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History / Open Water

The Art of the Escape

Escaping the inescapable Alcatraz fortress

Elaine K. Howley | March 3, 2014

After quietly chipping away at their cell walls with spoons for more than a year, sometime after midnight on June 11, 1962, brothers John and Clarence Anglin of Donalsonville, Ga., and fellow inmate Frank Morris of Washington, D.C., silently slipped out of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary and drifted into San Francisco Bay aboard a raft made of raincoats. Their glaring absence, discovered the next morning when guards found elaborate dummy heads posing as the men sleeping in their beds, has been deemed the only potentially “successful” escape from the “inescapable” jail that played host to some particularly violent and fierce criminals during the mid-20th century.

“Successful” is an appellation that’s open to debate in this case; theirs was one of only two escape attempts that did not result in a prisoner being returned to the penitentiary or delivered to the morgue. (The other escape involved two men, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, who attempted escape on December 16, 1937, a proverbial dark and stormy night that would have been difficult for even skilled mariners to survive. Though their bodies were never recovered, they were presumed drowned.)

But the Anglin case was different, and still holds the sway of mystery in the absence of bodies or hard evidence that the men survived. Some say the Anglin brothers and Morris made strategic use of the strong tides and still live free, others say they drowned in the swift currents surrounding Alcatraz Island.

Rumors abound that they landed on Angel Island or the Marin Headlands near the Golden Gate Bridge where they stole a car, which they may have driven into Mexico and anonymity. The 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, made the trio’s escape famous and contributed significantly to the mystique and allure of the island and its many secrets. In 2003, the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters program staged an elaborate recreation of the escape scenario using the tools and objects the trio would have had access to and proved the survival theory “plausible.”

The nearly 52-year-old mystery remains today, lacking any solid evidence pointing to one outcome or the other. Officially, the U.S. Marshals Service is still looking for the three convicts, even though they’d be in their 80s today. Federal marshals have stated they will continue to pursue the case until the men are arrested, are determined to be dead, or turn 99, whichever comes first, a Reuters article from the 50th anniversary of the escape reported. The article also noted that the Anglin brothers were strong swimmers who broke the ice on Lake Michigan each winter for cold dips, adding to the suggestion that they may have survived the ordeal. Although they could well be at the bottom of the bay, many believe the men found a way to escape the island fortress that so many others could not.

During the nearly 30 years that the penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was in operation, 36 prisoners attempted escape in 14 separate incidents, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports. Most of the escapees were shot by guards or recaptured. John Paul Scott, however, was the only would-be escapee who managed to swim (or was that float?) to the mainland, which he did in 1962. Attempting his escape in December—when water temperatures typically dip below 50 degrees F—Scott was found unconscious on a beach under the Golden Gate Bridge several hours later. He was recaptured and sent to a local hospital to be treated for hypothermia and exhaustion before returning to The Rock to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Not long after he was returned to Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary on the island was permanently shuttered (on March 21, 1963) and all prisoners were transferred off the island to mainland prisons around the country.

Today, hundreds of people swim between Alcatraz Island and the mainland during various swim races, events, and private crossings held every year. (See links below to some of the many options for swimming to, from, and around the infamous island.) And some local swimmers have made a habit of crossing the cold and current-riddled waters nearly every day. Read about two very prolific Alcatraz crossers and more about the history of the island and its myriad swim events in the March-April 2014 issue of SWIMMER magazine.

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About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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