Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.