6 Decades After America’s Boldest Prison Escape, An Anonymous Letter Might Finally Have Answers

Most of us will never find ourselves behind bars, but those of us that do will have to serve out our sentences, counting down the days until freedom. Some prisoners, however, aren’t so patient.

Years ago, three convicts staged a bold escape from the most impenetrable prison known to man. Nobody knows if they made it. However, a new piece of evidence arose that could solve this mystery once and for all. But is it real, or too good to be true?

Though it’s just a tourist destination today, Alcatraz Island was once the most notorious federal prison in history. For people in the mid-1900s, this was the one part of San Francisco you really didn’t want to visit.

For three decades, the prison housed America’s most violent and dangerous criminals. When other facilities couldn’t handle certain inmates, they shipped them over to Alcatraz.

Joe Rosenthal

For a time, Alcatraz even held the most famous gangster of all time, Al Capone. He lost his mind behind those bars, as his brain rotted away from an aggressive strain of syphilis.

One thing was for sure: Alcatraz was inescapable. Even if convicts managed to squeeze past the prison’s iron and concrete defenses, they still weren’t home free.

They would also have to traverse over a mile of choppy waters separating the prison from the nearest land mass. Only large vessels made the perilous crossing, and they were always well-guarded.

Still, dozens attempted to escape over the years, but each man found himself dead or recaptured as a result. All other prisoners seemed content to sit in their cells and wait out their time. But that all changed in 1962.

Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin wanted out. This trio understood that if they were to succeed where so many others had failed, they required a foolproof plan. Morris drew up a list of supplies. 

Using parts from a broken vacuum cleaner, Morris and the Anglins built a drill to widen ventilation shafts in their cells. They covered up the noisy tool by playing the accordion. It took six long months.

From there, they burst through a hatch in the prison roof and slid down to the ground. Boarding a raft made out of 50 raincoats, the escapees began their crossing of the San Francisco Bay.

Guards didn’t realize they were missing until the following morning. The prisoners constructed dummies out of paper-mache and hair to make it look like they were still sleeping in their cots.

Alcatraz alerted the FBI and they placed Morris and the Anglin Brothers on its Most Wanted List. The prison had a perfect record in stopping escapes, and they weren’t eager to lose it.

Wikimedia Commons

Authorities set off on a giant manhunt, sweeping over huge tracts of water and land. However, they never found a trace of the prisoners themselves. Could it be that they actually made it, or did the bay claim three more victims?

Finally, police recovered a piece of a raft, a paddle, and a wallet off the coast of nearby Angel Island. The trail ended there, so the FBI concluded that the convicts must have drowned.

But not everyone was convinced. In 1975, a friend of the Anglins released a supposed photo of the brothers in Brazil. Forensic experts admitted their faces could be a match, but there was no other evidence to corroborate this claim.

A recent letter, however, might just be the missing piece of this puzzle. Sent to San Francisco police, it began, ‘My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer. Yes, we all made it that night but barely!’

CBS San Francisco

The document went on to detail John’s alleged post-escape activities, and it claimed that he, his brother, and Morris all lived to old age. It was enough for authorities to reopen the case. Could they have gotten it all wrong?

Adding fuel to the fire, Anglin family members remained adamant that the inmates succeeded in their mission. They even asserted that they have had limited contact with the brothers over the years.

There is also the matter of the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which retraces the prisoners’ route. If a large field of competitors can complete the swim across the bay every year, couldn’t Morris and the Anglins have done the same?

Triathlon World / Jim Heath

Nevertheless, these pieces of evidence proved too inconsistent and inconclusive to overturn the FBI’s initial theory. But they still keep the case file open to this day, just in case the truth reveals itself.


Regardless of whether this letter is fact or fiction, it adds a compelling layer of mystery to the most daring prison escape ever. Even if Morris and the Anglins failed, they succeeded in sparking the imagination of the entire country.

We may never be completely sure whether the prisoners made it out of Alcatraz. Do you think the letter is genuine, or a hoax?

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