A Brief History
On April 28, 1881, the notorious outlaw and gunman known as Billy the Kid escaped from his jail cell where he was being held after he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In a previous article, 5 Dashing, Daring, and Dynamic Escapes we discussed some famous/infamous escapes, and today we again explore the topic of people escaping from custody against all odds of success.
1. Billy the Kid Cheats the Hangman by Escaping Jail, 1881.
Often referred to as being named “William H. Bonney,” the Kid’s real name was probably Henry McCarty. And by the way, he was NOT left handed. There is a famous photograph of The Kid that makes him appear to be wearing his pistol on his left hip, but the photo is actually transposed and he was obviously right handed, a mistake compounded by such cultural references as the 1958 film, The Left Handed Gun, starring Paul Newman as Billy. The Kid killed his first man at age 18 and the rest of his short life was violent, with many other men falling to his guns, reputedly 21 victims. A participant in the Lincoln County War (between competing businessmen), the Kid’s first job in New Mexico was in a cheese factory! He became famous when the Governor of New Mexico, Lew Wallace (former Union Civil War general and the author of Ben Hur) put a price on his head. Having twice escaped from jail, the Kid was gunned down in a dark room by Pat Garrett who had sneaked in to arrest him. After his recapture following his first escape, Billy was sentenced to death, where the judge said he would be hanged until, “Dead, dead, dead!” Billy reportedly replied, “”You can go to hell, hell, hell!” (There is no official transcript of this supposed exchange of words.) Held in the upstairs part of the sheriff’s office/courthouse after being sentenced to death, the Kid was shackled and guarded 2 armed men. When Billy asked to use the outhouse and was being walked back to his cell afterwards, the Kid slipped out of his handcuffs and overpowered the deputy escorting him, seizing the deputy’s pistol and killing the lawman with a single shot to the back. Billy then went to the sheriff’s office and recovered a shotgun, shooting and killing the second guard that responded to the gunshot that killed the first deputy. Still in leg irons, Billy hacked the shackles off with an axe and escaped. About 3 months after this violent escape, Billy was gunned down in the cabin he was staying at by Sheriff Pat Garret, Billy’s violent life over at the age of only 21.
2. Ted Bundy, Serial Killer, 1977, again.
On December 30, 1977, serial killer Ted Bundy escaped from jail and went on to continue his killing spree. This murderous psychopath had actually escaped once before! In June of 1977, having been jailed for assault and kidnapping (getting a sentence of only 1 to 15 years) Bundy was facing a murder charge and escaped from a window at the courthouse in Aspen, Colorado, running free for 6 days before being recaptured. The second escape was from an actual jail in Glenwood Springs, Colorado despite possibly only having to serve a year and a half on the kidnapping case and facing a weak case against him for murder. Bundy sawed a hole in the jail ceiling and used the holiday decrease in manpower to climb unnoticed into the space between floors. Incredibly, his exit from the crawlspace was up through the floor into the apartment of the head jailer! Stealing the jailer’s civilian clothes, Bundy strolled out without incident, and the reduced staffing led to his absence not being discovered until the next day. This late discovery certainly gave him the time he needed to get out of the area without alerting local law enforcement. This time, his escape was to last all the way until February 12, 1978 when he was caught again, this time in Florida, where he had committed several more murders and assaults, notably at a Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University. There he killed 3 college girls and raped and/or severely injured several more, breaking jaws, fracturing skulls, and causing permanent injuries. Prior to that he had killed a 14 year old girl. During this latest rampage, Bundy also committed numerous other crimes, such as burglary, stealing from ladies’ purses at stores, and stealing cars. Just as he did his whole adult life, this guy operated for his own pleasure and cared not a bit about decency or the well being of others. Finally being convicted of multiple murders, Bundy was put to death January 24, 1989 in the electric chair. Prior to execution he gave a confession to having killed at least 30 women and girls but is suspected of having killed as many as 100! This sick loser targeted young women that resembled a girl that had rejected him years ago, especially with long straight hair parted in the middle and pretty faces. Exactly how many females lost their lives due to Bundy’s second escape is unknown.
3. El Chapo, Drug Kingpin escapes from jail, 2015, again.
On July 11, 2015, the man called “El Chapo” (Shorty), Joaquin Guzman, escaped from Mexican prison via a mile long 30 foot deep tunnel equipped with ventilation, rail tracks, and a motorcycle. Obviously, such an elaborate engineering feat could not have been constructed without the collusion of authorities, and many prison officials were arrested in the wake of the escape. Guzman had only been in prison since 2014, when he was recaptured after 13 years on the lam from his 2001 escape from a “maximum security” Mexican prison. That prison stay had lasted 8 years. News of the escape of this drug lord has caused outrage and ridicule to be heaped on Mexican law enforcement and prison officials and undermined the very government of the country. (Then) American Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump labeled this escape proof of his assertion that the government of Mexico is corrupt. Reportedly, Guzman in return threatened Trump’s safety. Mexican authorities redeemed their honor by recapturing El Chapo in 2016, following shootout, with the help of retired Columbian military and law enforcement officials. The Mexican government was only too happy to allow the extradition of Guzman to the US where he was convicted of numerous crimes and is expected to be sentenced to life in prison, the sentencing to take place in June of 2019. Shorty is being housed in a maximum-security facility in New York City.
4. Napoleon Bonaparte Escapes from Exile on Elba, 1815.
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte, aka Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, escaped from his forced exile on the island of Elba and made his way back to France, seeking to regain his throne. Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Corsica, had parlayed his spectacular military successes during and immediately after the French Revolution to becoming a General by the age of 24, and seizing the opportunity to mount a coup and take virtual control of France in 1799. Never bashful, Napoleon crowned himself L’ Empereur in 1804 and led his Empire in a series of wars against his European neighbors. Suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of the Russians and the Russian Winter in 1812, Napoleon rallied the French but suffered new defeats in 1813, especially at Leipzig, and by 1814 was forced to surrender himself to those nations allied against France. Given what now seems to be generous terms, Napoleon was forced to abdicate as Emperor of the French and King of Italy, and was exiled to the Island of Elba, where he was given sovereignty over the island and a small army and navy. The Allies had apparently not considered that Elba was situated near France, and right next to Napoleon’s birthland of Corsica. This proximity allowed Napoleon ample opportunity to communicate with sympathizers and to plot his return. Curiously, he was allowed to keep the title Emperor. After only 300 days on Elba, Napoleon got on a ship falsely flying British colors and sailed to France to begin his second reign, known as The Hundred Days. Word that the English were planning on moving him to a more remote location, the reneging on certain financial agreements and threats to his relatives all contributed to Napoleon’s determination not to remain passively on Elba and merely await whatever indignities could be mounted against him. Alas, Napoleon’s second stint as Emperor also did not go as planned, and after the catastrophic French defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Bonaparte was again forced to abdicate his throne and this time was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena, from which there would be no escape. He died in 1821.
5. Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger Escapes twice, 1933 and 1934.
Dillinger is notable for not having a fancy nickname like many of the other infamous gangsters, except for being known as “Public Enemy #1” by the FBI. Infamous for bank robberies and high speed automobile pursuits, Dillinger was a bad seed, enlisting in the US Navy but deserting, earning himself a dishonorable discharge. Dillinger went to prison in 1924 for robbery and assault, and was released in 1933, having served 9 ½ years of his 10 to 20 year sentence. Dillinger immediately began his string of bank robberies, getting arrested in Ohio and sent to a county jail. There he helped others to escape, gaining their alliance in forming a criminal gang. The escaped men returned to “extradite” Dillinger,” a ruse in which they pretended to be Indiana State Police officers. Dillinger was sprung from jail, and an officer was killed in the escape. During Dillinger’s career of crime, he is believed to have killed only 1 person, a police officer in East Chicago, Indiana, though he was never convicted of the murder. Dillinger is said to have shot the officer who shot Dillinger first, striking the bullet proof vest Dillinger was wearing. Leaving a trail of at least 12 banks robbed between 1933 and 1934 (for a career total of about 24 banks), Dillinger traveled the country evading police and becoming famous. Arrested in Tucson, Arizona in January of 1934, the local Sheriff boasted about the high level of security that would prevent Dillinger from escaping. Of course, Dillinger escaped in March of 1934, either with a gun smuggled into the jail or by fashioning a fake gun as Dillinger claimed. The robbery spree continued, including shootouts and narrow escapes. The FBI became obsessed with catching this most famous of robbers, spurring Dillinger to seek plastic surgery to change his appearance, which he underwent in May of 1934. The surgeon denied changing Dillinger’s fingerprints as is often reported. Federal Agents got wind of Dillinger’s whereabouts, and staked him out when Dillinger went to a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on July 22, 1934. Two groups of agents were deployed to arrest Dillinger when he came out of the theater, effectively ambushing the robber. Again, as is usual, accounts of the takedown vary, with Dillinger either reaching in his pocket for a gun, drawing the gun, or just being gunned down. Dillinger was hit with 4 bullets, 2 of which only grazed the infamous gangster. Another bullet caused a non-mortal wound in Dillinger’s side, while the fatal shot entered the back of Dillinger’s neck, passing through his spinal cord and brain, before exiting below Dillinger’s right eye. Dillinger was quite obviously dead on the scene, though he was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead officially. Probably 6 shots were fired by 3 FBI Agents as Dillinger apparently tried to duck into an alley. No other people were shot, and this time there was to be no escape for John Dillinger.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other famous or infamous escape would you include on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Garret, Pat. The Authentic Life Of Billy The Kid. Kessinger Publishing, 2010.
Johnson, Luke. El Chapo: Blood Money: The True Story Of The Most Famous Drug Lord. CreateSpace, 2017.
Markham, J. David and Matthew Zarzeczny. Simply Napoleon. Simply Charly, 2017.
Matera, Dary. John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America’s First Celebrity Criminal. Carroll and Graf, 2004.
Sullivan, Kevin. The Trail of Ted Bundy: Digging Up The Untold Stories. Amazon Digital Services, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Daniel Mayer of a marker noting the site where Deputy Olinger (spelled here as “Ollinger”) was killed by Bonney, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.