Over the years there have been many mysteries in society, from ancient to modern times. One of these unsolved events relates to the infamous Alcatraz prison located off the shore of San Francisco, California.  In 1962 a daring escape occurred, but no one knows whatever happened to three prisoners that managed to leave the notorious prison more than 50 years ago. Numerous movies, documentaries, articles and books have been written on the topic over the years.

Yet, decades later people still debate whether the escaped prisoners survived.

Alcatraz Island
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Alcatraz Island

Who Escaped?

Frank Morris was a 35-year old lifelong thief who had spent the better part of his life in reform schools and prisons. He also had a well-documented history and talent for breaking out of jail. It is said Morris was the mastermind behind the Alcatraz escape. 

Along with Morris were John Anglin and his brother, Clarence Anglin. The brothers were bank robbers and also had a penchant for escaping out of jail. All three men were well-known to the criminal justice system for their various crimes.

Frank Morris
Credit: Public Domain (Image taken by U.S. Government employee) accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Inmate photo of Frank Morris taken in 1960 at Alcatraz.

The Escape from Alcatraz

June 12, 1962 was a cold and windy night, yet it was that night Morris and the Anglin brothers chose to escape from their cells and subsequently manage to get off the island. One other inmate named Allen (Clayton) West was also involved in the plan, but he allegedly never made it out of his cell. Others may have also been plotting, but any inmates in on the plan never got the chance to escape if they had planning to do so.

There was clearly much planning involved with the escape. Aside from the logistics of getting off the island, the three men had to first figure out how to burrow out of their cells. What they came up with was to chisel through the walls of their jail cells and place false ventilator grilles to conceal the body-sized holes they'd made in their cell walls.  Once they had their exit created, they tunneled through to get to the roof.

Alcatraz false grid
Credit: Public Domain (image taken by U.S. Government employee)

To make sure no one missed them, the men also made it seem as if they were still tucked in warm in their beds. They fooled the guards by making fake heads made of paper-mache and human hair to rest on their pillows that night. Prison employees watching the inmates never realized a switcheroo had occurred - until it was too late.

Dummy head in prison cell
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

During a 2006 visit to Alcatraz I took this photo (sorry for the fuzziness). The former prison, now-historic site and tourist attraction, illustrates how the escapees managed to fool prison guards by placing "dummy heads" in their beds before making their exit.

While the rest of Alcatraz' population thought they inmates were sleeping, little had they known the trio was getting ready to make their exit. As a part of the plan they'd made a raft using dozens of stolen rain coats and used musical instruments to build wooden paddles.  The men designed the makeshift raft to be the getaway vehicle.

It is said the men plotted their escape for about two years.

Did They Make It?

Once Morris and the Anglin brothers left Alcatraz Island, they were never seen or heard from again. Nor were their bodies ever found. Officials found a paddle, life vests and a sealed plastic bag which contained letters and addresses, but no other leads or clues to whether or not they survived. It was ultimately concluded the men drowned in the frigid waters and the official stance was the men perished that cold night. 

Still, over the decades many pondered the questions surrounding the jailbreak.

  • Could the three men really have navigated those strong and unpredictable water currents?
  • Did their homemade raft of rain coats hold up?
  • How did they survive the very difficult journey through the cold and rocky waters?

For decades, many have believed the three men died during the escape, but there were also theories the prisoners survived. In fact, some Anglin family members suggested over the years they believed the brothers survived and may be still alive

(The 1979 movie on the subject, starring Clint Eastwood, further fueled speculations).

Escape From Alcatraz
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After decades of non-cooperation with the FBI, the Anglin family stepped forward with claims the brothers were still alive - at least until the 1970s. Two nephews of the brothers, Ken Widner and David Widner, starred in a show that aired on the History Channel in fall 2015. With the revelation, a 1975 photo was shared which purportedly showed the Anglin duo on a farm they owned in Brazil. Reportedly, the Anglin family was given the photo in 1992 and they have been sitting on it ever since. The photo was said to have been taken by a friend of the escapees named Fred Brizzi who "bumped into" the brothers in Rio de Janiero. Brizzi has his own shady past - he was a drug smuggler. He passed away in the 1990s.

See image here: 5 (the Wikimedia Commons page lists the photo as being Creative Commons, however, I cannot confirm the author, so have linked it instead).

John Anglin
Credit: By US Federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/

John Anglin in 1960

Clarence Anglin
Credit: U.S. Government/Public Domain image, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Clarence Anglin

Art Roderick, a retired U.S. marshal who worked on the case for 20 years, participated in the History Channel feature. News reports say he claims the photo evidence is compelling, but he is not convinced. He is currently helping to work on the case.

Even before this new information (or mis-information) the matter had still not been put to rest with many theories going either way. And with the Anglins now said to be cooperating with authorities, the cold case has had new life "pumped" into it. 6

Formerly classified information, now available in FBI online archives, also shows J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director in the 1960s, received information on Jan. 20, 1965 suggesting Clarence Anglin was in Rio de Janeiro living under an assumed name and married. 7 This would have been 10 years before the recently surfaced photo was purportedly taken, meaning the FBI knew a decade earlier at least one Anglin brother could be in Brazil (it is important to note, no extradition agreements between Brazil and the U.S. existed at that time). 

Looking through the FBI files online, there is also a page that describes a phone call to the authorities about a Frank Morris spotting in Silver Spring, Md. on Feb. 16, 1967. That claim was made by a man who said he grew up with Morris and also did some jail time with him. Another entry in the now declassified documents, dated October 1963, suggested a John Anglin spotting in Virginia.

Yet, a body was allegedly spotted in July 1962 by the crew of the SS Norefjell, a Norwegian Freighter, leaving San Francisco and headed to Canada. The sighting was reportedly not told to authorities until October of that year.  The body was wearing clothing that was described as prison-issued attire. In 2012, BBC News spoke to U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke.

"I think there's a good possibility that they survived," said U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, reported BBC. "It's hard to say. We have to keep the case open since no bodies have been found, but about a month after they escaped in July 1962 a Norwegian freighter saw a body floating in the ocean 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. He had on prison clothes - a navy pea coat and a light pair of trousers - similar to what prisoners wore. There were no other missing people during that time period." 8

If the floating body was one of the prisoners, U.S. Marshal Dyke believes it was likely Morris.

2014 Study Suggests Escapees Could Have Survived

Prior to the more recent buzz, a couple of years ago a study suggested a way that these three men could have theoretically survived the escape. According to a December 2014 story in the Washington Post, a team of Dutch researchers conducted a study involving several interactive models. They recreated that June night and examined the tidal conditions and water flow at different times of the evening (from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.) by releasing 50 "virtual boats" every half-hour. They also checked different parts of the island that could have served as a launching point.

Researchers explained how they did it in a blog post. They said they recreated both a worst case and best case scenario and subsequently concluded that if the men left at the "right time" they could have actually survived the hazardous water ride, despite all the obstacles. This time frame was between 11 p.m. and midnight. 

Will the Truth Ever Come Out?

The legend of this particular Alcatraz Island escape has gone down as one of the most famous prison breaks in history. A break from a prison that was supposedly foolproof from escape. Any other attempted escapees had been caught or were confirmed as dead.

Fast forward to today, the Alcatraz prison has long been closed, but its infamy lives on.

Did the Anglin brothers and Morris choose the "right time" and successfully escape and find freedom? Or did they perish at sea? Did one or two of them make it to Brazil? 

Society will probably never know for sure. Over the years many other reports of "sightings" have cropped up, but nothing with any real proof. If any of the men survived, they have hidden themselves very well over the past 50 years. Chances are they aren't about to come forward. Or they could simply be truly dead and have been all along.

What do you think? Could they have conceivably survived or is this new information just a lot of hype?

Alcatraz Island and the prison is currently run by the National Parks Service (NPS) and is opened to the public for tours.