It was exactly 50 years ago, on a cool June 11th night in San Francisco Bay, when three men went off “The Rock” and emblazoned their names into the richest lore in the world – they escaped from Alcatraz and were never found. To most people that won’t seem like much but to every boy with a little Houdini in his blood it was the coolest thing since Paul Newman ate 50 hard-boiled eggs in the never-to-be-forgotten movie “Cool Hand Luke.”
I’ve always been fascinated by Alcatraz, learning about the fabled prison surrounded by the bay’s rip currents back when I was still wearing short pants. Some years ago, when I was in San Francisco writing about whatever, I caught a cab down to the wharf one morning and was near-destroyed when I learned there was an eight-day “waiting list” for a ticket to tour what is now the No.
1 attraction run by the National Parks Service.
Forlorn, I walked into a bar and chatted up a waitress, who promptly called me a “hayseed” (or whatever they call you) and told me all I had to do was buy a half-day ticket on the Grayline Tour, take the Alcatraz pass out of the packet and toss the rest. Viola, in 30 minutes I was bundled up against the misty wind, riding in a pitching prison boat out to “The Rock,” just like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and other such notables had also once been obliged to do.
Today when you arrive at the crusty prison, you are given a cassette recorder that you hang around your neck, headphones so you won’t disturb others, and told to walk to a blue line, just like the convicts once did, and press the start button. There, the voices of former guards and inmates direct your steps in a way that nothing can compare. It’s fabulous and it hooks you for life on the history of the most famous lock-up the world has ever known.
It also introduces you to a wizard of a con named Frank Lee Morris who, on June 11, 1962, masterminded what some believe is the only successful escape in the history of the prison. That’s right, 50 years ago Frank and two other bank robbers, the Anglin brothers, made their getaway and – as of today – have never been seen or heard of since.The Feds launched a massive manhunt, with boats and dogs and helicopters and even some Army troops, and all they found was a raft ingeniously made out of rubber raincoats on Angel Island, about two miles north of “The Rock” and about a mile swim from the mainland of Marin County, California. The “official” story was that the men “probably” drowned and were swept out to sea but the better theory is that Frank Lee’s dame was nervously waiting in a car and promptly whisked the trio to Mexico.
The truth is we’ll never know. Clint Eastwood made a movie about the daring escape and reams have been written but the fact none of the three were ever found, and footprints were seen by those in the posse when they found the raft on the island, lends to the belief that maybe, just maybe.
For the record, Alcatraz was not much more than a lighthouse back in 1868. Oh, they had a Civil War prison on the island, since the cold water, swift currents and hungry sharks deterred anyone from leaving, and in 1934 it finally became an impregnable federal prison, housing the likes of such dandies as Doc Barker, Creepy Karpis, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, Choctaw Carnes, Whitey Bulger and Bumpy Johnson.
For what it’s worth, Creepy did the most time of any prisoner on Alcatraz – 26 years. His fingerprints had been surgically removed by an underworld doctor and he is said to have gotten in a fight almost every day on “The Rock.” When Alcatraz was finally closed, he was sent to McNeil Island prison in Washington State and actually played a little guitar with a punk named Charles Manson, which is a trick for a guy with no prints.
Robert Kennedy, back when he was attorney general, finally cited the enormous cost of running the place for so few offenders and, while he was woefully underestimating the aura it held, he closed Alcatraz Federal Prison in 1963 to the chagrin of millions like me. Yet, in the 29 years it held sway as America’s toughest prison, just 41 men tried to escape Alcatraz. Of the daring, 26 were captured and seven more – including Ma Barker’s son, Doc – were shot dead. Three drowned and two more were never found but easily believed to be dead due to the sharks and the hypothermia.That leaves us Frank Lee Morris, Clarence Anglin and his younger brother John. Frank Lee was an orphan out of Washington, D.C. but reportedly had an IQ of 133. He was an accomplished genius and is believed to have masterminded the getaway. Heck, he even played his accordion while his accomplices were stealthily chipped through the concrete walls. That’s style, I say.
The Anglin brothers were from Donalsonville, Ga., down near the Florida line, and were acknowledged “bad actors.” After they knocked over a bank in Columbia, Ala., they tried to escape, were sent to Alcatraz, and fell into cahoots with Frank Lee. Other convicts were involved – Allen West used too much glue covering a hole in his escape vent and couldn’t get it pried off – but the others didn’t get snitched out.
So – imagine this -- if, just if, Frank Lee Morris and the Anglin boys are still alive today, they are each in their 80s and still tight-lipped. They are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of one night in June when they accomplished what no man before nor since ever did – escape from Alcatraz. Why is it that I just adore capers like that?