Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Alcatraz Island, San Francisco,
June 11, 1962
Four Alcatraz convicts had worked countless long nights together - over nearly seven months - carefully preparing for an overwhelming challenge - to escape the 'in-escapable'. One or more of them may not have felt quite ready, but on this day, the decision was made -
‘we go tonight!‘ . . . and they did!
Frank Morris, prisoner #1441AZ - made famous by Clint Eastwood, in the Hollywood feature 'Escape from Alcatraz' (1979) - and a veteran of twelve previous jail and prison escapes, was the natural leader of the four, and carried himself with a quiet confidence among the U.S.P. -Alcatraz population. Morris likely would have been the one to make the call - often credited as being the 'mastermind ' of America's greatest escape.
Morris and his accomplices may have grown nervous about a random cell-search, or possibly getting 'ratted on’ by fellow prisoners. In either case, months of painstaking preparations would certainly be lost - as prison guards would discover fake cell air-vent grates, and hidden behind them – plaster ‘dummy-heads’, home-made flotation devices, and make-shift tools – all to assist in a dramatic exit through the cell-house roof.
Morris’ accomplices, fellow bank-robbers John and Clarence Anglin, brothers ‘out of Florida’, and Allen West, an ‘un-licensed stolen-car dealer’ from New York, were his neighbors on the B-Block ‘flats’ - floor level, five-foot by nine-foot cells - often used for 'newbies'. These floor-level cell assignments, proved to be instrumental in the escape plan.
These very visible, one-man cells were among the least desirable for Alcatraz prisoners. Cells along the upper two tiers would have far less ‘traffic’ , and provided a large degree more of privacy. These ground-floor cells were easily visible to the cell-house guards – who used these concrete corridors to travel between the administration offices and the rest of the prison. Prisoners called these ground floor open spaces – ‘the Range’.
"Home, home on the Range. . ."
The cramped five-foot by nine foot cells contained ‘all the amenities’ – a steel-frame cot, stainless-steel toilet and sink, and a small wall-mounted metal fold-down table. To round-out the Spartan furnishings, two narrow wooden-shelves adorned the rear wall and provided the only authorized storage space for folded uniform items, prison-issue reading materials, shaving supplies and a small mirror. Subtracting the floor-space covered by the 'furnishings', would leave the prisoner twenty square-feet to use for any restless pacing or exercise.
The four escape conspirators were all serving long sentences of ten plus years, and all were here for previous escapes or escape attempts. John Anglin assisted brother Clarence in an unsuccessful attempt at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, by hiding him in a stack of bread boxes. Allen West held a gun to an Associate Warden’s head at a Florida prison during a botched ‘break-out’. Frank Morris would be a natural leader for the team, based on an impressive history of successful escapes, starting from juvenile reformatories and including one from the formidable Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The fact that the Anglin brothers, and Morris and West, had been assigned adjacent cells were the first of a surprising series of administration blunders which would, inadvertently, create some 'daylight' for any aspiring escapees. U.S.P. - Alcatraz was America’s first, and only, ‘Super Maximum-Security‘ federal prison - often referred to as the 'End of the Line!'
Eight prisoners had been shot dead attempting to escape - by Alcatraz 'Correctional Officers' - who were just followed procedure. 'Shoot first, ask questions later . . .'
Two prisoners, Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole, broke out of a prison shop and managed to make it into the fridgid bay water - under the cover of dense fog, way back in 1936. With only empty metal cans with screw-on lids, for flotation devices, and unable to navigate due to zero visibility - the two novice swimmers are likely to have succummed to the powerful tides and the inevitable navigational dis-orientation in the heavy fog and then- hypothermia.
Upon discovering the two men missing , the shop supervisor sounded an alarm and the prison was placed in 'lockdown'. A thorough search of the entire island was immediately launched - as the the two dangerous prisoners might be anywhere on the island. A search of the water was deemed too dangerous because of the limited visibility and the rocky shoreline. That part of their plot had worked just a Roe and Cole had presumably planned.
If the escapees did, in fact, perish in the deadly waters, the bodies were never found - predictably, either having been drawn out to the Pacific Ocean or - weighted by their denim uniforms - sank to the bottom of the chilly Bay waters, and then would be consumed by San Francisco's healthy Dungeness crab population.
The facility, inherited from the U.S. Army by the newly created Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933, had been extensively retrofitted at that time to become the world’s first ‘escape-proof’ prison facility.
Automated case-hardened steel ‘tool-proof’ cell doors and bars replaced the dated swing-doors and flat bars which the Army installed when the prison building was first completed in 1912.
When the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons took over, the remodel included the addition of interior caged gun-galleries on the second and third tier levels at each end of the prison building. These secure perches allowed for armed guards to cover any movement around the cell-blocks, and outside the building six exterior ‘gun-towers’ were occupied ’24/7′ by trained marksmen officers. All were given orders to ‘shoot to kill’ any would-be escapees.
The four escape conspirators were all serving long sentences of ten to thirty years, and all were here for previous escapes or escape attempts. John Anglin assisted brother Clarence in an unsuccessful attempt at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, by hiding him in a stack of bread boxes. Allen West held a gun to an Associate Warden’s head at a Florida prison during a botched ‘break-out’. Frank Morris would be a natural leader for the team, based on an impressive history of successful escapes, including one from Louisiana State pen.
The fact that the Anglin brothers, as well as Morris and West, had been assigned adjacent cells were the first of a surprising series of administration blunders at America’s first and only ‘Super Maximum-Security‘ federal prison – United States Federal Penitentiary – Alcatraz.
Thirty-two other Alcatraz prisoners had attempted to escape in a dozen separate, failed attempts over the preceding twenty-eight years. Eight men had been shot and killed, one drowned and two others were ‘presumed drowned’. As far as any of the Alcatraz prisoners knew, no one had ever escaped to freedom. For most, to consider it – was a death-wish. After-all, this was the world’s first ‘Escape-Proof’ prison.
It’s been said that Alcatraz guards intentionally spread false rumors about ‘man-eating sharks’ in the surrounding bay – but as former prisoner Billy Boggs coyly noted: ‘didn’t scare me … hell, those sharks would have to take their chances’!
For Frank Morris, #1441AZ (‘mug-shot’ above) and his co-conspirators however, the thought of serving out their long sentences in a 5′ x 9′ Alcatraz cell would make them ‘dead men walking’ anyway. They lived and worked among a sea of ‘old-timers’ – some who had been on ‘the Rock’ for twenty years or more – seemingly beaten, hopelessly enduring the unrelenting routine which was USP-Alcatraz. Day after day, month after month, year after year – hopelessness on two feet.
Then one day, a faint glimmer of hope appeared for the daring convicts who would join together to successfully create the greatest escape in U.S. History! A shared discovery that the plumbing system serving each cell, had vent pipes which travelled vertically up a narrow chase to the cell-block roof-top, and that the matrix of pipes could serve as a virtual ladder to freedom. But, how to get into that three foot-wide, three story-high plumbing corridor? This was the first of many challenges ahead.
The walls, ceiling and floor of each cell in the Alcatraz cell house were solid concrete, which appeared to be at least eight to ten inches thick. Water supply pipes for the sink and toilet in each cell were surrounded by this solid concrete, and the only opening was a metal air-vent recessed three-inches deep into the rear cell-wall. And although this vent-grill did circulate air from the plumbing corridor -it was just six inches high, and nine inches wide. Very little hope there. Unless you were Frank Morris – there was always hope for an escape.
At just 5′ 7″ in height, and a scant 140 pounds, Frank Morris had slipped out of a lot of tight situations. Morris’ escape history started shortly after he was born, on September 1, 1926, when he escaped a most miserable childhood – from a mother who was frequently incarcerated herself – as she abandoned him at an orphanage.
Young 'Frankie' never adjusted well to foster homes, and started running away from them as soon as he could. When he was in custody, which was most of the time, young Frank was caught ‘pulling pranks’, sneaking around, and stealing extra food from the kitchen. Eventually, Frank Morris would slip away from each of these attempts to cage him.
Frank Morris was first arrested at age thirteen, for a series of home burglaries, and placed in detention at the National Training School for Boys in Washington D.C. A year later, fourteen year-old ‘Frankie’ was sentenced to six years and nine months for a separate burglary. A pattern of long incarcerations and reckless, crime-fueled short-periods of freedom was set in place at this early age . . . ultimate destination – U.S.P.- Alcatraz!
Frankie’ Morris is said to have been a ‘quiet con’. Fellow prisoners have said that he always appeared to be deep in thought, and if he did say something – it was never trivial. Although listed in the Alcatraz ‘Warden’s Report’ as a known escape risk, Morris was placed in ‘general population’, worked in the prison industries, and was only ‘written-up’ for minor infractions – like brewing coffee in his cell. Although, contraband coffee was not the only thing #1441AZ was ‘brewing’ in his cell . . . he was also ‘cooking-up’ the most incredible escape plan in American history!
The danger involved in any escape attempt from the America’s toughest prison was self-evident. Most surviving USP -Alcatraz prisoners easily recall their first impression of ‘the Rock’ – commonly the terrifying boat-ride to the island. Often shrouded in fog, Alcatraz Island is crowned by the prison Cell-house Building – which gradually appeared as a mysterious silhouette looming over the dark waters of San Francisco Bay. The prison’s island isolation was ironically signaled every forty seconds by a brief flash from a lighthouse beacon – and by the incessant moan of a Coast Guard foghorn – both struggling to escape the island’s hold.
As the prison launch neared Alcatraz Island – tall, dark rocky cliffs became visible – accented by contrasting flashes of bright white at their base – as waves crashed against a ring of jagged boulders like repeated warnings of the obvious danger.
Many former Alcatraz prisoners have confessed, in later years, that the trip out to the mysterious island prison was quite unsettling – even for tough guys – and many feared theirs might be a ‘one-way ticket’. One thing most knew on arrival, was that any thoughts of escaping this ‘pen’ – must deal with a successful crossing of more than a mile of choppy, frigid bay waters . . . ‘Welcome to ‘the Rock’ . .
New arrivals to ‘the Rock’ in 1960 and ’61, like Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, would certainly hear of the most recent escape attempt – in September 0f 1958, by two seasoned ‘cons’ – Aaron Burgette, #991AZ, and Clyde Johnson, #864AZ. The younger Burgett was just six years into a twenty-five year sentence for a series of violent armed robberies in the St. Louis area, and the older Johnson was only eight years into a forty-year stint for bank and other armed robberies.
The two prisoners had been assigned to a clean-up detail along the south shoreline of the island – outside the fences – and with a tremendous and tempting view of the San Francisco skyline and waterfront.
Aaron Burgette and Clyde Johnson were supervised by just one un-armed officer, and as the detail progressed along the water’s edge, the trio would briefly disappear from the oversight of the dock gun-tower.
Aaron Burgette, #991AZ
Preparations for a planned escape were evident when Clyde Johnson pulled a hidden paring knife on Correctional Officer Harold Miller and the six-foot, two-inch Burgette grabbed and restrained him.
Further evidence of a planned escape was clear when the convicts produced a roll of black electrical tape and a section of rope. The officer was bound, gagged and blind-folded before being tied to a tree on the hill-side with the rope. The young officer had been a prison-guard for less than a year, and USP-Alcatraz was his first assignment . . . ‘Welcome to the Rock!’
After double-checking the retraints on Officer Miller, Burgett strapped small, pre-made plywood ‘swim-fins’ to his work-shoes, and both 'would-be' escapees inflated small plastic garbage bags they had secreted under their clothing. Evidently, the two ‘cons’ planned to use these home-made flotation devices to aid in their swim to the mainland.
Former prisoner William Baker, #1259AZ, recalls witnessing Aaron Burgett inflating plastic-bags and testing them by submerging them in a workshop 'slop-sink' shortly before the attempt.
After several attempts at entering the tumultuous bay waters by both prisoners, Johnson decided it was impossible, and hunkered down in some brush to re-think his options. The home-sick Burgett decided it was ‘now or never’, overcame his fear, and entered the water a final time – and began thrashing towards the beckoning sight of San Francisco.
When Officer Miller failed to report on schedule, other dock officers responded – finding Mr. Miller in his humbling situation – and Clyde Johnson gave up without a struggle. The escape siren was sounded, all prisoners were quickly escorted back to their cells, and a massive man-hunt was launched. Staff families living on Alcatraz were confined to quarters – as search teams scoured the island, the bay, and the San Francisco waterfront. The search lasted for days, with the Alcatraz prisoners on lock-down – and Clyde Johnson sitting it out in ‘the hole’. No sign of Aaron Burgett anywhere.