List of Alcatraz escape attempts

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Alcatraz Island from San Francisco, March 1962

There were a total of 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz made by 36 prisoners while it served as a federal penitentiary.[1] Two men tried twice; twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed, two gave up and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned".[2] Faced with high maintenance costs and a poor reputation, Alcatraz closed on March 21, 1963. During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped.

Most notable were the violent attempt of May 1946 called the "Battle of Alcatraz" and the arguably successful June 1962 attempt by Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, which was marked by careful planning and execution.

Physical obstacles[edit]

It had seemed impossible to escape from Alcatraz by swimming.[3] The seasonal water temperature in the San Francisco Bay is about 53 °F (12 °C) in December[4] and the current can exceed 6 knots.[5] Citing these facts, as well as occasional visits from great white sharks and razor-sharp rocks, prison officers had discouraged most escape attempts[citation needed].

Attempted escapes[edit]

April 27, 1936[edit]

The first attempt to escape the prison was made on April 27, 1936, by Joseph Bowers, who was assigned the duty of burning trash at the incinerator. He was working burning garbage at the island's incinerator during duty hours when he suddenly ran and began scaling a chain link fence at the edge of the island in an apparent attempt to make for the shore. When he was caught in this act and refused orders of the correctional officer located at the West Road guard tower to come down, he was shot. He was seriously injured in the fall from over 15 m (50 ft) and consequently died.[6] The incident termed Bowers' "Desperate Escape" was variously deemed by inmates to have been an actual escape attempt, a deliberate suicide (Bowers had made multiple suicide attempts, and was deemed by some prisoners to be criminally insane), an attempt to climb up to grab garbage wedged in the chain link fence (Bowers was assigned to the garbage incinerator detail), or an attempt to climb the fence to feed a seagull. However, regardless of Bowers' initial motive, it is indisputable that Bowers ignored the guards' forceful signals to halt and he kept climbing even after the guards began firing, such that he fell on the outside of the fence.[7][8]

December 16, 1937[edit]

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[edit]

Rufus Franklin, Thomas R. Limerick, and James C. Lucas attacked and killed a guard[9] 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. The officer Cline died of his injuries the next day. Thomas Limerick also died.

January 13, 1939[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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.[10]

April 14, 1943[edit]

James Boarman (January 1, 1919 – April 14, 1943), 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), managed to cut window bars in the industries building's mat shop without being noticed and assemble four cans that contained army uniforms and could serve as flotation devices. They then overpowered two guards and bound and gagged them, then escaped out the window, leaving behind two of the four cans. However, one of the overpowered guards managed to get his whistle loose and the other managed to slip his gag and blow the first guard's whistle, alerting the tower guards who opened fire on the prisoners. Boarman was hit by gunfire and floated in the water unconscious, supported by Brest. As a prison launch picked up Brest, he let go of Boarman, who sank beneath the surface. Boarman's body was never recovered. Hunter, who had injured his back and hands in the escape attempt, gave up on swimming and sought refuge in a nearby cave, but was discovered by the guards two hours later and surrendered. Hamilton was wrongly assumed by the guards to have been hit by gunfire along with Boarman and his body to have similarly sunk, but had actually been hiding in the same cave as Hunter. Two days later, he climbed back up the cliff and through the same window from which he had jumped, then hid under a pile of material in the storeroom. He was found there the next morning.[11][12][13][14]

August 7, 1943[edit]

Huron Ted Walters, who was serving a sentence of 30 years for robbery, assault, and auto theft, noticed that on weekends, fewer guards were on duty, and their attention tended to be focused on the recreation yard. On Saturday, August 7, he took advantage of the situation to slip out of the New Industries building, where he was working in the laundry. His plan was to cut through the two security fences that separated him from freedom, make his way to the water, and swim the 1.4 miles to San Francisco. His plan went sideways early. The contraband wire cutters failed him, so he had to climb both fences, which cost him valuable time; then, he fell from the second fence onto the rocks and injured his back. Although he made it to the island's shoreline, he could go no farther, and was picked up by Captain of the Guards Henry Weinhold and Associate Warden E. J. Miller. He was returned to the cell house, where he spent some time in the prison hospital, then in solitary.[15]

July 31, 1945[edit]

John K. Giles, a prisoner working at the Alcatraz wharf, managed to assemble a U.S. Army technical sergeant's uniform (probably from pieces stolen from bags of army laundry sent to the island to be cleaned) and board a ferry that provided service between government facilities around San Francisco Bay. Shortly after the ferry's departure for Angel Island, headcounts on the Alcatraz wharf and aboard the ferry revealed the discrepancy, and Giles was apprehended at Angel Island and returned to Alcatraz.[16]

May 2–4, 1946[edit]

Bernard Coy, Marvin Hubbard and Joseph Cretzer were killed in the Battle of Alcatraz.
Carnes, Shockley and Thompson on way to court for trial in the Battle of Alcatraz

The most violent escape attempt occurred on May 2–4, 1946, when a failed attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz, also known as the "Alcatraz Blastout". It was carried out by six prisoners: Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Clarence Carnes, Marvin Hubbard and Miran Thompson. They daringly took control of the cell house by overpowering correctional officers, and were able to enter the weapons room and obtain the keys to the recreation yard door. Their aim was to escape by boat from the dock, but when they failed to obtain the keys to the outside door, they decided to battle it out. In the fight that ensued, they managed to hold two correctional officers hostage whom they eventually killed after two days. Prompted by Shockley and Thompson, Cretzer shot the hostages at very close range. One of the guards, William Miller, succumbed to his injuries while the second guard, Harold Stites, was also killed at the cellhouse. Although Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, the other three, Coy, Cretzer and Hubbard, persisted with their fight. The U.S. Marines intervened to help the correctional officers and killed the three prisoners. In this battle, apart from the guards and prisoners killed, 17 other guards and one prisoner were also injured. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes were tried for the killing of the correctional officers. Shockley and Thompson were sentenced to death through the gas chamber, an action which was carried out at San Quentin in December 1948.[17] However, Carnes, who was only 19 years old, was given a second life sentence.[6][18]

July 23, 1956[edit]

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[edit]

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. He perished in the attempt and his body was found floating in the bay near Alcatraz, two weeks later.

June 11, 1962[edit]

Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin 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 metal spoons and forks 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.[6]

Side view of model head found in Frank Morris's cell

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 were given over 50 rubber raincoats from other inmates to use as a raft for the trip to the mainland, which they prepared on the top of the cellblock, concealed from the guards by sheets which had been put up over the sides. Leaving papier-mâché heads in their cell bunks, they escaped through a vent in the roof and departed Alcatraz.[6][18]

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 he 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. Hundreds of leads and theories have been pursued by the FBI and local law enforcement officials in the ensuing years, but no conclusive evidence has ever surfaced favoring the success or failure of the attempt.[19] The FBI's investigation from 1962 to December 1979 was finally treated as closed.[20] The official report on the escape concludes that the prisoners drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland, it being unlikely that they made it the 1.25 miles to shore due to the strong ocean currents and the cold sea water temperatures ranging between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.[6][18]

The U.S. Marshals Service case file remains open and active, however. Morris and the Anglin brothers remain on its wanted list.[21] Circumstantial evidence uncovered in the early-2010s seemed to suggest that the men had survived, and that contrary to the official FBI report of the escapee's raft never being recovered and no car thefts being reported, a raft was discovered on nearby Angel Island with footprints leading away, and a car had been stolen on the night of the escape by three men, who could have been Morris and the Anglins, and that officials then engaged in a cover-up.[22] Relatives of the Anglin brothers presented further circumstantial evidence in the mid-2010s in support of a longstanding rumor that the Anglin brothers had fled to Brazil following the escape; a facial recognition analyst concluded that the one piece of physical evidence, a 1975 photograph of two men alleged to be John and Clarence Anglin, did support that conclusion.[23][24]

December 16, 1962[edit]

John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker were the last two prisoners to attempt to escape from Alcatraz. Scott and Parker used a makeshift saw to cut through the bars on a kitchen window in the cell house, then ran to the edge of the island and jumped into the water. Parker was found alive 81 yards from the main island on the rock formation Little Alcatraz.[25] Scott reached Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was found by teenagers, suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion.[26] After recovering in Letterman General Hospital, he was immediately returned to Alcatraz.[27] It is the only proven case of an Alcatraz inmate reaching the shore by swimming.[28][29][30]

Escape from Alcatraz (triathlon)[edit]

The Alcatraz–Fort Point route, which was swam by the inmate John Paul Scott in 1962, is today part of one of two annual triathlon events.[31][32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A Byte out of History: Escape from Alcatraz". Federal Bureau of Investigation. June 8, 2007. Archived from the original on 2008-07-09. Retrieved 2008-11-30.
  2. ^ "Alcatraz Escape Attempts". Retrieved 24 January 2011.
  3. ^ Klein, Christopher. "10 Things You May Not Know About Alcatraz". History in the Headlines. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ "BookletChart Gulf of the Farallones NOAA Chart 18645" (PDF). NOAA. Retrieved 13 October 2015. Outbound tidal current is strongest about 4 hours after high water at the Golden Gate Bridge and attains a velocity in excess of 6 knots at times.
  6. ^ a b c d e Cite error: The named reference hist was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  7. ^ "The Desperate Escape of Joseph Bowers". Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  8. ^ "Alcatraz: Greatest Prison Escapes: Crazed Postal Worker". Investigation Discovery Videos. 2008. Archived from the original on 2012-05-12.
  9. ^ "Correctional Officer Royal C. Cline". The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP).
  10. ^ Alcatraz.
  11. ^ "Escapes from Alcatraz Gallery: Escape No. 7".
  12. ^ "BOP: Alcatraz".
  13. ^ "Alcatraz - Escapes".
  14. ^ "Alcatraz Prison Escapes - Page 1".
  15. ^ Alcatraz Escape Files: From the Official Records. San Francisco: Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, 2014. pp. 93-99.
  16. ^ "The History of Alcatraz".
  17. ^ Two Alcatraz convicts die in gas chamber. Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1948.
  18. ^ a b c "Alcatraz – Page 6". Retrieved 7 September 2012.
  19. ^ Cite error: The named reference auto was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  20. ^ "FBI Records: The Vault-Alcatraz EscapeA Brief History of Alcatraz". Federal Bureau of Investigations. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  21. ^ "After 50 Years, the U.S. Marshals Remain Diligent in Hunt for Renowned Alcatraz Escapees".
  22. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (June 9, 2012), "Tale of 3 Inmates Who Vanished From Alcatraz Maintains Intrigue 50 Years Later", The New York Times, New York, NY, retrieved June 9, 2012
  23. ^ Amy Graff (October 12, 2015). "New claim: Alcatraz escapees might have survived. could still be alive". SF Gate. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  24. ^ "50 years later, new evidence suggests 3 Alcatraz escapees may still be alive". WPIX-11. October 12, 2015. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  25. ^ Albright, Jim (30 March 2008). Last Guard Out: A Riveting Account by the Last Guard to Leave Alcatraz. AuthorHouse. p. 182. ISBN 978-1-4343-5077-0. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  26. ^ "Alcatraz Escape Attempts". Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  27. ^ Company, Ocean View Publishing. "Alcatraz Prison Escapes - Page 1". Retrieved 2017-11-29.
  28. ^ "Alcatraz Archive".
  29. ^ San Francisco Genealogy
  30. ^ Howley, Elaine K. "The Art of the Escape". U.S. Masters Swimming. Retrieved 26 February 2017.
  31. ^ Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, retrieved November 9, 2015.
  32. ^ San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz, retrieved November 9, 2015.

External links[edit]