The Great Escape

The Great Escape – A Foreword By Michael Esslinger

On the night of June 11, 1962, the Anglin Brothers along with Frank Morris escaped from what was considered America’s most secure prison and entered the murky waters of history. For decades, many have speculated about the Anglin Brothers and their path into crime and prison. Today they are considered by many as folk heroes; their exploits romanticized in movies and documentaries, but behind the tough looking prison photos were three brothers who had endured tough hardships throughout their childhood.

The brothers and their criminal paths were largely embellished by media. The Anglin family has now made available to the public many of their personal photos and family letters. They give insight to the men and their thoughts while in prison.

On January 17, 1958, using toy pistols and without any intent to harm, the three brothers robbed the Bank of Columbia in Alabama, and made off with approximately $19,000 dollars in cash and bonds. They were captured four days later in Ohio by the FBI, and almost all of the funds were recovered. All three brothers pled guilty, with Clarence and Alfred receiving 15 year state sentences, and John receiving 10. The federal courts, despite pleas from the NAACP, ignored potential conflicts of a double jeopardy trial by imposing secondary federal sentences for crimes already tried by the State of Alabama.  All three were sent to federal prison and almost immediately John and Clarence began plotting their escape.  John attempted to escape from Lewisburg and then was transferred to Leavenworth for safer custody in January, 1960. Once together, the two brothers attempted to escape by concealing Clarence in a large shipping container intended for bakery goods that were made for other institutions. Clarence was immediately captured and both men were tried for the escape and shipped to Alcatraz; America’s most secure and escape-proof prison…

$19,000 in cash and bonds

Captured 4 days later

Sentenced to 15 Years

AZ-Aerial-1934When Alcatraz opened as a federal prison in 1934, it was considered America’s toughest and most secure prison in the United States. It was believed to be inescapable, and up until the escape of Morris and the Anglins, the government had touted Alcatraz as “break proof.”  Many had tried before them, but for nearly three decades, it was believed no one had escaped alive. The Rock was a veteran of holding the most infamous criminals known to prisons. “The Rock” had held captives since the Civil War and had stripped away power from the most powerful crime lords, solidifying its reputation as the world’s most secure prison. Alcatraz boasted many famous residents and dangerous public enemies like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, John Paul Chase, Doc Barker, Alvin Karpis, and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. It was the Rock’s forbidding location, surrounded by the cold, rough waters of the Pacific that provided the highest level of security to the once island fortress. As the FBI once wrote in a public statement: “A series of strategically positioned guard towers, strict rules, and a dozen checks a day of the prisoners; escaping Alcatraz is near impossible.”


The morning of the escape was one of the happiest moments of my life. I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. When the frantic guards realized that Morris and the brothers had escaped, the cheers were so loud that it could be heard for miles! It was a brilliant move on their part. As far as I’m concerned, it was the greatest escape in the history of the U.S., and achieved under the most extreme security measures. I never considered Morris or the brothers as dangerous people. Frankie and the Anglins were all exceptional guys… They never hurt anyone, but paid a hefty price with years of slow time in prison. Their plan of escape was not that of a “Do or Die” plot… In regard to the brothers, they were a credit to their families. Clean living and adventurous. That’s how I remember them. They were quiet and fixated on one thing – to leave Alcatraz.

James Whitey Bulger

Former Alcatraz Prison Inmate


The FBI chronicled a detailed summary of the escape, but only offered an official and carefully vetted version.  They described the in a press statement:

Dummy HeadsOn June 12, 1962, the routine early morning bed check turned out to be anything but. Three convicts were not in their cells: John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris. In their beds were cleverly built dummy heads made of plaster, flesh-tone paint, and real human hair that apparently fooled the night guards. The prison went into lock down, and an intensive search began.

az-trioWe were notified immediately and asked to help. Our office in San Francisco set leads for offices nationwide to check for any records on the missing prisoners and on their previous escape attempts (all three had made them). We also interviewed relatives of the men and compiled all their identification records and asked boat operators in the Bay to be on the lookout for debris. Within two days, a packet of letters sealed in rubber and related to the men was recovered. Later, some paddle-like pieces of wood and bits of rubber inner tube were found in the water. A homemade life-vest was also discovered washed up on Cronkite Beach, but extensive searches did not turn up any other items in the area.

As the days went by, the FBI, the Coast Guard, Bureau of Prison authorities, and others began to find more evidence and piece together the ingenious escape plan. We were aided by a fourth plotter who didn’t make it out of his cell in time and began providing us with information.

The group had begun laying plans the previous December when one of them came across some old saw blades. Using crude tools—including a homemade drill made from the motor of a broken vacuum cleaner—the plotters each loosened the air vents at the back of their cells by painstakingly drilling closely spaced holes around the cover so the entire section of the wall could be removed. Once through, they hid the holes with whatever they could—a suitcase, a piece of cardboard, etc.


74-26295-40_Photo 03
74-26295-40_Photo 08
74-26295-40_Photo 12
Behind the cells was a common, unguarded utility corridor. They made their way down this corridor and climbed to the roof of their cell block inside the building, where they set up a secret workshop. There, taking turns keeping watch for the guards in the evening before the last count (see the crude “periscope” they constructed for the lookouts), they used a variety of stolen and donated materials to build and hide what they needed to escape. More than 50 raincoats that they stole or gathered were turned into makeshift life preservers and a 6×14 foot rubber raft, the seams carefully stitched together and “vulcanized” by the hot steam pipes in the prison (the idea came from magazines that were found in the prisoners’ cells). They also built wooden paddles and converted a musical instrument into a tool to inflate the raft. At the same time, they were looking for a way out of the building.

The ceiling was a good 30 feet high, but using a network of pipes they climbed up and eventually pried open the ventilator at the top of the shaft. They kept it in place temporarily by fashioning a fake bolt out of soap.

escapearticleOn the evening of June 11, they were ready to go. The prison informant, though, did not have his ventilator grill completely removed and was left behind. The three others got into the corridor, gathered their gear, climbed up and out through the ventilator, and got on to the prison roof. Then, they shimmied down the bakery smoke stack at the rear of the cell house, climbed over the fence, and snuck to the northeast shore of the island and launched their raft.

What happened next remains a mystery… Did they make it across the Bay, get to Angel Island, and then cross Raccoon Strait into Marin County? Or did the wind and waves get the better of them?

Plenty of people have gone to great lengths to prove that the men COULD have survived, but the question remains: Did they?

Deep in our family archives we came across a lost recording of Fred Brizzi, a childhood friend of the brothers and a former convicted drug smuggler. It was confirmed through court records that Brizzi was known to traffic narcotics out of South America. 

Brothers-Brazil-EFA-PhotoBrizzi brought to the family information that he had met with brothers in Brazil, who offered not only their stories on how they escaped from Alcatraz, but also photographic proof that he had met the brothers. The story is well chronicled in the History Channel documentary ALCATRAZ; Search for the Truth and is available both on demand at Amazon and iTunes.

Everyone knows how they escaped from Alcatraz, but the more intriguing story remains as to what really happened once they got off the island? Did they make it?  The famed escape continues to endure as one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.