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Kris Williams: Alcatraz - The Great Escape

This month marks the 50thanniversary of one of the most mysterious prison breaks in history. On June 11, 1962, four men - Frank Morris, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Allen West - took part in what became known as The Great Escape from Alcatraz. Having had the chance to work at “The Rock,” I can’t help but remember my amazement at the lengths they went to escape, as well as remember the experiences I had there while roaming the halls, hunting for spirits of criminals who were believed to still haunt the grounds.

Originally, Alcatraz was built as a military fortification for the purpose of protecting the San Francisco Bay. During the Civil War it doubled as a military fort as well as a military prison where they jailed confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Following the Civil War, actions were taken to update Alcatraz’s outdated defenses until they decided to switch gears, turning the fort strictly into a military prison. Alcatraz was considered the perfect location for a prison due to the isolation created by the cold waters of the bay and its strong, hazardous currents.

My fascination with Alcatraz came with my personal interest in studying true crime, and from my love as a kid for the movie “Murder in the First.” Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1933 to 1963, and was used to hold the worst of the worst. If you caused enough problems at other prisons, or repeatedly tried to escape, you would eventually find yourself at the inescapable jail. Mickey Cohen, Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud aka “The Birdman, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and - a familiar face from Boston - James “Whitey” Bulger were just some of the notorious residents here.

In the years it served as a federal prison there were a total of 14 escape attempts made by 36 men. While I was on the island I was surprised to learn that of those 36, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned.

But there were five men listed as missing.

Since there was never any evidence found that any of these men made it to shore, they were assumed to have drowned and washed out to sea in the strong currents. Three of these five missing men took part in The Great Escape. Today, people still wonder if Frank, John and Clarence did indeed drown or if they were successful in their escape.

 Frank Morris had a record that included drug possession and armed robbery. However, what landed him in Alcatraz were the several attempts he had made to escape several other prisons. It was during Frank’s stay at an Atlanta prison that he met brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The Anglin brothers were bank robbers who, like Frank, were transferred there after several attempts to escape other prisons. The fourth man involved in The Great Escape was Allen West. Allen had met John at a Florida prison, and was in Alcatraz serving his second term.

Together these four men carried out their fairly hilarious and creative attempt at freedom. Using crudely made hand tools out of objects they secretly lifted from around the jail, they spent months making everything they needed for their escape. The men took turns digging through their individual cell’s ventilation system, made rafts and life preservers out of 50 raincoats and glue, while using soap and toilet paper to make paper machete dummies they painted to look lifelike (they even went so far as adding hair they got from the prison barbershop). It was basically one big arts-and-crafts party made up of hardened criminals.

Once the boys were done with their cutting, pasting and finger painting, Frank, John and Clarence squeezed through the hole in the wall of their cell. Allen was left behind since he failed to finish digging in time. Once inside the prison walls they climbed 30 feet of plumbing before reaching the roof. They then secretly made their way across the roof to climb another 50 feet down the outside wall of the prison. Once outside, they planned to use their handmade raft and life preservers to get to the mainland. By the time Allen finally broke through the wall of his cell and climbed to the roof, Frank, John and Clarence were gone leaving him no choice but to return to his cell.

Over the years there have been many books, movies and documentaries that revolved around The Great Escape. In the end they all had their own theories as to what may have happened to Frank, John and Clarence. But again, no bodies were ever found. However several items were recovered from the water and the shores of nearby Angel Island, which just added to the speculation.

My visit to Alcatraz was due to the paranormal claims that now surround the island. People reported experiences that included noises of crying, moaning and sounds of a banjo (that was believed to played by a ghostly Al Capone); cold spots and sightings of prisoner apparitions and military personnel were also reported. One of the craziest claims was of a prisoner who told a guard he was being killed by a creature with glowing red eyes in his cell. The following morning that same prisoner was found strangled to death in his cell.

While there, I did have a few strange experiences, however what unsettled me the most had nothing to do with the paranormal. In the early morning hours I stood in one of the cells that looked out over the bay. The whole prison was cold and dark - an experience shared by many of the prison’s former occupants. The only sounds in the prison were carried over the bay from the city. I could hear people laughing, cars beeping and live music playing. I could even see faint headlights pass in the distance. I remember thinking, “talk about a daily reminder that life is going on with out you …” It was actually a pretty horrible, lonely feeling.

These men that were locked up at Alcatraz probably deserved their punishment, but I can’t blame them for wanting to get out.

For anyone captivated by Alcatraz and their extreme efforts, the question will always remain: Were three of them successful?

By Kris WilliamsTwitter: @KrisWilliams81