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This little piece of Alcatraz history was recently sold in an antique shop in Dublin

The names of all escapees of the prison island are in the notebook.

THE NIGHT OF 12 June 1962 will live long in folklore as one of the greatest prison breaks in history, casting pieces of its mystery even as far as Dublin’s own Francis Street.

On a warm summer’s night, three men tucked dummies made of wax and soap into their respective beds, slipped out of their cells and escaped into the San Francisco night, never to be seen again.

Their fabled escape from Alcatraz is one of only two breaks from the island prison during which the inmates were neither recaptured nor shot. The three men who left that night – and the one they left behind – would become legend, with definitive detail from the event sparse.

Frank Morris, Allen West, Clarence Anglin, and his brother John were the four men accredited with the great prison break of 1962.

All four names appear in a journal found in Yeats Country Antiques, Dublin, Ireland in 2017.

Proprietor Mervyn Blanc came across the small leather notebook with the name Fred Freeman handwritten on it along with a hand-drawn rendering of the United States Prison Service seal on its cover.

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The notebook reveals prisoner information from Freeman’s time at the facility.

The pages are segmented into blocks like cells, on which Freeman logged the men’s basic details: ‘Cell 1401, Malone, white man, 20 years for bank robbery; Cell 819, Bullock, negro, 25 years for murder.’

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Separate to the notebook but tucked inside its back cover were seven small rectangular cards. They seem to be the official version of what was inside the notebook; each card contained prisoner numbers, names, cells, work duties and crimes, the boxes all filled in with a punch of a typewriter.

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We know that Orville Gene Vinson, prisoner number 1405, was incarcerated for five years for assault and robbery, and was sent to Alcatraz in March of 1960. It notes his cell and work placements at his time in the prison along with his date of release in the right-hand corner.

Each card itself tells a story, what they were found guilty of, when they came to the island, how dangerous each was considered.

The Men

Frank Lee Morris – his details noted by Freeman in the book – was the brains of the June operation. Orphaned at the age of 11 he spent all of his life in scrapes with the law. A handsome man with dead eyes, Morris turned out to be in the top 2% of the population when his IQ was tested, and so it was little shock that he would be the architect of the big break.

After being handed a 10-year stretch in Louisiana for robbery, Morris slipped the chains and went on the lam before being collared and sent to the one place, it was thought, he could never escape from.

There he met brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The Anglins came from a family of 13 in Donalsonville, Georgia, where they worked as farm hands in the summer and braved the icy cold waters of Lake Michigan in the winter. This predilection for swimming would later become a vital part of the Anglins’ story. They were the quintessential ‘ordinary decent criminals’, choosing to rob closed banks, free of victims while making off with insured wads of cash.

The last part of the foursome was Allen West, a car thief who after his own respective attempts at breaking loose from the Atlanta facility was also transferred to Alcatraz.

The Escape

Source: HISTORY/YouTube

All four men were familiar with each other from their times served in Atlanta, but the real planning began when they were given adjacent cells in the prison early in 1962.

The men would work at night, with Morris often playing his accordion to cover up the noise of the men using small saws, spoons or whatever they could get their hands on to widen the area around the ventilation unit that came into each cell.

Of course, four empty cells wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. Morris and his men used a mixture of toilet paper, soap and toilet water to fashion dummy heads of themselves. The skin was painted on with paint from the maintenance shop, hair was collected from the barber’s and glued to the head.

When the fateful night arrived, the men picked at the areas surrounding the ventilation pipe, made their way through the service corridor, climbed onto the roof, into the workshop and grabbed a raft they had made using raincoats and a technique found in a 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.

After climbing through one final pipe the men found themselves standing at the edge of the shore, but there was one issue. One of them was missing.

Allen West had been worried that the cracks around the ventilation shaft had been too noticeable. Concerned by the prospect of blowing the whole escape, he tried to mend the hole with a small bit of cement he had managed to get from maintenance.

On the night of the escape, though, the cement had hardened too much. It took him some time to get through it. He made his way through the corridor, over the roof, into the workshop and up through the pipe to find himself standing alone. He never made it off the island.

The three other escapees were never heard from again.

Some say they drowned, some say Frank Morris went down but the brothers who bathed in the icy Lake Michigan made it, while others claim they saw the Anglin brothers at a bar in Rio De Janeiro.

Source: HISTORY/YouTube

Whatever the case, the notebook was bought by a client of Yeats Country Antiques on Dublin’s Francis Street for an undisclosed sum almost immediately, and with it, a small slice of a modern mystery.

The collector who bought the items said he did so with the intention of donating the pieces – which included Freeman’s prison officer’s hat and a metal photographic plate with a picture of the prison emblazoned upon it, supposedly a keepsake from working in the most famous prison of the day – to the Alcatraz Museum in San Francisco.

50 years ago, these last prisoners left Alcatraz forever

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About the author:

Conor Dever

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