Surrounded by cold, freezing waters as well as strong, powerful currents that would frustrate the best of swimmers, Alcatraz island has remained one of the most famous travel destinations in San Fransisco.  The island is prosaic and unassuming.  Locals simply call it, “The Rock.” Yet it’s here that notorious criminals like Al Capon, the dreaded leader of the legendary terror gang, Chicago Outfit, were confined. In its 29 years of existence, prisoners attempted to escape not twice, but 14 times. While Al Capone’s name has ingloriously lived on in the wrinkled pages of history, many other notorious criminals served time here. These include Robert Stroud, subsequently known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Stroud was convicted of murder but went on to become a respected ornithologist and a celebrated case study in prisoner rehabilitation.


While prisoners devised meticulous escape plans, success always escaped them. Let’s look at some of these daring escape attempts.

The First Escape Attempt At Alcatraz

Only scanty, unreliable details exist about the early life and upbringing of Joseph Bowers, the mysterious man who staged what is regarded as the first escape attempt in Alcatraz. His parents are unknown. His relatives remain in the dark. He had been sentenced to serve a 25-year jail sentence for mail robbery.

September is generally one of the best months to visit San Fransisco. However, when Joseph Bowers arrived on the island the same month in 1934, he found the prison conditions harsh, cold, and lonely. In those early days of Alcatraz, prisoners were not allowed to converse with each other. The only brief exceptions were mealtimes. Faced with this bleakness and despair, he first tried to end his life by suicide. One chilly morning in March 1935, Bowers broke his eyeglasses. He then used the shards of glass to cut the skin of his throat. The suicide attempt was so weak and feeble that doctors believed he was not serious about success.

About one year later, he climbed a fence around the prison. The reason for his climbing the fence remains unsettled. Some accounts claim that he wanted to feed birds. Some swear that he wanted to collect garbage that had gotten stuck in the middle of the chainlink fence as that was his prison job. Yet others believed he was staging a prison break.

Regardless of his intention, Bowers ignored the prison guard’s order to stop and was shot to death.

The Most Famous Escape Attempt At Alcatraz

May 1946 has lived on as the most significant date in the history of Alcatraz prison. It has since been called the Battle of Alcatraz. The mastermind was a blue-eyed man with grey hair known as Benard Coy. He was Kentuckian. He had carefully studied the prison guards for days and months. On the 2nd of May 1946, he executed his plan. Coy stealthily climbed the top of the gun gallery fence. When he reached the topmost, he squeezed his body through a 10-inch opening and gained entrance. He quickly crouched to avoid being seen by the gun gallery guard.

His five accomplices then cleverly distracted the gun gallery guard. Benard Coy was quick. He hit the guard and strangled him till he was unconscious. Coy then quickly gained entrance to the galley and gave his partners in crime guns. But one obstacle now lay between them and freedom. They had access to the gallery and guns, but they could not locate the keys to the yard which was the prison’s exit point. The plan crumbled and the puzzle fell apart.

With the escape plan in disarray, the prisoners decided to fight. The standoff would take three long days. With victory proving tedious and tenuous, US Marines were called. When the marines eventually secured victory, two prison guards lay pulseless while the number of those injured stood at 18. Three prisoners also lost their lives in the fiasco. The memorable escape attempt has since been acted out in several films.

Related: A Travel Guide To San Francisco: 10 Things To Know While Planning Your Trip

The Only Escape Attempt At Alcatraz That Was Succesful

Using only a toy gun, two brothers stormed a bank in Alabama, scared the bank employees, and made away with a cool $18,000. However, their celebration would be short-lived. John and Clarence Anglin were arrested and jailed at a Kansas prison after which they were transferred to Alcatraz and housed in adjacent cells. That would be the first mistake.

For six months the brothers planned their escape. In this, they would be joined by Frank Morris, a long-time acquaintance they had reunited with at Alcatraz. They drilled a hole at the back of their cell using crude, improvised tools. When they had made a small hole, they used cardboard and other items to hide it from the view of the guards. The hole gave them access to a corridor, where they took time making what they needed to escape including life preservers and a rubber raft. But there was one forbidding obstacle. The ceiling was a full 30-feet high.

So this is what they did. While supporting themselves on dangerous ascending pipes, they climbed up and pried open a ventilator which was at the top of the shaft. When the day arrived, they were ready. They put perfect human-like decoys on their beds and made for the stormy ocean waters. The FBI launched a massive manhunt. However, 60 years on, nothing has come up. It’s likely that they escaped from the prison but did not make it to complete freedom, thanks to the dangerous ocean waters.

  • Directions to Alcatraz Island: Use ferries located on the Embarcadero close to the intersection of Bay Street.
  • Ferry Bookings: While you can get tickets from several tour companies, Alcatraz City Cruises is the official source for tickets and tours.

Travelers should plan well in advance and savor a trip of a lifetime. Alcatraz will not disappoint.

Next: These Former Alcatraz Prisoners Are Still Alive (Nearly 60 Years Later)