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Great escapes

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L.B. Foote
The immortal Harry Houdini wowed a crowd of 5,000 as he wormed his way of a straitjacket while suspended above the old Winnipeg Free Press building in 1923.

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L.B. Foote The immortal Harry Houdini wowed a crowd of 5,000 as he wormed his way of a straitjacket while suspended above the old Winnipeg Free Press building in 1923.

Everyone loves a great escape.

It's thrilling to escape the humdrum reality of everyday life by watching a manacled magician wriggle out of a giant fish tank into which he has been lowered head first.

Or by sitting through a rerun of the TV series Prison Break, wherein an innocent man is imprisoned and his only hope is his brother, who gets himself locked up as part of an elaborate plan to save his sibling.

When it comes to daring escapes, however, it's hard to top real-life jailbreaks, of which Quebec has had more than its share this year. In the most recent case, officials are investigating how a notorious killer and former Hells Angel vanished into thin air last Saturday night from the Montée Saint-Franßois federal prison north of Montreal.

René Charlebois, 48, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, was discovered missing after a routine head count at the Laval prison. "It's not something that we take lightly, and obviously we are looking into what exactly happened here," a befuddled corrections official confessed.

As amazing escapes go, this latest breakout probably won't go down in history, but that's OK, because our Top 5 definitely did:

 

5) The breakout date: Feb. 21, 1923

The great escape: Suspended nine metres above the old Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street, the immortal Harry Houdini, the most famous escape artist the world has known, wormed his way out of a straitjacket in front of about 5,000 rubbernecking Winnipeggers. The death-defying stunt, captured in a famous photo by L.B. Foote, was held to promote Houdini's week-long show at the city's Orpheum Theatre. On Oct. 31, 1982, local escape artist Dean Gunnarson, then 18, recreated the stunt in honour of his idol, "the greatest showman who ever existed." Making his hometown proud, Gunnarson escaped after being hoisted by his ankles about 90 metres above the Free Press parking lot, beating Houdini's two-minute time by 20 seconds.

 

4) The breakout date: Oct. 2, 1975

The great escape: William "Billy" Hayes, a 23-year-old New York student, was famously caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970. His ordeal in a hellish Turkish prison and subsequent escape spawned the award-winning movie Midnight Express. Hayes was handed a sentence of just over four years and, with his release just weeks away, was stunned to learn his sentence had been increased to life. In the movie, a distraught Hayes kills a sadistic prison guard, steals his uniform and casually walks to freedom. In real life, he was transferred to an island prison, where he worked on the docks and escaped in a stolen rowboat in the middle of a fierce storm. He reached freedom after walking through a minefield and swimming a river.

 

3) The breakout dates: Oct. 12, 2001, April 14, 2003 and July 14, 2007

The great escapes: When it comes to high-flying breakouts, France's Pacal Payet soars over the competition. In a nutshell, this escape artist fled a French prison in 2001 on a hijacked helicopter; in 2003, he again used a chopper to help three friends flee the same prison; and in 2007, after being recaptured, the crafty con -- at that point one of the most closely monitored inmates in French history -- did it one more time, escaping after four armed pals hijacked a helicopter and landed it on the prison's roof. No doubt inspired by Payet's airborne elusiveness, two inmates at a prison in St-Jerome, Que., escaped in March of this year by dangling from a cable lowered by a hijacked chopper. And just like their French hero, the Quebec escapees later landed back behind bars.

 

2) The breakout date: June 11, 1962

The great escape: Opened in 1934, Alcatraz was hailed as America's only escape-proof prison. Plopped on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, it was surrounded by gun towers, electric fences and bars, not to mention shark-infested waters. But that didn't stop Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin from carrying out one of the most daring breakouts in history. Armed with nail clippers, spoons and an improvised drill made from a stolen vacuum (or a fan, depending on whom you believe), the convicted robbers chipped away the concrete around the air shafts in their cells. Before climbing into the vents, they left papier m¢ché dummies in their beds. Their "boat" was a makeshift raft of barrels and raincoats. Did they make it? The prison says they drowned, but the bodies were never found. They inspired the 1979 Clint Eastwood flick Escape from Alcatraz.

 

1) The breakout date: March 24, 1944

The real great escape: While you read this, we recommend you whistle the unforgettable theme music for the Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape, which tells how, in the latter half of the Second World War, hundreds of Allied PoWs spent 15 months digging three tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry) in a massive bid to escape from the Stalag Luft III work camp in what is now Poland. American prisoners helped build the tunnels, but were moved to another compound before the breakout. Of the three tunnels, only Harry was finished and, when they popped to the surface, the shocked PoWs found the exit had come up short of the trees and was near a guard tower. Of the 76 men who crawled out of Harry, only three (two Norwegians and a Dutchman) made it to safety. Fifty escapees were shot by the Gestapo and the rest were sent to a concentration camp.

 

How you can escape: Choppers and tunnels are fine, but we suggest you make it easy on yourself: Call a travel agent, because we hear Tahiti is lovely at this time of year.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 D2

History

Updated on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 6:27 AM CDT: adds video

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