It has been 50 years since Alcatraz closed, but the prison on the island in San Francisco Bay still looms large in our national mythology. The Rock was where the justice system’s worst offenders were sent: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Whitey Bulgar and Birdman were just a few of its notable inmates. Many others refused to conform to prison standards elsewhere and found themselves on the island.
To escape from Alcatraz was not for the faint-hearted. Over the 29 years that it was open, there were just 14 escape attempts, involving 36 inmates.
Beyond getting out of the bars, it is a 1.5 mile swim to the mainland for an inmate unable to sneak aboard the one guarded ferry on and off the island. The water of the San Francisco Bay is an average 55 degrees and filled with sharks and rocks. The current is strong and unpredictable. Of all the attempts, only six people managed to escape.
On Dec. 16, 1937, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe filed the bars on their window during a bad storm and disappeared into the bay. It is likely that they drowned, but they are officially missing and presumed dead as no bodies were found.
On July 31, 1945, John Giles dressed in the uniform of an Army sergeant that he had stolen over time from Army laundry that was sent to the island for cleaning. He boarded an Army launch for shore, but was discovered missing during head count. After stepping foot on Angel Island, also in the San Francisco Bay, Giles was sent back to Alcatraz.
The most famous escape from Alcatraz was made into a film based on the events of June 11, 1962, when Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin slipped through holes they dug in their cells, wiggled out through ventilation shafts to the roof, shimmied down a drainpipe to the water and used prison raincoats to fashion a raft and life vests. The three were never seen or heard from again, and no bodies were recovered, leading many to believe they had survived the escape. They are still on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
San Francisco Genealogy
John Paul Scott alone managed to swim to shore after his escape, only to be found unconscious from hypothermia and returned to his cell shortly after.