Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012


It was a routine inspection by the prison warders.
Alcatraz: all you need is a boat
On the morning of 12 June, 1962, the guards at Alcatraz high security prison made their morning check on the prisoners in their cells.
When they came to Cell Block B, they quickly realised that something was not quite right. The men were in their beds, as they’d been all night long, but they were showing no signs of life.
The warders unlocked the cells and were stunned by what they found. Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin were missing: in their place were elaborately made papier-maché heads with real hair and painted eyes.
Wanted: Clarence Anglin
Three of Alcatraz’s most dangerous prisoners had escaped.
Neither the prisoners nor warders could believe that they’d managed to get away. Alcatraz, after all, was one of the world’s most closely guarded prisons. Situated on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay, it was washed by the cold and hazardous waters of the bay, making any escape by water almost impossible.
In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, no one had ever made it out alive. Forty-one inmates tried. Of those, 26 were recaptured, seven were shot dead and three drowned
Wanted: John Anglin
This proved no deterrent for the three new escapees. In fact, they saw the island’s isolation as a challenge.
All three men were hardened criminals. Frank Morris had first been convicted at the age of 13. Since that time, he’d been instrumental in a number of crimes ranging from armed robbery to dealing in narcotics. He’d been transferred to Alcatraz in 1960.
Wanted: Frank Morris
John Anglin was also an infamous criminal. He’d robbed the Columbia Alabama Bank in 1958, together with his two brothers. It had earned him a 35-year prison sentence.
Clarence Anglin had been involved in a number of other bank robberies and had also been caught escaping from the Atlanta State Penitentiary. It was decided to send him to Alcatraz, in order to prevent him from ever trying to mount another escape attempt.
There was supposed to be a fourth escapee on the night of the break-out - Allan West - but an unexpected hitch meant that he had to be left behind.
The utility corridor
All of the men were highly resourceful and extremely motivated. They discovered that there was an unguarded three-foot wide utility corridor behind their cells. This led to an air vent and thence to the outside world. The prisoners began to chisel away at the moisture-damaged concrete. For tools, they used metal spoons stolen from the canteen and an electric drill that they improvised from the motor of a stolen vacuum cleaner.
They did most of the work during music hour, when the noise of accordions covered the sound of their hacking the concrete. 
They also made dummy heads from soap, toilet paper and real hair in order to fool the wardens; there were constant checks on the prisoners throughout the night.
It took a year to tunnel through the wall to the service tunnel; the men then had to steal a long piece of cord in order to reach the manhole that covered the air vent. When they finally lifted it, they replaced the metal bolts with fake ones made of soap.
Psst: are you asleep?
Finally, on the night of 11 June, all was ready. It was time to make their escape. 
For three of the men, all went exactly to plan. They crawled into the utility corridor, climbed the air vent and reached the prison roof. There was no time to wait for Allan West: unable to crawl through the hole in his cell wall, he had to be left behind.
The three others clambered down to the rocky ground and began pumping air into a raft that they’d previously made from rubber raincoats. They’d even managed to make oars as well.
What happened next is anyone’s guess. The three men disappeared and were never seen again. They were never captured, despite an extraordinary FBI manhunt, and nor were their bodies ever found.
Where they entered the water
Their raft was washed up on the following day on Angel Island, some two miles from Alcatraz, and there were footprints leading away from the raft. But there the trail went cold. Did they drown? Did they get away? These are questions that no one has ever been able to answer.
A recent investigation discovered that a car was stolen on the very night of the escape: the prisoners had always intended to make their get-away by car. But despite an exhaustive investigation, detectives are no closer to solving the mystery.
Wanted: Clint Eastwood
If they survived, the escapees would now be in their eighties. This does not mean that the case has been closed.
According to U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke, ‘there’s an active warrant and the Marshals Service doesn't give up looking for people… There’s no proof they're dead, so we're not going to quit looking.’
And so the search goes on. The FBI website requests anyone with any information regarding the prison greatest escape in history to call (415) 436-7677.   

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  

With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  2. Many thanks to everyone for reading and sharing with friends! It's much appreciated.