74. Did anyone ever escape from Alcatraz?
The military prison at Alcatraz was a sieve compared to the federal penitentiary,
as army bureaucratic snafus or forged paperwork freed a few military prisoners,
and several others took to the bay, sometimes successfully, in anything that
would float, including driftwood rafts they made, Army boats they stole-even large
storage containers from the kitchen.
Warden Johnston and his successors at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary were not
about to leave any boats lying around. They knew that filling up a penitentiary
with inmates who had escaped from other prisons was asking for trouble. As
Warden Johnston put it, "prisons are not pleasant places, and it is only natural
that the imprisoned men should try to get out."
In 1945, John K. Giles got away from Alcatraz, albeit briefly, in what a chagrined
Warden Johnston classified as a successful escape, but Giles was recaptured a few
miles away at Fort McDowell on Angel Island.
To be sure, there are five missing inmates-men who made it to the water, then
were neither seen nor heard from again--and that's why you can be pretty sure
that they didn't make it. None of these inmates had distinguished himself as being
capable of anything other than a life of crime-and an unsuccessful life of crime, at
that. How could they have managed to stay out of trouble--never being arrested or
fingerprinted--when they had never been able to stay out of jail for as long as six
months in their adult lives?
75. If they drowned, why were their bodies never found?
If you catch the bay when the tide is coming in, your chances of being found are
pretty good-washed up on a beach or floating off a pier in the bay. But if you catch
the bay on a strong outgoing tide, it's six miles an hour to the deep ocean.
But at least those five missing fellows made it off Alcatraz Island and into the
water. Of the 30 inmates who tried to bust out (excluding the 1946 rioters), 20
were brought back to their cells alive, four escapees were shot and killed and one
Most of the escape attempts from Alcatraz were stopped during the planning
phase. Zealous correctional officers and cellhouse snitches ended many a plot.
76. Who was the first to try to escape?
On April 27, 1936, inmate Joe Bowers was working at the incinerator. Alcatraz
burned all of its trash in an outdoor incinerator, located on a steep cliff over the
bay, the remains of which you can still see from the bottom of the recreation yard
Suddenly, Joe Bowers started to scale the fence next to the incinerator. Apparently
he didn't consider the presence of an armed correctional officer in the Road
Tower, which was situated practically right above the incinerator. The Road Tower
guard's job was to observe the incinerator when it was in operation, and he was
looking right at Bowers when Bowers made his break. The guard shouted a
warning, then shot Joe Bowers who fell to his death.
77. Were there any violent bust-outs?
Yes. There were four escape attempts that were violent.
On May 23, 1938, inmates Tom Limerick, Jimmy Lucas and Rufus Franklin
bludgeoned and killed Officer Royal Cline inside the carpentry shop. Then the trio
climbed up to the roof and rushed the Industries Building guard tower, throwing
nuts, bolts and small tools at the shatter-resistant guard enclosure.
The inmates had counted on the tower guard leaving the door to the guard
enclosure open, but as they ran toward it, they found the door closed. The
enclosure might have been shatter-resistant, but it was not bulletproof. When the
three inmates rushed him, Officer Harold Stites was able to shoot and kill Tom
Limerick, then shoot Rufus Franklin, who fell into the protective barbed wire
around the guard enclosure.
Seeing his comrades fall and guards approaching, Jimmy Lucas raised his hands
and surrendered. Jimmy Lucas and Rufus Franklin were later convicted of
murder, and each was given a term of life in prison.
Three years later, on May 21, 1941, Joe Cretzer, his brother-in-law Arnold "Pappy"
Kyle, Lloyd Barkdoll and Sam Shockley attacked and overpowered a guard in the
mat shop and tied him up. Then they captured, bound and gagged the civilian
shop superintendent, another guard and a captain of the guard.
Cretzer, Kyle, Barkdoll and Shockley also trussed up the other mat shop
inmate-workers, tying knots tight enough so that their fellow cons would appear
restrained if the escape failed, but loose enough for them to easily free themselves
and follow the other cons out if things went well.
The escapees tried drilling through the factory's barred windows with a drill they
purloined from the carpentry shop, but the drill bits couldn't cut through metal.
The captain they had captured, Paul Madigan, who would, 14 years later, become
Warden Madigan, convinced the inmates to give up.
Next, on April 13th, 1943, while working in the Alcatraz mat shop, Fred Hunter,
Harold Brest, Floyd Hamilton and James Boarman surprised, overpowered, bound
and gagged both Officer Smith and Captain Weinhold. The four inmates broke out
of a shop window, made their way to the shore and jumped into the water.
Captain Weinhold, however, managed to loosen his gag and began blowing Officer
Smith's whistle. Before long, the escapees were spotted by a tower guard who
began shooting at them in the water.
Wounded, Harold Brest gave up; then as Boarman's lifeless body was being
recovered from the bay, it slipped back into the water and was lost. Hunter was
found hiding in a small cave at the water's edge, and Hamilton was reported as
having been killed by gunfire.
Two days later, Floyd Hamilton was discovered in the same factory from which he
had escaped. Hamilton had been hiding in the shoreline cave with Fred Hunter,
waiting for the right time to begin swimming, but Hamilton had become so cold
and tired that he retraced his steps back to the factory, where he fell asleep by a
The "Battle of Alcatraz" in 1946 was certainly violent, but it wasn't classified as an
escape because nobody got out of the cellhouse. But with three armed inmates
loose inside the cellhouse for three days, it was a good example of how dangerous
it could get at Alcatraz. Read about the "Battle of Alcatraz" in the section on riots.
The final violent escape attempt was on September 29, 1958, when Clyde Johnson
and Aaron Burgett were on a two-man garbage detail, supervised by one
correctional officer. They overpowered the guard and tied him up in the bushes.
When the detail turned up missing, a search party discovered the guard.
Correctional officers searched the island while the Coast Guard searched the bay
for the two escapees. Johnson was spotted by a Coast Guardsman and recaptured,
but Burgett was missing until his decomposed body was spotted floating in the
bay two weeks later.
78. Did inmates ever escape from the Alcatraz cellhouse?
Yes. On January 13, 1939, five men broke out of the solitary confinement cells in
the old D Block. Before D Block was remodeled in 1940, the cell bars being used
were left over from the military prison and were made of soft steel-the same as
the bars on the cells you see today in Cellblock A, on the opposite side of the
cellhouse from D Block.
On this dark, winter night, five D Block inmates, Arthur "Doc" ("Dock") Barker,
Henri Young, William Martin, Dale Stamphill and Rufus McCain, cut through the
soft bars, then used a mechanical bar spreader-a tool similar to a tire jack-to break
through the bars on the D Block windows.
The escapees managed to get out of the cellhouse and make their way down the
steep cliffs to the water, pausing at a small, rocky beach beneath the Road Tower,
now known colloquially as "Barker Beach".
While the five inmates hunted for driftwood to make a raft, their empty cells in D
Block were discovered during the next count. Captain Weinhold gave the alarm
and informed the warden. The searchlights came on, the siren started wailing and
the search began. The inmates were spotted by a searchlight, and as they tried to
evade capture, shots rang out and Doc Barker was hit.
Stamphill, Young, Martin and McCain surrendered as the prison launch
approached them, and they, along with Doc Barker, were quickly returned to the
cellhouse. Ac-cording to Warden Johnston, Doc Barker held on until he got to the
hospital, before gasping out "I was a fool to try it. I'm shot all to hell", then dying.
79. What other escape attempts occurred at Alcatraz?
Between counts on December 16, 1937, Ralph Roe and Ted Cole slipped out of the
Alcatraz mat shop, which was on the ground floor of the Model Shop Building.
Ralph and Ted broke through a gate in a perimeter fence, slid down the rocks to
the water and were never seen again. Some inmates claimed that Ted Cole and
Ralph Roe floated away from the island on five-gallon oil cans.
Cole and Roe entered the cold bay with an exceptionally swift tide--about eight
miles per hour--rushing out through the Golden Gate, on a day that was so
inclement that there was very little ship traffic in San Francisco Bay. Coast Guard,
police and prison boats circled the island for hours and local police lined the shore
of San Francisco, but with the poor visibility, they couldn't spot Cole and Roe, who
were never found and who are presumed drowned.
The next escape attempt occurred on September 15, 1941. Inmate John Bayless
was on a garbage detail near the dock when he slipped away and jumped into the
water over by the powerhouse. His absence was noticed almost immediately and
he was found in the water, shivering so badly that he was taken up to the hospital
before being brought to D Block.
Subsequently, as a hearing on a legal challenge to John Bayless' conviction was
about to convene in a San Francisco courtroom, Mr. Bayless tried a drier escape.
As the presiding judge entered the courtroom, Bayless jumped over the railing and
ran for the door. An alert deputy marshal tackled Bayless to stop this
opportunistic break for freedom.
Nearly two years later, on August 7, 1943, "Terrible Ted" Walters tried to escape
from the Alcatraz laundry, which, during wartime, was being operated on
Saturdays. Walters noted that guard assignments were not able to keep up with
the overtime work schedule for inmates, and he spotted an opportunity to take
advantage of weak security coverage.
"Terrible Ted" turned up missing during an afternoon count. He was found soon
after, battered and bruised from making his way down the cliffs to the water--too
sore to try to swim away.
On July 31, 1945, John Giles, an Oregon cop-killer and convicted postal robber,
escaped from Alcatraz. Giles worked on the dock and, over a period of nearly 10
years of unloading Army laundry, Giles had managed to steal and hide various
parts of an Army uniform. On this warm July morning, having finally put a
complete sergeant's uniform together, Giles wore the Army uniform under his
As the Frank Coxe was about to leave Alcatraz, Giles took off his overalls and
joined the soldiers on the boat. His ruse lasted until an inmate head count came
up with one missing inmate. A boat was dispatched from Alcatraz to meet the
Coxe at Angel Island. Though a forged pass enabled Giles to leave the Coxe
without being detected, he was quickly spotted at Fort McDowell, recaptured and
returned to Alcatraz.
After the "Battle of Alcatraz" in 1946, the correctional officers were extra alert and
things cooled down for 10 years, until Floyd Wilson made a break for freedom on
July 23, 1956. Wilson slipped away from a work crew on the dock, took a 25-foot
length of sash cord he had hidden, and went looking for driftwood. A few hours
later, search parties found Floyd before Floyd found driftwood.
80. Did inmates really dig out of their cells, like in the movie
Escape From Alcatraz?
Yes. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and two brothers, Clarence and John Anglin,
left dummy heads on their pillows and crawled through holes they had dug
through the backs of their cells. The inmates climbed the utility corridor pipes to
the top of B Block and escaped from the cellhouse through a vent in the roof. They
climbed down a pipe on the outside wall of the cellhouse, then made their way
down to the shore next to the Alcatraz powerhouse, where they inflated rafts they
had made out of raincoats. That's where their trail ends-they are presumed to
A lot of people think this is the escape that closed the prison, but perhaps it was
the closing prison that facilitated the escape--that budget cutbacks and staffing
changes created a lax security environment at Alcatraz. For example, the escape
attempt involved months of work done by the inmates at night on the roof of the
cellblock. There had always been armed guards patrolling both of the cellhouse
gun galleries, but budget cutbacks eliminated the overnight post of a guard in the
east-end gun gallery.
Budget cutbacks also reduced scrutiny of the cellhouse roof, so no one observed
the inmates noisily knocking over a ventilator cover and scampering across the
Easing the restrictive Alcatraz rules for inmates, plus lax enforcement of the rules
that remained, also contributed to the success of the escape. Inmates were
allowed to practice playing their musical instruments in their cells, and the
escapees used this cacophony to cover up the sound of their drilling and digging.
An inmate cellhouse painting crew was able to convince the guards to allow them
to hang tarps over the tops of the cellblocks, and those tarps shielded the inmates'
late-night ceiling work from the guards and gave the escapees a place to store
their equipment. For months, cells were searched by correctional officers who did
not notice crude patch jobs covering gaping holes in the rear walls of the cells.
Warden Blackwell, who had done much to ease the tough rules at Alcatraz, wasn't
on the island during the escape. The Associate Warden, in charge of Alcatraz due
to Blackwell's absence, had come up through the ranks of the federal prison
system in Prison Industries, not in custodial work.
Certainly these inmates were clever, but they had a lot of time on their hands to
figure things out, and some chinks in the armor of any security system will show
For instance, these 1962 escapees amassed numerous raincoats for their flotation
devices. But who would have thought to institute an inventory system to check
the number of raincoats in the raincoat factory?
The inmates didn't have to be geniuses to figure out how to walk to their jobs in
the clear morning with no jacket or coat on, while being watched by the day shift
of guards, then walk back to the cellhouse on a foggy summer evening, wearing a
raincoat while being watched by a different shift of guards.
With the available time and energy the inmates had to devote to plotting their
escapes, especially with the track record these inmates had demonstrated in
getting sent to Alcatraz, cutbacks and laxity were sure to cause security problems.
At any rate, plans to close Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary were announced three
weeks after this big escape.
81. Did any Alcatraz inmates make it to San Francisco?
On December 16, 1962, as plans to close Alcatraz were being finalized, two kitchen
workers, John Paul Scott and Darl Parker, completed a long-term escape project,
using a serrated spatula and butcher's twine, made abrasive with kitchen cleanser,
to cut through bars covering windows in the kitchen basement. Scott and Parker
made their way down to the bay, where they tied inflated surgical gloves to their
bodies and entered the water.
Parker found that the bay's current kept pulling him back to Alcatraz, and he got
stranded on a small rock a short distance from the island, known as Little
Alcatraz, where searchers quickly recaptured him.
Scott experienced better luck getting away from Alcatraz Island. He found a strong
outgoing tide-too strong, as it turned out. Instead of being able to swim to San
Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, John Paul Scott was dragged by the tide clear out
to the rocks beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at Fort Point.
John Paul Scott came close to continuing out through the Golden Gate and being
swept to his watery grave. Instead, Scott washed up on the rocks under the bridge,
where he was discovered by teenagers enjoying the evening view from the Fort
Point parking lot. The inflated gloves were long gone, his clothes were torn and
disheveled, and John Paul Scott looked like he was in bad shape.
The startled teenagers alerted nearby military police, who recognized his Alcatraz
uniform and arranged for John Paul Scott to be rescued and returned to Alcatraz.
Back at Alcatraz, Scott's first stop was the hospital, since he had become
hypothermic in the cold water.