List of Alcatraz escape attempts
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In its 29 years of operation, there were 14 attempts to escape from Alcatraz prison involving 36 inmates. Officially, every escape attempt failed, and most participants were either killed or quickly re-captured. However, the participants in the 1937 and June 1962 attempts, though presumed dead, disappeared without a trace, giving rise to popular theories that they were successful.
December 16, 1937
Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe had gradually filed through iron bars in the prison's mat shop in the industries building and escaped on a very foggy day, preventing them from being spotted by guards in the watch towers. The two jumped into the water and were never seen again, but the severe weather conditions at the time have led to a consensus that they drowned in the bay and their bodies were swept out to sea by the strong current in San Francisco Bay. However, they were listed as #1 and #2 on the FBI Most Wanted List.
May 23, 1938
Rufus Franklin, Thomas R. Limerick, and James C. Lucas attacked and killed a guard with a claw hammer in the woodwork shop in the industries building and then proceeded to the roof, where an armed guard shot Franklin and Limerick. Other guards arrived at the scene. Lucas was cornered and surrendered to the guards.
January 13, 1939
Arthur 'Doc' Barker, William Martin, Rufus McCain, Henri Young, and Dale Stamphill were inmates of the prison's supposedly most-secure unit, D-Block, when they managed to escape the cell house and reach the Alcatraz shore on the night of January 13, 1939 (Friday). As they were putting a makeshift raft together they were spotted and fired on by a guard in a watch tower. Barker was killed, Stamphill was wounded, and the others were sent to Solitary confinement.
May 21, 1941
Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll were working in the industries area when they jumped the guards on duty and attempted to saw through window bars to reach the shore. The tool-proof bars foiled the attempt and they surrendered when this became apparent. Both Cretzer and Shockley would try to escape again in the Battle of Alcatraz.
September 15, 1941
John Richard Bayless (May 16, 1915 – July 30, 1981) was working on the garbage detail and managed to elude the guards and reach the Alcatraz shore. He jumped into the water and tried swimming to San Francisco but quickly gave up the attempt..
April 14, 1943
James Boarman, Harold Martin Brest (January 2, 1914 – May 31, 1979), Floyd Garland Hamilton (June 13, 1908 – July 24, 1984), and Fred John Hunter (October 13, 1899 – November 30, 1982), escaped from the industries area after overpowering and binding two guards. However, the escapees were not long in the water before one of the captive guards managed to free himself and raise the alarm. The fleeing prisoners were fired upon; Boarman was wounded, and his body was never recovered. The others were all recaptured, although Hamilton spent two days freezing in a small cave before climbing back into the industries building, where he was discovered by correctional officers.
At 9:30 a.m., in the model building at the northwest end of the island, the four convicts, with "shivs" (prison-made knives) in hand, overpowered Custodial Officer Smith and bound and gagged him. Shortly afterwards, Captain of the Guards, Henry Weinhold, noticing that Smith was not on guard, entered the room and was also overpowered. Then, the convicts leapt out a window, clad only in their underwear and covered in grease, and plunged 30 feet down a sheer cliff into the water. They had left behind two of four cans that were designed to stay afloat and had army uniforms inside.
Smith managed to get his whistle loose and into the mouth of Weinhold, who blew it. At the same time, Officer Frank Johnson outside saw the convicts swimming away and sounded an alarm. The tower guards trained their guns on the convicts in the water and began shooting. A bullet hit Boarman in the back of the head, near his left ear. Boarman floated in the water unconscious. A prison launch pulled alongside Brest, who was holding on to the unconscious and wounded Boarman. As Brest reached up for the guard's grip, he let go of Boarman, who disappeared beneath the water. The guards were convinced Boarman was dead.
Hunter, injuring his back and cutting his hands, gave up on swimming and sought refuge in a nearby cave. The guards took a boat over to the entrance of the cave. One of the guards ordered him to come out. When he didn't respond, the guard fired a pistol shot. Hunter then came out. The hunt was continued throughout the day in the hope of finding the bodies.
Hamilton, assumed to have been dead, had been hiding in the same cave as Hunter. Three days later, on Friday night, he climbed back up the cliff and through the same window from which he had jumped. He then hid under a pile of material in the storeroostaff sergeant uniform. When the prison launch docked he managed to change into the uniform and board the launch. Shortly after its departure for Angel Island Giles was found missing on one of Alcatraz's many unscheduled head counts. He was met at Angel Island by prison officers and returned to Alcatraz.
May 2–4, 1946
Coy, a Kentucky bank-robber and a cell house orderly on Alcatraz managed to take the gun cage in the main cell house and seize the two firearms held there. However, due to a breach of regulations by a prison officer, the key to the yard door, from which the inmates planned to gain access to the prison launch, was not in its place and inadvertently doomed the escape attempt. The prisoners refused to surrender and Coy, Cretzer, Hubbard, and two prison guards died in the fighting, which ended two days later, on May 4, 1946.
Carnes survived the "battle", and because of his youth and because he refused to kill the guards when ordered to do so by his colleagues, he was spared the death penalty; instead, he received a life sentence. Shockley and Thompson were sentenced to death and subsequently executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1948.
July 23, 1956
Floyd Wilson disappeared from his job at the dock but was discovered after hiding for 12 hours among large rocks along the shoreline after giving up his plan to make a raft out of driftwood.
September 29, 1958
Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson were working on the garbage detail when they overpowered a guard. Both jumped into the water, trying to swim off the island. A police launch intercepted Johnson, but Burgett disappeared until his body washed up on San Francisco's shoreline, 2 weeks later.
June 11, 1962
Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin may have successfully carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised, on June 11, 1962. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3-foot (0.91 m) wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions, played during music hour(about 1 hour and a half), and their progress was concealed by false walls, which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route then led up through an air vent, a shaft large enough for a man to climb through. Stealing a carborundum cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners had removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also stole several raincoats to use as a raft for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché heads in their cell bunks, they escaped.
The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who also was part of the escapees' group but was left behind. West couldn't fit through his hole so had to keep chipping to break through. When Morris and the Anglin brothers (John & Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall; however, by the time he made it through the wall, his companions were gone. Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were later found floating in the bay, and the official report on the escape states that the prisoners drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland. However, there were sightings of the men over the years, and friends and family of Morris and the Anglins have been receiving postcards written in the men's handwriting.
The Discovery TV show Mythbusters investigated the escape, and concluded it is “plausible” that the prisoners may have survived their escape attempt.
The 1962 escape was examined in a 2011 National Geographic Channel program entitled Vanished from Alcatraz. According to the newly uncovered official records discussed on the program, a raft was discovered on Angel Island with footprints leading away. Furthermore, there was also a report of a stolen car in the area that night, which could have been used by Morris and the other escapees. However, while confirming these facts, which were hidden from the officials for quite some time, the findings of further investigations remain inconclusive. As a result, the U.S. Marshall’s office is still investigating this case, which will remain open on all three escapees until their 100th birthdays.
December 16, 1962
John Paul Scott and Darl Parker were the last two to attempt escape from Alcatraz. Scott used banjo strings and a makeshift saw to cut through the bars on a kitchen window in the cell house, he then ran into two guards outside which he stabbed and then strangled with the banjo strings. He ran to the edge of the island and jumped into the water; he was able to reach the shore. Parker was found 100 yards from the main island on the rock formation known as Little Alcatraz, but Scott reached Fort Point on the mainland where he was found by teenagers, suffering from hypothermia. After recovering in the hospital, he was returned to Alcatraz. It is the only proven case of an Alcatraz inmate reaching the shore by swimming.