The great escape


I have always loved the word “escape”. I was once locked down in study week before my law exams when a friend sent me a handwritten note. “Let’s escape” it read. Oh, how my heart soared. He picked me up in a battered old VW Beetle, and for that glorious night (and others), we escaped and I was alive. Of course, it meant I didn’t write my final law exams that year, so I am not a lawyer now. So I suppose it was a double escape.

Everyone knows about Houdini. He was a mediocre illusionist and magician when he discovered a fundamental truth: not everyone can escape, so we love to watch others do it (and a small part of us is always watching for them to fail). Houdini reinvented himself as an escapologist. “No prison can hold Houdini!” shouted his posters, and people flocked to watch him jump manacled from bridges, or break free from sealed milk cans filled with water, or twist inside a straitjacket while dangling over Times Square. He was loved by workers and labourers and immigrants who felt trapped in circumstances beyond their making, pinned by a big machine from beneath which they could never wriggle. Houdini gave them hope, or showed them what it looked like.

So everyone knows about Houdini, but I wish we could know more about one of his rivals, the female escapologist Minerva. We don’t even know her real name. It might have been Margaretha van Dorn, but it could also have been Minna Riedel or Marge Snelling. We know she sometimes worked with the Amazing Vano, the Handcuff Expert. We know she performed many handcuffed bridge jumps and Buried Alive routines and claimed to have escaped from 173 different prisons, and was paid the princely sum of $75 for a week of performing escapes at Merryland Park in Cumberland, Maryland in 1908.


We know that she became so popular that Houdini himself sued her, accusing her of stealing his Milk-Can Escape routine (hers was the Water Barrel Escape, and she was actually more heavily bound than Houdini was). We also know that in counter-suit she accused Houdini’s people of putting acid in her water barrel during a tour of England. We know that in 1913 she married the illusionist Guy Jarrett, the man who designed the trick that enabled Bela Lugosi to appear and disappear in the original stage production of Dracula, and that after the wedding she suddenly stopped performing, and that is all we know.

I’m a great fan of Houdini, and he had scores of rivals and imitators, most of whom are forgotten today, but it seems especially terrible that Minerva should be so lost to history. She could escape being padlocked in a hessian sack and dropped into the freezing Potomac River, but she couldn’t escape the erasing glare of Houdini’s fame, or maybe being a woman in a man’s job, or perhaps, like many women before her, she just couldn’t escape the Buried Alive of marriage.

I feel bad that I can’t tell you more about Minerva, so instead I offer you a real-life escape. In 1830 the Limerick gaol in Ireland held a large number of women, most of them named Mary or Margaret. The ladies were a cheerful lot, and every evening at 8pm they held a rousing sing-along of religious songs. One night it seemed to the guards that the ladies were singing more fervently than usual. Oh, how their voices raised in praise did lift the very roofbeams! Even for an Irish prison, it was quite something. Some of the more suspicious warders wondered whether someone had perhaps snuck a bottle of peaty devilry into Cell Block H, but what they didn’t suspect was that beneath the lilt and blarney of the singing, the finishing touches were being put to a long-brewing plan.

With a crack and a shriek and a crash the metal fastenings were smashed from the doors of a communal cell, and nine women – including four Marys, two Margarets and an 11-month-old baby – tiptoed out.

Using a ladder, they scaled the outside wall of the prison. But oh no! A hitch! The mother of the baby couldn’t climb the ladder while carrying the child, so the first eight ladies went over first and waited on the other side, all in a line, holding their skirts spread out like those sheets firemen hold out in cartoons when a woman has to jump from a burning building. The mother counted a quick rosary and tossed her baby blindly over the wall. History does not record who caught her, but my money’s on a Mary.

I don’t know what the recapture rate was in Ireland in 1830, but I know that a few days later one of the women, neither a Mary nor a Margaret, returned to the prison and turned herself in. She didn’t go far, she said. She had just wanted to stretch her legs.

Dear friends, I had already written this column when I learnt it would be my last for Times Select, so alas this is goodbye. Do come by my website for a longer column-length farewell and thank you for the past seven years.

The Times, 8 April 2020