The GREAT ESCAPE - from 'the ROCK'

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. . ."

Frank Morris, 13th lifetime escape. Still at large!

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-Securityfederal 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

Six Heavily Armed Guntowers Circled USP-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.

Clyde Johnson, #864AZ

After five days, the search was scaled down – and the prisoners were gradually allowed back to work, and to the dining hall for meals. Speculation about Burgette’s fate ran rampant among prison staff, their families, and the always optimistic convict population. No man was ever known to have succeeded in escaping this bastion – perhaps it would be the well-liked, young Nebraska ‘corn-husker’.

As the second week of the drama passed, speculation about the chances of Burgett’s survival continued inside and outside the walls of USP-Alcatraz. His family prayed.

However, on the fourteenth day since his disappearance, Aaron Burgett did return to ‘the Rock’ - as his life-less body was spotted floating in the same area where he was last seen. Clearly, Aaron Burgette’s body had been dragged to the bottom of the bay and back – as his battered corpse was ‘eaten full of holes’ – presumably at the claws of the Bay’s famous Dungeness crab population.

Broken halves of his make-shift ‘swim-fins’ were still attached to his leather prison work-shoes, #991 was clearly visible on his uniform, and he had donned an extra pair of khaki pants imprinted with the prisoner #814, presumably taken from the prison laundry. By doubling the khaki trousers and wearing two shirts - plus shoes - he created a soggy anchor which would drag him down. A fatal error.

A crowded memorial service was held for Aaron Burgett a week later in the cell-house Chapel, and for many of his fellow con friends – was the only time they ever attended any religious services on ‘the Rock.’ Ironically, or perhaps with purpose, the barred windows of the second-story ‘Chapel’ provide a sweeping view of the exact area of bay waters which took their friend – and  in the distance, the always beckoning skyline of San Francisco.

Certainly some pondered their own chances on that water – but had any learned anything from Aaron Burgett’s plight? Clyde Johnson received an additional five years, never attempted escape again, was released for a short time, and died in prison in 1995.

USP-Alcatraz, June, 1962

Despite the daunting stories of failed escape attempts – like the recent Johnson/Burgett failed attempt, Morris, West and the Anglin brothers would discuss the innumerable challenges they would face in their emerging plan. With West and Morris in adjoining cells, as were brothers John and Clarence, their ability to communicate – and work in concert – would play a vital role in their efforts. As it was decided that removing the air-vent grill would be the critical first-step, the four were able to take turns working on the surrounding concrete – or as a ‘look-out’ for their ‘neighbor’.

John William Anglin, #1476AZ

One of the most important breaks the ‘would-be’ escapees would receive – was the decision by the new Warden, Olin Blackwell, to allow prisoners to purchase musical instruments by mail-order, keep them in their cells, and to enjoy a rare new privilege, a cell-house music-hour’  - following the afternoon meal.

It is not difficult to imagine the horrendous caqauphony which resulted within the concrete and steel confines, as the cons pounded on cheap guitars and tambourines, and ‘blew off some steam’ into horns and harmonicas.

Many guards wore ear-plugs . . .

As fellow con Thomas Kent, #1443AZ, put it, ‘You could have run a jack-hammer in that cell-house and not been noticed’ . . . or perhaps, even an electric-drill.

Of course, Frank Morris ordered an instrument something out of the ordinary, a ‘Concertina’, a miniature version of an accordion . . . ‘bellows and all!’

A common myth, as portrayed in the Hollywood movie – ‘Escape from Alcatraz‘ – infers that Frank Morris had discovered that the fifty year-old Alcatraz concrete had become softened by the ‘salt-air’ from the Pacific Ocean, and that Morris was able to chip away at it with a smuggled spoon-handle.

Visitors examining the cell-house concrete today, however, another fifty-plus  years later, will find it still quite solid – and quickly realize it would have taken much more than a spoon-handle to ‘fly this coop’!

Tom Kent, the ‘admitted’ co-conspirator told us that the spoon story is roughly based in fact. Kent states that a motor was procured from a cell-house vacuum cleaner – which originally had two motors – one for the vacuum and one for the roller – and was modified by yet another prisoner named May, an electrician on 'the outside' – to function with just one!

The vacuum motor was then modified to hold a smuggled drill-bit – and that after drilling a series of pilot-holes around the vent – three spoon-handles would be inserted, then spread with a wooden wedgefracturing the surrounding concrete. The small chips of cement and rock would then be smuggled out to the ‘yard’ in modified trouser pockets – before being emptied down the inside of a pant leg – disappearing around the ankles into the broken concrete and dirt ‘play-field’ which was the ‘recreation’ area.

Weekend days ‘on the yard’ provided unique opportunities for convicts to converse. Although armed guards watched their actions closely from ‘cat-walks’ atop the surrounding fifteen foot wall – and unarmed officers patrolled the grounds in pairs – the cons could huddle in groups, or walk together for even more privacy.

Weekdays, prisoners were restricted to speaking only with cell-neighbors and co-workers, and these ‘yard-days’ offered a chance to see other friends and ‘associates’, and many knew each other from previous institutions. This 'nefarious network’  would prove very critical in several aspects of the evolving escape.

'All for one, one for all . . .'

Smuggled materials would be needed for their escape plan. Fellow ‘cons’ would have to be asked to help – and for their silence. Drill bits, pry-bars, and other items would have to be ‘lifted’ from the shops, or provided by fellow prisoners with jobs involving access to tool-kits.

he ‘high-tech’ security of the time included crude, walk-through metal-detectors positioned in several locations around the island – including one at the base of the stairs leading to and from the Prison Industries building – the ‘shops’

Former cons have stated that smaller metal contraband could be transported in hollowed-out shoe heels – if one was very careful to drag his feet while passing through the device. Drill bits and  screw-drivers would require something much more creative.

In 1996, we met with former 1962 Alcatraz prisoner William 'Billy' Boggs, – still ‘doing time’ in a new Super-Maximum Security Federal U.S.Penitentiary at Lompoc, California. Cautious about discussing any of his own involvement in the famous escape, Boggs stated he knew all of the escapees, and wished them ‘the very best’. 'Billy' died from heart failure in a Federal Prison hospital six months after our video interview.

William (Billy) Adger Boggs, #1415AZ

Boggs was sent to Alcatraz on an international heroin-smuggling conviction in 1959, so was quite familiar with the ‘operations’ of the guarded institution, including a secret method used to transport drill-bits, and other small metal objects from the shops – straight into the cell-house. Evidently, this was an out-dated transport method, as Boggs was willing to speak of it within the ‘not so private’ confines of the prison’s visitation room.

In the late 1950’s and early ’60’s, and USP-Alcatraz had plenty of furniture – tables, chairs, benches and other items - which required routine maintenance - of course, provided by the prisoners through the prison's job system.

Of particular interest to Billy Boggs, and other calculating cons, were the wooden cell-house chairs with metal wire ‘stays’. As these chairs were in constant use by prison staff, they would become wobbly, and would frequently be sent down to the shops for straightening and tightening – by convict woodshop workers.

What interested the cons most, was that these chairs would be carried back up to the cell-house, through the much feared metal-detector, without a second look. Obviously, the metal wire stays, as well as metal skids on the bottom of each leg, would set-off the metal detector alarm – so they were routinely sent on their way without further inspection. Work-shop cons simply removed the metal skids, drilled out the legs, inserted a drill-bit, and replaced the skid. Cell-house workers at the other end of the pipeline’ – would need little time to remove the contraband and complete the ‘shipment’.

In an effort to eliminate tobacco-based betting and leveraging, Alcatraz convicts were each provided with three packs of cheap government issue ‘Wings’ brand cigarettes each week. Additionally, an endless supply of an even lower-grade ‘roll-your-own’ variety was dispensed from wooden tobacco-boxes located at the mess-hall end of each cell-block. The prisoners were  provided ‘gum-less’ rolling-papers, and were ‘free’ to simply grab a handful of the government issue tobacco as they returned to their cells.

The Administration’s idea worked very well to suppress covert trading activities, but also elevated the value of the once-yearly ration of ‘real’ cigarettes. These precious forty ‘smokes’ could be offered to settle sports bets, obtain favors, or be traded for contraband – which could, of course, include spoons . . .

Now, under the cover of the prisoner's new nightly 'music-hour', the men were able to work with the crude electric drill, which was connected to the cell’s ceiling light-socket. Then, with spoon-handles as wedges, the progress in exposing the mesh grill would proceed relatively swiftly. The immediate challenge now would be hiding their excavation projects.

One of the most clever aspects of the escape operation, was the fabrication of imitation grills. The convincing fake grill-covers were painstakingly created from the wooden generic tobacco boxes, which presumably were tossed in cell-house trash cans when empty.

Each facsimile required the creator to carve out dozens of diamond-shaped holes in the box bottoms, to match the appearance of the original steel mesh.

A larger surrounding flange of thin wood paneling was also somehow procured, then attached to the recessed grill. Institutional green paint was obtained through the ‘network’ of cooperative fellow cons, and the critical ‘work’ covers were painted to blend in with the cell wall. Rubber cement was smuggled from the shops, so that the vent-covers could be glued in place each night to cover the progress.