How Three Guys Escaped From Alcatraz On 'Stuff You Should Know'

On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh and Chuck tell us about the most successful escape attempt from the notorious Alcatraz prison: Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, J.W. and Clarence, on June 11, 1962. Though the Bureau of Prisons and the FBI closed the case, saying they drowned in the San Francisco Bay, there’s some compelling evidence that they actually made it to shore safely. The daring, intelligence, and intricacy of their plans – which included building drills, life rafts, paddles, and dummies of themselves out of stuff they found around the prison – turned them into folk heroes and even inspired a Clint Eastwood movie based on their story. The guys tell us all about the plans, the fallout, and the one guy who got left behind.

Frank Morris was 35 at the time and had been a criminal since he was 13; the Anglin Brothers were 30 and 29, and had also been stealing for a long time. None of them were violent – the Anglins used a toy gun in one of their robberies – but they were smart. So when they were all transferred to Alcatraz in 1960, they began to plot a way out. It would take a lot of cunning, because Alcatraz wasn’t just a prison; it was an island in the San Francisco Bay. First, they would need to escape from their individual cells, then from the building itself. After that, they had to get over the wall, topped with barbed wire, surrounding the prison. Then they had to cross over a mile of freezing cold, tumultuous waters to shore. They started to collect things from around the prison – a set of clippers and a bunch of hair from the prison barber shop, a broken vacuum cleaner motor, 50 raincoats donated by fellow prisoners, huge amounts of nuts and bolts – and set their plan into motion. 

After months of painstaking work, the conspirators (except for one) did it: They escaped from Alcatraz. That much is certain, because authorities found part of an oar, a wallet wrapped in plastic, and most of an inflatable raft (made from the aforementioned raincoats) on nearby Angel Island. No bodies were discovered, but they were never found alive, either. In 1979, the FBI finally closed the case, saying the men had probably drowned in the Bay, but the U.S. Marshals took it over and kept it open. There’s compelling evidence on both sides, and the guys have their own theories, too. Enjoy this fun and fascinating prison break mystery on this episode of Stuff You Should Know.

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