Throughout history there have been some pretty wild prison escapes. There seems to be no end to the ingenuity displayed by those who want to escape a hellish future behind bars. These attempts range from the daring to the misguided, but they all have their place in history and some are weirder than others. Here we get into the tale of some prisoners of war during World War I, who managed to spin a tale of Ouija boards and lost treasures into their salvation, and make for one of the most bizarre prison breaks that has ever been.
The main characters of this rather weird tale were British officers Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two men from very different worlds and brought together by the horrors of World War I. Jones came from a family of prominence and wealth, the son of a Lord and educated and trained as a barrister at the prestigious Harvard University, serving as a magistrate in British Burma and with a pregnant wife and baby, while Hill was a lifelong bachelor from a working class family, a simple mechanic from a rural Australian sheep farm who also dabbled as an amateur magician, and it seems unlikely the two would have ever met each other in the real world if war had not brought them together. The war sucked both of them into its ravenous maw, as it had done with many young and able bodied men, with Jones an artilleryman with the Indian Army Reserve of Officers and Hill an airmen serving with the Royal Flying Corps. During the war they were both stationed in the Middle East in war efforts against Ottoman forces, and even then it seemed as though they would have been unlikely to have ever met, two very different men with very different lives and duties, but fate was about to bring them together and bring them down a rather strange path.
In 1916, Hill was flying reconnaissance missions out of Kantara, Egypt, when he was shot down near El Arish in the Sinai desert, and subsequently captured by enemy forces after a six-hour shootout in the scorching sun. Jones himself was captured after an unsuccessful five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara, in present-day Iraq. Both men were forced to march through inhospitable and treacherous terrain for a total of 2,000 miles over two months through some of the most brutal and unforgiving landscape imaginable, before ending up at the Yozgad prison camp in Turkey. This was bad news for them, because Yozgad was widely considered to be one of the toughest and most ruthless prison camps there was. In particular, Yozgad’s remote, high-altitude location in the mountains of Anatolia was in the middle of absolute nowhere, surrounded by mountains and the moonscape of the Anatolian desert, the nearest settlement a 5-day cart journey through blistering, unforgiving mountain and desert wilderness. On top of this, the camp had the policy of punishing the entire prison population with lockdown, isolation and execution if someone even so much as attempted to escape, meaning that their sense of honor was used against them. For these reasons, Yozgad had long been used as the destination for the worst of the worst and the prisoners deemed most likely to try to escape. It was in this hellhole that Jones and Hill would meet.
With their very different backgrounds and educations, the two had very little in common, yet they hit it off almost immediately, forming a quick rapport that blossomed into friendship. The two were nearly inseparable as they passed away their days languishing in the harsh conditions of the camp. At the time, one of the hardships of life in Yozgad was crushing boredom, and it was this boredom that would serve as the seed of what was to come. Jones, Hill, and the other inmates had very little to do to exercise their minds typically, usually playing chess and board games cobbled together and handmade from junk lying around, and one day, Jones got an idea in his head after reading a postcard from his aunt. He decided that a cool new game to try would be to play with a Ouija board, suggested by his aunt and something that he was able to throw together with various salvaged junk. With this homemade Ouija board in hand, they had a new toy to play with, and it would also become the catalyst for a bonkers plan.
At the time, spiritualism was all the rage in Europe. It was in vogue to go to séances, mediums, and fortune tellers, and one could find these on what seemed like every street corner. The inmates all knew what a Ouija board was, all of them had heard of this spiritualism stuff, and so Jones used this intense interest to stage séances for the men, claiming that he was in fact a medium. He would hold these séances and produce fake results, namely through his keen intellect and ability to remember the positions of the lettered and numbered spaces on the board. He would then allow himself to be blindfolded, and since his spatial memory was so good, he was able to navigate the planchette with an eerie uncanniness. Along with Hill’s help setting up the illusion with his magician experience, before long Jones had the other inmates convinced that he was a real medium, holding them in fascination with his spooky shows. It was all just a bit of fun for Hill and Jones, and likely wouldn’t have ever been more than a spooky show to keep everyone entertained and out of the clutches of despair if it weren’t for a curious guard at the prison.
One day, a young Yozgad official who had heard of these Ouija board sessions pulled Jones aside and asked him if he would be able to use his psychic powers to divine the location of a lost treasure out in the wilderness. According to this official, a wealthy local Armenian had buried a fortune in the area of the prison to keep it safe from the Ottomans closing in on them, yet no one had ever been able to find it. The official hoped that perhaps Jones could do better, and thinking on his feet he accepted. He of course had no idea where the treasure was or if it was even real, and had no real psychic powers to speak of, but he saw it as a chance to spin an elaborate con that had the possibility of possibly leading them to freedom. He had no idea at the time how he was going to make that work, but he would write in his memoir:
If I could do to the Turks what I had succeeded in doing to my fellow-prisoners. if I could make them believers, there was no saying what influence I might not be able to exert over them. It might even open the door to freedom.
In order to carry out the elaborate ruse that he was still formulating in his mind, he recruited his buddy Hill, who had proven to be keenly intelligent, adept at illusion, and resourceful. The two then began devising their plan, which entailed fully selling the spiritualist powers of the Ouija board and convincing their captors that the spirits were leading the way to the mysterious lost treasure. They meticulously planned and rehearsed over and over again, before carrying out incredibly convincing Ouija board demonstrations complete with elaborate sleight of hand and slick illusions in front of the enthralled prison guards and officials. It was so convincing, in fact, that they were eventually able to get the prison to allow them outside to help look for the treasure. It would be under strict supervision of course, but it would be their first time outside of the prison walls in over a year and offered a glimmer of hope that freedom might be within their grasp.
The next stage of their plan was to arrange for the “spirits” to leave a series of cryptic clues that would lead to further clues buried out in the countryside, sort of a spiritual scavenger hunt. Of course these clues didn’t really exist out there, but all they needed was for their captors to believe that they did. They also had to believe that only Jones and Hill would be able to track these clues down. A part of the plan also involved the fact that these prison officials were working on their own and behind the back of their government, corrupt and planning to keep any treasure found for themselves. If they were to be caught trying to find the treasure on their own, they were liable to end up there in prison just as surely as Jones and Hill. In this way, the plan put in place was twofold, to scout out the area and plan a possible escape, and to take covert photos of the prison guards digging for the treasure to blackmail them out of punishing the rest of the prison populace. It was ballsy and ambitious, but the two conmen went ahead with their plans.
During their forays into the desert, Jones and Hill were able through sleight of hand to leave their “clues from the spirit world,” which were supplemented by bogus but very convincing and dynamic Ouija board sessions. It was all going to plan, their escape route now meticulously planned, yet at some point one of the other prisoners who had heard of the plot betrayed them, ruining all of the hard work they had done to fool everyone. Desperate to avoid being put to death, Jones and Hill went to a different plan that was perhaps even more ridiculous than fake ghosts and a lost treasure. This time, they went about trying to get themselves committed to a mental asylum in the hopes that they would be sent back to England in an official exchange of sick prisoners, and they seemed to have had the nerve, wits, and sheer ability to lie to maybe pull it off.
This plan started with the two men feigning mental illness for months, and for good measure they faked a double suicide by hanging. This seems to have done the trick, as they were deemed mad and sent to a Constantinople asylum called Haidar Pasha. There they were put under observation for six months under constant watch and studied by some of the world’s top psychiatric authorities. This was nothing like what they expected, the few days they had expected to be there stretching into months, forced to act insane every waking moment to keep up their ruse and threatening to tear them down mentally to send them spiraling into actual madness. Margalit Fox, author of the best source on the case in her book The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, says of this dark time:
The insane asylum was truly insane. They expected to be there shamming madness under constant surveillance 24/7 for maybe six weeks. They ended up there for six months. It very nearly killed them, or very nearly drove them mad. But nowhere in their writings have I seen one note of regret. Some of that is of course the British stiff upper lip, not complaining about your lot. But they clearly say it in so many words that this scheming kept them alive. I think genuinely they did not have a moment of regret. That is not to say that what they went through wasn’t terrible.
In the end, their charade worked. They were labelled certifiably insane and released back to England in October of 1918, saving them from almost certain death if they had remained at Yozgad. Jones would write about the ordeal in his 1919 memoir, The Road to En-dor, and Hill would tell his own version of the story in his own memoir The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975. It is all quite the adventure and a show of incredible courage and ingenuity under harsh conditions. The fact that these two men managed to spin a homemade Ouija board, a tale of lost treasure, and madness into their salvation is truly a remarkable tale, and although it has been sort of lost to time it is a testament to the power of the human spirit to push through in hard times, as well as a damn strange prison break story that is pretty hard to beat on the strangeness scale.