On June 12, 1962, three men staged the ultimate breakout from Alcatraz, a prison known for its impenetrable walls. Its inmates included Al Capone, Irish mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and Robert Stroud. Not one had succeeded in escaping.
Yet, the Anglin brothers — John and Clarence and partner-in-crime Frank Morris did exactly that, and disappeared. A paddle and battered bits of their makeshift boat washed up on a nearby island, but no trace of the men or their bodies has ever been found. The jail break prompted one of the biggest manhunts ever mounted and inspired the classic Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz.
It also left behind an enduring mystery, with the official report insisting that the three men drowned in the cold waters during the escape while their families believe they survived.
L-R: Famous inmates Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, Alvin Francis ‘Creepy Karpis’ Karpowicz, Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud, Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson and Meyer Harris ‘Mickey’ Cohen
Among those who attended an anniversary event at Alcatraz last weekend was law enforcement officer Michael Dyke. Because no bodies were ever found, the US Marshals responsible for hunting escaped convicts have kept the case open. Amazingly Dyke still gets tip-offs every few months.
“The men would be in their 80s now and they will remain on our files until they’re 99,” he says. “I don’t know for sure if they alive or not, but without a single body we have to assume they are.
Disappeared: No trace of John W. Anglin was found
Escapee: Bank robber, Clarence Anglin
Beat the odds: Convict Frank, Lee Morris
The Anglins’ sister Marie, 76, a white-haired mum-of-two, has pictures of her brothers stuck on the walls of her home in Georgia.
“I know they’re alive,” she says. “We were a big family, seven boys and seven girls. I loved my brothers – I still do – but they started robbing banks and, of course, got caught. But they were so clever it didn’t matter what jail they were in, they worked out ways of getting out.
Nephew Ken Widner, who was a baby when his uncles disappeared, is the family historian – and will also be at Alcatraz this weekend.
“We were told they slipped over the Texas border into Mexico, and from there went to Brazil,” he says. “If they somehow got a message to us I’d go to see them. I’d love to meet them. They are part of folklore now.”
Hatching the plan
• In 1961, the Anglin brothers and Morris were in adjoining cells. They roped in another prisoner, Allen West
• They hid their makeshift tools under blankets in his cell
• They sawed away grilles to the ventilation shafts and replaced them with cardboard and soap models
• Their most ingenious work came courtesy of DIY magazine Popular Mechanics. Morris followed a guide to make an inflatable dinghy from raincoats
• He also created life jackets, while the Anglin brothers fashioned their paper heads, which they nicknamed Oink and Oscar.
• On the night of June 11 the trio scrambled through their vents into the corridor
• West had problems removing the grille in his cell and by the time he broke through, he later told guards, the others had vanished
• The trip got out on to the roof through an air vent, down drainpipes and across the yard with their dinghy. No one noticed they were gone till morning
• Bill Lang, a guard later recalled punching the pillow and ordering what he assumed was a sleepy prisoner to get up. “The head flipped off on to the floor,” he said. “I almost had a heart-attack.”
• The FBI gave up after 17 years but the US Marshals are still searching
• Allen West died in a Florida jail cell in 1978, aged just 49
• He never revealed was what the gang intended to do once they reached the mainland.