Did you know that a crime committed by a pair of the country's best-known outlaws occurred about 52 miles from my hometown? That's a fact. And it was this crime that sent them on their way to Alcatraz federal prison.
And it was their departure from Alcatraz that made them famous around the world for what they did during their time on and eventually off "the Rock."
I'm talking about the Anglin brothers, born in rural Donalsonville, Georgia in the throes of the Great Depression. The pair had a penchant for taking things that belonged to others without their permission. Starting in their youth, they were known as better escape artists than robbers. Jail time for a number of crimes acquainted the brothers with ways to regain their freedom. And if you believe the most publicized accounts of what may have been their last escape from captivity, you too may think they were really great at fooling their captors.
Let's talk about these common thieves turned criminal celebrities.
John Anglin was born in 1930, a year before his younger brother Clarence Anglin. Their parents were farm workers who made their way north each year as the crops came in.
As I wrote earlier, their lives of crime started early. Clarence, the younger Anglin, was caught breaking into a service station when he was just 14 years old. By the early 1950s, the two brothers, who were reportedly inseparable, moved up in the world of crime — robbing banks instead of filling stations.
But their luck with knocking off banks ran out when they stuck up the Bank of Columbia about 10 o'clock on the morning of January 17, 1958. They got away with a big haul of cash — upwards of about $19,000 — according to a newspaper article with Columbia's resident historian David Hunter.
They didn't have a lot of time to go through the money ... the feds captured the Anglins in Hamilton, Ohio five days after the Alabama heist.
I'm not sure exactly what kind of defense lawyer's advice they got — but they both pleaded guilty. Next stop, the federal pen in Atlanta.
It didn't take long for the brothers Anglin to start planning their escape and for the feds to foil the plot and send them packing to their next stop: the federal prison in Leavenworth. Some time later they attempted — unsuccessfully — to break out of Leavenworth. That escape attempt earned them a move to the super-safe facility at Alcatraz, where they were reunited with prison friends and fellow inmates Frank Morris and Allen West.
Shortly, the four men were back plotting an escape ... but this time it would be from "the Rock," where in the history of the prison only 36 inmates had tried to test the swift and icy cold waters around the island lockup. Twenty-three were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five are listed as "presumed drowned." That five includes Frank Morris, the Anglin brothers, and two other inmates, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe.
The odds appeared to be solidly against Morris and the Anglin brothers. But somehow they managed to make their break for freedom on the night of June 11, 1962 after hatching a complicated plot that involved dummy heads with human hair, holes scratched through the walls beneath the cells' lavatories and a 6-by-14-foot handmade life raft fashioned from rain coats sewn together.
When the ruse was discovered by the guards, Allen West was still in his cell and didn't make the getaway with the others. His escape hatch had hardened and by the time he widened it and crawled through, the others were gone ... having climbed the pipes in a utility corridor behind the cells. Later, West cooperated with the feds during their investigation, avoiding any charges by prison officials.
So what happened to Morris and the Anglin brothers? After they disappeared from Alcatraz, the FBI investigated a number of claims regarding the trio. Like when agents followed up on a tip that Clarence Anglin had been seen in Brazil. That resulted in the FBI sending agents to South America to look for him. But it was a dead end.
Closer to home, a newspaper report in 1963 said two women who worked at a grocery store in Brundidge claimed to have cashed a check a year after the alleged escape, for a man who they believed to be John Anglin. Still nothing rock-solid came of it.
Back in the Anglins' stomping grounds around Donalsonville, family members reported receiving unsigned correspondence from what they believed were the brothers.
According to rumors, two strangely made up, heavy-set women attended the Anglins' mother's funeral in 1973 and then disappeared shortly after the service. Many more mysterious, unsubstantiated claims continued year after year.
Then a National Geographic Channel documentary in 2011 resulted in the files from the case being transferred from the FBI (which said the Anglins and Morris all drowned) to the U.S. Marshall's Service for further investigation. Nothing containing any solid leads has turned up.
There was one entertaining aspect of the search for the brothers. They made it big on the big screen. In 1979, Clint Eastwood starred in a film "Escape from Alcatraz," playing the role of Frank Morris, who many investigators have said was the brains behind the breakout. Check it out on line. You'll probably learn something.
So if you know anything about these yarns that have been associated with the once-upon-a-time bank robbers turned folk heroes of a sort, you might want to bring your info to light. There are plenty of folks who already have.