From Al Capone to James Bulger, some of the most notorious criminals of the past century were housed in the maximum security island prison known as Alcatraz. Officials at the prison claimed for years that not a single convict managed to escape. Despite those claims, the bodies of five escapees were never found.
One of those disappeared bodies belongs to John Anglin, a bank robbing youngster who worked alongside his brother. The facts have been carefully examined and even forensic experts say there’s a very real chance that Anglin is still alive and living among us. Maybe he’s even your friend or neighbor.
Here’s the fascinating story of three men who produced a Shawshank Redemption style escape from Alcatraz. A harrowing escape so unbelievable that one of Hollywood’s greatest movies was told through their story.
From Country Living To Bank Robbery
John and his older brother Clarence were born in Georgia and their farmworker parents relocated them to Florida in the early 1940s. They appeared to live an idyllic life, spending the summers picking cherries in Michigan and showing off their swimming skills in the frigidly cold water of Lake Michigan. By the early 1950s, still in their early 20s, the men decided to make money by robbing banks and other businesses.
What happened next would change their lives forever.
The Brothers Were Imprisoned But Managed To Break Free
John and Clarence may not have killed, raped, or beaten anyone like many of Alcatraz’s other detainees but upon each capture, they managed to escape from prison. They were arrested in 1956 and quickly fled from Florida State Prison and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. After several attempts to flee Atlanta Penitentiary, the decision was made to transfer them to Alcatraz on October 21, 1960.
It didn’t take the men long to plan their escape from the maximum security island location.
A Conspiracy Unfolds Inside Alcatraz
John and Clarence quickly became friendly with several other Alcatraz detainees and soon realized they shared the same desire to escape. Frank Lee Morris, who was orphaned at a young age and had been a career criminal since 13, was involved in everything from narcotics possession to armed robbery. He was also a genius with a sky-high IQ. Like the Anglin brothers, he served time in several prisons in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. He escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary but was recaptured one year later for burglary. Morris was joined by another man, Allen West.
As they planned their escape a musical instrument was crucial for their efforts…
They Used An Accordion To Escape
The four men were serving time in adjacent cells, a fact they chose to exploit for their daring escape. Morris was the mastermind behind the plan. He told the men to spend their nights digging around their cells’ ventilation duct openings. Guards at the prison had foolishly left sawblades on prison grounds and the men acquired those blades along with spoons they stole from the commissary and a drill they made from vacuum cleaner parts. The four men hid the holes using cardboard and paint. Morris would play the accordion in order to muffle the sound of their work.
And then their escape plan got even crazier!
The Inmates Used Handmade Mannequins During Their Escape
The criminals were able to dig holes in their cells that were big enough to climb through while emerging in a utility corridor. They then climbed to the top of their building where they created a workshop to prepare their escape supplies. With guards constantly patrolling the cell block, they needed to fool their captors. They mixed together soap and toilet paper to create a papier-mâché-like substance that they sculpted into dummy heads. The men then painted the heads with supplies they stole. They even added real hair to their creations from clippings they took from the barbershop floor. The men stuffed towels and clothing under the blankets so it looked as though they were fast asleep.
Their crazy ideas for escape didn’t stop there…
The Men Made A Raft & Life Preservers Out Of Rain Coats
West was the only one of the four who was unable to escape because the ventilator grill in his cell became stuck. However, the other men were far from in the clear. The Anglins and Morris climbed to an area inside their building where they created life preservers and a rubber raft, using more than 50 raincoats they had managed to steal. They made paddles from scrap wood and the trio climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet to the ground down a vent pipe, climbed over two barbed wire fences, and inflated the raft using a concertina they stole from another inmate.
It sounds fantastical but experts have proven their escape could have worked…
Researchers Have Proven They Could Have Escaped!
In 2003, the crew from the television show MythBusters tried to determine whether people could escape from Alcatraz island using a man-made raft built using the same materials the inmates had access to. The TV stars concluded an escape was, in fact, feasible. In 2014, researchers at Delft University also tried to determine if the three men could have escaped and survived. Using a computer model, they specifically examined the timing of the escape. If the men left near midnight, the currents would have been favorable for their passage. If they left in the hours before or after 12 a.m., the currents would likely have made it difficult for them to survive.
Authorities never found evidence of their deaths and as you’ll soon learn, their family may have proven they survived.
Authorities Found Evidence Of Their Escape But Nothing Else
It’s believed the escape occurred around 10 p.m. No one knew they were gone until the following morning because their dummies made it appear as though they were asleep in their bunks. Law enforcement officials and the military spent the next 10 days searching for the escapees. They found a paddle and a wallet containing the Anglins’ personal information and mementos. Authorities also found one of their makeshift life jackets, which was deflated. However, they never found any remains or physical evidence indicating the inmates’ whereabouts.
If the men followed the advice they received from Whitey Bulger it might explain why they disappeared without a trace…
In 2014, Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger wrote a letter to the Algin’s nephew, Ken Widner, about the escapees. Bulger had met the Anglins while serving time at Alcatraz. Bulger reportedly gave John and Clarence some advice about navigating the currents in San Fransisco Bay. He also gave them some insight about life on the run. Widner explained, “He taught them that when you disappear, you have to cut all ties. He told me in a letter, ‘This is the mistake that I made.’ He told me, ‘These brothers undoubtedly had done exactly what I told them to do.’ ”
What happened next led to more questions and a big reveal…
A Letter Surfaces…
The men faced incredible odds, John and Clarence escaped the confines of the prison, dove into freezing waters and attempted to swim 1.25 miles to San Francisco. In 2013, police received a letter that read: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and in bad shape. I have cancer… Yes, we all made it that night but barely. This is no joke.”
Their family was quick to point out that there was some very enticing proof that the brothers and their escapee friend had managed to survive the harrowing prison break.
The Brothers Head To Brazil
The nephews of the Alcatraz prisoners submitted a photo to authorities in 2016 that they believe proves the brothers survived the escape. The photo reportedly shows John and Clarence in Brazil in 1975. The nephews, who live in Georgia, told a documentary crew that their uncles met up with a criminal associate who took them to the South American country. The photo was reportedly taken on a Brazilian farm that John and Clarence owned. Ex-US Marshall Art Roderick, who spent 20 years researching the escape, believes the photo was taken by family friend Fred Brizzi. A forensic expert examined John and Clarence Anglins’ mugshots and compared them to the photo of the men from Brazil, noting that it’s “very likely” they were the same men.
And That Wasn’t The Only Shocking Proof!
John & Clarence Reportedly Sent Christmas Cards To Their Sister
The Widners also have other evidence that appears to show their uncles survived. They showed authorities Christmas cards that were sent to their mother, Marie Anglin Widner. The cards were signed by Clarence and John but had no postage. Their mother received the cards for three years following the escape. As for the 2013 letter, FBI analysts checked it for DNA and fingerprints but were unable to conclusively prove that it was indeed from John Anglin.
In His Letter, John Claims His Brother & Morris Lived Long Lives After Their Escape
Is it possible that John, Clarence, and their fellow inmate Morris survived? Let’s return to that letter that was sent to a San Francisco Police department in 2013. The writer, purporting to be John, noted: “If you announce on TV that I’ll be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am.” He added that Morris “passed away” in 2008, while Clarence died in 2011. John’s nephew Ken Widner was angry that he didn’t learn about the letter until 2016.
John’s Nephews Are Mad Authorities Kept The Letter Secret
Ken told The Sun: “I believe John is still alive, I do not believe Clarence is still alive, I have no idea clue about Frank Morris. I know Frank Morris was with them in 1975. I have a pretty good idea of where they’re at… (but) that I’m not going to say.” Ken’s brother David Widner added that he thought it was “very possible” John was still alive because the inmates were “very, very smart guys” and capable of surviving the elements. David also added that he thought it was “inhumane” that authorities didn’t tell the family about the letter back in 2013.
Most Believe The Men Died In The Frigid Water
West, who was left behind, cooperated with investigators. He explained that the men planned to steal clothing and a car once they got to land. FBI investigators believed that the extremely cold water temperature and strong currents would have made it very unlikely for the inmates to reach land. Still, the case remained open for 17 years. On Dec. 31, 1979, investigators closed the case, noting that the Anglins and Morris probably died in the freezing cold water while trying to reach Angel Island. The U.S. Marshals Service never closed its investigation and still receives occasional leads about the case.
One lead even caused a forensic investigation to be launched…
Bones Found On San Francisco Shore…
While making the 2015 History channel documentary Alcatraz: Search for the Truth, the Widners allowed investigators to dig up the remains of John and Clarence’s older brother Alfred. He attempted to escape from an Alabama prison and was electrocuted. Authorities wanted access to Alfred’s DNA to compare it to bones they found on the shore of San Fransisco in 1963. Thinking the bones belonged to one of the Anglins or Morris, they conducted some tests. The DNA did not match the Anglin family, bolstering support that the brothers survived. However, the bones could belong to Morris. Since Morris has no living family members, it’s unclear if they are his.
John is unlikely to return from Brazil but he can relive his harrowing escape in a movie made popular with help from Clint Eastwood…
The 1979 Film Escape From Alcatraz Was Based On Their Story
The 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz starred Clint Eastwood, Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward as Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin. The filmmakers alluded that the escape was successful. The movie was praised by critics and is often considered one of the best films of the year. It has a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $43 million at the box office. Filmed at Alcatraz, Eastwood, Ward, and Thibeau did not use stunt doubles to escape down the prison wall and into the water. Director Don Siegel believed they had been lost in the currents on two separate occasions.
If John Is Still In Brazil, He May Never Return Home
It’s possible that John and his brother wound up in Brazil where they lived for many years. But if John is still living, he may never leave the country because Brazil may not allow him to be extradited to the United States. U.S. Marshall Roderick wants to learn how they managed to escape. He told the New York Post in 2015: “When you work these types of cases, there’s a feeling you get when stuff starts to fall into place. I’m getting this feeling now.” As for Ken and David, they want closure and the ability to bury their uncles in their family plot in Florida.
They weren’t the only men to disappear from Alcatraz…
A 1937 Escape Also Never Turned Up Any Remains
In 1937, inmates Theodore “Ted” Cole and Ralph Roe were working in a tire repair shop on Alcatraz when a thick fog entered the bay. They made a hole through a window in the shop and escaped, hiding in the fog. Using a wrench, they opened up a lock in the gate and dropped 20 feet down to the beach. Later, evidence showed the pair had planned the escape in advance but did not use a raft. Authorities believe they drowned and were swept out into the Pacific Ocean. However, no one ever found their remains, and the incident marred the prison’s reputation as being “escape proof.”
There was one verified escape from Alcatraz but the prisoner’s time as a free man didn’t last long…
Inmate John Paul Scott Was The Only Man Proven To Escape Alcatraz
On Dec. 16, 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott swam 2.7 nautical miles from the island of Alcatraz to Fort Point, which is located at the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. When his body washed up on shore, a group of teenagers found him but believed he was dead. When police arrived, they knew immediately that Scott was the escaped inmate they were seeking. They apprehended him on the same day he escaped and sent him back to Alcatraz. Scott had hypothermia and was exhausted. The identical Alcatraz–Fort Point route is used today by triathletes in two annual events, helping each year to remind us that the channel is, in fact, swimmable.