Frequently Asked Questions

Did anyone ever escape from Alcatraz?

Only one man ever succeeded in swimming all the way to shore on Alcatraz: in 1962, John Paul Scott washed up on the rocks at Fort Point. He was so tired from the swim through the frigid waters of the Golden Gate that the boys who found him thought he was an unsuccessful suicide attempt from the overhanging Golden Gate Bridge and called for help. Police apprehended the exhausted swimmer within minutes of his landfall.

John Giles made it farther off the Rock and in better condition than any man. In 1945, he collected a complete Technical Sargeant's uniform, put it on, and got aboard an Army boat which he thought was going to take him to the Presidio, on the San Francisco mainland. The boat headed for Fort McDowell on Angel Island, instead. The Army also counted the people on the boat. When they discovered they had an extra man, they radioed back to Alcatraz. The Bureau of Prisons sent a speedboat which made it to Angel Island before the Army boat. As Giles came down the gangplank, he saw Captain Phillip Bergen waiting to take him back home.

One man who successfully escaped Alcatraz custody for a time was the counterfeiter John Standig. On the way back from a trial in 1935, Standig jumped off a railroad train and into a stream near Richmond, California. He eluded recapture for ten days. Standig later went crazy in the Alcatraz dungeons and was sent to Springfield, Missouri.

Lots of people want to believe that Morris and the Anglins (1962) or Cole and Roe (1937) made it. A few facts need to be remembered when evaluating claims that they did:
  1. Both escape attempts left from the west end of the island, right where the currents converge and form the worst undertow. Both groups chose just after high tide for the time of their escape, which is when the undertow is the worst. Most professional swimmers begin from the east side of the island where there is no undertow.

  2. Of all the men who tried to swim off Alcatraz, only one body was recovered (Aaron Burgett in 1958). One of those who drowned and was never seen again was James Boarman, who tried to escape with Fred Hunter, Harold Brest, and Floyd Hamilton in 1943. Guards found the men in the water beneath the Model Industries Building (where Cole and Roe had attempted to swim away in 1937). They shot Boarman. Even though the young convict had trained very hard by playing handball with his friends (including Jim Quillen), he sank like a rock right before the eyes of the guards and the prisoners. Boarman disappeared for good, only a few feet off the Rock.

  3. Prison folklore had it that the waters around Alcatraz were infested by sharks. Some told of a shark named "Bruce" which the Bureau of Prisons had bred with only one fin so that it would swim continually around the island. The sharks off Alcatraz are mostly leopard sharks, which are not man eaters, but four to six foot long scavengers. Those drawn down by the undertow may well have ended up, however, not only as a meal for these small sharks but also for bat rays, crabs, and other local sea life. This may explain why only one body ever floated up back up to the surface.

  4. Professional swimmers remind us that it is one thing for a person in peak condition to make the swim and quite another for a man in average condition to attempt it. As you go, the water tends to pull your feet down. Between nature and their own bodies, Morris, the Anglins, Cole and Roe did not stand a chance.

  5. The Anglins and Morris left plenty of traces that they didn't make it. A wallet containing money and important phone numbers belonging to one of the Anglin brothers was found on a beach. Surveillance of the relatives and friends of the missing prisoners never turned up any contact. There was a Coast Guard report, after the Morris and Anglin escape, of three bodies in some kind of uniform being seen by a fisherman off Bolinas (outside the Golden Gate -- where bodies would logically have been sucked by the tide.)

  6. Remember that the one man who made it to shore was so exhausted that he was readilly recaptured. Prisoners in those days had few chances to exercise.

  7. Security on Alcatraz was extremely tight, so it was difficult, if not impossible to arrange for outside help. For example:
    • Visits were restricted to members of the immediate family.
    • All visitors (including FBI men who came to interview the prisoners) went through a metal detector which prevented them from bringing guns or knives onto the Rock. The detectors were so sensitive that Al Capone's mother set them off with a metal stay in her corset. Alert guards called one of the wives to conduct a strip search of the elderly woman.
    • Conversations between prisoners and visitors were monitored personally by guards who stood next to the prisoners as they spoke with their families.
    • Visitors could not pass notes or gifts to the inmates. The sound holes in the visiting area were offset so that not even a rolled dollar bill could get through.
    • All mail coming in and going out was censored. Letters were retyped just in case someone tried to write a secret message on the paper. (Or soak it in opium so that the prisoner could chew on it!)

  8. Finally, Alvin Karpis revealed in his 1980 memoir On the Rock that he'd been serving as lookout on the day when Cole and Roe made their swim. There was a heavy fog and also floodwaters running through the Golden Gate from recent storms in the San Joaquin Valley which had completely isolated many communities for days. Cole and Roe got into the water and started to swim. Within a minute or two, Karpis said, he say their heads disappear as they were pulled under. He and his fellow lookout Joe Clark only told a few close friends what they'd witnessed. The media, in the meantime, reported several sightings of the pair for years following their deaths.

Despite all this evidence, many people still believe that someone escaped. Many of the stories which were told about Cole and Roe were recycled and updated when Morris and the Anglins disappeared in 1962. In 1943, the San Francisco Examiner reported that John Paul Chase was receiving post cards from two men who escaped and disappeared in 1937, namely Ted Cole and Ralph Roe. These came from an undisclosed South American location. Prisoners believed that Warden Johnston received a postcard from the two men every year. No firm proof for any of these allegations ever appeared. The FBI closed the Cole and Roe case in 1967. They, like Morris and the Anglins, are presumed dead.

In the thirty five years since the Morris/Anglin escape and the sixty years since the Cole/Roe escape, there have been far more sightings of Elvis than any of these men. I do not believe they made it. I will, of course, retract this all the day any of these men turn themselves in. Don't watch the papers for this. I don't think it will happen.

For more information on escapes from Alcatraz, follow this link.