ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

He escaped from Alcatraz, but did he escape to North Dakota?

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the most famous prison break in history.  Evidence is now piling up that the three men survived and one even lived in Fargo.

Cell of Alcatraz Escapee John Anglin (1).jpg
John Anglin escaped from Alcatraz Prison in 1962 by making a plaster head of his likeness and putting it in his bed to fool the guards. Evidence in the last few years suggests he fled to North Dakota in the years after the escape.
FBI
We are part of The Trust Project.

FARGO — It’s become the stuff of legend - a tale of three men, taking on a seemingly insurmountable task. Breaking out of the unbreakable, chiseling, climbing, swimming and just surviving their way into folk history. And now, North Dakota has become part of the narrative.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first the background of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the history of U.S. prisons.

The story begins on a lonely island in the middle of San Francisco Bay named Alcatraz, home to the ultimate maximum security prison. Dubbed “The Rock,” it’s a forbidding place, a fortress surrounded on all sides by the choppy, frigid waters of the Pacific.

alcatraz 1962.jfif
Aerial view of Alcatraz Island, home of the infamous maximum security prison and the most famous escape in history, January, 1932.
FBI

If the isolation weren’t enough, a 1930 redesign of the prison (which had held prisoners since the Civil War) included tougher iron bars, more strategically placed guard towers and more strict rules, including a dozen inmate counts a day. Still some tried to escape the inescapable, but failed miserably.

According to the FBI, from 1934 to the close of the prison in 1963, 36 men tried to escape 14 different times. All were either captured or killed. All except three: Frank Morris, and brothers John Anglin and Clarence Anglin

ADVERTISEMENT

Alcatraz guys
The Alcatraz escapees; from left John Anglin, Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris
FBI

Their story became the inspiration for the 1979 hit movie starring Clint Eastwood, “Escape from Alcatraz.”

The Escape

On June 12, 1962, guards conducting their early morning bed checks found something very wrong in the cells of Morris and the Anglin brothers.

clarence anglin head bed.jfif
This is what the guards saw the morning of June 12, 1962 in the cell of Clarence Anglin. He had laid a plaster head on this pillow and ruffled upon the blankets to make it look like he was still there. But he wasn't.
FBI

The men were not in their beds. Instead, peeking out from the covers, resting upon the pillows were cleverly built plaster heads with painted faces topped with real human hair — realistic enough to fool the guards who passed by in the dark the previous night.

morris head chipped nose.jfif
The plaster head found in Morris' bed. The chip on the nose came when the guard knocked the head off the pillow trying to wake up Morris, only to find Morris had escaped.
FBI

In the back of their cells, guards found ventilator grills removed. The men had apparently chipped away at the walls, removed the grill and climbed through an unguarded corridor to freedom.

ALCATRAZ VENTILATION.jfif
The inmates chipped away at the wall surrounding the ventilation grate and were able to climb to an unguarded corridor to freedom.
FBI

They were all gone. The prison went into lockdown and an intensive search began.

With the nighttime escape Morris and the Anglin brothers had a head start, but the odds were still against them. While experienced swimmers have successfully made the two-mile swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco, the men were attempting the crossing in the pitch black night with strong nighttime tides and a water temperature of 54 degrees.

Still in the first two days, authorities did not find their bodies. Eventually,they did find a packet of the men’s letters sealed in rubber, as well as paddle-like pieces of wood, bits of a rubber innertube and a homemade life vest washed up on a nearby beach. But no evidence of loss of life. In fact, some speculated the men successfully made the crossing in a homemade raft or life jackets and purposefully left the items to mislead police they had drowned. (Morris is said to have had a high IQ and was the mastermind of the plan.)

ADVERTISEMENT

ALCATRAZ PADDLE.jfif
A makeshift paddle was found washed on nearby Angel Island.
FBI

Even so, in 1979, the same year the Eastwood movie was released, the FBI closed the case, concluding that the men died. They cited the following reasons:

  • The treacherous conditions they would have faced were daunting, despite the fact all three men knew how to swim.
  • In the days surrounding the escape there were no reports of stolen clothes or cars on the mainland which would have been needed to blend into society.
  • The Morris and Anglin families didn’t seem to have the financial means to provide any support to the men.
  • There was no evidence in the coming years that they were alive. As career criminals would they really have stayed out of trouble and undetected for so long? 

But did the evidence come after 1979?

Maybe. Thanks in part to the popular movie and the fact that the real-life story was so mysterious and compelling, people kept looking for the men and the truth. Among the people who want answers are members of the Anglin family. Ken and David Widner, nephews to John and Clarence Anglin, set up the Anglin Brothers Online Museum, which is full of information about the Anglins and the chances that they might have survived. Here is some of the evidence collected over the years indicating that the men might have survived.

The “t’s” have it

On the Anglin Brothers Museum website, handwriting analysis shows letters written before and after the escape appear to be very similar. A letter written by Clarence Anglin while at Alcatraz in 1961 shows the unusual way he wrote his "t's" with the horizontal top line sometimes not touching the vertical stroke. A postcard supposedly written by the three men and addressed to the Alcatraz warden following the escape, which read "Ha, Ha! We made it!" showed a similar "t."

Deathbed confessions

At least twice over the years, dying men have confessed that they knew more than they were letting on about the case. In a 2016 instance one man says he and an accomplice helped Morris and the Anglins escape via boat, but then later killed and buried them in Seattle. The story sounds far-fetched, but an off-duty police officer reportedly saw a boat that night matching the man’s description. However, no bodies were ever found in Seattle. Also, the Anglin’s oldest brother is reported to have reassured his sister while on his deathbed, that she needn’t worry anymore about John and Clarence as they were alive and well.

Were they, at one point, alive and well in Brazil?

In a History Channel documentary , the Anglin family said that a family friend had told them he had run into John and Clarence in Brazil in 1975. He presented them with a picture of two middle-aged men on a farm. U.S. marshals were skeptical, but a forensic expert in the documentary said he believed it was “highly likely” that it was John and Clarence. And as late as 2020 some facial recognition software seemed to back him up.

So what about North Dakota?

In 2013, another piece of mail points to the possibility that not only did the three men survive the escape, but that one was still alive. In the letter, John Anglin writes that he was 83 years old and sick with cancer. He wanted treatment as long as he wouldn’t be incarcerated for more than one year. He wrote that they all survived, but barely. He was the last one left as Frank had died in 2005 and Clarence in 2011.

He mentioned that he spent time in Seattle after his escape and was in Southern California at that moment, but for a period between 1990 and 2005 lived in both Minot and Fargo, North Dakota, but hated the cold and left.

ADVERTISEMENT

But was John Anglin really here?

Not surprisingly, research shows no record of a John Anglin in Fargo or Minot, during the time period mentioned in the letter. However, it is likely if he had been in the two cities he would have been using a different name. Records on Ancestry.com show John as well as Clarence and Frank Morris all with a death date of June 11, 1962, the night of the escape.(Based on the birth dates found on Ancestry, if the men were still alive, Morris would be 95, John Anglin, 91 and Clarence Anglin, 90.)

If John were here, there is a chance he could have been working in farming. According to the Anglin Brothers website, the 14 Anglin children grew up in a rural community in Florida and “all the kids worked in the family farming trade and were expected to contribute in their off hours from school.”

They said John and Clarence turned to petty crimes to help make up for their meager farm income and that is what eventually led them to Alcatraz.

Still a mystery

While the FBI officially closed the case in 1979, the agency turned it over to the U.S. Marshals Service “in the unlikely event the trio is still alive.”

If you have information, including whether you might have remembered seeing John Anglin in North Dakota, contact Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Dyke of the Northern District of California at 415-436-7677.

The Anglin family, including nephews Ken and David Widner (whom The Forum was unable to reach for this report), write on their website: “If you have information, insight, theories, contacts, or just words of encouragement that can help solve the mysteries that are posited in these pages, the family welcomes you.” Their contact information can be found on their website: www.anglinbrothersmuseum.com.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
What to read next
Minnesota in the 1930s. While St. Paul was considered a crook’s haven for mobsters to lay low, the infamous Al Capone was known to wander up North for rest and respite. Some point to St. Paul law enforcement as the key instigators in making Minnesota mob-friendly.
Exclusive
Wes and Linda Julson haven't yet given up on the hope of finding their daughter, Michelle "Shelly" Julson, who went missing from Bismarck on Aug. 2, 1994, they tell the Dakota Spotlight podcast, which is reinvestigating the cold case aided by the police file on Shelly's disappearance.
It's been called one of the "scariest," "most haunted" and "creepiest" houses in the Midwest, but what is it really like inside the Villisca Ax Murder House?
Breaking News
A jury in Hibbing reached the verdict Tuesday in the case of Michael Carbo Jr., more than 36 years after Nancy Daugherty was raped and killed.