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'Secrets' on PBS Explores the Possibility There Was Truly an Escape From Alcatraz
March 29, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Given that romanticizing outlaws has always been one of America’s favorite guilty pleasures, a lot of folks would love to think that three inmates really did escape from Alcatraz prison in June 1962.

After all, Alcatraz was the place from which no one was supposed to escape. No one. So what better tribute to the can-do American spirit than the chance those three small-time crooks really did?

We’ve also had a renewed flurry of attention to the case a half century later, with documentaries and tabloid reports grabbing onto whatever claims suggest that Frank Morris and/or brothers Clarence and John Anglin (below) really did paddle a homemade raft across San Francisco Bay and tool off to freedom.

Nephews of the Anglins, for instance, say one of their con man friends snapped a picture of the brothers on a farm in Brazil in 1975. And now, 40 years later, the snapshot has miraculously surfaced. How ‘bout that? 

Tuesday, 3/29 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), PBS weighs in with Secrets of the Dead: Escape From Alcatraz, a Dutch documentary that doesn’t close the door, but also doesn’t leave it very far open.

Escape takes a forensic approach, looking at the physical evidence and attempting to assess the feasibility the raft could have made it.

Just getting off Alcatraz, a solid-rock island surrounded by frigid water, was impressive enough.

The men escaped their cells by painstakingly scooping holes through cinder block walls. They had to shimmy down a 50-foot water tower and climb a couple of 12-foot barbed wire fences while, of course, eluding any guards or searchlights.

The producers run through those logistics, noting a couple of interesting factoids along the way.

For one thing, the escape was supposed to involve four men. Mastermind Allen West, a much harder-core criminal than the others, couldn’t finish his escape hole in time, so the others left without him.

Before that, the escapees were able to get away with noisy excavation activity because Alcatraz had instituted a music program for inmates, meaning that for some period of time every day the whole place got loud.

But the heart of the show, and the mystery, revolves around the raft, which was made of raincoats. Lots of raincoats glued together to form a flat floor and inflated sides.

In Secrets, Dutch scientists Olivier Hoes, Rolf Hut and Fedor Baart re-create the raft. They put it together from the materials and glue that would have been available at Alcatraz in 1962, climb in and launch it into the bay.

The key factor, it turns out, is the tides. We don’t know exactly what time the real-life escapees left, but that probably determined whether they had a chance.

Much of the time, the currents would almost certainly have swept them past the bridge into the ocean, which could not have led to a good outcome.

But if they caught it just right, when the tide was switching over between incoming and outgoing, they had a better chance to paddle across.

The three Dutchmen, who seem to be in reasonably good shape, struggle. They don’t deliver a definitive pronouncement after their attempt, but they make it clear they think success was a long shot.

Secrets also notes that the Anglin brothers were known as loudmouths, making it perhaps less likely they could quietly slip away and not say a word to anyone for decades while they forged respectable lives that never drew anyone’s attention.

Still, that’s not as much fun as thinking these guys got away. A former Alcatraz guard is among those who say here that they wouldn’t mind thinking someone pulled off the impossible.

Nor does any documentary, including this one, change the bottom line, which is that we have no irrefutable proof either way.

Pieces of raft were recovered. No bodies. Let the romanticizing continue.

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Andy Dufresne
Heard they went to Zihuatanejo
Mar 30, 2016   |  Reply
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