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From Daedalus to Alcatraz, prison escapes have a long (and often romanticized) history.
2019-03-22 10:00:00

Oh Freedom, Where Art Thou?
The Art of the Prison Break

Illustration from the archives
Oh Freedom, Where Art Thou?
Oh Freedom, Where Art Thou?

History shows us that to escape from prison you need, most of all, courage and luck. A fork, a rope twisted from bed sheets, or a raft made of raincoats might also come in handy.

Read in 12 minutes

One of the most spectacular prison breaks was portrayed in Greek mythology. Its protagonist was the innovator and inventor, Daedalus. Wanted for murder in his native Athens, he travelled to Crete where he entertained King Minos’ court and family with his ‘wandering statues’. His good fortune came to an end when Queen Pasiphaë, blinded by desire towards a bull, requested that Daedalus invent a device that would allow her to fulfil her erotic yearnings. Obediently, the inventor constructed a wooden, hollowed-out figure of a cow that the queen could enter and use for intercourse. When she later gave birth to a half-man, half-bull – the Minotaur – the secret was out, and the ingenious craftsman landed in prison. A less fantastical, more tamed version of events suggests that Pasiphaë had an affair with a general named Taurus, rather than a bull. Knowing all about it, the discreet Daedalus kept her secret from Minos. Either way, he was punished and imprisoned in the labyrinth he designed, alongside the Minotaur/Taurus and his son, Icarus. Together, the father and son planned their unlikely escape.

The flight of Daedalus

First, the loyal Pasiphaë helped them exit the labyrinth. Then, they both attempted to outsmart Minos’ potential chase and fly away from Crete. We all know how this ended. Daedalus fabricated wings from feathers, thread and wax, but during their flight over the sea Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and the boy fell into the sea and drowned. Daedalus safely reached Sicily. However, that wasn’t the end of his great escape – Minos was still after him.

The clever king found out that Daedalus was hiding among the Sicilians, so he announced a contest. Anyone who could manage to thread a string through a twisted seashell would win a prize. He knew that only a genius such as Daedalus would be able to achieve such a feat. Sure enough, an answer came from Sicily: one should drill a small hole in the shell and smear it with honey, then tie the string to an ant. Lured by the honey, the insect will negotiate the twisty interior of the shell, stringing it all the way through. Mission accomplished! Thus Minos tracked down his escapee. He demanded that the Sicilians return Daedalus. Having no choice, King Cocalus of Sicily obliged, inviting Minos to his court. But before he was handed over, Daedalus yet again showed his intelligence, this time revealing himself to be a criminal genius. After convincing Minos to take a bath, Cocalus’s daughters and Daedalus let boiling water into the pipes, killing the king. The Sicilians returned his mutilated body to the Cretans, weeping crocodile tears and lying through their teeth that Minos tripped on a carpet and fell into a vat of boiling water.

This is how the ancient story ends. According to contemporary standards, we can find in it all the elements characteristic of a great prison escape movie. There is the genius prisoner in a secluded dungeon, an ingenious idea of how to escape from behind bars, the death of one of the fugitives, a steadfast pursuit of the prison chief and, finally, the fugitive settling the matter once and for all with the help of the mafia.

It’s somewhat surprising that such a film hasn’t been made yet. Perhaps this is because escapes similar to that of Daedalus do happen from time to time. Just a few months ago, Rédoine Faïd, sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a police officer, made his escape – via helicopter – from a prison in the suburbs of Paris. In 2013 and 2014, groups of prisoners escaped Canadian prisons using the same means.

A medieval hack

Daedalus’s story was well known in ancient times. No one, however, dared to follow in his footsteps (or at least their contemporaries didn’t report it). It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that another famous escape took place, when the Welsh rebel Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr orchestrated his escape from the Tower of London. Born at the end of the 12th century, the fairly hapless illegitimate son of the King of Wales, he was first held hostage at the English court. Once freed, it wasn’t long before he was back behind bars (this time imprisoned by his own father), and later by his own half-brother, who took over the reigns after his father’s death. In the end, he was banished to England, again, as a hostage. For company in the cells, his son Oswain was also imprisoned! What a nightmare.

All of this must have been hard to swallow, so Gruffydd decided to escape the Tower at any cost. Unlike Daedalus, he chose not to fly away from the prison with his son in tow. He chose an easier solution. On 1st March 1244, he tied up all of his bed linens, making a rope that he then suspended from the window of his cell. Sadly, the rope did not withstand his weight and snapped – Gruffydd fell to his death. Paradoxically, his failed escape attempt afforded freedom to his son, and the bed linen trick was subsequently repeated by other prisoners, to great success.

The master of quick-witted getaways

Among the more successful was Jack Sheppard, a legendary escapee. Having grown up in poverty in 18th-century London, he chose a ‘career’ path in the city’s criminal underbelly, instead of pursuing carpentry (as he’d initially planned). He fell in with the wrong crowd, and began stealing instead of working. He was 22 when he was arrested in April 1724. Despite being locked in chains, he managed to punch a hole in the cell’s ceiling, and escaped using a rope devised from bed sheets.

In May, history repeated itself. This time, Sheppard was arrested for pickpocketing. He was thrown in jail, with his wife and partner in crime, the prostitute Jennifer Lyon. The getaway was quick and easy. Despite his slight build, Sheppard managed to break the bars in the window and – again, using a rope made from bed linen – escaped together with Lyon, climbing over an almost seven-metre-high fence.

But even that wasn’t the end of it. A few months later, in August, Jack was captured and transported to Newgate prison. He didn’t have much time to escape – as a habitual criminal he was sentenced to hang. It was just a matter of time before he faced execution. Yet again, his diminutive posture, combined with the help of women, saved him. A few of his prostitute acquaintances paid him a visit at the prison. While they were chatting up the guards, Sheppard broke the bars of the prison cell door, squeezed himself through the resulting hole, and having changed into female clothing, ran off.

Just a few days later, he was back at Newgate! This time, in order to prevent another escape, he was chained to the floor of his cell. Nonetheless, he was able to unchain himself using a lock pick fashioned from a nail. The rest was easy: using a piece of metal from the chimney, he forged a hole in the ceiling through which he was able to reach, via a number of empty prison halls, the roof of the prison. From there he lowered himself with – you’ve guessed it – the use of a bed-sheet rope. It was 15th October 1724, and the news travelled quickly, leaving fellow Londoners shocked, yet in awe of Jack’s skills. His fame grew. Seemingly, he was assisted by some kind of evil forces! Even Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, began to write about Jack.

Overwhelmed by his newfound freedom and fame, Jack grew exceptionally reckless. He took to drinking and was blind drunk when he was picked up and transported – yet again – to the familiar Newgate prison. This time, the chains weighed around 135 kilograms. On 16th November 1724, a month and a day after his last escape, Sheppard was hanged. Right before the execution, he tried in vain to free himself with the help of a cleverly concealed knife. This time, however, the guards were more cautious.

Almost one third of the entire city – 200,000 people – watched Jack’s execution. He really went down in the pages of history.

The cheek of Casanova

The type of behaviour that afforded Jack his eternal fame was simply an episode in the rich career of the famous womanizer Giacomo Casanova. Considered a dangerous libertine, he was arrested by the Venetian state in the summer of 1755. Casanova wasn’t charged, didn’t stand trial, and never even heard the verdict – instead, he was simply locked up in a prison for hardened criminals, housed in several squalid, stuffy, vermin-infested cells in the garret floor of Palazzo Ducale.

Having no intention of wasting away there, Casanova at once began to chip away at the palace’s floor with some scrap metal. If only he could reach the floor below, the escape would be easy. Sadly, he was moved to a different cell just as he came close to reaching his goal. To make matters worse, the prison guards, having discovered his actions, began to watch the floor of his new cell more carefully.

Forced to come up with a better idea, Giacomo turned his attention to what was above his head, rather than below his feet. The wooden beams of his cell seemed decayed. Ever the seducer, Casanova convinced the prisoner in the neighbouring chamber – a renegade priest – to help him out. After long months of preparations, they finally managed to break through the beams in January 1757, reaching the roof of the palace. Next, they needed to find a way to climb down from the roof. Naturally, Casanova made a bed-sheet rope, and they entered the palace through a window one floor below. There, they changed, went through a maze of corridors, outsmarted a guard, and by the next morning they were free. Casanova escaped using a gondola. Later, he took a horse drawn carriage to Paris to forget, as quickly as possible, about the 18 months spent among the questionable charms of the Palazzo.

The patriot’s exodus

For Poles, the most important prison break of not just the 18th century, but of their entire national history, belongs to Maurycy Beniowski. Born a Slovak, brought up Hungarian, and later choosing to identify as a Pole, the 22-year-old squire joined the 1768 Bar Confederation against King Stanisław II Augustus and the Russian influences in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the tsarist soldiers captured Beniowski, resulting in his transportation to Siberia. After a failed attempt at escape from Kazan, his situation became considerably worse, and he was transferred to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. He had no intention of rotting there until the end of his days, cold and impoverished. Instead, he began radicalising the other convicts, simultaneously befriending a Russian commanding officer and secretly stashing away weapons. On 25th April 1771, together with several dozen comrades, Beniowski attacked the tsarist fort in Bolsheriecko. On 11th May, they boarded the St Peter and Paul naval vessel and waved goodbye to the unwelcoming shores of Kamchatka.

What followed was a several months-long exile – down the coast of Alaska, past the Aleutian Islands towards Japan, Taiwan and finally mainland China – later colourfully described (and exaggerated) by Beniowski himself. Most importantly, not only did he break free, but he also became famous, which helped him until the end of his life. He travelled wherever he wanted to. In France, he told the story of how he tricked the Russians (which, apparently, very much upset Tsarina Catherine the Great). Later, he sailed across the Atlantic to take part in the American War of Independence. He ended his life as the king of the rebellious Malagasy tribes in Madagascar. He died there in 1786, only 40 years old, but having secured esteem that practically ensured him immortality among Poles. He became an inspiration for future Polish exiles, prisoners of war, and labour camp prisoners. While prisoners in the West were inspired by the getaway of Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, Poles in the East were enthused by the real-life adventures of Beniowski, published several years after his death.

The French job

While Beniowski was the most famous Polish escapee, the most effective escape on Polish soil took place in Kłodzko. The place of action was a German fortress; the year was 1911. A French intelligence officer, Charles Lux, had been imprisoned there in the summer, sentenced to six years for spying. It wasn’t just any old bog standard spying – Lux was keeping an eye on the Kaiser’s super-weapon, the Zeppelin. Evidently, Lux was a talented intelligence officer. He quickly determined what the weak points of the fortress were and how they could be used to his advantage. Then, he started to organize the equipment. Posing as an obedient prisoner, he gained a good reputation among the German guards.

Meanwhile, however, he secretly concocted invisible ink and, between the lines of letters addressed to his brother, detailed the kind of items he needed to receive. Unbelievable as it sounds, he soon had in his cell a fair amount of money, some metal files, and even a counterfeit passport.

On the night of 27th December, this French James Bond (or maybe even MacGyver) set his escape plan into motion. He arranged his bedding to look as if someone was really asleep in bed. Using lock picks and metal files, he forced his way through various locks and bars. It took a few hours, but as it was Christmas, the guards had better things to do than to check up on prisoners.

Using a rope, this time made from towels rather than bed sheets, he descended the prison wall. Having already changed into suitable clothes, he then went past the guards and headed straight for the railway station. Along the way, he sprinkled black pepper, just in case the Germans discovered his disappearance and pursued him with sniffer dogs. Before they realized he was gone, Lux was already abroad.

In France, fame awaited him. He received honours and congratulations, and published a book. In contrast to many other escapees, he didn’t have to hide – he wasn’t simply a prisoner, but a national hero.

The phantoms of Alcatraz

Escapees from the California-based island prison of Alcatraz haven’t exactly become national heroes, but rather pop-culture idols. At one time, the prison was viewed as an inescapable fortress. First of all, it had high walls, barbed wire and guards. Second, it seemed impossible that anyone would be able to swim away from it, given the strong frigid currents in the 2.5-kilometre stretch across San Francisco Bay to the mainland.

By 1962, anyone attempting a desperate escape either drowned or was eventually caught. That was, until four daring prisoners decided to give it a go. John and Clarence Anglin, Frank Morris and Allen West weren’t quite as famous as the gangster Al Capone, one of the first prisoners to arrive at Alcatraz in 1934. They were hardened and hardly likeable types; small-time criminals who in the past had robbed banks, stolen cars and dealt drugs, notching up a few prison breaks along the way. When Morris accidentally discovered a disused sewage system corridor in the wall of his cell, he came up with an idea of how to escape Alcatraz. Recognizing that he had little chance of succeeding on his own, he let his companions in on the idea. Across many nights, the escapees chiselled away at the walls using metal cutlery, prepared dummies to replace them in their beds on the night of their escape, and constructed an inflatable raft from over 20 stolen raincoats.

The prisoners set off on 11th June, leaving West behind (apparently, waiting for him was not worth the risk – it later turned out that he couldn’t reach the corridor in time). They launched their inflatable rafts and set off across the Bay.

What happened next remains shrouded in mystery. The escapees were never caught, nor were their bodies found. No one ever heard from them. Eventually, in 2013, a letter supposedly penned by the then 83-year-old John Anglin reached the San Francisco Police Department. It revealed that the trio managed to survive their escape. The writer – suffering from cancer at that point – had decided to contact the authorities, as his two companions had died a few years earlier. Criminologists have not yet been able to determine whether the letter was authentic, but nonetheless, the case will remain open until the date when the fugitives would have reached their 100th birthdays.

This is also the price of escape: fame. If you escape a low-category prison, everyone will soon forget about you. But if you manage to escape Alcatraz, you will be famous until the day you die – even after the prison ceases to exist, even once they forget whether you were good, bad, or ugly.


Translated by Joanna Figiel

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