Whether it be human or animal, from penal institution, a POW camp, or a water tank, the world has always been fascinated by stories about daring and creative escapes. Escapes feature some of the most amazing feats of courage, imagination, and tenacity in history, and there seems to be no length that people (or animals) will go to in order to gain their freedom. Below are 42 facts about great escapes.
1. Not as Much as You Think
Thankfully, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, only about 12.7 prisoners per 1,000 inmates escape, and many of those include AWOL (absent without leave) incidents, so true escapes are even fewer. It should also be comforting to know that not only has the rate of penal institution breakouts declined in recent years, but the majority of escaped inmates are found and returned to penal institution. Phew!
2. Got Out with a Little Help From His Friends
In 1934, John Dillinger, a prisoner known as Public Enemy #1 by the FBI, managed to escape penal institution—not just once, but twice. His first escape was from an Ohio penal institution with help from eight of his friends. Once he was captured, he was taken to what penal institution officials described as an “escape-proof” facility, but boy, were they wrong!
He escaped from lock-up using a fake piece, which many believe to have been a wooden piece painted black with shoe polish. They actually fell for that?
3. Putting the “Max” in Maximum Security
The Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts opened in 1998, and so far, nobody has managed to break out! What keeps prisoners from being able to escape, you may ask? To begin with, there are 600 correction officers guarding 1,500 prisoners. In case that low guard to prisoner ratio isn’t enough of a deterrent, 42 computers interfaced with visual elements control a keyless system that controls everything in the penal institution from doors to water.
There are also 370 HD cameras monitoring the penal institution 24/7, and a taught wire microwave detection system guarding the perimeter. Oh, and by the way—the whole thing runs on solar and hydroelectric power, so cutting power isn’t going to work either, and the concrete and steel used to build the place is the highest strength, most tool-resistant stuff there is.
In other words, it ain’t going to happen!
4. Not Always Offender
You would think that escaping from penal institution would be an automatic offence, especially since you were likely in penal institution for committing an offence in the first place. Amazingly enough, some countries, including Mexico, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria, consider it human nature to want to escape, and as long as you don’t break any other laws, you’re not charged with anything else.
You do still have to go back to penal institution though, so it’s not like you’re getting off scot-free.
5. Escape from the Castle
During WWII, Colditz Castle in Germany was used by the Nazis as a prisoner-of-conflict camp. The castle had seven-foot thick walls and was situated on top of a steep 255-foot cliff with a river below, so you can’t blame the Nazis for thinking it was escape-proof. As it turned out, they grossly underestimated the will and ingenuity of the prisoners.
Over 300 escape attempts were made, and over 30 of them were successful.
6. Coming Up Short
The “great” escape of 1943 is the stuff of legend. So much so, it was made into a famous movie starring James Garner and Steve McQueen. The escape plan involved digging three tunnels named Tom, Rick, and Harry, and the entrances were chosen to be out of sight of the guards. It took five months for the tunnels to be completed, but unfortunately, Harry was a bit shorter than anticipated. 70 people escaped, but most of them got caught.
7. Breaking Out
Most penal institution escapes are actually pretty simple. The prisoner may just walk away from a minimum-security facility with few guards and no perimeter gates, while others cut holes in walls and ceiling and get help from the outside. Whatever works!
8. The Irish Great Escape
On September 25, 1983, 38 Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners escaped from Maze penal institution in the biggest UK penal institution escape in history. The penal institution was considered one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe with 15-foot fences, 18-foot concrete walls topped with barbed wire, and electronically operated gates made from solid steel.
Despite this, the prisoners were able to identify weaknesses and take control of the penal institution.
9. Wheel Well Escape
Armando Ramirez made headlines in 1969 when he and a friend made a daring escape from Cuba by hiding in the wheel well of a plane headed to Spain. Amazingly, he managed to survive the 8-hour flight despite ear-piercing noise from the plane, low oxygen, and freezing conditions. By the time the plane landed, Ramirez was so cold his body didn’t even register a temperature.
Once he’d recovered, he was allowed to move to Canada to live with relatives, so his risk paid off. Unfortunately for his friend, things didn’t turn out quite so well, and he’s believed to have fallen when the plane lowered its wheels to land.
10. Flying Away
Pascal Payet didn’t literally sprout wings and fly, but he did “fly” out of Luynes penal institution in France via a helicopter that a few of his buddies kindly snatched for the escape. In a totally ballsy move, a couple of years later he used a helicopter to fly back in and bust out a few more inmates. This time he didn’t get away with it.
He not only got seven more years tacked onto his 30-year sentence, but was moved to a different penal institution every three months to keep it from happening again.
11. One More Time
Apparently Payet thought that being caught breaking in must have been a fluke because, in 2007, a helicopter landed on the roof of Grasse penal institution in southwest France just as the night shift was starting. The four masked men in the helicopter broke Payet out of penal institution for a second time, ironically, on Bastille day. How fitting is that?
12. I Need Cash and Some Parachutes
On November 24, 1971, a man who went by the name of Dan Cooper made a daring escape from a flight headed from Portland to Seattle. After handing the stewardess a note menacing to explode up the plane if he didn’t get $200,000 and some parachutes upon landing in Seattle, he redirected the plane to Mexico, instructed the pilot to maintain a specific speed and altitude, and then proceeded to jump out of the plane somewhere over the Washington-Oregon border.
He was never found gome or alive, so he literally disappeared into thin air.
13. Not Who He Was Expecting
In one what turned out to be a pretty boneheaded move, James Edward Russell broke out of his minimum-security penal institution and fled to a nearby cabin where he probably figured he’d find a friendly face who was willing to call for a ride. Unfortunately for him, it turned out the person behind the door he knocked on was a penal institution guard from the facility he’d just escaped.
That definitely didn’t go as planned.
14. Consulting the Oracle
To say that China isn’t fond of the Dalai Lama would be a gross understatement, and in 1959, Mao Zedong set out to capture the young Dalai Lama. Not knowing when a good time was to run, he consulted a monk known as the Oracle who would reveal prophecies while in a trance. Every day, the Oracle told him to stay where he was, but that changed on March 17.
The Chinese authorities were busy with riots, and the Oracle told him to go now. Disguised as a regular Tibetan, he snuck out of the Imperial palace, met up with his family and religious officials in the countryside, and headed to India through the Himalayas. Two days later, Chinese officials figured out what had happened, but luck was on the Dalai Lama’s side, and he made it to the Tawang Monastery inside the Indian border two weeks later.
15. A Certain Percentage
Approximately 3% of all inmates escape from penal institution at one time or another during their sentence. The good news is that most of those are from minimum-security prisons, so they probably aren’t all that dangerous.
16. Downward Dogging Your Way Out
A convicted burglar in South Korea used yoga to escape from his penal institution cell. In 2012, he waited until officers fell asleep and then literally wiggled his way out of the cell’s food slot by rubbing ointment on his skin. To put it in perspective, the dude was 5’5” tall and 115 pounds and the slot was 18 inches wide and 6 inches tall. It’s amazing he didn’t get stuck!
17. Mailing Himself to Freedom
One of the more famous escaped slave stories is that of Henry “Box” Brown, who literally mailed himself to freedom. He convinced a white shopkeeper to seal him in a 3x2x2 box and mail it to an abolitionist in Philadelphia. He was in transit for 27 hours, and despite the instructions on the box, he was definitely not handled with care.
Somehow, he survived the journey relatively unscathed, and when he came out of the box, he allegedly said, “How do you do, gentlemen?"
18. Apache Escape Artist
After Apache warrior Geronimo’s mother, one of his wives, and his three children were liquidated by Mexicans, he understandably went on a rampage and gained notoriety for ending hundreds of army men and settlers across Northern Mexico and the American Southwest. The Mexicans pursued him for five years without success, as he always managed to disappear without leaving a trace.
According to legend, he once escaped from a cave surrounded inside and out by Mexican army men. Geologists, historians, and archeologists have all studied the cave trying to figure out how he did it, but to no avail. Maybe it was magic!
19. No Post Will Part Us
In a story that wins the Darwin Award for the dumbest escape attempt, two prisoners in New Zealand decided to make a run for it from the local courthouse while still cuffed together at the wrist. They might have gotten away had they not forgotten that they were attached. The pair ran straight into a lamppost, crashing into each other, falling down onto the pavement.
This gave the law enforcement just enough time to catch up to the geniuses and take them back to penal institution.
20. The Art of Escape
Escapology is the term used to describe the art of escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, coffins, or other types of restraints. Escapologists have existed since the 1860s, but it wasn’t a recognized form of entertainment until Harry Houdini popularized it in the 1890s. Today, escapology is practiced all around the world as illusionists imitate and build on Houdini’s accomplishments.
21. Most Successful Fugitive
The most successful penal institution escape ever is by John Patrick Hannan, who holds the record for the longest amount of time on the lam. He climbed over the walls of Dorset penal institution using old-fashioned knotted bedsheets in 1955, and to date, he’s never been caught. If he’s still alive, he’d be in his 80s, but since authorities quit looking for him over 20 years ago, he can probably rest easy.
22. Floating to Freedom
During the Cold Conflict , friends Hans Strzelczyk and Gunter Wetzel saw a special on hot air balloons on TV and got an idea. What if they could escape East Germany by flying in a hot air balloon over the Berlin Wall? They built a balloon and were set to go, but Wetzel’s wife chickened out, so the Strelczyks went on their own.
On July 4, 1979, they launched the balloon, but damp conditions extinguished the burner and they were forced to land and make a hasty escape from the Stasi. The men refused to give up and set to work again. On the night of September 16, they launched again with four adults and four children holding onto a metal platform for dear life.
30 minutes later they landed, and to their relief, they discovered that they’d made it to West Germany.
23. Zoo Getaway
Apparently even monkeys feel the need to escape once in a while, and in February 2019, a group of monkeys used weakened branches from a storm to make a ladder and escape from their enclosure at the Belfast Zoo. Being highly intelligent primates who knew they were breaking the rules, they apparently got back in on their own.
24. Uber Escape
One evening in August 2019, after catching an Uber to get home after a party, a 15-year-old girl found herself in a terrifying situation when her driver tried to convince her to go out drinking with him and attempted to drive her to his home when she refused. The quick-thinking teen convinced the driver to make a bathroom stop at a nearby McDonald’s, where she called the authorities and made her escape.
That took some serious guts!
25. Hinging on a Moment
When 20-year-old slave Frederick Douglass fled his job as a caulker aboard a ship, he did so disguised as a sailor, and with a free sailor’s protection pass given to him by an accomplice. Everything hinged on the papers holding up, but he didn’t look anything like the man on the documents and if the conductor noticed, he’d be caught.
It turned out to be his lucky day because the conductor only glanced at the papers before moving onto the next passenger. Talk about too close for comfort!
26. Literary Escape
One of the most famous literary penal institution escapes is that of Edmund Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Dantes gets out by sewing himself into his penal institution mate’s burial shroud and getting flung into the sea. All he had to do from there is break through the sack, swim to a nearby island and then get rescued. Easy as pie, right?
27. Underwater Escape
Escaping from East Germany was not exactly an easy feat, but in 1968, Bernd Boettger, a 28-year-old engineer made one of the most daring and incredible escapes of all time by designing an underwater diver tug to propel himself through the water using a two-stroke gasoline engine from an electric bike, and various other parts that he managed to scrounge.
He launched his contraption under cover of darkness, weighed himself down with a homemade weight belt, and attached himself to the tug by rope for extra measure. He knew the Stasi would end him if he was caught, but he took the risk and was able to make it to Denmark where he was rescued.
28. Escape from Devil’s Island
Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the French operated the penal colony of Cayenne (AKA Devil’s Island) in the Salvation’s Islands of French Guinea. One of the only and most famous escapees was Henry Charriere, who went on to write the novel Papillon detailing his experience. The island was surrounded by jungle and shark-infested oceans, which the French thought was a pretty good deterrent against escape.
Charriere, however, didn’t let that stop him, and he attempted escape seven times before escaping on the eighth try. The most amazing part about his escape is that he did so on a raft made of coconuts, eventually finding refuge in Venezuela. That could have gone wrong in so many ways!
29.The One that Got Away
During WWII, the German pilot Franz Xaver Baron Von Werra was shot down over Kent, England and taken prisoner. After several escape attempts, they sent him to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was told he was being transferred by train to a newly built POW penal institution on the shore of Lake Superior. As it turned out, Canada couldn’t hold him either, and he escaped by leaping from a moving train and crossing the St. Lawrence River into the US.
He cleverly turned himself in to the US authorities, who charged him with not permitted entry and notified the Germans. The Germans, of course, were delighted to have him back, and Adolf H. awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Meanwhile, the press got wind of his story, and he became the subject of a 1957 film titled The One That Got Away.
30. Foiled by Snow
Convicted killer Christopher McDonald probably thought he was being pretty clever taking advantage of a snowstorm known as “the Beast from the East” to escape from the high-security Midlands penal institution in Ireland back in 2015, but what he didn’t count on was that the weather would be his undoing. McDonald was busted when authories found his footprints in the snow, leading them to a nearby home where he was hiding on the roof of a shed.
Obviously, nobody told him the first rule of escaping penal institution—cover your tracks!
31. I Thought He Was in the Shower
In July 2015, Mexico’s most notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman managed to escape from his maximum-security penal institution for a second time. He went into the shower, crawled through a hole, and disappeared through a specially built mile-long tunnel. He was captured again in January 2016 and was extradited to a federal penal institution in the US. Maybe that will hold him.
32. Hiding in Plain Sight
In the early 1970s, Eugeniusz Pieniazek, an aircraft designer in Communist Poland, was oppressed by the Polish Secret Service for hanging around with Swedish Pilots. One day, the dude finally had enough of being watched and decided to escape. Obviously, he couldn’t just apply for a passport and leave, so he had to come up with a more creative solution.
He decided to build his own airplane from the discarded parts of a bunch of gliders and planes, and the kicker was he did it in the living room of his apartment. He finally took off in 1971 in weather that was not exactly ideal for flying. Amazingly, he made it to Yugoslavia, where he was detained for seven months before being allowed to sneak across the Austrian border where he finally got to enjoy his freedom.
33. Real-Life Trojan Horse
The German penal institution camp Stalag Luft III was best known for the escape plot known as the Great Escape, but there was also an earlier escape attempt in 1943 which became the subject of a film titled The Wooden Horse. Taking a page from Greek mythology, the prisoners constructed a wooden gymnastic vaulting horse that was intended to hide men, tools, and containers of soil.
Every day, the men would carry the horse to the same spot near the fence perimeter and conduct gymnastic exercises while men dug a tunnel below. At the end of each day, they’d hide the tunnel by putting a wooden board over the entrance and covering it with soil. This went on for three months until finally, the three men made their escape.
Two of the men reached a port in Poland where they were able to stowaway on a Danish ship and return to Britain. The third posed as a Norwegian margarine manufacturer, got on a train to Danzig Poland, and stowed away on a Swedish ship where he was sent back to Britain.
34. Monkey Lock-up Break
In 1935, a pack of rhesus monkeys fittingly led by one named Capone escaped from a Long Island Zoo and remained free for several days before being captured and returned to the zoo. How did they do it? As soon as their keeper turned his back, they walked across the board that he’d placed between the enclosure and the exit to feed them.
You’ve gotta hand it to those primates for their impeccable timing!
35. Stop or I’ll Shoot
While you may not get any additional time on your sentence for escaping from penal institution in Mexico, the guards are allowed to shoot escaping prisoners, and it becomes a not permitted act if you use brutality against a penal institution official or penal institution property, or if an inmate or official helps you escape. In other words, it’s probably not the smartest move.
36. Houdini Upside Down
Harry Houdini is one of the most famous escape artists in history, and one of his most daring stunts was his escape from a Chinese Water Brutality Cell. He was lowered head-first into the tank of water, and his feet locked in stocks. As if that weren’t terrifying enough, in early versions of the trick, he was also enclosed in a steel cage.
After several minutes, Houdini would miraculously emerge from the cabinet totally free. It was first performed in public on September 21, 1912, and never ceased to amaze audiences.
37. See Ya!
In 2013, zookeepers in India were understandably shocked when a wild male tiger wandered right up to the tiger enclosure. The male tiger was apparently looking for love and could smell the females inside the enclosure. The zookeepers took a chance and let him in, and he stuck around for months mating and eating and doing what male tigers do. When he’d had enough, he left by climbing over a 200-foot wall and disappeared, probably off to find his next conquest.
38. I Need Some Toilet Paper
Allan Legere, AKA the Monster of Miramichi, was serving out a life sentence for liquidation in New Brunswick in 1987 when he came down with an ear infection and had to be taken to hospital. While in the bathroom, he opened his handcuffs and shackles with metal he’d hidden in his behind, and then opened the door and told the guard he was out of toilet paper.
Amazingly, it worked and he escaped, making it to the hospital parking lot where he kidnapped a woman and took her car. Legere liquidated four more people before being recaptured seven months later.
39. Escape from Alcatraz
Everyone has heard stories about Alcatraz Island and its “inescapable” penal institution. Officially, nobody ever did escape from Alcatraz, but unofficially, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers did manage to escape by digging out of their cells, accessing the roof through an air vent, and then using the drainpipe to climb down and escape.
No bodies have ever been found to prove that they failed, so as far as the FBI is concerned, their escape was successful.
40. An Imaginative Escape
One of the most creative escapes from the Tower of London was that of the Earl of Nithsdale in 1716 who was set to be executed for his role in the Jacobite uprising. Shortly before he was set to be beheaded, he was paid a final visit from his wife Lady Nithsdale, along with two acquaintances—and then they hatched their ingenious plan.
They dressed her husband in women’s clothes, including an artificial headdress and covered his face in enough makeup to disguise his beard. The real lady and her friends then managed to confuse the guards by hiding their faces with handkerchiefs and coming and going enough times that the Earl was able to waltz right out of his cell unnoticed.
41. Rodent Romance
A pair of Capybaras (think giant guinea pigs) captured the imagination of people all across Toronto, Ontario when they escaped the High Park Zoo in the summer of 2016. The pair, aptly named Bonnie and Clyde were spotted around the area almost daily during their absence. Where exactly they were for all of that time is hard to say, but what they were up to was pretty obvious when Bonnie gave birth to three babies the following winter.
42. Making a Break for It
Long before becoming the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was a conflict correspondent during the Boer Conflict. The Boers ended up capturing Churchill and putting him in a POW camp in Pretoria. Despite the 10-foot walls surrounding the building, Churchill spotted the gap in the guards’ routine and made a daring break for it.
He escaped, sought refuge in a villa, where he waited until he could hop onto a passing train. After six days of dodging and weaving his pursuers, he then went on to hop on a train headed for the Portuguese Colony at Delagoa Bay. From there, he traveled 250 miles to the Mozambique coast, before then crossing the border to freedom.
Not surprisingly, the story of his escape made him an instant celebrity in England and is credited with launching his political career.