Top Stories


On This Day: 3 Escape from Alcatraz

June 11, 2009 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin made the only successful escape ever from the legendary maximum-security prison in San Francisco Bay.

“The Tablespoon Trio”

None of the three escapees in the cleverly planned breakout were ever found, and they are the only prisoners to ever escape from Alcatraz. Over the prison’s history, fourteen other escape attempts were made, according to the National Park Service.

Alcatraz, an island in California’s San Francisco Bay, prided itself in the 1850’s as “the most heavily fortified military site on the West Coast, ” reported the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In 1933 it changed from a U.S. military reservation to a new maximum-security federal prison, later known as “The Rock.”

In the weeks leading up to the Morris-Anglin escape, the accomplices crafted homemade drills, enlarged the vent holes in their cell walls and gathered raincoats to fashion life-vests and rafts for crossing the bay, according to the National Park Service.

A Time magazine article from 1962 described the meticulous planning that went into the escape. Having stolen spoons at meal time, at nighttime, between bed checks “[they] gouged the crumbly plaster and concrete from the vent. During the days, they kept the holes covered with cardboard grills that they had painted.”

On the night of June 11, the three convicts left behind life-like dummy heads in their beds to fool the nighttime guards, the National Park Service reported. They then squeezed their way through air vents, climbed utility pipes, and scaled down a drainpipe to make their way to the water’s edge, where they disappeared into the fog.

Less than a year after the escape, the prison was shut down. According to the FBI, none of the three escapees was ever found, and the investigation officially closed in 1979.

Prison authorities believe the trio died while crossing San Francisco Bay’s freezing waters. But recently uncovered evidence suggests an accomplice may have helped the three, who studied Spanish in prison, to travel to Mexico, the New York Times reported.

Background: Alcatraz in history; 14 failed escape attempts

According to the National Park Service, fourteen escape attempts, involving a total of thirty-six prisoners, were made at Alcatraz Island. The National Park Service provides information on four of these attempts as well as photographs of the tools and dummies used in the 1962 escape. The site also includes a comprehensive overview of the military climate of the time, conditions within the federal prison, and information about the former Indian occupants. Slideshows cover topics ranging from the Alcatraz Revolt Report to inmate dining menus.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons explains that the definition of a "successful escape" is amorphous. Adding, "Officially, no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day there are five prisoners listed as "missing and presumed drowned." Those "presumed drowned" include all three escapees from 1962 and two others, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe, involved in a 1937 attempt.

Before becoming a legendary federal prison, Alcatraz Island was home to Fort Alcatraz, a defense reserve that guarded the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The California State Military Museum’s Web site offers historic photos, maps and information about Alcatraz as a military post in the 1870’s.

Opinion & Analysis: Why The Rock closed down; the search for escapees

Why did the prison close? After twenty-nine years of operation, Alcatraz Prison closed on March 21, 1963. The Federal Bureau of Prisons speculates that, “it did not close because of the disappearance of Morris and the Anglins (the decision to close the prison was made long before the three disappeared), but because the institution was too expensive to continue operating.”

The FBI, Coast Guard and Bureau of Prisons gathered clues, like “a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner” in order to piece together “the ingenious escape plan.” As stated on the FBI's Web site, “we officially closed our case on Dec. 31, 1979, and turned over responsibility to the U.S. Marshals Service, which continues to investigate in the unlikely event the trio is still alive.”

Later Developments: New evidence, the trio’s story on film

In an interview for Fox’s Nov. 30, 1993, episode of “America’s Most Wanted,” former inmate Thomas Kent revealed what he said was previously undisclosed information about the 1962 escapee’s plans, causing police to briefly renew their investigation. Kent said “the three men studied Spanish while in prison and arranged for Clarence Anglin’s girlfriend to meet them on shore and drive them to Mexico.” After hearing this new information, Marshal’s spokesman Dave Branham acknowledged, “we think there is a possibility they are alive.”

Don Siegel’s 1979 movie “Escape from Alcatraz” tells “the true story of Frank Morris, a convict who was sent to Alcatraz, the most feared prison in the world,” explained IMDB. The film, starring Clint Eastwood as Morris, provides “a dramatization of the one possibly successful escape from the notorious prison.”

Related Topic: Visiting Alcatraz Island

Now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz Island is today one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions. provides tourism and recreation information about Alcatraz Island including hours of operation, directions and phone numbers to purchase tickets in advance. It also contains a section for teachers who want to organize a field trip to The Rock.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines