Haunted History: Escape from Alcatraz
Updated: Aug 8
In January of 2020 I went to San Francisco for the first time. One of my friends was directing Little Shop of Horrors out there, which was wonderful, and we got to see a dear friend who lives out there. All in all it was a fantastic trip, but one of the highlights for sure was visiting Alcatraz.
Alcatraz is a small island 1.25 miles off the shore of San Francisco in the bay. It held prisoners since the Civil War but was re-fortified as a Maximum Security Prison in the 1930s. During active years the island facilitated a lighthouse, a federal prison, military prison and military fort. Now it’s a great museum and historical site! Though the lighthouse is actually the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast. Very cool.
You take a ferry out to the island, which is a wonderful experience because you get a great view of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and some other bridges too!
One of the main reasons Alcatraz is so notorious is the extreme conditions associated with it. Of course it’s on a tiny island, so the wind is intense. The rough, icy water surrounding it makes it hard to escape *more on that later* and after touring the facility it’s clear that there wasn’t sufficient heating and insolation in the building. Alcatraz boasted some of the most dangerous prisoners, like Al Capone. You can read more about this strange place here.
But what I really came here to talk about is the infamous escape from Alcatraz. Let’s. Get. Into. It.
Between it’s reopening in 1934 and when it closed in the 1960s over 30 men tried to escape 14 times from the prison. All of these potential escapees were caught or killed, with the exception of three men. The famous escape attempt happened in 1962. John Anglin, Clarence Anglin (brothers) and Frank Morris were found missing after a routine morning check. In order to help trick the guards, the men left insanely creepy fake heads in their beds. These were made of plaster, paint and real human hair. (See photo of the ACTUAL head they used below.)
You can see the hole too.
The escapees used old tools (not sure how they came across a drill and a saw, but hey good for them) to loosen their air vents and widen the holes in the concrete. They were all able to slip out of their rooms through these widened vents. After they slipped out, they used cardboard and suitcases to block the holes from view. They climbed up pipes in a utility corridor and found their way to the roof of the building. You can take a look down this corridor if you visit the prison.
The men shimmied down a chimney, hopped a fence and made it to the water’s edge under the cover of night. They had a raft made of raincoats. And that’s it. That is where the evidence ends. It is still unknown if these men made it to shore in San Francisco, if they escaped to Angel Island (also in the Bay) or if they
drowned in the harsh waters.
There is a myth busters episode on this (check out part one here.) Even just looking at the comment section on that video, there seems to be a lot of debate. Some claim that youngsters can make the swim between SF and Alcatraz. Others claim that the conditions would have been too rough at the time. We don’t know for sure, but I choose to believe that they survived and headed south.