There were, however, prisoners who decided not to wait for a transfer to another prison. Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and two drowned. Two of the men who were caught were later executed in the gas chamber at the California State Prison at San Quentin for their role in the death of a correctional officer during the famous May 2-4, 1946, "Battle of Alcatraz" escape attempt.
Whether or not anyone succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz depends on the definition of "successful escape." Is it getting out of the cellhouse, reaching the water, making it to land, or reaching land and not getting caught? Officially, no one ever succeeded in escaping from Alcatraz, although to this day there are five prisoners listed as "missing and presumed drowned."
Following are summaries of the 14 escape attempts:
#1. April 27, 1936 - While working his job burning trash at the incinerator, Joe Bowers began climbing up and over the chain link fence at the island's edge. After refusing orders to climb back down, Bowers was shot by a correctional officer stationed in the West road guard tower, then fell about 50-100 feet to the shore below. He died from his injuries.
#2. December 16, 1937 - While working in the mat shop in the model industries building, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe had, over a period of time, filed their way through the flat iron bars on a window. After climbing through the window, they made their way down to the water's edge and disappeared into San Francisco Bay. This attempt occurred during a bad storm and the Bay's currents were especially fast and strong - most people believe Roe and Cole were swept out to sea. Officially, they are listed missing and presumed dead.
#3. May 23, 1938 - While at work in the woodworking shop in the model industries building, Thomas Limerick, Jimmy Lucas, and Rufus Franklin attacked unarmed correctional officer Royal Cline with a hammer (Cline died from his injuries). The three then climbed to the roof in an attempt to disarm the correctional officer in the roof tower. The officer, Harold Stites, shot Limerick and Franklin. Limerick died from his injuries. Lucas and Franklin received life sentences for Cline's murder.
#4. January 13, 1939 - Arthur "Doc" Barker, Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, and Rufus McCain escaped from the isolation unit in the cellhouse by sawing through the flat iron cell bars and bending tool-proof bars on a window. They then made their way down to the water's edge. Correctional officers found the men at the shoreline on the west side of the island. Martin, Young, and McCain surrendered, while Barker and Stamphill were shot when they refused to surrender. Barker died from his injuries.
#5. May 21, 1941 - Joe Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle, and Lloyd Barkdoll took several correctional officers hostage while working in the industries area. The officers, including Paul Madigan (who later became Alcatraz's third warden), were able to convince the four that they could not escape and they surrendered.
#6. September 15, 1941 - While on garbage detail, John Bayless attempted to escape. He gave up shortly after entering the cold water of San Francisco Bay. Later, while appearing in Federal court in San Francisco, Bayless tried, again unsuccessfully, to escape from the courtroom.
#7. April 14, 1943 - James Boarman, Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton, and Fred Hunter took two officers hostage while at work in the industries area. The four climbed out a window and made their way down to the water's edge. One of the hostages was able to alert other officers to the escape and shots were fired at Boarman, Brest, and Hamilton, who were swimming away from the island. Hunter and Brest were both apprehended. Boarman was hit by gunfire and sank below the water before officers were able to reach him; his body was never recovered. Hamilton was initially presumed drowned. However, after hiding out for 2 days in a small shoreline cave, Hamilton made his way back up to the industries area, where he was discovered by correctional officers.
#8. August 7, 1943 - Huron "Ted" Walters disappeared from the prison laundry building. He was caught at the shoreline, before he could even attempt to enter San Francisco Bay.
#9. July 31, 1945 - In one of the most ingenious attempts, John Giles was able to take advantage of his job working at the loading dock, where he unloaded army laundry sent to the island to be cleaned - over time, he stole an entire army uniform. Dressed in the uniform, Giles calmly walked aboard an army launch to what he thought was freedom. He was discovered missing almost immediately. Unfortunately for Giles, the launch was headed for Angel Island, not San Francisco as Giles hoped. As Giles set foot on Angel Island, he was met by correctional officers who returned him to Alcatraz.
#10. May 2-4, 1946 - Known as the "Battle of Alcatraz" and the "Alcatraz Blastout," six prisoners were able to overpower cellhouse officers and gain access to weapons and cellhouse keys - in effect, taking control of the cellhouse. Their plan began to fall apart when the inmates found they did not have the key to unlock the recreation yard door. Shortly thereafter, prison officials discovered the escape attempt. Instead of giving up, Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes decided to fight it out. Eventually Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes returned to their cells, but not before the officers taken hostage were shot at point-blank range by Cretzer (encouraged by Shockley and Thompson). One officer, William Miller, died from his injuries. A second officer, Harold Stites (who stopped the third escape attempt), was shot and killed attempting to regain control of the cellhouse. About 18 officers were injured during the escape attempt. The U.S. Marines were eventually called out to assist, and on May 4, the escape attempt ended with the discovery of the bodies of Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard. Shockley, Thompson, and Carnes stood trial for the death of the officers; Shockley and Thompson received the death penalty and were executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in December 1948. Carnes, age 19, received a second life sentence.
#11. July 23, 1956 - Floyd Wilson disappeared from his job at the dock. After hiding for several hours among large rocks along the shoreline, he was discovered and surrendered.
#12. September 29, 1958 - While working on the garbage detail, Aaron Burgett and Clyde Johnson overpowered a correctional officer and attempted to swim from the island. Johnson was caught in the water, but Burgett disappeared. An intensive search turned up nothing. Burgett's body was found floating in the Bay two weeks late
#13. June 11, 1962 - Made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin vanished from their cells and were never seen again. A fourth man, Allen West, believed by some people to have been the mastermind, was also involved; however, he was still in his cell the next morning when the escape was discovered.
An investigation revealed an intricate escape plot that involved homemade drills to enlarge vent holes, false wall segments, and realistic dummy heads (complete with human hair) placed in the beds so the inmates would not be missed during nighttime counts. The three men exited through vent holes located in the rear wall of their cell - they had enlargened the vent holes and made false vent/wall segments to conceal their work. Behind the rear wall of the cells is a utility corridor that had locked steel doors at either end. The three men climbed the utility pipes to the top of the cellblock, and gained access to the roof through an air vent (the men had previously bent the iron bars that blocked the air vent). They then climbed down a drainpipe on the northern end of the cellhouse and made their way to the water. It is believed they left from the northeast side of the island near the powerhouse/quartermaster building.
They used prison-issued raincoats to make crude life vests and a pontoon-type raft to assist in their swim. A cellhouse search turned up the drills, heads, wall segments, and other tools, while the water search found two life vests (one in the bay, the other outside the Golden Gate), oars, and letters and photographs belonging to the Anglins that had been carefully wrapped to be watertight. But no sign of the men was found. Several weeks later a man's body dressed in blue clothing similar to the prison uniform was found a short distance up the coast from San Francisco, but the body was too badly deteriorated to be identified.
#14. December 16, 1962 - John Paul Scott and Darl Parker bent the bars of a kitchen window in the cellhouse basement, climbed out, and made their way down to the water. Parker was discovered on a small outcropping of rock a short distance from the island. Scott attempted to swim towards San Francisco, but the currents began pulling him out to sea. He was found by several teenagers on the rocks near Fort Point (beneath the Golden Gate Bridge) and was taken to the military hospital at the Presidio Army base suffering from shock and hypothermia before being returned to Alcatraz.
One of the many myths about Alcatraz is that it was impossible to survive a swim from the island to the mainland because of sharks. In fact, there are no "man-eating" sharks in San Francisco Bay, only small bottom-feeding sharks. The main obstacles were the cold temperature (averaging 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit), the strong currents, and the distance to shore (at least 1-1/4 miles). Prior to the Federal institution opening in 1934, a teenage girl swam to the island to prove it was possible. The fitness guru Jack LaLanne once swam to the island pulling a rowboat, and several years ago two 10-year-old children also made the swim.
If a person is well-trained and -conditioned, it is possible to survive the cold waters and fast currents. However, for prisoners - who had no control over their diet, no weightlifting or physical training (other than situps and pushups), and no knowledge of high and low tides - the odds for success were slim.
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