Episode 23 - The Ghosts Told Me To Do It (Great Escapes Week)
Updated: Apr 18
Sam's Episode Notes: The road to end-or – The Yozgad prison escape.
I'm going to take you back to 1917/1918 today. And I'm going to tell you today about a prison escape that wasn't really successful, because it took so long to complete that the war nearly ended by the time they got out, but it was incredibly brazen. It's probably one of the few prison escapes that's relied purely on quackery and charletanism, rather than brute strength. And it's an incredibly interesting story.
This was an escape in which two British officers used magic tricks and ouija boards to con their Turkish prison guards into freeing them in a search for buried treasure, and then when that failed at the last minute, they feigned insanity by being slightly less effective charlatans, conning a load of doctors into helping them escape.
I'm going to take you back to 1916, Tom, and the siege of Kut, a town around 100 miles South of Baghdad, where the Ottomans managed to inflict a devastating defeat on the British-Indian garrison, killing thousands and leading to the deaths of thousands more on forced marches through the desert.
One of the prisoners was a young Welsh leftenant in the Indian army, E H Jones. He and a host of other men and officers found themselves being marched for over two months to the town of Yozgad in the middle of Anatolia, a place that was almost impossible to escape from because it was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains which themselves were full of bandits and bounty hunters, hundreds of miles from the sea and around 500 miles from friendly forces. There, the found themselves locked into a group of boarded up houses which had belonged to local Armenians before they'd been given a free, ahem, long holiday by the Government. They weren't fed, they weren't given any water, there were no beds or sheets, they were in perpetual near pitch darkness because the windows were boarded up and there weren't any lights, and many had been shot on the way. It was pretty horrible.
To make matters worse, the guards had the audacity to charge them a quote unquote, extortionate rate of rent on their own prison camp. They were, at great cost, allowed to send home postcards though. Most were heavily censored, but Jones was cunning and, being a Welshman, was able to write home coded messages using Welsh language words described as names. Doing this, he was able to seek help in getting their conditions improved, which eventually happened. And life actually got pretty good – the guards were greedy but largely disinterested and wanted an easy life, and the men were given a degree of freedom, partly because escape was considered impossible, and partly because the guards made it clear that the entire camp would be punished for any escape attempts, so the British officers forbade it. So they played football, went on errands, and even had a skiing team when winter came to the mountains.
But they were bored, and looking for things to do. One day, Jones' aunt sent him a ouija board and a book about the paranormal to help him pass the time. Which would be odd today, but in the early 20th century people were obsessed with the occult, so maybe not that surprising. It clearly didn't work, but Jones pretty quickly worked out that he could push the glass around and spell out rude messages and con his friends and it was all a great laugh. His friends tried to prove he was pushing it around, but he pretty quickly realised that actually more and more of them were actually believing it, and as a result their tests were starting to try and prove it was real and not fake. He realised what he had here was actually very dangerous and powerful, and that people will do anything to prove they are right despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Vaccinate your kids.
But so far it was all just fun and games. And then the guards took an interest. Two in particular – the camp translator, a man called Moise, and the camp commandant, Krazim Bay. Now Jones realised pretty quickly that there was something in this – here were two deeply superstitious men who were also quite greedy, as evidenced by the fact they were charging the prisoners rent.
But he needed a sidekick – a plant in the audience. And Cedric Waters Hill was the man. He was an Australian pilot who'd crashed and been captured whilst flying for the Royal Flying Corps, later the RAF. And he was a talented amateur magician who knew the art of the visual deception and the trick of making his victims see what they wanted to see, rather than what he was actually doing. He'd been acting as a poltergeist for fun during Jones' seances, and now got to work helping him con the guards.
Their plan was pretty simple. Convince the guards that there was buried treasure somewhere in the mountains, hidden by the Armenians before their holiday. These Armenian spirits were now telepathically communicating with Hill and Jones through the board and would guide them to the riches. At which point, the plan would be to have the spirits exchange the prisoners for the final location of the treasure, setting them free.
It was a genius plan played out over months and months. Using coded messages and contacts in British intelligence and the church in Constantinople/Istanbul, Jones and Hill proved that they had long-range telepathic communications. The board would tell them that some priest or bishop knew such and such, so the guards would contact Istanbul and discover that yes, he did! Largely because he'd learned about it in a letter from a friend which had miraculously appeared a week or so earlier. If you'd looked at it as a sceptic, it would have been so obvious. But that's how charlatanism works – the guards were trying to prove that it WAS real because they wanted to believe it.
The plan got to within weeks of paying off by mid-1917, when Krazim Bay started to get cold feet. The pair realised it wasn't going to work this way and so changed tacts. Rule one of being a conman, Tom? Tell your victim they are completely correct. So they reinforced Bay's fears. The spirits started to tell Bay through the board that the two officers were trying to transmit war news via telepathy, and needed to be punished by being locked in solitary confinement. Which they were, and part two of the escape began to unfold.
They feigned madness – claiming the were plagued by spirits desperate to get out, whilst Jones was convinced that they were being hunted down by men on their own side in the camp and Hill literally spent two months sitting staring at a single page in his bible and didn't say a word to anyone. Still seeing the value in having two psychics, the Ottomans were completely taken in and were very quickly convinced the two men were genuinely insane – helped by the fact they went on a very real hunger strike and even faked hanging themselves – only to be 'saved' at the last minute by another British officer doctor who was in on the act.
As a result, at the – I think beginning of 1918 – they were shipped off to a lunatic asylum in Constantinople, where they set about convincing the doctors of exactly the same things they'd done to the camp commanders. Which was a stroke of genius, because doctors are naturally logical people and so didn't believe a word of their psychic powers. Instead, that convinced them the pair were indeed mad and not, in fact, trying to escape. A stroke of genius.
In July 1918, it was agreed that the pair weren't doing anyone any good tied up in an Ottoman asylum, and they were shipped back to the UK in a prisoner swap, arriving just a couple of weeks or so before the other camp prisoners after the end of the war. Incredibly, as soon as they boarded the ship, they made miraculous recoveries to the shock of the crew – having spent most of a year pretending to be mad – an incredible feat of mental endurance. But they'd done it, they had escaped by convincing the Ottomans to let them go.
After the war, Jones wrote up their experiences into a best-selling book called the road to end-or, a reference to a Rudyard Kipling poem about madness and death. Now it seems an unlikely story, but there are dozens of eyewitness accounts from other officers at the camp that this is exactly how it played out.
The foreward is very interesting. In it, Jones says that spiritualism was great for giving the men comfort in sad times and a great way to pass the time, as well as a good way of tricking some creature comforts out of the guards – but his overwhelming message is that charlatanism is an incredibly powerful and dangerous tool in the wrong hands that can make sane people do absolutely mad things, here's a quote:
"I began my experiments in spiritualism with a perfectly open mind, but from the time when the possibility of escape by these means first occurred to me I felt little concern as to whether communication with the dead was possible or not. The object of Lieutenant Hill and myself was to make it appear possible and to avoid being found out. In doing so we had many opportunities of seeing the deplorable effects of belief in spiritualism."
"When in the atmosphere of the séance, men whose judgment one respects and whose mental powers one admires lose hold of the criteria of sane conclusions and construct for themselves a fantastic world on their new hypothesis. The messages we received from “the world beyond” and from “other minds in this sphere” were in every case, and from beginning to end, of our own invention."
Tom's notes: 1346 Chevauchees (Shervou-chays) of Edward III
Hundred Years War (1337-1453; 116 years)
· England Vs France
· Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the English nobility held lands in France
o Technically this made the Kings of England vassals of the King of France
o The Angevin Kings of England, between 1154 and 1216, owned huge swathes of France; almost half of it at one point
o The French kings were continually trying to solve this issue by kicking the English out of the area we now think of as France
o In 1337, the English kings only owned the region of Gascony in south-west France
· French dynastic problems
o Three sons of Philip IV die without male heirs
o Philip also has a daughter; Isabella; married to Edward II; father and mother of Edward III.
§ Edward is thus the next in succession
§ The French nobility didn’t want this and so this succession was made null and void due to being transmitted through a women
§ Philip VI thus becomes king via a different succession line in 1328
o This became the pretext for Edward III declaring war on the French
§ Other factors
· Sovereignty of Gascony and neighbouring areas
· France’s alliance with Scotland (First War of Scottish Independence only ended in 1328)
Chevauchees ; large scale military raids into enemy territory with a view to causing as much destruction as possible
· Used extensively by the English during this war
· Similar to tactics used by Robert the Bruce in Scotland and England
Chevauchee of Edward III in 1346
· The English landed on the Cotentin Peninsular in Normandy, not far from where the D-Day landings took place
o They had originally planned to land in Gascony to assist with fighting against the French in this region but were hampered by weather conditions
o The French had attempted to put together a powerful fleet to prevent the landing but this had not arrived in time
o The main French army was also busy in south-east France dealing with fighting in Gascony
· There were close to 10,000 men
· The army caused havoc in Normandy, plundering, looting, killing and burning everything in their path
o They worked their way East to the River Seine
o The fleet was sent back to England with instructions to resupply, reinforce and meet the army at the mouth of the River Somme
o The English army worked their way down the Seine continuing their destruction
o French resistance was haphazard and disorganised
o The Duke of Normandy was still occupied in Gascony and reluctant to leave without a decisive victory
· The English then turned to march north but found that the French had stripped this area of the countryside of anything useful. The French also trapped the English on the west side of the Seine by securing all of the bridges
o Edward however managed to get through at a tidal ford after a short battle
o They broke through the lines and found land that hadn’t been stripped of resources
· They reached the Somme to discover no reinforcements, no boats and no Flemish army (who had attempted to rendezvous with them)
o They were trapped!
· Edward decides that a battle is inevitable and gives himself some time to set up his army in readiness at a place called Crecy
The Battle of Crecy
· Edward had around 7-15,000 men
o Lots of Welsh archers
o Light cavalry, infantry and men-at-arms
o There were even some early gunpowder weapons
o Positioned between 2 towns, a river and a forest at the top of a muddy hill with a pre-prepared retreat route
· Contemporary sources greatly exaggerate the size of the French army; almost 10 times as many
o In reality, it was probably 2 to 3 times as many men
o Lots of heavy cavalry and Genoese crossbowmen
· The French, with superior numbers, were too confident of victory and didn’t get themselves organised enough
· There was an initial archery battle between the Welsh Longbowmen and the Genoese crossbowmen
o The Genoese were outranged and had a firing rate 2-3 times slower than the Welsh
o They were also without their protective shields and ammunition reserves that were still in the baggage train
o The Genoese seem to have retreated pretty quickly when they realised that their position was hopeless
· The French then led a cavalry charge that found the going tough on muddy ground, with retreating crossbowmen and a rain of arrows
o They actually hacked at the crossbowmen thinking them traitors
o The English inflicted heavy cavalries and it was a chaotic bloodbath because of the unarmoured horses
o After the initial attach, English men at arms raced on to the field of battle, looted and killed anyone left wounded
· This was repeated a number of times into the night
o 10s of thousands of French were killed, including a large number of nobles, whilst the number of English casualties was somewhere in the hundreds
A similar story in 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers (where the French King John II is captured) and Agincourt in 1415 before the tides turned against the English from about 1429 onwards with Joan of Arc and numerous