Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe

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Theodore "Ted" Cole
Theodore Cole.png
Theodore "Ted" Cole
Born (1913-04-06)April 6, 1913
Pittsburg, Kansas
Died December 16, 1937(1937-12-16) (aged 24) (missing, presumed dead)
San Francisco, California
Ralph Roe
Ralph Roe.png
Ralph Roe
Born (1906-02-05)February 5, 1906
Died December 16, 1937(1937-12-16) (aged 31) (missing, presumed dead)
San Francisco, California

Theodore "Ted" Cole (April 6, 1913[1] – December 16, 1937 (presumed)) and Ralph Roe (February 5, 1906[2] – December 16, 1937 (presumed)) took part in the second documented escape attempt from Alcatraz, in 1937. Although officials were quick to conclude they perished in the attempt, their remains were never found and their fate remains unknown, making the incident the first to shatter Alcatraz's reputation as an "escape-proof" prison.


Cole and Roe, both convicted bank robbers (Cole went into Alcatraz for kidnapping also) in Oklahoma, had been caught during earlier, independent escape attempts from that state's McAlester Prison. Judged to be escape risks, they were both incarcerated in high-security Leavenworth Prison, then transferred to higher-security Alcatraz in 1936. They were given jobs working in the prison's Mat Shop, a facility at the northernmost point of the island, where discarded automobile tires were cut up and converted into rubber mats for the U.S. Navy.

Roe, an Oklahoma bank robber, was originally captured after a shootout with local police and FBI agents in Shawnee, Oklahoma on December 30, 1933. This same gun battle claimed the life of Roe's partner, Wilbur Underhill. Cole had been given a death sentence by means of an electric chair for his role in the robbery of a bottling works plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[3]

Escape and disappearance

On December 16, 1937, a dense fog swept through the San Francisco Bay, impeding marine traffic and reducing visibility on Alcatraz. At 12:50 p.m., Cole and Roe were working in a tire repair shop. A routine headcount showed all prisoners accounted for. At 1:30 p.m., when the guard returned to the shop after inspecting other shops on the island, they were gone. Two iron bars and three heavy glass panes of a window in the shop had a hole 8 34 inches (22 cm) high and 18 inches (46 cm) long. Once through the window, they slipped down to the gate of a high wire fence during one of the heaviest fogs in years. With a wrench taken from the shop where they had been working they forced the gate lock and dropped twenty feet to the beach. Their trail vanished at that point. An exhaustive search of the island revealed nothing.

Hampered by the thick fog, guards were able to turn up only one trace of the escapees: an abandoned wrench from the Mat Shop, which had been used to partially dismantle a gate on the outermost fence. An extensive, multi-day search ensued; portions of the island were flooded with tear gas in an attempt to flush out the escapees, with no result.

An investigation concluded that Cole and Roe had prepared for the escape well in advance, using a hacksaw blade to weaken the window bars and disguising the damage with a mixture of grease and shoe polish. After taking advantage of the fog, they entered the water, presumably relying on floats improvised from tires or fuel canisters. There was no evidence to suggest they had constructed or launched a raft.

Prison officials concluded that Cole and Roe drowned shortly after their escape. The swift ebb tides at the time, estimated at 7–9 knots, would have swept even an expert swimmer out of the bay and into the Pacific Ocean. The fog was so thick that it would have made it almost impossible for outside confederates to pick them up by boat, nor could the swimmers know whether or not they were swimming toward shore. It is most likely that Roe and Cole drowned, and that their bodies were swept out to sea with their flotation devices.

However, police departments in the surrounding counties and the FBI followed up every tip and rumor, with no success. In the following days, months and years, there were various reports of sightings, but their validity is unknown. Sightings included two hitchhikers, who claimed they had seen Roe and Cole and identified them to police by their photos. A San Francisco Chronicle reporter in 1941 declared that the pair were living in South America, and a cab driver in Cole's Oklahoma hometown of Seminole told police he had been shot by men he recognized as the two escapees. The Daily newspaper The Seminole Producer reported on June 7, 1939:

Oklahoma officers seemed intentionally to try to not identify the escapees as they continued their hijacking spree in the Seminole, Tecumseh and Shawnee Oklahoma area. The Seminole Producer reported on June 24, 1939:


  1. [1] – via (subscription required)
  2. [2] – via (subscription required)
  3. "Swift Justice". The Daily Times. 1 Nov 1929. p. 14.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External sources

  • Bruce, J. Campbell (2005). Escape from Alcatraz. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. ISBN 1-58008-678-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ward, David; Kassebaum, Gene G. (2009). Alcatraz: The Gangster Years. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-25607-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • "Alcatraz Escape Attempts". Retrieved 3 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>