The letter begins simply: “My name is John Anglin. I escape [sic] from Alcatraz in June 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris,” it reads. “Yes we all made it that night but barely!” But despite its simple beginnings, the letter is extraordinary — because it might shed light on the only successful escape attempt that was ever made from the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.
Along with his brother Clarence and fellow inmate Frank Morris, John Anglin broke out of Alcatraz in June of 1962 — the second to last escape attempt ever made from the prison, which shut down the following year in 1963. The fate of the three men has remained unknown for over half a century, so this letter could be big news, indeed. The letter was sent to the Richmond station of the San Francisco Police Department in 2013, reports CBS News, but had not hitherto been made public; recently, though, San Francisco Bay Area CBS station KPIX 5 acquired it from an anonymous source — and now it’s sparking all sorts of theories and speculation.
According to History.com, the island that later became known as Alcatraz was first mapped in 1775 by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named it La Isla de los Alcatraces — the Island of the Pelicans. It fell under use of the U.S. military beginning in the 1850s, at which point a fortress and a lighthouse were built on it; however, although it was originally meant as a defensive base, by the latter part of the decade, it had become a military prison. In 1933, the U.S. Justice Department took over, changing Alcatraz from a military prison to a federal one meant for particularly dangerous prisoners. It reopened as a maximum-security facility on July 1, 1934.
Fourteen attempted escapes occurred during Alcatraz’s history operating as a maximum-security prison — or at least, 14 that we know of — but only one was successful, according to the FBI. On June 11 (or possibly early in the morning on June 12), 1962, bank robbers John and Clarence Anglin and career criminal Frank Morris escaped through ventilation duct openings in their cells, which they had spent quite some time widening using improvised tools, into an unguarded utility corridor. From there, they made it to the roof of the cell block, where they had stashed the rest of their supplies — including life preservers and a rubber raft they had fashioned from over 50 raincoats. They used a concertina to inflate the raft. In the final moments of their escape, they climbed down a smoke stack, made it over the fence, and then launched the raft from the northeast shore of the island.
And that was the last we heard of them.
That’s why we consider this particular escape to be the only successful one; 12 of the others resulted in the inmates either being recaptured or killed, and while an additional attempt — the one made on Dec. 16, 1937 by Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe — ended up with the inmates simply missing, it’s highly likely that they drowned in the San Francisco Bay, according to Alcatraz History. In 1979, the FBI closed the case on the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, stating according to the Washington Post, “For the 17 years we worked on the case, no credible evidence emerged to suggest the men were still alive, either in the U.S. or overseas” — but the possibility still remained ever since that they had, in fact, made it out of Alcatraz alive.
Indeed, in 2015, a History Channel special posited that the inmates had survived, citing three potential leads: Christmas cards that had been sent to the Anglins' mother signed with their names dated several years after their disappearance; a photo taken in 1970 purported to depict the Anglins; and a failure to match the DNA of a set of bones that had washed up on the shores of San Francisco in 1963 with the DNA of another surviving Anglin brother. And now, if the letter which has resurfaced were to be determined to be genuine, we'd have much more substantial proof that the escapees had survived.
The letter states that Frank Morris died in 2008, while Clarence Anglin died in 2011, according to KPIX 5. Its writer said that after the escape, he lived in Seattle for several years, then North Dakota; at the time of the letter’s writing, he said he lived in Southern California. He also said that he was 83 years old (he'd be around 87 or 88 now) and “in bad shape”; in fact, he had cancer. Accordingly, he tried to strike a deal: He’d turn himself in if he could be guaranteed a lenient sentence and medical attention. “If you announce on TV that I will be promised to first go to jail for no more than a year and get medical attention, I will write back to let you know exactly where I am. This is no joke,” the letter reads.
However, CBS News reports that we don’t know whether or not the letter is authentic. The FBI lab tested for fingerprints, DNA, and handwriting — but the results were inconclusive. Said CBS security analyst Jeff Harp, who worked with the FBI for 21 years but did not work on the Anglin/Morris escape, “So that means yes, and it means no, so this leaves everything in limbo.”
What’s more, the U.S. Marshals Service — which is currently the only agency investigating the case — remains skeptical. “There is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would have changed their lifestyle and became completely law-abiding citizens after this escape,” the agency said in a statement released to KPIX 5. Additionally, National Park Service Ranger John Cantwell told KPIX 5, “The Federal Bureau of Prisons say that they drowned once they got off of Alcatraz and their bodies were swept out to the Pacific Ocean — end of story.”
What is sort of interesting, though, is this: The Anglin brothers were David Widner’s uncles — and although Widner told CBS News in a follow-up report, “I really haven’t come to a conclusion whether I believe that it’s John reaching out or not,” he also noted that for a number of years following the escape, his grandmother would randomly receive roses. Could John or Clarence Anglin have been sending them? We have no way of knowing — but it’s curious all the same.
Did John and Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris survive? The jury’s still out on that one. Either way, though, the letter is a fascinating new chapter in the ongoing mystery.
Did I mention that Alcatraz is thought to be one of the most haunted locations in America? Because... Yeah. It is.
Have fun, kids.