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Top 10 Spectacular Prison Escapes

Spectacular Prison Escapes

Nobody likes to be in jail. That’s what prisons are built for, it’s meant to be a penitentiary, that is, a ‘punishment’ for bad behavior. However, some convicts have so much trouble with the prison that they do everything they can to escape. The result, spectacular escape attempts, which are usually discovered before the prisoner(s) can actually walk into the free world. But sometimes it works, sometimes the criminals (or prisoners of war) manage to fool their guards, with freedom as a reward.

Of course, there have been quite a few successful prison escapes over the centuries, and the best, most bizarre, greatest, or otherwise famous or infamous are in this list. We start in the distant past (read, about four centuries ago) and gradually come back to the present era, ending with the King of Escapes, quite contrary to expectations in an ordinary Dane.

10. Hugo Grotius (seventeenth century)


Hugo de Groot was a lawyer and writer who was born in Delft (April 10) in 1583. De Groot wrote mainly tragedies and poems, but also religious treatises, and, his most important work, legal texts. He wrote a book on the Right of War and Peace (De jure belli ac pacis) and on everyone’s right to free access to the sea (Mare Liberum). As a legal expert, he is one of the most important ‘early’ jurists.

He was a child prodigy who was sent to the University of Leiden at the age of eleven. Later in life he became a lawyer and traveled as a diplomat to many European countries (France, England, Spain). However, in 1610 he became involved in a religious dispute, in which he sided with Jacobus Arminius. He was eventually arrested in 1618 because of this connection and imprisoned in Loevestein Castle with the sentence ‘in perpetual prison’. Since at the time women did not have much to say, and despite his verdict De Groot was a well-known man who had to be granted a certain ‘state of life’, his wife and their maid were allowed to share his verdict.

Hugo was also allowed to continue studying, and so he regularly received a large chest full of books, which the soldiers received from a family that took care of the books for De Groot. Hugo’s wife saw the light, and urged her husband into the box to practice. Night after night Hugo practiced sitting in the coffin, and staying still long enough. After two years (in 1621), de Groot escaped, folded and silent as a mouse, in a chest intended for study books. Elsina, the maid, accompanied the coffin (and her boss) to see if everything was going well. And everything went great. Hugo escaped the coffin at the right time, and left the country via Antwerp, and later moved on to Paris.

The story is so famous that chests can be admired in various places, which historians say are the coffin of Hugo’s escape. Hugo himself later came back to the Netherlands, but refused to make a plea for himself because he didn’t think he had done anything wrong. Milder in disposition than his predecessor, Frederik Hendrik decided to simply ‘banish’ the stubborn Groot. Hugo worked for a while as a councilor for the young Queen Christina of Sweden, but the cold climate did him no favors and he ended his life in the more southern Lubeck.

9. Jack Sheppard (Eighteenth Century)

jack sheppard

We jump forward in time to the eighteenth century, and to England. Born on March 4, 1702, Jack Sheppard was a notorious thief in his short time on Earth (he died on the scaffold at age 22). Not content with his meager existence, Jack decided to become a thief in 1723, and in his short but vigorous career he was arrested no less than five times. He managed to escape four times.

Because of his own background (he was born and raised in one of the poorest areas of London) and his success in escaping, Jack was quite popular among the poor. This made the English judiciary nervous. The people had to be kept small, and so Jack, the fifth time he was captured, was unceremoniously condemned and hanged at Tyburn, a place where all such executions took place. But not before some money was made from him. He was so famous that the prison guards could ask for money from wealthy citizens to come and see him, with a 150 kilo heavy drawing ball around his leg.

The famous writer Daniel Dafoe has written a biography, allegedly with permission and input from Jack himself, which was published during his execution. Naturally, this somewhat morbidly timed book became wildly popular, and quickly turned into plays for the large population that could not read. However, even after his death, the authorities were still afraid of the uproar that Jack might cause, and so games in his name or honor were banned. Of course, nothing is better for publication and notoriety than a good ban…

8. Slawomir Rawicz, the 1940s

Slawomir Rawicz

Slawomir Rawicz was born in Poland in 1915 and was arrested by the Russian secret service shortly after the Germans entered Poland. He was sent first to Kharkov for interrogation, and later to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, but nothing interesting passed his lips, so he was eventually convicted of espionage, and sent to Siberia for 25 years of intensive labor. He and thousands of other ‘spies’ were sent to Irkutsk and from there they had to walk themselves to camp 303, which had yet to be built by them. All this in a Siberian tundra climate.

On April 9, 1941 Rawicz escaped with six other prisoners in the middle of a storm. In a frenzied quest for freedom, the group forced its way south, avoiding all contact with civilization. In the meantime they came across another Polish lady, also on the run, named Krystyna. Days later they crossed the Lena River, walked around Lake Baikal and crossed the border into Mongolia.

 There they had to traverse the Gobi desert, and this would prove fatal to Krystyna and another companion named Makowski. The others survived on snakes, and eventually their long toil was rewarded with a view of the Tibetan mountains. With the somewhat false slogan that they were ‘pilgrims’ on their way to the holy city of Lhasa, they were welcomed with open arms.

That winter they tried to cross the Himalayas, but they lost another companion in the process. That was the last casualty, though, for then, in 1942, they finally reached the Indies, which as British territory was safe for them.

The film The Way Back is based on Rawicz’s memoirs, written in the book ‘The Long Walk’. Both are available and very interesting to read or see if you have the time.

7. Alfred Wetzler, World War II

Alfred Wetzler

Alfred Wetzler, a Slovak Jew born in 1918, is one of the few (known to us) Jews who managed to escape from Auschwitz (a Nazi death camp for Jews). He and his fellow inmate Rudolf Vrba reported an accurate diagram of the internal structure of the death camp after their escape. The report came to be known as Vrba-Wetzler, and it is the first detailed report to break through to the Allies of the West and to be considered credible. This eventually resulted in the bombing of Hungarian government buildings, in an attempt to stop the Nazis from deporting more Jews to Auschwitz. Indeed, this saved some 120,000 Hungarian Jews from a horrific death.

Anyway, the escape itself, that’s why we started this list. Wetzler and Vrba escaped in the holly of the night by hiding in a hollowed out shelter in a woodpile just outside the arrivals hall. They were helped by fellow inmates, who piled wood around Wetzler and Vrba to hide them. They also poured smelly Russian tobacco and gasoline against and on the pile of wood, to fool the guard dogs. Wetzler and Vrba stayed in that shelter for four nights before rushing to the river with stolen clothing. Using a torn page from a children’s atlas as their only orientation material, they paved their way to freedom, before writing their important and life-saving report.

 Presumably they themselves would have liked the response to their revelation to be more immediate for the prisoners themselves, but unfortunately that was not the case. Auschwitz itself was not liberated until January 27, 1945, by the Russian Red Army.

6. The Great Escape, World War II

great escape

Stalag Luft III was a German prison camp for paramilitary allies. Roger Bushell disagreed with his prison conditions, and from this war camp led one of the greatest escape attempts of all time. The plan was simple, three tunnels would be dug from prison to the free world. The tunnels had code names, Tom, Dick and Harry. Because the Germans were not from yesterday, the tunnels had to be nine meters deep, otherwise microphones could detect the digging. To save time, the tunnels were not made too wide, about 37 centimeters was sufficient. Fortunately, all the prisoners were completely emaciated due to the lack of food, so this was not a problem.

One difficulty was ensuring enough oxygen for the digger as the tunnels got longer. With nothing but inventiveness, the paramilitaries built a kind of pump, and an electrical wire was installed so that light could be created in the darkness. Even a mini rail was not too far for these soldiers, and so the sand was quickly removed.

Harry was almost ready at the beginning of March 1944 but disaster struck, the soldiers of that section would suddenly be transferred to another facility. So action had to be taken before they were actually deported. First they had to wait for a new moon, and finally on March 24, the attempt started.

Unfortunately, the tunnel was too short. Instead of ending up in the forest, the escaped soldiers emerged from the earth a few meters before the tree line. Despite this, 76 soldiers were able to cross the tunnel unseen. However, the 77th was spotted by one of the guards, and a manhunt ensued. Only 3 men out of 76 managed to escape. Fifty were shot and the rest were sent back to camp.

5. Alfred “Alfie” Hinds, the 1950s

alfi hinds

Born in 1917, Alfred (or Alfie) Hinds was raised in a children’s home after his father, a thief, died of the corporal punishment administered to him. At age seven, Alfie ran away from the home and was arrested years later for petty theft as a teenager. His first escape was from Borstal, an institution for young offenders.

Not surprising given his experience with the government, Alfred was not filled with patriotism, and quickly deserted during World War II. He instead continued his criminal activities, eventually being arrested in 1953 for a jewelry theft. Despite his pleas for his innocence, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. That didn’t sit well with him, and some time later he escaped from Nottingham Prison, through (seemingly) closed doors and a 20-foot wall. The press referred to him with the honorary name: Houdini Hinds.

Escape was his thing, but he couldn’t stay out of the clutches of the government, because he was arrested again in 1956, after less than a year of freedom. In the ensuing trial (in which Alfie accused the prison of illegal arrest), Alfie again managed to escape by locking his two guards in the bathroom during a bathroom break. Unfortunately, this time he was captured again 5 hours after his escape.

His third escape was from Chelmsford Prison less than a year later. He once again returned to Ireland and took on a different identity. Unfortunately, he was arrested for possession of an unregistered car and again put behind bars.

All the while, Alfie had also championed his own cause, sending letters repeatedly to the British House of Appeals. He also sold his life story to the News of the World newspaper for a small 40,000 pounds. A nice income. In 1960, he was finally sent to Parkhurst Prison for the last six years of his sentence, where he remained on good terms until his six years were up. Alfie died on January 5, 1991.

4. Alcatraz, the 60s


Alcatraz is America’s most famous prison. It is a penitentiary in San Francisco Bay, and so-called ‘escape-proof’. Fourteen attempts, with about 34 involved, prove this fact, because all of them failed. However, in 1937 and 1962, prisoners managed to be neither captured nor shot during their attempt. The official suspicion is that these escaped convicts nevertheless perished, in the icy bay water, but their bodies were never recovered, so we cannot say for sure. They may have succeeded.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers managed to escape their cells while digging. They then auctioned their way through the bars and escaped through an air shaft, a sewer pipe and over an iron fence to the coast of Alcatraz Island, where they disappeared on some kind of floating raft. They are believed to have drowned, but as we said, we don’t know for sure. The story was made into a film in 1979 under the name “Escape from Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood.

3. Maze Prison, the 80s

maze prison

In Antrim, Northern Ireland, is the Maze Prison, a huge penitentiary consisting of a plethora of buildings and walls with barbed wire and god knows what nonsense to keep prisoners inside. The prison is known as the Long Kesh. The Long Kesh was considered to be escape-proof, but the opposite was proven on September 25, 1983. The Irish call it the Great Escape, and during this legendary outbreak as many as 38 IRA members (Irish Republican Army) escaped prison block H7.

At around 2:30 am, the inmates took control of the H block and held the guards as hostages. One prison guard was shot, the others were held under fire, but not harmed. When a truck arrived with food supplies moments later, it was overpowered and used to escape. All 38 IRA members drove out of the maximum security prison in a food truck.

19 prisoners were captured in the following days; so they didn’t get very far. However, the other prisoners managed to avoid detection and disappeared from Ireland. Some of them were later arrested in the United States and sent back to Ireland. Others continued to enjoy their freedom. Incidentally, none of the detainees are actively prosecuted anymore, because of the political ‘problems’ that initially caused these men to be imprisoned. Some have even been granted amnesty.

2. Pascal Payet, the new millennium

Pascal Payet

Pascal Payet deserves a spot on this list not because of one, but because of two spectacular escapes. He escaped twice from a maximum security prison in France, and he did that via a helicopter. In addition, he helped three other convicts do the same trick, again by helicopter.

Payet was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder while robbing a security van in 1997. After his first breakout in 2001, he was arrested again and sentenced to an additional 7 years. He therefore escaped a second time, in 2003, but was found again, in 2007. By the way, he had his face changed with plastic surgery, but it did not help him, he was recognized anyway.

1. Brian Bo Larsen, recently

Brian Bo Larsen

We conclude this list with the best escape artist of all time, at least when you consider the number of escapes. Brian Bo Larsen, a Dane, has no fewer than 22 successful escapes to his name. We can, of course, partly attribute this to poor security and neglected constructions, and perhaps the Danish authorities are not as aggressive as they are in other countries, but nevertheless, escape is not granted so often.

Sentenced to 7 years in prison, Larsen decided in 2005 that he had had enough and escaped with the help of garbage collectors. Every time he escaped, however, he was caught again, and brought back, only to escape again a few months later. Less than a year ago, December 22, 2014, he was arrested again after his 22nd escape. We don’t think this will be his last attempt though…

His last attempt at freedom was interrupted by an unfortunate wig. He was so happy with his newfound freedom that, high and in a stolen car, he accidentally drove through a gate and came to rest against some trees. He ran away from the car (leaving the other passenger, a prostitute, behind) but was later picked up by the police anyway. He gave a false ID. card and was almost safe when his wig accidentally slid off his head, after which the cops recognized who they were really dealing with. Unfortunately Brian was not allowed to experience Christmas in freedom this year. But maybe next year?

That was the ten escapes again. And yes, we have undoubtedly skipped a few worth mentioning. Don’t hesitate to add in the comments below!

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