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Notorious Jailbreaks

"Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take. That for an hermitage; If I have freedom in my love, And in my soul am free, Angels alone that soar above Enjoy such liberty."
Richard Lovelace

Alcatraz  San Francisco,  California

When Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay opened its doors as a state prison in 1934, becoming home to the most violent criminals in the United States, its guards and overseers were confident that it was escape-proof. Alcatraz lay more than a mile from the mainland, in the midst of chilly waters surging with currents. The prison bristled with electric wires, fences, bars, and gun towers, and it had hidden microphones designed to detect even the faintest ping of a tunnel under construction.

Despite these obstacles, Alcatraz was the setting for several daring escapes, one of which, in 1962, remains one of the most notorious prison breaks in history. Frank Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin spent six months chipping away at the concrete around the air shafts in their cells, trying to create enough space to climb inside and wiggle their way through Alcatraz's mazelike ventilation system and out to freedom. Using a range of makeshift digging implements, including nail clippers, spoons, and a drill made from a fan, the three men bore through concrete and cut through steel bars. Each night they hid their progress by filling in the missing chunks of wall with a paste made from wet newspaper.

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, Alcatraz guards searched in vain for the inmates in the waters around the prison. No trace of the men was ever found, and many assume they drowned in San Francisco Bay.

Buffalo Bill

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 Fort Larned, Colorado. Knowing that his captors' supply of meat was low, Cody convinced them to let him lead them to a nearby herd of cattle he knew of. Though a large group surrounded him as they traveled, Cody, who was allowed to ride in front, eventually broke free and urged his mule into a brisk canter. For six miles, the Indians pursued Cody, who never had more than a half-mile lead. Though the Indians shot arrows at him and tried to knock him off his mule, Cody prevailed, eventually slipping unnoticed into a Fort Larned bar and escaping.

Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall   Germany

During the 26 years when the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin, and in the 12 years since it tumbled, the wall has been a symbol of the ruthless determination of Communist leaders to keep their people behind the Iron Curtain. The wall also symbolized the passionate desire of many people to free themselves from a repressive system. Risking life and limb, hundreds of people were able to escape over the years through concrete, steel, and barbed wire, and past land mines, guard dogs, and sentries armed with automatic rifles and under strict orders to shoot to kill.

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 West Berlin this way. Horst Breistoffer, a somewhat professional organizer of escapes, was a master of this method. Knowing that the East German guards carefully examined large cars and trucks for stowaways as they drove through the checkpoints, Breistoffer bought a miniscule car, a 1964 Italian Isetta, hoping the guards would forgo searching it. After spending more than two months modifying its structure to make room for an escapee, Breistoffer safely shuttled nine people over the border curled up in the space once taken up by the battery and heating system. (While transporting the tenth, he was caught.)

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 East Berlin graveyard. "Mourners" brought flowers to a grave and then disappeared underground. This escape route worked well until Communist officers discovered a baby carriage left by the "grave" and sealed the tunnel.

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, bed sheets, 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.

Bourbon with an axe on a Christmas Card.

Rae Bourbon Brown County Texas

The most famous prisoner in Brown County was Rae Bourbon, 76, a female impressionist that had worked with Mae West.  He had left 70 dogs, 5 cats, and 2 skunks with an animal shelter in Big Spring, run by a man named Blount.  Two of Bourbon's "friends" from Kansas City named Crane and Crisco went to Big Springs and one of them shot Blount. Bourbon was brought to Brownwood for trial.  Bourbon was tried and convicted by a Brown County jury of conspiracy to commit murder and Bourbon died while the case was on appeal.  Bourbon was a person who claimed to have known and helped Pancho Villa smuggle guns from Texas and was a personal friend of many of the movie stars in Hollywood. Bob Hope even called William B. Bell, his attorney, one day about him while Bell was in a pre-trial hearing. Bell's daughter, Susan, has written a screen play about the case.

An escape he made from the jail in December 1970 made the headlines.  One day he asked to make a phone call, and when finished he looked for the jailer but did not find him.  The outside door had been left standing open, so he walked out.  After he got down the street, he reasoned that maybe they had let him escape so that they could shoot him and it would all be over.  After he was discovered by law enforcement officers just a short distance away from the jail in a pickup, he was merely escorted back to his cell.

Allegheny County Jail  Pittsburgh Pennsylvania 

At 4:15 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1902, condemned murderers and handsome brothers Ed and Jack Biddle escaped from the jail, fleeing out that same door with the help of the warden's wife, the not-so-comely Kate Soffel. The story, which ended three days later with two dead Biddles, became the basis for the 1984 motion picture "Mrs. Soffel," which starred Mel Gibson as Ed and Diane Keaton as Kate.

As the story goes, Soffel fell in love with the charming Ed Biddle and smuggled hacksaws and a pistol into the jail to help the brothers escape. The brothers sawed through their bars, overcame the three guards on duty at the time and fled through the front door of the warden's residence, with Soffel in tow. In a stolen one-horse sleigh, the trio headed north, but they made it no farther than Butler County. On Feb. 2, 1902, police intercepted them somewhere between Prospect and Mount Chestnut. A shoot-out ensued. The Biddles were riddled with bullets. Soffel survived the encounter, then served 19 months in prison for aiding and abetting the escape. Abandoned by her husband and children, she died in 1910.

Initial accounts of the escape appeared under screaming headlines across the top of The Pittsburgh Press front page. One story described Warden Peter Soffel as "crushed with sorrow and despair." "The escape of the Biddle boys was enough, but the mysterious disappearance of his wife fills his cup of sorrow to the brim," the story read. Another story carried the headline "ED HAS STRANGE POWER -- He Is Said to Exert an Influence Over All Who Come in Contact With Him." "Excitement was intense in Pittsburgh when the news of the capture of the Biddles reached here," The Press reported after the shoot-out. "The streets were crowded with people waiting for the latest bulletins issued by the newspapers. And until long after midnight, the newsboys shouted the gruesome news."

The story has not only inspired a movie, but an opera and at least two books.



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Created by:  Sam Sanabria and Tracey Selby