Since 1859, when Alcatraz was a military prison to when it became a federal super max penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, attempts were made to escape The Rock. After walking through the cellhouse & hearing the audio tour, you can sincerely feel the isolation of the cold prison cells. You can begin to understand the motivation behind these desperate escape attempts… In the words of former inmate Jim Quillen, prisoner #AZ586, ”Nothing could blot out the knowledge of what and where you were, or the certainty that this was all that life held for you in the future. Man was never intended to live as a caged animal; I often speculated as to whether life was worth living under these conditions.”
Commandant Colonel G. Maury Cralle’s famous response to the rumour of a planned mass escape in 1926 was “Go ahead, swim!’ Many a desperate man reconsidered escape when thinking of the frigid 58 degree waters & strong 6 to 8 mph currents of San Francisco Bay.
In the movie Escape from Alcatraz, one famous line “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they send you to us.” sums up the role of The Rock. There was one guard for every three inmates & 13 official head counts in each 24 hour period. Another excellent quote regarding the necessity of Alcatraz also came from former prisoner Jim Quillen (in his book Alcatraz From Inside) “The institution was there for the purpose of proving to unruly prisoners that they had reached the ultimate termination of their undisciplined way of life.”
A total of 34 men tried to escape from1934 – 1963, in 14 separate official attempts. Five of those men were never seen or heard from again, and are presumed to have drowned. Two inmates tried to escape twice.
• April 27, 1936 Joseph Bowers didn’t get far – he climbed the fence in full view of a guard; he was shot & killed
• December 16, 1937 Ralph Roe & Theodore Cole sawed through a window bar, squeezed through & were never seen again
• May 23, 1938 James Lucas, Thomas Limerick & Rufus Franklin beat Officer Royal Cline to death with a hammer stolen from the furniture shop. A guard in the tower killed Limerick & wounded Franklin. Lucas was captured.
• January 13, 1939 Arthur “Doc” Barker, Dale Stamphill, Rufus McCain, William Martin & Henry Young sawed through window bars in D Block, made it to the water’s edge, but Barker was fatally wounded & the others were captured.
• May 21, 1941 Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Arnold Kyle & Lloyd Barkdoll overpowered guards but gave up after unsuccessfully trying to saw through the window bars.
• September 15, 1941 John Bayless made a one-man escape attempt when he slipped away before garbage detail but he was spotted in the water & brought back.
• April 14, 1943 Floyd Hamilton, Harold Brest, Fred Hunter & James Boarman jumped guards & broke through a rear window. All four were spotted swimming. Boarman was fatally wounded, Brest & Hunter were picked up by the prison launch & Hamilton was found 2 days later, hiding in a cave.
• August 7, 1943 Ted Walters sneaked out of the laundry & climbed over the fence. He was found entering the bay with 2 large cans tied around his waist for buoyancy.
• July 31, 1945 John Giles had collected an entire Army uniform during eight years of working on the dock. He stripped off the coveralls that concealed the uniform & walked on to the Army launch. A head count taken on the boat revealed the extra man.
• May 2, 1946 This bloody attempt, known as the Battle of Alcatraz, raged for three days when six inmates – Bernard Coy, Joseph Cretzer, Sam Shockley, Marvin Hubbard, Miran Thompson & Clarence Carnes made a break for it. They overpowered several guards, captured weapons, took over the cell house, but were foiled by not being able to get the key to the exterior door. Guards William Miller & Harold Stites, inmates Coy, Cretzer & Hubbard were killed. Shockley & Thompson were executed for their roles in this attempt.
• July 23, 1956 Floyd Wilson disappeared from the dock crew & hid in a crevice in the rocks, working his way along the sea wall, eluding search parties for 12 hours before being discovered.
• September 29, 1958 After tying a guard to a tree, Clyde Johnson & Aaron Burgett ran from their garbage detail to the shoreline. After 2 hours, Johnson was found clinging to the sea wall. Burgett was missing for 13 days before his body was discovered in the bay.
• June 11, 1962 Frank Morris & brothers Clarence & John Anglin escaped from their cells after enlarging their air vents by digging with spoons. Dummy heads were left in their beds. They climbed to the top of the cellblock & on to the roof along a ventilation shaft. They climbed down a cast iron stovepipe, entered the water with flotation devices made from raincoats & were never seen again.
• December 16, 1962 This marked the last escape attempt & the only known successful swim from The Rock to the mainland. John Paul Scott & Darl Parker sawed through bars in a basement room under the kitchen, inflated gloves then shoved those into their clothes for buoyancy, jumped in the bay & swam. Parker gave up & turned back. Scott was found clinging to rocks near the Golden Gate Bridge, too exhausted to pull himself out of the water.