had the privilege of free access to the utility corridors and on top of the cellblock. The group had decided to work on a boat to escape the island on. They decided to build it on the top of the cellblock. West had convinced the guards to allow him to hang sheets over the bars to avoid “paint splatter”. The guards agreed and they had cover. Now they needed to be able to reach the location with ease. The cells were all identical and had a small vent on the back wall. Behind the vent was an unused utility corridor. The pipes in the corridor served as ladders to the top of the cellblock. They started to chip away at the vent and the surrounding rock.
Panorama of Alcatraz. Photo by Christian Mehlführer [Licence: CC BY 2.5]
Once they had easy access, they could begin manufacture on their raft. They managed to acquire approximately eighty rainjackets which they sewed and glued together. They used a magazine from the prison library to aid them in construction. Morris had managed to adapt an accordion into an airpump for the raft.
They fashioned some oars from cardboard and made them more durable by backing them with some wood. They also made some makeshift buoyancy aids.
Now the final hurdle was being able to reach the outside of the prison. They spotted a shaft that led up to the roof, but the way was blocked by some sturdy iron bars. They knew that it would require a power tool to break them. West volunteered to attempt to mend a generator and found that it ran on two engines. So rather than mend the both of them, he repaired one, and stole the other engine to craft their power tool. Once they had managed this, they realised that it was much too noisy so they had to work during the time designated for instrument practice so that the noise didn’t sound just as obvious. Soon enough, they were able to reach the roof. Now they were ready to make their escape.
On the night of June 11th 1962, the prisoners squeezed through the vent for the final time. They climbed up the pipes to reach the roof of the cell block. One inmate; Leon “Whitey” Thomson was in his cell at the time of the great escape and could recall hearing a spanner falling from one of the men’s pockets and clanging off the pipes all the way to the ground.
They realised once they had reached the cell block roof, that Allen Clayton West hadn’t finished chipping the vent. As previously discussed, they left without him and left behind his buoyancy aid.
The trio scaled their way down the wall and rushed to the shoreline. They had never tested whether or not the raft was sea-worthy so it was an incredibly risk “hit or miss” scenario. It is believed that the boat managed to stay afloat for half of the journey and gave way half a mile from the mainland. The men were never heard from again.
Alcatraz Barber Shop. Photo by JeredB [Licence: CC BY 2.0]
The escapists had managed to pass the nightly roll call by crafting crude but lifelike paper mache which included real human hair which the men had gathered from the floor of the barbershop.
The next morning at roll call, the guards noticed the false heads and alerted the F.B.I. Naturally, they first questioned West who didn’t prove to be very helpful as he only told them what was safe and didn’t jeopardise the men’s chance of survival.
Several days later, an oar washed up on the neighbouring Angel Island along with a waterproof bag of photos of the Anglins and contact details and addresses. They had blatantly ensured that these pictures were kept dry, which suggests that the boat didn’t survive the voyage and the escapees were swept under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the Pacific Ocean.
Location of Alcatraz. Photo by NASA [Public Domain].
If they had survived, they planned to rob a clothing store and to steal a car and potentially head to Mexico to seek refuge.
Whether or not the men survived, it is arguably one of the greatest escape attempts to date. As we are studying the works of David Almond’s “Fire Eaters” which was also set in 1962, we thought that this event would symbolise and would be easily related to Bobby Burns’ life. He feels as though he needs to escape life’s evil clutches and seeing as how the Alcatraz escape had happened four months prior the story taking place, the theme of escape is potentially still lurking in Bobby Burns’ mind.
- The Great Escape From Alcatraz, http://www.alcatrazhistory.com/alcesc1.htm, accessed November 2015
- Escape! Breakout from Alcatraz Documentary by David M Frank, 2000
- Discussion between Conor and Ben (November 2015)