The idea of a prison breakout is endlessly fascinating to the human psyche: Our obsession with the notion is evident in our continuous references to escapee prisoners in the media. Numerous films focus on the topic, such as Stalag 17, Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption, and more recently the 2005 TV series Prison Break. The actuality of prison breaks came to the fore in the public consciousness just this year, when in a strange turn of events an escaped prisoner in the U.S. turned himself back in, in early January. The convict in question, Robert Vick, had escaped a minimum security facility in Lexington, but had not taken into account the extreme weather, and found it too cold to remain on the run. Shortly after escaping Vick walked into a nearby motel and asked the clerk to call the police, in order to escape the freezing conditions.
With a few exceptions, such as the unusual one above, nowadays it’s generally believed to be harder than ever to escape from prison, which perhaps adds to the public obsession with the subject — if something seems practically humanly impossible, naturally it interests us to learn about those who have managed it.
The ways in which people have escaped from prison over the years, and their reasons for doing so, range from the heart-rending to the ridiculous. But at its most basic, the rebellious triumph over adversity in a prison break is intriguing and makes a great story. Read on, for the four of the most fascinating prison escapes of all time – whether in terms of scale, difficulty or sheer oddity.
4. John Dillinger — Wooden Gun
With a name that rings at least a vague bell for most people, John Dillinger was a prisoner in America during the 1920s and ’30s. Dillinger has been billed a ‘pseudo “Robin Hood” character’ due to the widely positive public perception of his actions, compounded by the influence his existence had on numerous film noirs of the 1940s.
Born in Indiana in July 1903, Dillinger was an intelligent but easily-bored child and teenager, who first began riling up the law with some auto theft. From then on his life was a downwards spiral in terms of crime, with an attempted robbery of a grocer’s store leading to two sentences for assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony, numbering two to fourteen years and ten to twenty years respectively, to be served in the Indiana State Prison.
Understandably, this sentencing reduced Dillinger to an obsessively bitter state, and perhaps influenced his decision to attempt escape. In 1933, on parole after eight and a half years in prison, Dillinger – unwisely – immediately robbed a bank. Upon his being re-incarcerated in the county jail in Lima, Ohio to wait for trial, three fellow escapees from Dillinger’s former jail broke him out of prison and the gang went on a crime spree, mainly comprising robbing banks and shooting police officers. Upon the group’s inevitable arrest, Dillinger was held in a purportedly ‘escape-proof’ jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Dillinger, of course, had no difficulty in getting out of the prison, using the ingenious tactic of terrifying the guards with what he later claimed to be a gun made of wood that he had whittled himself, before stealing two machine guns and fleeing the prison on March 3rd, 1934.
3. Alfie Hinds — Padlock
Alfred George “Alfie” Hinds was a British prisoner during the 1950s who remains one of the best-known British convicts to date. His life had been marked by illegal activities and disrespect for authority from the word go — his father worked as a bookmaker during a time in which bookmaking was illegal, and Hinds’ childhood occupation was to pacify any passing police officers with ten shillings or so. After the death of his father, Hinds’ life became still more unstable, and he was arrested for the first time at the age of twenty-two for refusal to aid the law in informing on his mother, who was at the time in trouble with the police.
He enlisted with the British Army during World War II, but deserted, and soon after he was accused of and arrested for a jewelry robbery in 1953. Although he continuously pleaded innocent, he was sentenced to twelve years in jail. He managed to escape his incarceration in Nottingham Prison in a reasonably uneventful fashion — by scaling the prison wall — and lived for some time as a fugitive in England and Ireland before being recaptured in 1956. In retaliation to this, Hinds brought a lawsuit against the authorities for illegal arrest, presumably entirely to facilitate his next attempt at escape: Having a padlock smuggled to him in the Law Courts, Hinds managed to escape in cartoon-like fashion by locking two unsuspecting guards into a cubicle when they escorted him to the bathroom. Admittedly, Hinds was recaptured in a matter of hours, but his attempt is noteworthy for its almost parodical style.
2. Horace Greasley — The Repeat Offender
One prison escape story that deviates somewhat from the norm, and seems like the romantic plot line in some fantastical film, is that of Horace Greasley. Born in Leicestershire in 1901, Greasley was working as a hairdresser in the former Czechoslovakia when Hitler invaded the country. Greasley, at the age of 20, was conscripted. After only a few months of service, he was taken prisoner in France and eventually ended up in a Prisoners of War camp near Lamsdorf. There, he encountered the person that was to change his life entirely: Rosa Rauchbach, the seventeen year old daughter of the director of the marble quarry to which the PoW camp was attached.
Rauchbach was working as an interpreter for the Germans and the two were immediately attracted to each other, an embodiment of the star-crossed lovers trope. They struck up an affair that carried on unchallenged for almost a year, before Greasley was transferred to an annex of Auschwitz named Freiwaldau, around forty miles away. Greasley realised that the only way he could continue his relationship with Rauchbach was to break out of his camp, which he astonishingly managed to do repeatedly over the course of his five-year imprisonment.
He and Rauchbach exchanged messages via members of outside work parties who had their hair cut by Greasley, the camp barber. With the help of his friends, Greasley managed to break out of the camp up to three times a week for secret trysts, and return again under the cover of darkness. Their affair benefited his fellow campmates, as Rauchbach sent them food parcels and pieces of equipment which ultimately allowed the prisoners to listen to the BBC news on the radio. Sadly, soon after Greasley was liberated he got word that Rauchbach had died in childbirth, along with her baby. It was never determined whether or not Greasley was the father.
1. The Great Escape — tunnels
Perhaps the most famous of prison breaks is The Great Escape — this escape was instrumental in creating the stereotypical notion of prisoners digging their way out of their cells with spoons. With its well-known name coined as a result of the 1960s Hollywood blockbuster based on the event, this escape took the shape of a mass escape from PoW camp Stalag Luft III, which housed mainly British and American prisoners, near the Polish town of Zagan during World War II.
The escape was meticulously well-planned: the prisoners involved established a committee and had a chief escape officer, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who was given the unsubtle code name of ‘Big X’. The official decision was to build three tunnels — nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry — to facilitate the escape of more than two hundred prisoners. The tunnels were prevented from collapsing by use of parts of the prisoners’ bunk beds. The ‘Tom’ tunnel was discovered, which halted progress for a time, but eventually the mass escape attempt was executed on the 24th of March 1944 via ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, such as escapees panicking while in the tunnel and an unfortunately placed tunnel exit which crossed the path of a peremiter guard, only seventy-six of the primed two hundred men managed to escape. Of these, three made it home to the UK, twenty-three were recaptured and fifty were executed by Hitler. So although the escape can hardly technically be considered a success, it still managed to cause uproar among the Germans, diverting thousands of police, Hitler Youth members and soldiers from the war to track down the escapees, which renders it one of the most-famed and inspirational prison escapes of all time.