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History's Great Escapes

  • By Lexi Krock
  • Posted 11.16.04
  • NOVA

Throughout history, prisoners of all sorts have gone to unheard-of lengths to free themselves from confinement, whether it be house arrest in Tibet or a life sentence in Alcatraz. Most have failed, but a significant minority has tasted freedom through patience, skill, and in many cases sheer dumb luck. Here, relive some of the greatest jailbreaks of all time.

Mary, Queen of Scots

A 16th-century portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots Enlarge Photo credit: © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis Images

Mary, Queen of Scots (Scotland)
When Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in Scotland in 1561 from France, where she had been raised in exile, she expected eventually to assume the throne that was her birthright. But in 1567, during a rebellion of Scottish nobles, she was imprisoned in remote Lochleven Castle. Though Mary begged in letters to Queen Elizabeth and the Queen of France for help in getting free, she was unable to interest anyone in her cause. Before long, she began plotting her escape.

In her first attempt in March 1568, Mary disguised herself as a laundress and tried to escape from the castle by boat. But when the boatmen she attempted to hire noticed her pristine hands and beautiful face, her identity was revealed and her plan foiled (though remarkably, she did manage to return to her cell without the castle's guards learning of her ploy). Determined to succeed, Mary fled the prison again on May 2, 1568. With the help of an orphan she befriended at the castle, she was able to get out of the castle, across by boat to the mainland, and successfully away on a horse stolen from her captors' stables.

Tower of London

The Tower of London is now a museum. Enlarge Photo credit: © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Tower of London (England)
The Tower of London has served as a royal palace, arsenal, royal mint, menagerie, and public records office. But its best-known role, which lasted for 850 years, was as a dark, dank, and bone-numbingly cold political prison. Dozens of accused spies, traitors, and prisoners of war imprisoned therein made bids for freedom over the centuries, and a lucky and wily few succeeded.

In 1597, a Jesuit priest named John Gerard made a hair-raising escape. After hacking away at the stones around the door to his cell, Gerard sneaked past the guards in the corridors one night and reached a high wall overlooking the moat. Down below, a boat he had arranged through a sympathetic prison warden waited in the darkness. The boatmen tossed him a rope, which Gerard tied to a nearby cannon. When he received a signal that his accomplices had tied off the other end of the rope across the moat, Gerard slid down the rope to freedom. He was never recaptured.

The Earl of Nithsdale, who was jailed in the Tower in 1715 for his role in the Jacobite Rebellion, made a less physically demanding exit. During a visit by his wife and her three ladies-in-waiting, Nithsdale donned the clothes of one of the ladies-in-waiting, a Mrs. Mills, and simply walked out with the other three. (Mrs. Mills, now wearing another set of clothes she had brought with her, left separately before the alarm was raised.) Safely away from the Tower, Nithsdale bribed a boatman to carry him and his wife out of the country; they eventually settled in Rome.

The final escape in the Tower of London's reign as a prison revealed security so lax it is perhaps best that the Tower soon thereafter became a British national monument and museum. A British soldier taken into custody during World War I for writing phony checks became bored one night, even though he was allowed as many visitors to his cell as he wanted. Leaving his unlocked cell, he made his way past the guards by nonchalantly strolling past them wrapped in an overcoat. They took him to be just another visitor, and he headed out for some nighttime fun in central London. Curiously, he returned to the Tower later that night and attempted to reimprison himself.

Bridge of Sighs

Venice's picturesque Bridge of Sighs connects the Palazzo Ducale (left) and the erstwhile Leads prison. Enlarge Photo credit: © Dennis Degnan/Corbis

Giacomo Casanova (Italy)
In 1755, Giacomo Casanova was sentenced to five years in Venice's famously forbidding prison, "the Leads," for repeatedly committing adultery. A determined escape artist in both marriage and prison, Casanova began plotting his exit not long after he arrived at the Leads, which was named for the lead that coated its walls and roof. As he later put it, "It has always been my opinion that when a man sets himself determinedly to do something and thinks of nought but his design, he must succeed despite all the difficulties in his path...."

Casanova found an iron rod in the prison yard and fashioned it into a digging tool. For several months, he secretly worked on a tunnel that would take him out of his cell. His hopes were dashed, however, when he was suddenly forced to move to another cell. Realizing the guards would carefully watch him in his new cell, Casanova gave his iron tool, which he had managed to retain, to the prisoner in the next cell, a monk named Balbi, and begged him to dig one tunnel joining their cells and another between the monk's cell and the outside. Balbi agreed, and when he had completed the tunnels, both prisoners crawled out of Balbi's cell and managed to escape from the Leads using the iron tool to force open doors and gates in their way. Once they arrived in central Venice, Balbi and Casanova split up. The police searched for them everywhere to no avail.

Henry

Henry "Box" Brown rises out of a shipping crate amid men from the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettman/Corbis

Henry "Box" Brown (North Carolina)
Escape stories abound about runaway slaves, many of whom used the Underground Railroad to reach the freedom of the North. Less common are stories about slaves who successfully escaped on their own. One of the most audacious escapes was that of Henry Brown, who was born as a slave in 1816. After his owner suddenly sold Brown's wife and children to a new owner in another state, Brown made an agonizing solo escape to freedom on March 19, 1849.

Brown had a sympathetic carpenter build a box three feet long and two feet wide. After writing "right side up with care" on the outside of the box, two friends mailed the box, with Brown squeezed inside of it, from North Carolina to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. The journey lasted over 27 hours. Brown had water and ventilation holes, but for several hours, despite the box's label, he remained upside down. He made it, however, and later became an active member in Philadelphia's abolitionist community.

William F. Cody

Buffalo Bill Cody Enlarge Photo credit: © Lake County Museum/Corbis

William F. Cody (Colorado)
Popularly known as Buffalo Bill, William F. Cody was a buffalo hunter, U.S. Army Scout, and Indian fighter who helped create the myth of the Wild West with his traveling variety show, the melodramatic "Wild West Congress of Rough Riders of the World." Known for his accurate marksmanship, courage, endurance, and brutal fights with Indians, Cody made one of the most fearless escapes in American history.

In the early 1860s, Indians captured Cody near Fort Larned, Colorado. Knowing that his captors' supply of meat was low, Cody convinced them to let him lead them to a nearby herd of cattle he knew of. Though a large group surrounded him as they traveled, Cody, who was allowed to ride in front, eventually broke free and urged his mule into a brisk canter. For six miles, the Indians pursued Cody, who never had more than a half-mile lead. Though the Indians shot arrows at him and tried to knock him off his mule, Cody prevailed, eventually slipping unnoticed into a Fort Larned bar and escaping.

Bertram James and Sydney Dowse

Bertram "Jimmy" James, left, and Sydney Dowse display a reproduction of a World War II POW notice on the 60th anniversary of their escape from Stalag Luft III, March 16, 2004. Enlarge Photo credit: © Stephen Hird/Reuters/Corbis

The Great Escape (Germany)
Nazi authorities took great pains to guard against the escape of their prisoners during World War II at both their horrifying civilian concentration camps and at prisons for captured members of the Allied forces. At one of the largest prisons for Allied airmen, Stalag Luft III, the Germans planted seismographs in the ground every 33 feet so that they could detect the sounds of tunneling. They also raised the prison huts off the ground on stilts so that they could observe suspicious digging activity and built a huge trench around the entire prison to form yet another barrier between the prisoners and freedom. Despite all these measures, Stalag Luft III saw one of the biggest mass escapes of all time.

The Germans set the stage for a massive getaway when they chose to put nearly 10,000 strong, militarily trained men in Stalag Luft III together. Free to move about the prison, these men had nothing better to do than put their collective brainpower and might towards an escape plan. Among the inmates in 1944 were scores of talented miners, carpenters, engineers, even physicists and geologists, all of whom were willing to help execute an escape.

The Escape Committee was run by a South African airman named Roger Bushell, who devised a plan in 1943 to dig three tunnels, "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry." Fully 30 feet deep, each tunnel would lie beyond the reach of the listening devices (see The Nazi Prison Escape Tunnel). As they dug, the prisoners removed tunnel dirt by trolley, concealed it in the legs of their pants, and later dumped it inconspicuously around the prison grounds. Groups of prisoners took turns guarding the tunnels from the watchful eyes of the Germans and covering for "missing" prisoners when they were underground.

On the 24th of March, 1944, 76 men were able to escape through Harry. Unfortunately, only three of them reached safety (see Escaping a Nazi Prison Camp). Fifteen were captured and returned to the prison. Eight were sent to a concentration camp (though they ultimately survived the war). The remaining 50, Bushell among them, were rounded up and shot on orders from Hitler himself, who was embarrassed and infuriated by the mass escape. Hoping to deter any further prison breaks, Hitler ordered the ashes of the 50 murdered men scattered at Stalag Luft III by other prisoners.

Dalai Lama XIV

The Dalai Lama at his home in exile, Dharamsala, India Enlarge Photo credit: © Alison Wright/Corbis

Dalai Lama XIV (Tibet)
When they gained control of China in 1949, the Communists under Mao Tse Tung vowed to erase religion in China and regain economic and political power of the country's so-called "autonomous regions." Tibet, with its rich natural resources and friendly, pious inhabitants, became an immediate target. In 1959, as Communist armies stormed the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political leader, decided he had to try to escape from his homeland in hopes that he could lead his people from a safer perch in exile.

While huge crowds of Tibetans swarmed around the Dalai Lama's summer palace in an attempt to protect him from advancing troops, the Dalai Lama disguised himself in work clothes and crept unnoticed through the crowds and out of the city. "For the first time I was truly afraid," he wrote later, "for if I was caught all would be lost." When he reached the Kyichu River outside the city, he boarded a waiting boat and took it safely across. Eventually, the Dalai Lama, his brother, and a few loyal servants crossed through the Himalayas over the 16,000-foot Che La Pass and into the safety of India, where he has lived ever since.

Alcatraz

Choppy San Francisco Bay surrounds Alcatraz. Did the escapees drown trying to get away? Enlarge Photo credit: © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Alcatraz (California)
When Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay opened its doors as a federal prison in 1934, becoming home to the most violent criminals in the United States, its guards and overseers were confident that it was escape-proof. Alcatraz lay more than a mile from the mainland, in the midst of chilly waters surging with currents. The prison bristled with electric wires, fences, bars, and gun towers, and it had hidden microphones designed to detect even the faintest ping of a tunnel under construction.

Despite these obstacles, Alcatraz was the setting for several daring escapes, one of which, in 1962, remains one of the most notorious prison breaks in history. Frank Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin spent six months chipping away at the concrete around the air shafts in their cells, trying to create enough space to climb inside and wiggle their way through Alcatraz's mazelike ventilation system and out to freedom. Using a range of makeshift digging implements, including nail clippers, spoons, and a drill made from a fan, the three men bore through concrete and cut through steel bars. Each night they hid their progress by filling in the missing chunks of wall with a paste made from wet newspaper.

On June 11, they snuck through the ventilation system and out of the prison, then set themselves adrift on a raft made out of barrels, mesh wire, and old raincoats. The next morning, after finding dummies in the men's beds, Alcatraz guards searched in vain for the inmates in the waters around the prison. No trace of the men was ever found, and many assume they drowned in San Francisco Bay.

Berlin Wall

A sign in Russian, English, and French near the Berlin Wall warned "You are leaving the American sector." The east side of Berlin can be seen over the top of the Wall. Enlarge Photo credit: © Owen Franken/Corbis

Berlin Wall (Germany)
During the 26 years when the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin, and in the years since it tumbled in 1989, the wall has been a symbol of the ruthless determination of Communist leaders to keep their people behind the Iron Curtain. The wall also symbolized the passionate desire of many people to free themselves from a repressive system. Risking life and limb, hundreds of people were able to escape over the years through concrete, steel, and barbed wire, and past land mines, guard dogs, and sentries armed with automatic rifles and under strict orders to shoot to kill.

One of the cleverest forms of escape, used numerous times with success, involved passing through one of the Wall's many checkpoints hidden inside a car. Couriers with a legal right to pass through ferried countless refugees into West Berlin this way. Horst Breistoffer, a somewhat professional organizer of escapes, was a master of this method. Knowing that the East German guards carefully examined large cars and trucks for stowaways as they drove through the checkpoints, Breistoffer bought a miniscule car, a 1964 Italian Isetta, hoping the guards would forgo searching it. After spending more than two months modifying its structure to make room for an escapee, Breistoffer safely shuttled nine people over the border curled up in the space once taken up by the battery and heating system. (While transporting the tenth, he was caught.)

Tunneling beneath the Wall was another popular means of escape. Tunnel builders included professional gangs, which charged refugees extortionate rates to use them, and idealistic students, who hoped to help large groups of people cross the border at once. In 1964, Wolfgang Fuchs built one of the most important tunnels, which enabled more than 100 East Germans to reach the West. Fuchs spent seven months digging and orchestrating the 140-yard tunnel, which ran from a bathroom in the East to a basement in the West. A similarly successful tunnel began in an East Berlin graveyard. "Mourners" brought flowers to a grave and then disappeared underground. This escape route worked well until Communist officers discovered a baby carriage left by the "grave" and sealed the tunnel.

One of the most daring escapes involved two East German families, who worked together to create a homemade hot-air balloon. For months, Peter Strelzyk and Guenter Wetzel collaborated in their basements on a flamethrower and gas burner powerful enough to propel them out of Communist East Berlin using a 65-foot-wide, 75-foot-high balloon their wives stitched together from curtains, bedsheets, and random scraps. On the night of September 15, 1979, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels launched their contraption. They had just enough fuel to make it over the wall and land, whereupon they ran to freedom.

Billy Hayes

Arriving in New York on October 24, 1975 after his five-year ordeal in the Turkish prison system, Billy Hayes displays the new passport that the American embassy in Athens, Greece issued him. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettman/Corbis

Billy Hayes (Turkey)
In 1970, Turkish authorities sentenced Billy Hayes, a 22-year-old American caught trying to carry four pounds of hashish out of Turkey, to serve 30 years for smuggling, and threw him into a notoriously brutal prison in Istanbul called Sagmalicar. After over a year of beatings and a steady loss of hope, Hayes was transferred to a prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where he was allowed to spend his days unloading cargo from ships. Six months of plotting and waiting yielded an escape plan for Hayes, whose story later became the subject of a book and subsequent movie entitled Midnight Express.

Hayes snuck out of the prison, stole a rowboat, and made it to shore. Hoping to reach Greece, Hayes dyed his blond hair black and began travelling towards the border. Barefoot, exhausted, and lacking a passport, he swam across a river and walked for miles. When he finally came upon an armed soldier, he thought that he had lost his bid for freedom, but the soldier yelled at him in Greek. Hayes eventually made it back to the U.S. safely.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Great Escape.

Lexi Krock is associate editor of NOVA Online.

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