On July 11, 1962 Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin – escaped from Penitentiary Acatraz and are the only men to have fled the notorious island to remain unaccounted for. (1)
Half a century later, the U.S. Marshalls Service, the federal government’s leading organisation for carrying out fugitive investigations, such as tracking down escaped prisoners, is still actively searching for the three Alcatraz escapees, in what has been referred to as being one of the ‘best known unsolved crimes in American history’. (1).
Prior to Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin’s escape from Alcatraz, others had attempted to flee “The Rock”, but were either killed, drowned or captured.
However, the 1962 break-out was elaborate compared to other escape attempts and took, according to the BBC, ‘one of the most daring and intricate escapes in the notorious prison’s history.’ (2).
The Famous Escape From Alcatraz
The details of the escape, which took a whole 12 months to plan, are fascinating and involved paper-Mache heads, soap, rubber raincoats and spoons.
The intricate escape plot began, as the BBC states, by the men using spoons to dig away at the concrete air vents in their cells. As each hole grew, the Alcatraz inmates used cardboard to cover the holes and used soap to disguise the removed rivets.
Placing paper-Mache figures with real hair collected from the prison’s hairdressers in their beds, the story goes that the guards, which patrolled the cells routinely through the night, were duped into believing the three men were sleeping soundly.
Whereas in reality, Morris and the Anglin brothers had squeezed through the vents and made their way to the prison roof where they continued over the high barbed-wire fences and onto a blind spot on the watchtower where they used, according to the BBC, ‘improvised bellows to inflate a raft fashioned from rubber raincoats.’ (2).
Although leftovers of the rubber raincoat raft were found washed up on the shores of a nearby island, the men have never been seen since. The escapees fates, whether they had drowned, are alive and well or are living in hiding, has enthralled the imaginations of many, not just in America, but across the world.
With all three men never seen again, how did the world come to know the details of the elaborate escape?
The facts were provided by inmate Allen West, who, according to U.S. Marshals, was also involved in the escape, but never made it out of his prison cell.
In 1979, the Marshals Service assumed the case from the FBI and since has never relinquished attempts to track down the fugitives. The U.S. Marshalls have employed various techniques in its attempt to solve one of the ‘best known unsolved crimes in American history’, such as appearing on American TV shows to generate leads and information.
U.S. Marshals Will Not Give Up
Whether or not the three Alcatraz escapees are dead or alive is the big question. It is a question that has created nothing short of a legend, with books, films and documentaries intensifying the suspense of the fate of the three men.
One such film was the 1979 ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, in which Clint Eastwood played Frank Morris.
The U.S. Marshals, however, firmly believe the men are alive, as U.S. Marshals Service Acting Director, John Twomey said in 1993 in an interview with the American TV show ‘America’s Most Wanted’:
“We know they were young and vigorous, that they had the physical ability to survive and that they had a well-thought out scheme”. (1)
Reiterating this view is U.S. Marshal, Michael Dyke, told the BBC:
“I think there’s a good possibility that they survived. It’s hard to say. We have to keep the case open since no bodies have been found.” (2).
The U.S. Marshals state that they still receive leads about the unsolved case and as late as 2010 a lead took the Marshals to an unmarked grave that was claimed to be that of one of the escapees.
However, after an exhumation of the grave, no positive identification was made.
According to the U.S. Marshals’ website, the agency will continue to search for the Alcatraz escapees until the men are confirmed dead, arrested or reach the age of 99.
“No matter where the leads take us, or how many man hours are spent on this historic case, the Marshals Service will continue to investigate to the fullest extent possible,” stated David Harlow, assistant director of the U.S. Marshals Investigative Operations Division. (2).
Is Finding the Escaped Inmates Worth the Cost?
It could be argued that the FBI and then the U.S. Marshals spending a total of 50 years and what is likely to be many more years searching for the three ‘elusive’ Alcatraz escapees, is a waste of time and U.S. taxpayer’s money.
In light of this argument, I made contact with David Turk, a historian for the U.S. Marshals Service, who said although this is still considered an active case, my questions had some historical implications that he could comment on.
Talking about the fame and status of the Alcatraz case, David Turk told me:
“Of course, it is a famous one we have held for a long time, and the FBI worked on it for over a decade before that. In light of the anniversary date, there is much attention being generated. However, the case is determined by time and status – this is determined by law, so it won’t be closed for some time. Still, work on the case can only be done when there are leads to follow and time allows. This is no more a waste of money than other similar cold cases – some of these have actually been solved over the course of time.”
When pressed about whether he thought that the three Alcatraz escapees were still alive, the U.S. Marshals Service historian answered:
“As to whether the three are still alive, until we can determine one way or another (or the case is closed), we don’t speculate on whether or not they are deceased unless credible evidence can be gathered to prove it. We do believe that one or more of the three could have survived the initial escape.”
In the 50th anniversary of what is possibly the most famous prison escape story’s in history, rumour has it that Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin would return to Alcatraz to mark the anniversary of their breakout.
According to an NPR report, the rumour drew a crowd of people to the island to mark the anniversary, including some of the Anglin brothers’ family, and Marie Widner, the Anglin brothers’ younger sister, who said as she stood in the prison’s old medical ward:
“I’ll never believe they’re dead; I don’t believe they’re dead.” (3)