The daring and ingenious escape at the Stalag Luft III prison camp had a long pedigree, and memorable getaways certainly did not end with it. Throughout history, prisoners of all sorts have gone to unheard-of lengths to free themselves from confinement, whether it be house arrest in
When Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in
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.
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
The final escape in the
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
Henry "Box" Brown (
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
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
The Great Escape (
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 Inside Tunnel "Harry"). 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 The Three That Got Away). 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 (
When they gained control of
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
Despite these obstacles,
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,
During the 26 years when the Berlin Wall separated East and
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
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
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 (
In 1970, Turkish authorities sentenced Billy Hayes, a 22-year-old American caught trying to carry four pounds of hashish out of
Hayes snuck out of the prison, stole a rowboat, and made it to shore. Hoping to reach