A military installation is found underneath Alcatraz

Alcatraz Penitentiary is one of the best-known prisons in American history. Built in the center of San Francisco Bay, this now-defunct institution offers prison tours by day and ghost hunting excursions by night.

And now, thanks to a group of archaeologists from Binghamton University, another mystery has been revealed. Using laser technology, the team was able to explore the ground beneath the prison yard, and what they discovered could well change the way we view Alcatraz forever.

What do you think they found?

The discovery of the island

Before we reveal what the Binghamton University team found, let’s go back to 1775, when Alcatraz Island was discovered. It is the Spanish Juan Manuel de Ayala who claims to have discovered it first and calls it “The Island of the Gannets”.

Thanks to these writings, we get the name of Alcatraz. The island has an area of 22 hectares with two prominent points, one at 75 meters above sea level and the other at 70 meters. Alcatraz prison is visible from the shore from these two poles.

the first owner

Before it became a world-renowned penitentiary, Alcatraz Island was owned by Julian Workman. He owned a ranch in 1846 when Alta California Governor Pio Pico gave him the island. As part of his deal, Workman agreed to build a lighthouse.

The worker was never able to keep his promise. It’s not that he can’t, it’s that we never gave him a chance. Less than a year after his arrival, California Governor John C. Fremont purchased Alcatraz for $5,000.

military surrender

In 1850, two years after the sale of California to the United States, President Millard Fillmore ordered Alcatraz Island returned to the military. This act transformed the island into a military base, where it could be used as a defense to protect the bay.

The rightful owner of the land, John C. Fremont, expected the United States to pay him a large sum for the island. His investment was about to pay big dividends. Was this really the case?

an unsuccessful fight

Unfortunately for Fremont, the United States took over the land, arguing that the agreement it had made to buy it was invalid. Fremont lost the island and received no money in return.

In an attempt to obtain compensation for his loss, Fremont began a lengthy legal battle. Along with his fellow ranchers, he fought the lawsuit in a case that lasted into the 1890s. When a final decision was made, Fremont was said to have no rights to the land.

A three year wait

With Alcatraz Island firmly in the hands of the United States, it took another three years for anything to happen. In 1853 construction of a new fort finally began under the supervision of Private Zealous B. Tower.

Although construction took a few years to begin, once it started the construction process had to be quick. In 1848, the gold rush began, and thousands flocked to San Francisco! In a few years, the population increased from 300 to 30,000 inhabitants.

bay defense

With so many people rushing in so quickly, building a defensive fortress was a priority. The military not only planned to fortify Alcatraz, but also intended to build a fortress on Fort Point, a neighboring island.

The Alcatraz project was finished first, which is a good thing. It ended up endowed with the strongest fortifications. At the time, no one knew that it would become one of the most famous prisons in the world.

the ideal place

As if blessed from heaven, San Francisco Bay offered the perfect island on which to build a defensive stronghold. The engineers couldn’t believe their incredible luck. In 1852, the Pacific Coast Council of Engineers reported:

“Nature appears to have provided a tremendous resource for this military objective in the form of Alcatraz Island. Located near the entrance, directly in the center of the inner harbor, it covers its entire space with its inner fire positioned between Angel Island to the north, San Francisco to the south, and outer bases to the west.”

Use what nature has given us

Charged with building Fort Alcatraz as quickly as possible, Private Zealous B. Tower used what nature had given him. With his men, the crew took rocks from the island to build the fort walls along its shoreline.

Once the walls were in place, the weapons could be placed behind them, around the perimeter of the island. These weapons were placed to the west, south and north of the natural walls. There were also 111 weapons on the island, preparing you to take on anything.

Armed to the teeth

As if the cannons, called columbiades, weren’t enough, Fort Alcatraz was also equipped with caponieres, stone towers that rose from the shoreline. Anyone attempting to seize control of the Alcatraz fort would have faced a degree of difficulty unprecedented at the time.

A year after the start of construction, the citadel was finished. There were barracks located next to the fort’s lighthouse. The lighthouse was also the first signaling system placed on the Pacific coast of the United States.

lighthouse defense

The mission of the citadel was to defend not only the island but also the lighthouse. To ensure success against attacks, it was built to accommodate 100 soldiers and expand to 200 if necessary. The windows of the barracks were designed for the soldiers to shoot.

And if the fort was overrun, there were enough provisions in the citadel for those trapped inside to survive for four months. During this time, we can assume that reinforcements would arrive or that the citadel would be occupied.

The end of the procedure

The fortification of Alcatraz Island, which was to be rapid, was not completed until 1859. Many reasons led to this situation, but the most important was a shortage of skilled workers.

When the fort was built, people flocked to San Francisco in droves, but not to build a fort. They wanted to find gold and get rich quick. This meant that finding people to work on the island was much easier said than done.

An opportunity never seized

During the civil war, 350 men were stationed at the Alcatraz fort. His time there was unproductive. The fort was never attacked during the war. There was a documented conspiracy by the Confederate army, but the assault never took place.

In 1863, three men were rounded up and arrested as part of the plot to attack Fort Alcatraz. They were sentenced to ten years in prison, sentences they have not served. Abraham Lincoln pardoned all three men when the war ended.

the first prisoners

Today, of course, Alcatraz Island is best known for its penitentiary, and less for its military past. It is interesting to note that the two stories overlap. Alcatraz’s first prisoners were imprisoned soldiers in 1859.

During the Civil War, the fort was also used to imprison Confederate soldiers. Although the Alcatraz fort was not built to be a prison, the future of the island was never in doubt. It was only a matter of time before this future became the present.

The “ideal” prison

Alcatraz Penitentiary began holding civilian prisoners in 1934. Due to the topography of the island and its coastline, it was the ideal location for a prison. Anyone who tried to escape found freedom outside the walls impossible.

The waters around Alcatraz are almost frozen and it is difficult to swim against the ocean currents. In total, there were 14 attempts to escape from prison. None of the people involved made it to shore.

A booming population

Before holding civilian prisoners, Alcatraz held prisoners of war. In 1867, a prison was built at the fort. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the prison had a population of 450 people.

Over the next 15 years, the prison grew with the addition of large concrete cells. This cell block is the largest structure still intact on the island. Finally, in 1933, the military part of the fortress was closed and the entire operation was entrusted to the Bureau of Prisons.

James A. Johnston was an ornery goalie

Alcatraz Penitentiary welcomed its first group of prisoners on August 11, 1934. This group was “special” and had been chosen by the authorities to make the trip to the island. They had caused disturbances in their old jails and needed to change locations.

Alcatraz’s first porter, James A. Johnston, kept watch over these men. He was known for his strict discipline and was the perfect man for this job. Life would not be easy for him, but he had a team of 155 guards to help keep the peace.

some familiar faces

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary was fully operational, it became home to some of the most notorious criminals in the country. Al Capone and George Kelly are two of the most recognizable names, as well as a man labeled “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.

This man was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he is one of four criminals to have been given this title. He is also the only one of the four taken alive by the authorities. He had a very special status.


As we have said, there have been a total of 14 escape attempts from 36 prisoners on the island. None of them managed to officially reach the shore. Six were buried, 23 were taken alive, and two drowned. As for the other five, they are listed as “disappeared and presumed drowned.”

This means that if there is no evidence that someone managed to escape from Alcatraz, it is possible. However, given the conditions prevailing on the island, it is unlikely that they ever made it to shore.

An immortalized escape attempt

Of all the escape attempts, 13 is the most interesting. It involved three men: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. They planned a complicated escape and managed to reach the ocean.

The attempt was immortalized on film in 1979 in Escape from Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood. But the story does not end there. In 2013, a letter “written by John Anglin” was handed over to police. Is it possible that these three men have survived the icy currents of the San Francisco Bay?

What does this all mean?

After Alcatraz Penitentiary closed, it became a major tourist attraction. Tourism, of course, was not what interested the Binghamton University team led by Timothy de Smet on the island. They wanted to know what was below the surface.

To look below the surface, the archaeological team used lasers to pierce the layers of concrete. Thanks to this amazing technology, they were able to see underground without causing any real damage to this very profitable and busy place.


Using their laser technology, the team was able to see military-era structures on the island that were still intact. Passing under the structures, we were able to see even more, what the team described as “a bomb-proof gallery of earth.”

This tunnel was still in perfect condition in 2019 and included ventilation shafts so that travelers could move around comfortably. These structures were part of the military fortress and had been lost to time until De Smet and his team “discovered” them.

The importance of discovery

Timothy de Smet didn’t know what to expect when his team began using laser beams to search beneath the island. He had expected to find lost structures, but nothing in such good shape. He was very surprised.

“We looked for non-invasive and non-destructive means to verify whether historical archaeological remains were found in various parts of the island, such as the playground of the infamous penitentiary. We didn’t know what to expect,” she admitted. This is not the only reason why de Smet’s discovery was so important.

The future of archeology

Such an important discovery could pave the way for a new type of non-invasive archaeological prospecting. Perhaps more than anything, the greatest discovery made by de Smet and his team.

According to de Smet, the future of archeology is more promising than ever. “With modern remote-sensing methods like these, we can answer basic archaeological research questions about human behavior, social organization, and cultural change over time without having to conduct costly and destructive excavations.” 

Is it possible that a fugitive from Alcatraz is still alive?

Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay, California, operated for 29 years, from 1934 to 1963. During this period, 36 prisoners attempted to escape. According to the officials, each escape failed because the prisoners were captured or shot.

However, five detainees who tried to escape in December 1937 and June 1962 have never been found. While most experts believe they drowned, family members believe at least one man survived and managed to escape the “escape-proof” facility.

John Anglin’s family believes he escaped and is in his 80s

John Anglin and his brother Clarence escaped with fellow prisoner Frank Morris by digging a tunnel into their cell. All three ended up in bitter cold water and we never heard from them again. The Anglin family discovered in 2016 that police received a strange note in 2013 apparently from John.

The letter read: “My name is John Anglin. I escaped from Alcatraz in June of 1962 with my brother Clarence and Frank Morris. I’m 83 years old and I’m in bad shape. I have cancer… Yes, we all survived that night, but just barely. It is not a joke”.

John and his brother teamed up to rob banks in the 1950s.

Before we get into the details of the letter, let’s go over some information about John and his accomplices. John and his older brother, Clarence, were born in Georgia. His parents were farm workers who moved to Florida in the early 1940s.

Summers were spent picking cherries in Michigan, and the boys often showed off their swimming skills in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. In their twenties (in the 1950s), they turned to crime by robbing banks and other establishments. They made sure the businesses were closed at the time so no one got hurt.

The brothers were imprisoned and transferred to Alcatraz after several escape attempts.

John and Clarence may have been robbers, but they weren’t armed and they weren’t dangerous. They would have used a weapon only once, and it was a dummy gun. The two men were arrested in 1956 and sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison.

They had served their sentences in different prisons around the country: Florida State Prison, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, and Atlanta Penitentiary. Unhappy with their imprisonment, the brothers made numerous attempts to escape from prison in Georgia. This led to his transfer to Alcatraz. John arrived on October 21, 1960. Clarence followed on January 10, 1961.

They conspired with two other men to get out of Alcatraz

John and Clarence met up with two other Alcatraz inmates with the same goal: escape. Orphaned at an early age, Frank Lee Morris was first arrested at the age of 13. He’s been involved in all sorts of things, from narcotics possession to armed robbery. He was also extremely intelligent and scored very high on IQ tests.

Like the Anglin brothers, he spent his time in various prisons in Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana. He escaped from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, but was caught a year later for robbery. He came to Alcatraz in 1960. The Anglin brothers also met a man named Allen West.

They dug holes at night while Morris covered the noise with accordion music

In 1961, all four lived in adjacent cells. They may have met when they were in the Atlanta Penitentiary. Morris was the mastermind behind the escape plans. For six months, they spent their nights digging around the openings in the ventilation shafts of their cells.

They had recovered saw blades found on the prison grounds, as well as spoons stolen from the canteen and a drill made from vacuum cleaner parts. The four men hid the holes with cardboard and paint. Morris played the accordion to hide the noise of his work.

They got advice from Whitey Bulger

In 2014, Whitey Bulger, the Boston criminal police chief, wrote a letter to Algin’s nephew Ken Widner about the fugitives. Bulger had met the Anglins while serving time at Alcatraz. Bulger is said to have given John and Clarence advice on how to navigate the currents of San Francisco Bay. He would have given them a glimpse of life on the run, too.

Widner explains: “He taught them that when you disappear, you have to cut all ties. He told me in a letter: “This is the mistake I made.” He told me: “These brothers undoubtedly did exactly what I told them to do.”

Detainees  used mannequins they had designed to fool guards

The men dug holes in their cells that were large enough to lead to a service corridor. They then went up to the top of their building where they created a workshop to prepare their survival kit. They also found an ingenious way to work outside of their cells without being seen.

They mixed soap and toilet paper to create a papier-mâché-like substance and made carved mannequin heads. They made them more realistic using paint from the maintenance shop and newspaper clippings from the hair salon. The men tucked towels and clothes under the sheets to make it look like they were sleeping.

The men made a raft and life jackets out of raincoats

The holes in their cells led to the service corridor. West is the only one of the four who couldn’t escape because the fan grill in his cell got stuck. The Anglins and Morris climbed to an area inside their building where they created life jackets and a rubber raft, using more than 50 raincoats they had managed to acquire. They made oars out of pieces of wood.

The trio climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 15 meters to the ground in a ventilation pipe, climbed two fences made of barbed wire and inflated the raft with an accordion he stole from another detainee.

Authorities found evidence but no remains

They inflated the raft on the northeast coast, in an area that was out of sight of searchlights from the prison and control towers. They are believed to have escaped around 10 p.m. No one knew they left until the next morning because their dummies appeared to be sleeping on their bunk beds.

The police and the military spent the next ten days searching for the escapees. They found a trowel and a wallet containing personal information and memorabilia from the Anglins. Authorities also found one of his homemade life jackets, which deflated. However, they never found remains or physical evidence indicating the whereabouts of the detainees.

Most believe the men died in cold waters

West, who stayed behind, cooperated with investigators. He said the men planned to steal clothes and a car after robbing. FBI investigators estimated that the extremely cold water temperature and strong currents would have made it highly unlikely that the detainees would have made it to dry land.

However, the case remained open for 17 years. On December 31, 1979, investigators closed the case, noting that the Anglins and Morris were likely dead in the icy water while trying to reach Angel Island. The US Marshal Service has never closed its investigation and still receives occasional tips on the matter.

In his letter, “John” says that his brother and Morris lived long after his escape.

Is it possible that John, Clarence and their fellow prisoner Morris have survived? Let’s go back to this letter that was sent to the San Francisco Police Department in 2013. The author, who claims to be John, noted, “If he advertises on TV, he promises me:

first go to jail for up to a year and get treatment, I’ll tell you exactly where I am.” He added that Morris had “passed away” in 2008, while Clarence died in 2011. John’s nephew, Ken Widner, was furious that he didn’t find out about the letter until 2016.

John’s nephews are furious that the authorities have kept the letter a secret

Ken told him “I think John is still alive, I don’t think Clarence is still alive, I have no idea what Frank Morris could do. I know Frank Morris was with him in 1975. I have a pretty good idea where they are…but I’m not going to say that.”

Ken’s brother, David Widner, added that he thought it was “very possible” that John was still alive because the inmates were “very, very smart guys” and capable of surviving such events. David also added that he thought it was “inhumane” for authorities not to speak to the family in 2013.

The family has “proof” that John and Clarence went to Brazil after their escape

The nephews submitted a photo to authorities in 2016, which they say proves the siblings survived the escape. The photo is said to have shown John and Clarence in Brazil in 1975. The nephews, who live in Georgia, told a team of journalists that their uncles met a criminal who took them to this South American country.

The photo was taken at a Brazilian farm owned by John and Clarence. If you look closely, you can see the resemblance to the inmates. Former US Marshal Art Roderick, who has spent 20 years investigating the escape, believes the photo was taken by a family friend, Fred Brizzi.

John and Clarence allegedly sent their sister Christmas cards

A forensic expert examined the photos of John and Clarence Anglins and compared them to the photo of the men from Brazil, noting that it is “very likely” that they are the same men. The Widners also have other evidence that their uncles survived. They showed authorities Christmas cards sent to his mother, Marie Anglin Widner.

The cards were signed by Clarence and John but were not prepaid. Her mother received the cards for three years after the escape. As for the 2013 letter, FBI analysts reviewed it for DNA and fingerprints, but were unable to conclusively prove it came from John Anglin.

Bones found off the coast of San Francisco did not match those of the Anglin brothers

During the production of the Histoire 2015 documentary Alcatraz: In Search of the Truth, the Widners allowed investigators to unearth the remains of John and Clarence’s older brother Alfred. He tried to escape from an Alabama prison and was electrocuted. Authorities wanted access to Alfred’s DNA to compare it with bones found on the shores of San Francisco in 1963.

Thinking the bones belonged to one of the Anglins or Morris, they ran some tests. The DNA did not match the Anglin family, which reinforces the idea that the brothers survived. However, the bones could belong to Morris. Since Morris does not have a living family member, it is not certain that they are his.

The currents in the bay would have been an essential factor for their survival

In 2003, the team from the television show MythBusters tried to determine if people could escape from Alcatraz Island using an artificial raft built from the same materials that prisoners had access to. The TV stars concluded that an escape was indeed possible. In 2014, Delft University researchers also tried to determine if the three men could have escaped and survived.

With the help of computers, they specifically examined the time of the leak. If the men left around midnight, the currents would have been favorable to their passage. If they had left hours before or after midnight, the currents would probably have made it difficult for them to survive.

If John is still in Brazil, he may never go home.

It is possible that John and his brother ended up in Brazil, where they lived for many years. But if John is still alive, he may never leave the country because Brazil may not allow his extradition to the United States. Former Marshal Roderick wants to know how they managed to escape.

He told the New York Post in 2015: “When you work in this kind of business, you get the impression that things are starting to click. I have this feeling now.” As for Ken and David, they want to turn the page and be able to bury their aunt and uncle on their family land in Florida.

The 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz” was based on his story.

The 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz starred Clint Eastwood, Jack Thibeau, and Fred Ward as Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin, and John Anglin. The filmmakers alluded to the success of the escape. The film has been critically acclaimed and is often considered one of the best films of the year. It scored 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed $43 million at the box office.

Filmed on Alcatraz, Eastwood, Ward, and Thibeau used no stunts to escape through the prison wall and into the water. Director Don Siegel thought they had been lost in the currents multiple times.

Nor did a 1937 leak reveal the deaths of the fugitives

In 1937, inmates Theodore “Ted” Cole and Ralph Roe were working in a tire repair shop on Alcatraz when a heavy fog rolled into the bay. They punched a hole through a workshop window and escaped, hiding in the mist. Using a key, they opened a lock and fell 6 meters before landing on the beach. Later evidence showed that the duo planned their escape in advance, but did not use a raft.

Authorities believe they drowned and were washed up into the Pacific Ocean. However, no one has found his remains, and the incident tarnished the prison’s reputation as “escape evidence.”

There is evidence that inmate John Paul Scott escaped from Alcatraz

On December 16, 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott swam 1.7 km between Alcatraz Island and Fort Point, which is located at the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. When his body washed up on the shore, a group of teenagers found him, but they thought he was dead. When the police arrived, they knew immediately that Scott was the detainee they were looking for.

He was captured the same day he escaped and sent back to Alcatraz. Scott was suffering from hypothermia and was exhausted. The identical Alcatraz-Fort Point route is now used by triathletes in two annual events.

John Paul Scott had an accomplice

Scott was on Alcatraz after being found guilty of bank robbery and possession of unregistered firearms. Sentenced to 30 years in prison, Scott spent three years in Alcatraz before officially attempting to escape.

Although he was the only man to prove that a successful escape is possible, Scott had an accomplice. He had befriended an inmate named Darl Lee Parker, who was convicted of robbery and kidnapping. For Scott and Parker, his escape plan was almost foolproof.

They bent the bars of a cell window

John Paul Scott and Darl Lee Parker were assigned to the kitchen while incarcerated at Alcatraz. One afternoon, when they were on duty, they broke into the storage room under the kitchen where there was a cell block with toilets.

They managed to bend the bars on the window above the bathroom and through the window. From there, Scott and Parker roped down into the water. At that time, they had not yet been detected by the prison guards.

Inflate rubber gloves to float

Scott and Parker’s original plan was to float to the coast of San Francisco. To do this, they inflated rubber gloves that they had stolen from the prison and wore the gloves as bracelets to stay afloat.

Early in the morning, Scott and Parker’s escape attempt was noticed, but by then they were a considerable distance from the prison. Although they dated together, they could not achieve freedom together. One of them was found.

Parker only went to little Alcatraz

Once Scott and Parker reached the water, they immediately attempted to swim and float to the San Francisco shoreline. But shortly after the escape, Parker had to give up and pull over because he had broken his ankle at the time.

He came to a rock formation about 100 meters from the prison called Little Alcatraz. It was there that authorities detained him just 20 minutes after prison guards realized the two had managed to escape.

Scott spent the rest of his life in prison.

You know the fate of John Paul Scott. Although he made it to shore, things did not turn out as he had hoped. Due to hypothermia and exhaustion, he was taken to Letterman General Hospital to recover, but he was promptly returned to Alcatraz when he could.

Until then, an Alcatraz swim escape seemed impossible. But since Scott has managed to do it, many believe this is further proof that the escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers was a success.

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