As long as prisons have existed, those incarcerated inside them have managed to escape. Using a mixture of disguise, cunning, charm and brute force, prisoners have fled incarceration for centuries, and their escape stories have captured the imagination of the public for their invention, daring and sheer dumb luck.
The most famous prison breaks are all by men: throughout history, men have been imprisoned in greater numbers than women and therefore it follows that they would have more chances to escape. However, history has some remarkable female-led prison breaks too. Here are 5 of the most daring.
1. Sarah Chandler (1814)
Convicted for fraud after she tried to buy her children new shoes with fake banknotes, Sarah Chandler was found guilty and sentenced to death for her crime by a particularly harsh judge. Pleading her belly (claiming she was pregnant), she desperately tried to buy time for others to petition on her behalf, but to little avail.
After a date was set for her execution, Chandler’s family decided the only recourse left was to spring her from her incarceration – in Presteigne Gaol, Wales – themselves. Her relatives were no strangers to petty crime and some of them had spent time in Presteigne themselves, so knew its layout.
Using a long ladder, they scaled the walls, removed the hearthstone leading to Sarah’s cell and got her out. It seems likely they had bribed or blackmailed a warden to look the other way.
Sarah successfully escaped: the law caught up with her 2 years later, however, when she was found alive and well in Birmingham. Her death sentence was commuted to transportation for life, and she boarded a hulk to New South Wales with her family.
2. Limerick Gaol (1830)
Despite only scarce reports of this event, the Limerick Gaol prison break remains a remarkable story: in 1830, 9 women and an 11-month-old baby managed to escape Limerick Gaol just before they were due to be transferred to another prison.
After befriending some men outside the prison and making use of their contacts within, the women managed to get hold of a file, an iron bar and some nitric acid. The escapees were aided by 2 men, who scaled the walls of the prison and broke their cell locks during an evening singing event.
The women and their accomplices escaped over 3 sets of high walls: remarkably, the baby didn’t cry and betray them accidentally. Whether they were caught, or what happened to them post-escape is not recorded.
3. Mala Zimetbaum (1944)
The first woman to escape from Auschwitz, Mala Zimetbaum was a Polish Jew who was rounded up and imprisoned in 1944. Multilingual, she was assigned to work as an interpreter and courier in the camp – a relatively privileged position. Nonetheless, she devoted her time outside of work to helping those less fortunate than her, providing food, clothes and basic medical care where she could.
A fellow Pole, Edek Galiński, decided to try and escape with Zimetbaum using an SS uniform they had acquired. Galiński was going to impersonate an SS guard escorting a prisoner through the perimeter gates, and with some luck, the real SS guards wouldn’t examine them too closely. When away from the camp, they planned to then impersonate an SS guard and his girlfriend on a stroll.
They escaped the camp successfully and made it to the nearest town where they tried to buy some bread. A patrol became suspicious after Zimetbaum tried to use gold to buy bread and arrested her: Galiński turned himself in shortly afterwards. They were imprisoned in separate cells and sentenced to death.
Galiński was hanged, whilst Zimetbaum tried to open her veins before the SS could execute her, bleeding out over a relatively long period of time. Reportedly the guards had been ordered to make their deaths as painful as possible as punishment for their escape attempt. Prisoners knew the pair had achieved the unthinkable and treated both of their deaths with reverence and respect.
4. Assata Shakur (1979)
Born in New York as JoAnne Byron, Shakur joined the Black Panther Party after graduating college but left after she realised many of the members of the party were extremely macho and lacked knowledge or understanding of black history. She instead moved to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a guerrilla group. She changed her name to Assata Olugbala Shakur, a West African name, and became heavily involved in the BLA’s criminal activities.
She soon became a person of interest after being involved in several robberies and assaults, and after being identified as one of the most important people in group, was declared a terrorist by the FBI.
Shakur was eventually caught, and after multiple trials, sentenced for murder, assault, robbery, armed robbery and aiding and abetting murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, she managed to escape from New Jersey’s Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in early 1979 with the help of members of the BLA, who broke her out with pistols and dynamite, taking several prison guards hostage.
Shakur lived as a fugitive for years before moving to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. She remains on the FBI’s wanted list, and there is a $2 million reward for anyone who apprehends her.
5. Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme (1987)
A member of the Manson family cult, Lynette Fromme decided Charles Manson was psychic shortly after meeting him and became a devoted follower of his. Jailed briefly for helping Manson’s followers avoid having to testify, she later attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford and was given a mandatory life sentence.
Fromme managed to escape from prison in West Virginia in a last-ditch attempt to meet Manson, who she was deeply in love with. Her escape was shortlived: she struggled with the hostile landscape and terrain surrounding the facility and had escaped in the dead of December, when the weather was at its most harsh.
She was recaptured and returned to prison willingly after a 100 person manhunt. Fromme was later moved to a high-security facitility in Fort Worth, Texas. She was released on parole in August 2009.