Thursday, June 11, 2015

JUNE 11 = Escape From Alcatraz?

"I'll never believe they're dead; I don't believe they're dead. I was listening to the radio when (they) told about it... I cut my iron off and I run to my neighbors house and said, 'Did you hear what was on the radio? My brothers escaped from Alcatraz.' " 

- Marie Widner, younger sister of Clarence and John Anglin

Inmate Frank Morris along with fellow inmates, brothers Clarence and John Anglin left Alcatraz Island in a makeshift raft made with makeshift life preservers late on the evening of today's date, June 11 in 1962.  It was the final leg of their planned escape from the allegedly escape-proof prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay (above). None of the men has been seen since, and their bodies have never been found.

Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers

Frank Morris (right) was born on September 1, 1926,  By the time he arrived at Alcatraz on Jan. 18, 1960, he had spent most of his life being moved from one set of foster parents to another, and had as a result spent most of his life as a career criminal. His offenses ran the gamut from narcotics possession to armed robbery.  So he was placed in Alcatraz because he was always attempting to escape.  Such was also the case with John and Clarence Anglin, who along with their brother Alfred were serving time for bank robbery.  They had met Morris at the Atlanta State Penitentiary in Georgia.  Like Morris, the Anglins had made repeated attempts to escape over the years. The three men were not violent offenders - they had never injured anyone in the commission of their crimes; but their repeated escape attempts had landed them in Alcatraz.  The prison's position - on a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay, surrounded by fast running currents and cold water - had indeed gotten it the moniker of "escape - proof".  Many had tried but had either been recaptured, killed or drowned. Inmate Allen West was also brought in on the escape plan. Although Morris, a very intelligent man was the one who actually masterminded the plan, West would later take credit for its conception.

The Alcatraz Escape and it's Tools

The scheme began being planned in December of 1961, when West collected several old saw blades from a utility corridor he had been cleaning. Every inmate at Alcatraz had his own cell, and the idea was to dig through their cell's six by nine inch vent holes, get on top of the cell block, break through a vent, move outside to the prison roof, and from there down to the ground, into the Bay, and using their makeshift life raft to paddle to nearby Angel Island, and from there to freedom.  Guards paced the cell blocks of Alcatraz regularly checking on every cell, so during the interval wherein they would be away from their cells,
they would make it appear as though they were there sleeping by placing life-like paper mache dummy heads (left) at the head of their beds.  These were fashioned using plaster and cement left over from their digging in the vent holes, and water.  Hair was taken from the barbershop by one of the men who worked there, and paint was used from a paint set that one of the inmates had ordered. Crude tools for digging had been made from utensils pilfered from the cafeteria. The men's cells were next to each other; Morris with West, and the Anglin brothers.  They would start at 5:30 and work until lights out at 9:00.  While one would work the other would keep lookout for the guards.

 By May of 1962, Morris and the Anglins had made it to the top of the cell block, and were working on breaking through that. They needed to loosen the grate over the vent shaft which would lead them to the roof of the prison.  West was able to acquire the motor from a vacuum cleaner and drill bits in order to make a crude power tool for this.  It was noisy and not very effective but they kept working at it. Using rain coats, some of which were stolen and some of which were donated by
other inmates, and contact cement, West had made life preservers, and John Anglin had pieced together a six by fourteen foot raft.  Morris had fashioned a device to inflate the raft using an accordion-like musical instrument called a Concertina. (Above, Clarence Anglin's cell) But West had fallen behind on clearing away the vent in his cell.  So when the other three had loosened the top ventilator grate and were ready to go on the evening of June 11, West was unable to get out of his cell, so the others had to leave him behind.  At 9:30, the three men climbed the cell house plumbing to the roof, and pushing aside the grating at the top got onto the roof, dodged spotlights in moving 100 feet, and stealthily moved down fifty feet of outdoor pipes down to the ground near the entrance to the shower area.  None of them was ever seen again.

Did Morris and the Anglin's Make It... Alive?

So that leads us to the big question: did Frank Morris, and John and Clarence Anglin really escape from Alcatraz... alive? Certainly the sister of the Anglin brothers hopes so, as quoted at the top of this posting.  But the consensus of informed opinion is no, they did not.  The waters around Alcatraz were 54 degrees that night.  not cold enough to kill the men immediately, but soon after they would have hit the water.  And
the currents in the Bay were certainly strong enough to pull them way off their course. (Above - John Anglin) But the fact remains that while no trace of them was found, other than some personal photos that one of the Anglins had brought with them, no bodies were ever found. And no confirmed contact with anyone on the outside was ever made. It would not be at all unusual for a body to be carried out of the Bay into the ocean, and not be found.  And a Norwegian vessel saw a body dressed as one of the inmates would have been, not long after this date.  But the body was not recovered.  So even though the FBI has closed this case, we'll never really know for sure if Morris and the Anglins - - who would be in their eighties and nineties by now - actually made it off the rock of Alcatraz. (Below - one of the knives used to dig out of the vents in the cells.)

Sources =

"Escape From Alcatraz"  1979, Directed by Don Siegel; based on the book by J. Campbell Bruce, screenplay by Richard Tuggle.

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