Alcatraz

Escape From Uncle Sam's Island

Famous for containing some of the most violent and destructive prisoners in American History, Alcatraz Island juts out of the dark waters of San Francisco Bay. Bleakly surrounded by sharp currents and sharks, prisoners were kept in line with the grim reality that escape was near impossible. No refuge could be found on the grim rock of Alcatraz Island.

Men, like Al Capone, were cycled into the island and forced to live in imprisonment. Their crimes were heinous enough to secure them into this almost impenetrable prison. Most of the men who tried to escape were swiftly returned, or ended up dead. Those who managed to sneak their way past the guards would be swept away by the sea, and they would never be seen again.

It was not surprising that these prisoners toed the line and tested the odds, due to their lengthy histories in running against the law and risking everything.

There was a long history in attempted escapes from Alcatraz. In 1938, three men murdered a guard before they were shot down. Three years later, other prisoners attempted to filed down the bars of their cells to flee, but eventually surrendered their efforts. It was a constant desire to flee that ran through the men. Alcatraz gave men a raw desperation that they needed to escape, no matter the risk. They would attack guards with flimsy tools or they would plunge into the icy waters, willing to face the sharks.

Generations of prisoners would fumble with their attempts to escape, but it took until 1962 for true success.

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Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin managed to pull off the most devious caper on June 11th. As bank robbers, they had been sentenced to serve their time at Alcatraz by the American justice system. However, they managed to use their clever wit to break their way out of the supposedly impenetrable walls, and possibly survive.

There were three key elements to their success. The first, was in order to escape the prison itself, they had to carve a tunnel out of the wall of their cell with sharpened spoons. Due to the darkness of the prison and the music hour that was often hosted, they were able to effectively hide their efforts from the guards. This tunnel led up to a vent, allowing for their escape into the night.

Disguising their vanishing was the second part. Each of the three men stole human hair from the barbershop in the prison, and used papier-mache to create dummies. Paired with the hair, the dummies were positioned on their bunks, allowing to throw suspicion off for a short period and giving them a head start.

The final, and arguably the most important, element of their plan had been using fifty stolen raincoats to devise a functioning life raft. This feat of engineering allowed the men to survive the waters and make it to land.

This was the first known successful escape from the prison. If you hadn’t heard about the escape and the high survival odds of these three men, don’t worry. Alcatraz prison, along with the FBI, worked hard to cover their plight and claimed that the bodies of the men had been swept into the sea.

Alcatraz was a dominating force, a hulking dark creation of cells and hard rock. Men were confronted with the cold reality that there was no relief to their situation. Their wild personalities had to die in order for their survival.  Alcatraz, however, was a force that rose against these men and smothered their behaviours.

The story of Morris and the Anglin brothers might have vanished entirely, if it hadn’t been for a letter written to the San Francisco police department. John Anglin claimed that he was the only member of the trio currently alive, and that he would turn himself in if he would receive medical care for his cancer.

This letter went under rigorous testing for DNA and fingerprints, and results reportedly returned as inconclusive. Perhaps it was a hoax written by local boys, or a tourist inspired by the true history of the island.

Or, it was the attempt to solidify the truth of their escape, and their survival.

I’d like to imagine that this was in fact an honest letter written by the hand of John Anglin. In recent years, plenty have attempted to swim from Alcatraz Island to the shores of San Francisco, eager to fight against the swift currents and small sharks that roam the waters. While these swimmers are not escaped convicts, it does serve to defend the very real possibility that it is in fact, not impossible.  


Interested in one of the most daring swims of your life? Check out this article by Graham Little on it.


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Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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