Only 3 People Have Ever Escaped Alcatraz—Here’s How

Read the story behind "one of the greatest prison escapes in American history."

Hands of the girl in handcuffs. arrest. a crime. law. execution of sentencesgerasimov_foto_174/Shutterstock

Imagine you have committed a crime and are now locked away in Alcatraz, the nation’s most secure prison. How would you spend your time? Would you write letters to your family and friends? Read books, like this prisoner whose discovery of a typo helped him get released? Or would you plot your eventual escape?

Unfortunately, the odds would be stacked against you for that last option. Only one group has managed to successfully break out of Alcatraz in its 30-year history. Out of 36 men who attempted to escape, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, and the others drowned.

But three men—brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris—might have pulled off what CBS News calls “one of the greatest prison escapes in American history.” (Check out more of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.)

The three prisoners planned their big break for several months, setting up a secret workshop where they built the tools they needed to escape. Then, on June 11, 1962, they put their plan into action.

That night, John, Clarence, and Frank stuffed their beds with paper maché heads and squeezed through their cell’s vents, crawling up the pipes to the prison roof. From there, they slid down a smokestack to the ground and launched their homemade raft—made of more than 50 stolen raincoats—into the Pacific Ocean. Not once did the prison’s security system detect them.

“You got to give it to them, they broke the system,” John Cantwell, a National Park Service Park Ranger, told CBS News.

Here’s the catch, though: No one knows what happened to the escapees. When pieces of the raft and paddles washed up near the island, many assumed that the men were dead. Alcatraz officials have suggested they drowned or died of hypothermia.

But now, more than 50 years later, the Anglin family has provided evidence that the men might have survived. For starters, Clarence and John Anglin’s mother received Christmas cards signed with their names for three years following the prison break. The family also released a photo of the brothers that might have been taken in the 1970s, 20 years after their escape.

What’s more, John Anglin allegedly wrote a letter to the San Francisco Police in 2013. While all three prisoners survived the escape, he was the only one still living, the writer claimed. However, FBI officials doubt the letter is real; a handwriting analysis of the letter came back “inconclusive,” they report.

It looks like the escapees’ fate will remain the stuff of legend for now. On the other hand, it might be one of the crazy conspiracy theories that actually turned out to be true. Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

[Sources: CBS News, New York PostWashington Post]

Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.