The Great Escape: The True Story of Three Alcatraz Inmates

Though the prison has been closed for decades, Alcatraz has earned its place in infamy. In its heyday, “The Rock” was considered impenetrable. At least thirty six prisoners attempted to escape the island – all were captured, shot, or swallowed by the sea. All of that changed one fateful day in June 1962, when a group of three men plunged into the San Francisco Bay in hopes of finding freedom. For years, their fates were unknown – most speculated that the prisoners had drowned in the tumultuous waters. But, 51 years after the fact, the discovery of a mysterious letter forced the FBI to reevaluate their presumptions about the daring escape artists of Alcatraz.

A Shocking Message

Back in January 2013, the San Francisco Police Department received a shocking message. “My name is John Anglin,” the handwritten note began. “I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and I have cancer.” Dropped into the laps of authorities was a long overdue clue to one of the most notorious mysteries in US history.

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Back in the 60’s officials deemed that the unaccounted for men had almost certainly drowned in the dark, icy bay during their escape attempt. But, with the letter in hand, a shadow of doubt was suddenly cast over the long-accepted story.

Casting Doubt

For years, the escapees were presumed dead simply because it seemed to be the most plausible outcome of the case that had stumped law enforcement for years. However, the letter recovered in 2013 told a very different story. Naturally, some skeptics cast doubt on the validity of the document.


Unsure what to believe, the police department kept the letter under wraps for years. After careful examination, it was finally determined that there was some cause to believe the contents of the note. So, in January 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reopened the cold case.

An Impossible Escape

What makes this particular escape remarkable is the fact that Alcatraz was designed to make it virtually impossible to escape. Until its closure in 1963, only the most despicable criminals were sent to the maximum security prison.

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Of course, that never stopped those incarcerated from trying to escape. So, how exactly did Anglin and co. succeed where so many others had failed?

A History of Failed Jailbreaks

Believe it or not, these crooks were not the first individuals with enough moxie to attempt escape. At least a few dozen incarcerated inmates had taken the same risks over the years. Twenty three individuals were quickly captured and brought back behind bars.


Others weren’t so lucky. At least six men were shot and killed by guards as they attempted to execute their plans. Those that made it to the water drowned or disappeared.

No Cold Showers

When someone thinks about the US’s most notorious prison, ‘warm showers’ isn’t what would probably come to mind, but apparently, they were the norm in Alcatraz. However, it’s not for the reason you think.

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Although the prison provided the inmate with hot showers (and was the only prison in the US to do so), there was a sinister logic behind it. The strategic thinking behind this so-called luxury was that if the prisoners would grow accustomed to nice, warm showers, they would not be able to withstand the freezing Bay waters if they ever tried to escape. Did it work? That’s for history to judge.

The Men Behind the Plan

Four men were a part of the group meticulously plotting a path to freedom – John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Lee Morris, and Allen West. The four men had cells near each other and endless hours to perfect their master plan.

US Federal Government / wikicommons

Frank Lee Morris

Frank Lee Morris was nothing short of a criminal mastermind. At the age of 11, he was orphaned and forced to look after himself as he was shuffled between foster homes. Just two years later, he was convicted of his first crime. Over the years, his cunning increased and he developed into a skilled criminal.

US Federal Government / wikicommons

After pulling off a string of armed robberies, the authorities ultimately caught up with him. He ultimately served time in Georgia and Florida before winding up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South”.

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