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TWO PALS USED outlandish means to escape from an Ottoman prison camp during World War I. Chris Jennings’ “Breaking Out of Prison With a Ouija Board and Some Clever Tricks” describes their caper in The New York Times, June 1, 2021. Jennings is reviewing Margalit Fox’s book The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History.

The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, by Margalit Fox, Random House, 2021.

And remarkable it was. Here are tidbits about the caper involving a homemade Ouija board, sleight of hand, feigned madness, and other hijinks.

Officers and (Clever) Gentlemen. E.H. Jones was a Welsh Lieutenant in the Indian Army. C.W. Hill was an Australian officer in the Royal Flying Corp and later the Royal Air Force.

At left, Cedric Waters Hill, 1891–1975, Australian officer. Later he was to work as a WWII ferry pilot. At right, Elias Henry Jones, 1883–1942, Welsh officer. He retired in Bangor, Wales.

Their Predicament. Both officers were among the 12,000 captured in the 1915 siege and surrender of Kut-al-Amara, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. Jennings notes, “Many of the officers were transported 2000 miles across present-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey to Yozgad, a prison camp on the high Anatolian Plateau.” 

Jennings continues, “The camp, comprising adjacent houses formerly occupied by murdered Armenian families, was one of the most remote in the Ottoman Empire. In lieu of barbed wire, the prisoners were hemmed in by rugged mountains and a vast desert. ‘Yozgad was considered escape proof,’ Fox writes, ‘the Alcatraz of its day.’ ”

“Sidelined for the balance of the war,” Jennings writes, “the prisoners of Yozgad turned their energies to killing time.” They organized a debating society. They devised a comic opera, The Fair Maiden of Yozgad. Hill and Jones concocted a con.

The Hill/Jones Con. “On a lark,’ Jennings says, “Jones made a Ouija board from polished iron and an inverted jar.” Together, he and Hill found a mark in the camp’s commandant, a harsh Turk who was evidently superstitious with a strong streak of greed as well.

An early Ouija board, manufactured by Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore. A planchette (guided from beyond?) spells out declarations. Image from Wikipedia.

Using Ouija predictions, the pair persuaded the mark that “the Spook” promised to reveal a hoard of Armenian gold. The buried loot, conveniently, was located on the Mediterranean coast, where escape might be possible.

The Plot is Stirred, Not Shaken. The pair eventually escaped. There were secret codes (a Hill speciality), a hidden camera, buried clues, fake suicides, and feigned madness. It’s this last tactic that got Hill and Jones transferred to a mental facility in 1918. There, the doctors confirmed their condition and the two were repatriated. 

Author Fox’s Side Con. Jennings notes, “Fox inserts a fresh ‘mystery’ into the drama, namely, ‘How in the world was this preposterous plan actually able to succeed?’ Without breaking stride, she answers that question with brisk detours into mind control, telepathy, mentalism and the like.”

Reviewer Jennings does a deft job as well. I must read The Confidence Men. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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