LEESBURG — The spark for David Widner ignited when he was only 11 years old.
Every family has a “history,” and Widner had been hearing about the legacy of his uncles — John and Clarence Anglin — since he was old enough to understand what the grown-ups were talking about. Even at that early age, he proclaimed that he was going to tell the “real story” about his uncles’ escape from Alcatraz Prison.
Plus, there were all those FBI agents who were always around.
“I think that’s what convinced me more than anything to tell my uncles’ story,” Widner said as he marked the recent June 11 anniversary of John and Clarence Anglin’s and fellow inmate Frank Morris’ escape from the prison that had been proclaimed inescapable. “Everywhere we went when we were young, there were FBI agents around. They came to our house, they followed us, they listened in on all of our phone calls.”
Widner, his mother Marie and his brother Ken took on the chore of archiving the Anglin brothers’ history over the ensuing years, and it was those efforts that convinced Ken and David to participate in two very recent and landmark projects that tell the story of a daring escape that captured the imagination of the country, made the Anglin brothers and Morris folk heroes, and has confounded the upper echelon of law enforcement now for 58 years.
David and Ken, who’d contributed to several documentaries on their uncles’ escape, were integral to the making of the startling — and extremely well-made — History Channel documentary “Alcatraz: The Search for the Truth,” and David Widner teamed with renowned author Michael Esslinger to pen “Escaping Alcatraz: The Untold Story of the Greatest Prison Break in American History.”
“There had been so much written about the escape, but one of the things that really stuck out to me was how J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI tried to convince everyone that while my uncles and Frank Morris had been able to get out of prison at Alcatraz, they actually did not ever make it to the mainland,” Widner said. “The FBI was embarrassed that they hadn’t been able to find (the escapees), so they tried to convince everyone that the three of them died in the waters surrounding Alcatraz.
“We, of course, collected evidence that said otherwise, and I think over the years we’ve pretty much convinced everyone that what the FBI said was not true.”
As early as the 1860s, Alcatraz was utilized as a facility of incarceration, housing insolent soldiers who cheered the death of President Lincoln in post-Civil War America. By the end of the century, the island continued to serve what officials saw as its rightful purpose: a place to lock men away.
A disciplinary barracks was built on the 22-acre island located in the San Francisco Bay in 1912, and by the 1920s, the three-story structure was at full capacity. With its location 1.25 miles from San Francisco and the California mainland, Alcatraz — known as The Rock — seemingly earned its reputation as escape-proof. The structure was officially opened as a federal penitentiary in 1934, and it housed some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, men like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, James “Whitey” Bulger, Mickey Cohen, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, and the famed “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud, who were confined to The Rock to pay for their crimes.
Each prisoner was told the same thing when he came to Alcatraz: There’s no escaping.
“We got letters from some of the prisoners, men like Whitey Bulger, and they told us that when you got to Alcatraz, you were told that sharks patrolled the waters around the island,” Widner said. “There are some sharks in those waters — a few great whites have been seen there — but most were bottom-feeders. It was just another scare tactic to keep the prisoners from thinking about escape.”
One man — Joseph Bowers — did try to make a break in 1935, but all evidence indicates he was a suicidal inmate (he’d tried to kill himself once in the prison) who was shot before he even reached the water around the island. He became little more than a footnote in the prison’s history. Two others, Ted Cole and Ralph Roe, made it into the water on a foggy night, and while there were stories of the pair later showing up in South America, most witnesses say the prisoners perished in the waters around the island.
What they did do, though, was place doubt about the invulnerability of The Rock.
John and Clarence Anglin were part of a family of 14 children who grew up poor in the tiny Donalsonville and Colquitt communities in south Georgia before later moving to central Florida’s Ruskin. They and their older brother Alfred, who would play a key role in the brothers’ escape story, tired of school and started what would become a life of petty crime. Interestingly, the Anglin boys over the years developed a keen ability to break out of whatever institution imprisoned them.
At around 10 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1958, the trio, using a toy gun, robbed the Bank of Columbia in Alabama, getting away with around $18,000. But five days later they were arrested in Ohio. The three pleaded guilty and were sentenced to a federal prison in Atlanta, but since the state of Alabama carried a possible death sentence for bank robbery, the Anglins were moved their and tried again for their crime.
John Anglin was imprisoned at the Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., while Clarence was shipped to the United States Prison in Leavenworth, Kan. After discovery of a planned escape attempt, John Anglin was moved to Leavenworth, where he was reunited with Clarence. When the pair had an escape attempt foiled, the brothers were moved to Alcatraz. They arrived at The Rock on Jan. 18, 1960.
“My uncles were not bad guys; they were just desperate,” Widner said. “Even when they robbed the bank, they used a toy gun, and when one of the bank officials fainted, they made sure he had water and was OK before leaving. But because no prison had ever been able to hold them, they were moved to Alcatraz.”
ESCAPE FROM THE ROCK
When the Anglin brothers were moved to Alcatraz, the warden at Leavenworth offered some advice to his counterpart on the notorious island: Keep the Anglin brothers separate. But Alcatraz Warden Olin Blackwell ignored the suggestion and put the Anglins in adjoining cells. Over the course of their time on the island, they met fellow inmates Frank Morris, who had a genius-level IQ, Allen Clayton West, Cohen, Thomas Kent, Clarence Carnes, Woodrow Wilson Gainey, Johnson and Red Winhoven. Most who investigated the famed prison break say each of these men played a role in planning and helping the Anglins and Morris carry out their escape plan.
The Anglins and Morris, who used sewing skills they’d picked up at the prison to make personal flotation devices and a life raft out of stolen raincoats, managed to dig around vents in their cells using spoons, reminiscent of the Tim Robbins escape in the highly regarded “Shawshank Redemption” movie. They also procured paints that they’d used in impressive paintings of John Anglin’s girlfriend and her sister that helped them create lifelike dummy heads out of bar soap that they placed on their beds to fool guards. The dummies also had real hair that the Anglins had secretly removed from the prison barbershop.
Also utilized in the escape was a concertina, an accordion-like instrument whose bellows was used to inflate their flotation gear.
Once they crawled through the narrow holes they’d dug in their cells, the Anglins and Morris made their way to the roof of the prison and shinnied down a drain pipe to reach the prison grounds. They managed to secure their self-made flotation devices to one of the boats that brought guards to and from the island, in essence hitching a ride out into the open waters. From there, the story takes on an air of mystery, but a policeman on the mainland reported seeing a small boat suspiciously afloat in the harbor on the night of the escape. Some have suggested that Cohen had the boat left there for the escapees, and Johnson has claimed he was responsible.
In any case, after a massive manhunt that went on for months and involved prison officials, area law enforcement agencies and the FBI, the Anglins and Morris became folk heroes, inspiring everything from “sightings” all over the country to a song — “A Mile and a Quarter” ... the distance to the mainland — by country artist Sonny James. Guards at the prison were punished, security was increased and Alcatraz’s inmate population was emboldened.
With closure of the prison then imminent, two more prisoners — John Paul Scott and Darl Dee Parker — using tactics similar to those of the Anglins and Morris, actually escaped from Alcatraz only six months after the trio’s daring getaway, and made it to the mainland alive. However, they were captured and returned to the prison.
THE DEATH OF ALFRED ANGLIN
One of the more chilling aspects of the History Channel documentary about the escape from Alcatraz was the side story of Alfred Anglin. Serving his time in an Alabama prison, and by all accounts a model prisoner, Alfred died days before he was eligible for parole when, Alabama prison officials said, he was electrocuted while trying to escape.
“There had been a family meeting with Uncle Alfred only a few days before on a picnic table on the prison grounds,” Widner said. “We are now convinced that ‘private’ conversation was bugged. Alfred talked about John and Clarence and said he knew where they were. We always believed Uncle Alfred was beaten to death by prison officials who were trying to find the brothers’ location.”
In “Alcatraz: Search for the Truth,” U.S. Marshals officials agreed to exhume Alfred Anglin’s body to try and determine if he was indeed beaten to death. In exchange, David and Ken Widner agreed to supply DNA samples to prove (or disprove) bones that had washed up in San Francisco Bay were those of John and/or Clarence Anglin, as the FBI had suggested.
The grisly exhumation of Alfred Anglin, whose body was in “pristine condition” after years of burial, did not show evidence of the kind of physical abuse that the family had thought likely, but the DNA samples offered by the Widners proved definitively that the bones that were discovered were not those of either of the escaped Anglin brothers.
“We still feel there was something done to Uncle Alfred,” Widner said. “The coroner in Tampa said his death was not caused by electrocution.”
SOUTH AMERICAN FREEDOM
Much of the evidence of the Anglin brothers’ post-escape life revealed in the documentary came from a conversation with long-time family friend Fred Brizzi, a known drug smuggler. He indicated that the brothers were indeed alive and in Brazil. He gave the Anglin family photos, one of which was exhaustively pored over by a facial recognition expert who deemed the photo was indeed of the Anglin brothers.
“We know the brothers escaped and lived in South America,” Widner said. “I know of times that they came to America to visit the family. There’s no doubt in my mind they escaped from prison and lived out their lives.”
Widner, meanwhile, said he has other possible projects about the Great Escape in the works. One area he said he’d like to pursue is investigating his uncles’ lives in South America to see if they had families and if there are surviving relatives.
“There is a great deal of interest in my uncles’ escape, and we are going to explore it further,” David Widner, who lives in Leesburg, said. “Their story is amazing, and I hear from people all over the world who are still fascinated by it all these years later.
“It’s become part of my life’s work to document and tell the true story of what happened at Alcatraz. It’s part of me, part of who I am. I’ll never let it go until the entire story is told.”