(All Rights Reserved www.alcatrazhistory.com/
There were, however, prisoners who decided not to wait for a transfer to another prison. Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and two drowned. Two of the men who were caught were later executed in the gas chamber at the California State Prison at San Quentin for their role in the death of a correctional officer during the famous May 2-4, 1946, “Battle of Alcatraz” escape attempt.
Whether or not anyone succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz depends on the definition of “successful escape.” Is it getting out of the cellhouse, reaching the water, making it to land, or reaching land and not getting caught? Officially, no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day there are five prisoners listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”
Following are summaries of the 14 escape attempts:
#1. April 27, 1936 – While working his job burning trash at the incinerator, Joe Bowers began climbing up and over the chain link fence at the island’s edge. After refusing orders to climb back down, Bowers was shot by a correctional officer stationed in the West road guard tower, then fell about 50-100 feet to the shore below. He died from his injuries.
#2. December 16, 1937 – While working in the mat shop in the model industries building, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe had, over a period of time, filed their way through the flat iron bars on a window. After climbing through the window, they made their way down to the water’s edge and disappeared into San Francisco Bay. This attempt occurred during a bad storm and the Bay’s currents were especially fast and strong – most people believe Roe and Cole were swept out to sea. Officially, they are listed missing and presumed dead.
#3. May 23, 1938 – While at work in the woodworking shop in the model industries building, Thomas Limerick, Jimmy Lucas, and Rufus Franklin attacked unarmed correctional officer Royal Cline with a hammer (Cline died from his injuries). The three then climbed to the roof in an attempt to disarm the correctional officer in the roof tower. The officer, Harold Stites, shot Limerick and Franklin. Limerick died from his injuries. Lucas and Franklin received life sentences for Cline’s murder.
#4. January 13, 1939 – Arthur “Doc” Barker, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, and Rufus McCain escaped from the isolation unit in the cellhouse by sawing through the flat iron cell bars and bending tool-proof bars on a window. They then made their way down to the water’s edge. Correctional officers found the men at the shoreline on the west side of the island. Martin, Young, and McCain surrendered, while Barker and Stamphill were shot when they refused to surrender. Barker died from his injuries.
#5. May 21, 1941 – Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll took several correctional officers hostage while working in the industries area. The officers, including Paul Madigan (who later became Alcatraz’s third warden), were able to convince the four that they could not escape and they surrendered.
#6. September 15, 1941 – While on garbage detail, John Bayless attempted to escape. He gave up shortly after entering the cold water of San Francisco Bay. Later, while appearing in Federal court in San Francisco, Bayless tried, again unsuccessfully, to escape from the courtroom.
#7. April 14, 1943 – James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water’s edge. One of the hostages was able to alert other officers to the escape and shots were fired at Boarman, Brest, and Hamilton, who were swimming away from the island. Hunter and Brest were both apprehended. Boarman was hit by gunfire and sank below the water before officers were able to reach him; his body was never recovered. Hamilton was initially presumed drowned. However, after hiding out for 2 days in a small shoreline cave, Hamilton made his way back up to the industries area, where he was discovered by correctional officers.
#8. August 7, 1943 – Huron “Ted” Walters disappeared from the prison laundry building. He was caught at the shoreline, before he could even attempt to enter San Francisco Bay.
#9. July 31, 1945 – In one of the most ingenious attempts, John Giles was able to take advantage of his job working at the loading dock, where he unloaded army laundry sent to the island to be cleaned – over time, he stole an entire army uniform. Dressed in the uniform, Giles calmly walked aboard an army launch to what he thought was freedom. He was discovered missing almost immediately. Unfortunately for Giles, the launch was headed for Angel Island, not San Francisco as Giles hoped. As Giles set foot on Angel Island, he was met by correctional officers who returned him to Alcatraz.
#10. May 2-4, 1946 – Known as the “Battle of Alcatraz” and the “Alcatraz Blastout,” six prisoners were able to overpower cellhouse officers and gain access to weapons and cellhouse keys – in effect, taking control of the cellhouse. Their plan began to fall apart when the inmates found they did not have the key to unlock the recreation yard door. Shortly thereafter, prison officials discovered the escape attempt. Instead of giving up, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes decided to fight it out. Eventually Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, but not before the officers taken hostage were shot at point-blank range by Cretzer (encouraged by Shockley and Thompson). One officer, William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold Stites (who stopped the third escape attempt), was shot and killed attempting to regain control of the cellhouse. About 18 officers were injured during the escape attempt. The U.S. Marines were eventually called out to assist, and on May 4, the escape attempt ended with the discovery of the bodies of Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes stood trial for the death of the officers; Shockley and Thompson received the death penalty and were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes, age 19, received a second life sentence.
#11. July 23, 1956 – Floyd Wilson disappeared from his job at the dock. After hiding for several hours among large rocks along the shoreline, he was discovered and surrendered.
#12. September 29, 1958 – While working on the garbage detail, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson overpowered a correctional officer and attempted to swim from the island. Johnson was caught in the water, but Burgett disappeared. An intensive search turned up nothing. Burgett’s body was found floating in the Bay two weeks later.
#13. June 11, 1962 – Made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were never seen again. A fourth man, Allen West, believed by some people to have been the mastermind, was also involved; however, he was still in his cell the next morning when the escape was discovered.
An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts. The three men exited through vent holes located in the rear wall of their cell – they had enlargened the vent holes and made false vent/wall segments to conceal their work. Behind the rear wall of the cells is a utility corridor that had locked steel doors at either end. The three men climbed the utility pipes to the top of the cellblock, and gained access to the roof through an air vent (the men had previously bent the iron bars that blocked the air vent). They then climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cellhouse and made their way to the water. It is believed they left from the northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster building.
They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later a man’s body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified.
Alcatraz Escape – June 11, 1962
f there was ever an inmate who was destined to escape from Alcatraz, it was Frank Lee Morris. In the movie entitled “Escape from Alcatraz” starring actor Clint Eastwood, Morris was accurately portrayed as the keen and brilliant mastermind of one of the most famous prison escapes in history. The escape plan took several months to design, and it would necessitate the fabrication of clever decoys and water survival gear.
Frank Lee Morris had spent a lifetime navigating the prison system before his arrival on Alcatraz. From his infant years until his teens Morris was shuffled from one foster home to another, and he was convicted of his first crime at the youthful age of only thirteen. By the time he reached his later teens, Morris’s criminal record would include a multitude of crimes ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery, and he had become a professional inhabitant of the correctional system. He spent his formative years in a boys’ training school, and then graduated to a series of ever larger penitentiaries.
Morris was credited by prison officials as possessing superior intelligence, and he earned his ticket to Alcatraz by building an impressive resume of escapes. In 1960, Federal officials decided that his pattern of escape attempts, termed as “shotgun freedom” (although his escapes had never involved the use of a shotgun), would end at The Rock. On January 18, 1960, Morris disembarked from the prison launch and became inmate #AZ-1441.
Frank’s accomplices in the “Great Escape” were equally well acquainted with the dark world of organized crime. Brothers John and Clarence Anglin were also serving sentences at Alcatraz for bank robbery, having been convicted along with their brother Alfred. All three had been incarcerated at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta when they first became acquainted with Morris, and John and Clarence were eventually sent to Alcatraz following a sequence of attempted escapes.
Alcatraz inmate Allen West, who occupied an adjacent cell, was also brought in on the scheme. He was serving his second term on The Rock and carried a reputation as an arrogant criminal, and he knew John Anglin from the State Penitentiary in Florida. The escape plan started to take shape in December of 1961, beginning with a collection of several old saw blades that West allegedly found in one of the utility corridors while cleaning. In later interviews, West would take credit for masterminding the clever escape.
The plan was extremely complex and involved the design and fabrication of ingenious lifelike dummies, water rafts, and life preservers, fashioned from over fifty rain coats that had been acquired from other inmates – some donated and some stolen. They would also require a variety of crudely made tools to dig with, and to construct the accessories necessary for the escape. By May of 1962, Morris and the Anglins and had already dug through the cell’s six-by-nine-inch vent holes, and had started work on the vent on top of the cellblock.
The Anglins inhabited adjacent cells, as did West and Morris, who also resided nearby. The inmates alternated shifts, with one working and one on lookout. They would start work at 5:30 p.m. and continue till about 9:00 p.m., just prior to the lights-out count. Meanwhile John and Clarence started fabricating the dummy heads, and even gave them the pet names of “Oink” and “Oscar.” The heads were crude but lifelike, and were constructed from a homemade cement-powder mixture that included such innocuous materials as soap and toilet paper. They were decorated with flesh-tone paint from prison art kits, and human hair from the barbershop.
All Rights Reserved www.alcatrazhistory.com/