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Hysterical Histories: Great Escapes

Antonio Pattori (he/him) explores history's most daring and memorable escapes.

History is riddled with stories of great escapes against all odds. Whilst some of these stories resulted in successful escapes, others ended up worsening the situation for the condemned criminal. The most famous escape of all, immortalised for posterity by the great 1979 movie starring Clint Eastwood, must be the Escape from the US maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island in 1962. In June of that year, Frank Morris, and Clarence and John Anglin, successfully escaped Alcatraz Island after tucking papier-mâché heads into their beds: these were models of themselves made to sneak out at night, literally like mere sixteen year old teenagers. The three then broke out via an unused corridor, and fled the island aboard improvised inflatable rafts. Their fate, however, remains uncertain. San Francisco Bay is known for having strong currents and the presence of numerous species of sharks, all of which would have made the escapee’s five kilometre swim rather challenging. In December of the same year, John Paul Scott did exactly that, yet was then arrested across the bay suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion. Numerous theories exist about the escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, ranging from their death to a new life in Brazil. The mother of the Anglin brothers continued to receive flowers for Mother’s Day, whilst two very tall women in heavy makeup were sighted at her funeral in 1973. At the father’s funeral, two unknown men with large beards came near the casket, wept, and then left. To this day, the infamous Escape from Alcatraz remains an unsolved mystery. 

History presents a myriad of prison escapes, all with different facets and elements, yet none are more bizarre than Pablo Escobar’s 1992 escape from La Catedral. After ordering the assasination of Colombian Presidential Candidate Luis Carlo Galan, Escobar – the leader of Medellin Drug Cartel – negotiated a surrender with the Colombian authorities. The result was his imprisonment in a new personal prison, equipped with Jacuzzis, swimming pools, a football pitch, and waterfalls. ‘Hotel Escobar’, as it was dubbed, became a luxury resort, and facilitated Escobar’s escape in 1992, once he uncovered plans to move him to a standard prison. Escobar simply walked out of the back gate and disappeared. However, Escobar could not escape forever. His life as an escapee lasted only another sixteen months, prior to being killed by Colombian special units (funded by the US Government) in a 1993 shootout. 

History is full of  many less famous escapes. In 1534, Alice Tankerville was sentenced to death for having stolen the king’s gold (and we all know how much Henry VIII liked money!), and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Tankerville managed to escape and crossed the Thames by seducing a guard who, taken by his new love for her, escaped with her with the help of another gaoler. This romantic story was not to last. The three were arrested, and I will leave to your imagination what fate Henry VIII had planned for them. Escaping the Tower of London could, however, bring great results depending on who the prisoner was… in 1100, the new king Henry I imprisoned his predecessor’s Chief Justiciar, Ranulf Flambard, scapegoating him as the man responsible for the previous regime’s mistakes. Flambard became the first person to ever escape the Tower, by descending out of his cell’s window with a rope smuggled by his allies in a flagon of wine. Flambard then escaped to Normandy, where he worked for Henry I’s brother and rival, Duke Robert, prior to returning to England and resuming his old post as Chief Justiciar. Indeed, Henry had realised that imprisoning a capable administrator was a stupid idea! Unlike Escobar, the Alcatraz escapees, and Tankerville, Flambard played his cards right and succeeded. Hysterically tragic, but true. 

Image Credit: Zoe Rhoades

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