Wiregrass bank at heart of famous Alcatraz escape named historical site

COLUMBIA, Ala (WDHN) — An old bank in eastern Houston County, most famous for being the site of a crime that led to the most “famous prison escape” in America, has been recognized by the National Park Service.

On April 22, the old Bank of Columbia was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead of holding money, the building now houses the history of the small southern town, provided by the Columbia Historical Society.

Historian of the Columbia Historical Society David Hunter says the project to get the building on the register has been a process two years in the making.

The Bank of Columbia, built in 1912, became famous for the 1958 bank robbery by the three Anglin Brothers.

In January 1958, John, Clarence, and Alfred Anglin, originally from Donalsonville, Georgia, robbed the Bank of Columbia for $19,000. This is approximately the equivalent of $207,000 in 2024. Five days after the robbery, the brothers were captured by federal agents in Ohio.

The brothers pleaded guilty to federal charges in March of that year, and according to newspaper clippings from the Montgomery Advertiser (March 1958), Alfred and Clarence were sentenced to 15 years, while John received 10 years.

Due to the brother’s extensive criminal history and repeated prison escapes across the South, John and Clarence were ordered to serve their sentence in the “world’s most secure prison,” Alcatraz.

For years, the federal prison was known as “inescapable” until the brothers broke that stigma in the early 1960s.

A report from the FBI says the two brothers were placed in adjoining cells next to Frank Morris, a man “known for his intelligence,” and the three of them, along with another inmate, Allen West, planned a daring escape.

Several reports show the four inmates dug through the Alcatraz walls with spoons from the prison’s dining hall and a homemade drill. They also created dummy heads of cotton sheets, soap, paint, and human hair to trick the guards.

The Anglin brothers and Morris escaped from Alcatraz on June 12, 1962, with a plan to swim across the San Francisco Bay to shore on a makeshift raft.

It is unknown if the trio even made it to shore.

In 1979, the FBI turned over the search and investigation to the U.S. Marshals Service.

John Anglin (Courtesy of the FBI)
John Anglin (Courtesy of the FBI)
Clarence Anglin
Clarence Anglin (Courtesy of the FBI)

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