Alcatraz, a lonely island in the waters of San Francisco Bay, was home to some of America’s most infamous criminals.


Known as ‘The Rock,’ this fortress – first used to hold military offenders during the American Civil War – was believed to be an unbreakable prison, but that myth was shattered on the night of 11 June 1962.

In a bold and meticulously planned escape, three inmates – Frank Lee Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin – vanished from their cells, leaving behind a mystery that keeps collective imaginations captive today.

Who were the Alcatraz escapees?

Frank Morris was known for his exceptional intelligence, reportedly boasting an IQ of 133. By his late teens, he had begun to accrue a criminal record for offenses ranging from narcotics possession to armed robbery.

His repeated attempts to escape from various prisons earned him a transfer to Alcatraz in 1960, where the federal government hoped he would be contained.

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The Anglin brothers hailed from a large, impoverished family of seasonal farmworkers in Donalsonville, Georgia.

They embarked on a spree of bank robberies throughout the Midwest and South in the 1950s, but were eventually captured after robbing the Columbia Savings Bank in Alabama in 1958, and sentenced to long terms in federal prison.

After multiple escape attempts from various other facilities, the brothers were deemed too high a risk for less secure prisons and transferred separately to Alcatraz in 1960 and 1961 respectively.

For both Morris and the Anglins, all seasoned escapees, Alcatraz represented a formidable challenge – and, when they found themselves in adjacent cells in the prison’s B-Block, a potential opportunity. This coincidental arrangement allowed them to communicate and collaborate on what would become one of the most infamous escape plans in American history.

A police mug shot of Clarence Anglin.
A police mug shot of Clarence Anglin. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The Alcatraz escape plan

The escape plan simultaneously showcased the ingenuity of the prisoners and exposed surprising undetected flaws in Alcatraz's security.

Over many months across 1961 and 1962, Morris and the Anglin brothers crafted tools from everyday objects.

Spoons became cutting instruments, raincoats were turned into a makeshift raft, and plaster – created from a mix of concrete dust and other scavenged materials – was used to create lifelike dummy heads to fool the night guards.

Guards performed headcounts regularly, but the dim lighting and barred cells allowed for clever deception. The dummy heads, complete with real hair stolen from the prison barbershop, were a simple but effective ruse.

Late on the night of 11 June or early morning of 12 June, the escapees enacted their plan. Exactly when the inmates made their move is still uncertain, but at some point between the final headcount and the early morning, they used their makeshift tools to remove ventilation grates in their cells. They then crawled through a network of utility corridors and service pipes until they emerged on the prison roof.

But, even from there, their journey became no less dangerous.

They climbed down a smoke stack and navigated the steep cliffs that led to the waters of the San Francisco bay.

Waiting for them was a raft they had inflated using a stolen accordion-like concertina. And, this is where their story ends: with no certainty about what happened to them.

Alcatraz prison
Alcatraz Penitentiary located in the San Francisco Bay In 1946. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

The aftermath of the escape

Despite an extensive search by authorities, no clear trace of the escapees was ever found. Pieces of their makeshift raft were discovered on or near Angel Island, suggesting they tried to reach the mainland. The FBI concluded that they likely drowned in the bay’s waters, though no bodies have been found to provide concrete evidence.

Naturally, speculation persists that they might have survived.

The escape from Alcatraz sent shockwaves through the American penal system. The prison, once thought unassailable, was shown to have vulnerabilities. While the escape didn’t result in the closure of Alcatraz, it certainly tarnished its reputation as an inescapable fortress. The escapees had proven that it could be beaten.

Before 1962, there had been numerous escape attempts from Alcatraz, all unsuccessful.

Decades on, our understanding of the escape has changed over time. Initially, the media sensationalised the event, portraying the escapees as cunning criminals who outwitted the system. But, in the years since, a more nuanced image has emerged, acknowledging the harsh realities of life at Alcatraz.


The escape is no longer simply seen as a daring act of showmanship, but also potentially as an act of desperation in the search of freedom. Did the men die in the bay, or did they manage to start new lives somewhere else? It is one of several such compelling mysteries that might never have a definitive answer.


James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview