Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary occupies such a huge space in the American imagination that it can be surprising to learn it was open for less than 30 years. Between 1934 and 1963, more than a 1,500 of America's most dangerous and troublesome criminals were shipped to the infamous "escape-proof" island prison in the San Francisco bay.
Alcatraz was treated as a last resort, where only the worst of the worst federal prisoners were shipped. Some of the country's most famous criminals spent their time behind bars there, including mobsters like Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Mickey Cohen and James "Whitey" Bulger, along with the famous bank robber Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
But Alcatraz's most famous prisoners of all were 3 run-of-the-mill crooks who did what everyone thought was impossible: they escaped. Over the decades 36 men attempted to leave the prison before their time was up. 23 were recaptured while 13 died during the breakout or went missing after reaching the freezing and dangerous water surrounding the island.
Only 3 of the men still listed as "missing presumed dead" are believed to have made it off "the Rock" alive. Frank Morris was a bank robber who had escaped from his last prison, and was said to have ranked among the top 2% of the population in an IQ test.
Together with a pair of bank robbing brothers named John and Clarence Anglin, Morris planned a daring escape that involved tunneling out of the jail with spoons and saw blades at night while he played the accordion to drown out the noise. After 6 months of digging and preparing, the prisoners were ready to bust out on the night of June 11, 1962.
But how did they get off the island?
The 3 prisoners were in cells next to each other, which allowed them to work out the details of their intricate plan. After caving holes out of the air vents of their rooms, they left in the dead of night, with paper mache heads tucked into their beds to fool the guards. They followed a service corridor out of the prison, but they weren't home free yet.
The men had to climb onto the roof of the prison building and back down, scaling up and down water pipes, crossing barbed wire fences and sneaking through the guard towers' blind spots. They reached a workshop outside, where they had stashed the key to their escape.
With more than 50 raincoats donated from other prisoners, the team had built an inflatable life raft and preservers, which they steered away from the prison with wooden paddles. What happened next is a mystery. While the prison insists the men drowned in the rough, freezing water, their bodies were never found. Meanwhile, their families say they have evidence the men are still alive.
While there hasn't been any sign of Frank Morris since the night of the escape, the Anglin brothers' family say they have received post cards and even phone calls from the men, and believe the brothers are still alive in their 80s today.
Their most compelling evidence is a single photograph of 2 men from 1975. Taken by an old family friend of the Anglins, it's claimed to be a photo of the men after they escaped and moved to South America. As far as the FBI is concerned the 3 men who escaped from Alcatraz died that night, but the US Marshals have kept the file open, and still keep all 3 prisoners on their wanted list.
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