Legends
Narrative

Escape From Alcatraz

Text: JC: So there’s an ongoing FBI investigation into the escape of these three guys even though it happened years ago. And there’s never been conclusive proof found about anything like how they escaped, did they escape, or did they die in the water of the bay. Because people have tried to study what the tides may have been like that night, and have said they they could have been swept out into the ocean. Or, that the tide could have taken them to Angel Island, which is this island in the middle of the bay. And so people wonder if they could have escaped by making it to that island, and then somehow survived, and then gotten back onto the mainland. I don’t know there’s a lot of speculation surrounding Alcatraz in particular and I think because it’s part of the history of our region and a really famous mystery, coupled with the fact that the FBI has spent decades investigating in it and has never found anything else out.

AT: How many versions have you heard of what happened

JC: I’ve heard that they died in the water and got swept out to see, I’ve heard that they have escaped onto an island, I’ve heard that they swam to San Francisco and escaped there…

AT: Have you ever heard that they have been sending postcards to their families from other places?

JC: No, I’ve never heard that.

AT: Oh really, that’s the version that I heard. Anyways, what do you personally think happened?

JC: I think they escaped.

Context: JC is a 19 year old history major at the University of Southern California. A resident of Walnut Creek, California near San Francisco and an adamant history buff, JC is well versed in a lot of local legend surrounding his famous and historically colorful place of origin. The exchange above took place over coffee when I asked JC if he knew and slang from the Bay Area. He gave me legends instead.

Interpretation: I like the exchange above because it not only discussed the various folklore surrounding the three escaped inmates from Alcatraz without bias, but it even contained an additional folkloric exchange in which JC and I swapped stories. Alcatraz is interesting because, due to the amount of press coverage and movies made based off of the famous escape, people often forget that nobody is actually sure of anything that took place of the night of the alleged escape other than the fact that there was an escape attempt. Any other information about the escape treated as fact is not fact at all, rather folklore that speculates what could have happened.

This legend is another example of a local legend, for it is tied to Alcatraz itself. It also fits the spirit of a legend extremely well due to the fact that various versions of what actually happened all have a questionable truth value, one of a combination of the possibilities has a strong chance of being proven valid is the FBI investigation continues. Additionally, it is easy to see how the legend of the escape from Alcatraz has taken on a mind of its own, for people often hold a strong opinion of what happened to the prisoners without any evidence to back it up. This is another example of the way that folklore works, often selecting the value of a particular story based off of factors such as order of hearing the specific recounting or who specifically told them about which recounting and choosing based off their relationships to the people.

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