A homemade ouija board, a treasure hunt and fake madness: the great escape of World War I
Imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Turkey at the height of World War I, a British barrister and an Australian mechanic devised an audacious exit strategy involving a homemade Ouija board, a fake treasure hunt, and nerves of steel. Margalit Fox reveals the story behind one of history’s forgotten great escapes…
It was the most remarkable prison break in history: in 1918, as World War I raged on seemingly without end, two young British officers escaped from a remote Turkish prison camp... by means of a Ouija board.
The plot seemed born of a fever dream yet – a meticulously conceived, rigorously engineered confidence game, worked for more than a year on their Ottoman captors – it was precisely the method by which our real-life heroes, Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, broke out of Yozgad, an isolated prisoner of war camp high in the mountains of Anatolia.
Using a handmade Ouija board, Jones and Hill would ensnare their captors in an elaborate piece of participatory theatre entailing candlelit séances, magical illusions and a hunt for buried gold, with clues seemingly planted by ghosts. If all went according to plan, Yozgad’s commandant, an iron-fisted Ottoman army officer, would gleefully conduct Jones and Hill along their escape route, and the Ottoman government would pay their travel expenses. If their con was discovered, it would mean a bullet in the back for each of them.
- Read more: The not-so Great Escape
Jones and Hill’s hoax – one of the only known examples of a con game being used for good instead of ill – also required them to feign mental illness, stage a double suicide attempt that came perilously close to turning real, and endure six months in a Constantinople asylum, an ordeal that drove them to the edge of actual madness. Yet in the end they won their freedom.
But how in the world was such a preposterous strategy actually able to succeed?
Jones and Hill would ensnare their captors in an elaborate piece of participatory theatre entailing candlelit séances, magical illusions and a hunt for buried gold, with clues seemingly planted by ghosts
The astounding story was first outlined Jones’ memoir, The Road to En-dor. Published in 1919, it was intended as a cautionary tale about how breathtakingly easy it is to become a spiritualist charlatan, a species of war profiteer that flourished between 1914 and 1918 to wring dividends from bereaved families.
Jones’ title was a deliberate nod to ‘En- Dor’, a bitter poem by Rudyard Kipling (himself the father of a fallen soldier) in which he decried such mountebanks: “The road to En-dor is easy to tread / For Mother or yearning Wife. / There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead / As they were even in life...” (The title ‘En-Dor’ invokes the biblical Witch of Endor, from the First Book of Samuel, whom Saul asks to conjure Samuel’s spirit.)
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The road to the PoW camp
Jones was the scheme’s chief architect, and his memoir dwells minutely on how the ruse worked, detailing a web of planning, rehearsal and performance. There is less analysis, however, of why – the precise ingredients of the psychological cocktail that let him, as he wrote, transform his captors into “clay in the potter’s hands.” Hill’s memoir, The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975, likewise favours exposition over explanation.
The two protagonists could not have been more different. Jones, in his mid-30s, was a Welsh-born artilleryman, the Oxford-educated son of a lord. (His father, Sir Henry Jones, was one of the world’s most eminent moral philosophers.) Trained as a barrister, Jones was married to his childhood sweetheart and serving as a magistrate in British Burma. He and his wife were the parents of a baby daughter, with another child on the way, when he enlisted with the Indian Army Reserve of Officers in the spring of 1915.
Hill, an Australian-born flier, was a bachelor in his late 20s who had been a mechanic on a Queensland sheep station. When war was declared, he longed to join up as a trainee pilot, but Australia did not have a fully functioning military air corps: the airplane was barely a decade old. Sailing to England, he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF.
What the men had in common was keen intelligence, vibrant imaginations, and the willingness to risk their lives for the chance of freedom
For both men, the road to Yozgad was replete with hardship: for Hill, a forced landing and six-hour shootout with Ottoman forces in Egypt; for Jones, a desperate five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara, in present-day Iraq, followed by a forced march through 2,000 miles of brutal country during which scores of men would die. What they also had in common was keen intelligence, vibrant imaginations, and the willingness to risk their lives for the chance of freedom.
The trouble was that freedom from Yozgad was considered unattainable. Part of a constellation of World War I prison camps spread over Turkey, it was among the most remote, lying 150 miles south of the Black Sea and 300 miles north of the Mediterranean.
More than 4,000 feet above sea level, the camp had been earmarked for incorrigibles: those British officers deemed most likely to escape. The nearest railway station, Angora (present-day Ankara), was five days’ journey by cart through forbidding terrain: jagged mountains surrounding the camp and the Anatolian desert beyond. Yozgad was the Alcatraz of its day.
- Read more: The rise of spiritualism after World War I
Making the most of the spiritualist ardour
But for the hundred British officers interned there, something else precluded escape even more forcibly. On the orders of the commandant, Kiazim Bey, an escape attempt by any one of them would bring severe reprisals – including lockdown, isolation and even execution – on all those who remained.
Men of honour, the prisoners swore to one another that they would not flee. But some, including Jones and Hill, dreamed of liberty. The question was how to attain it without compromising the safety of their countrymen.
Their plot began as a lark. Remanded to Yozgad in the summer of 1916, Jones and Hill spent their time much as their fellow prisoners did, trying to stave off the despair and boredom that are hallmarks of life in captivity. The inmates had already tried chess, poker and roulette, with a wheel made from a discarded door, but such distractions had paled over time.
Then, in February 1917, Jones got a postcard from an aunt in Britain. Knowing that her nephew needed to fill his long, empty days, she suggested he try experimenting with a Ouija board. The war had renewed the spiritualist ardour that had suffused the Victorian age, rallying adherents in Britain, the US and on the Continent round spiritualism’s central tenet: that through the agency of a spirit medium, it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead.
Wielding a handmade Ouija board – built, like all of the Yozgad prisoners’ furnishings, from salvage – Jones began faking séances for his fellow captives. His bona fides as a “spirit medium” were aided greatly by his stellar visual memory, which let him internalise the positions of the letters that were arrayed randomly round the handmade board.
As a result, he was able to work the board blindfolded, subtly guiding the inverted water tumbler that served as an ersatz planchette. This prowess persuaded many of his fellow captives that Jones was truly receiving messages from the dead.
Though few of the officers had been spiritualist believers at the start, they came to cherish the nights at the “spook-board”, which spelled out “communications” from a panoply of shades: the flirtatious Sally, the gentle Dorothy, the cantankerous American Silas P Warner, and a commanding presence known only as the “Spook”.
“There was no place to which we could not go, nothing we could not see with the Spook’s eyes, or hear with his ears,” Jones wrote in 1919. “A successful night at the spook-board was the nearest we could get, outside our dreams, to a breath of freedom.”
The Ouija board spelled out ‘communications’ from a panoply of different shades, including a presence known only as the ‘Spook
It was all no more than a practical joke – a way to pass captivity’s stagnant time. But one day in the autumn of 1917, a young Yozgad official sidled up to Jones. “Can the Spirit find a buried treasure?” he whispered. (It had long been rumoured in Yozgad that a wealthy local Armenian, anticipating the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-16, had buried his numerous riches somewhere nearby – and that camp officials had been digging for them in vain.)
And so the con began. Over the coming months, working under constant surveillance and with limited resources, Jones and Hill would need to perfect a Ouija-guided hunt for non-existent treasure, with clues “planted” by non- existent ghosts.
“If I could do to the Turks what I had succeeded in doing to my fellow-prisoners,” Jones would write, “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.”
Manifestations to madness
And so it would, by virtue of impeccable planning, immense personal risk, and no small amount of luck. At the Ouija board, Jones gradually convinced his captors that a vast hoard of gold, buried somewhere in Turkey, would be theirs – if only they would lead the two “mediums” far from Yozgad in search of it. Hill’s prowess as a sleight-of-hand artist let him further dupe their jailers with “spirit manifestations” that would have been the envy of the most talented Victorian medium.
As they reeled Yozgad’s officials ever more deeply into the con, Jones and Hill deftly exploited not only their all-too-human avarice, but their deep need – widely prevalent in wartime – to believe in a larger, all-knowing, benevolent force... a force very much like the Spook.
Over time, the ruse required the conmen to bury a set of cryptic clues to the treasure’s whereabouts in the countryside around Yozgad, and to bewitch their captors into digging for them. They would then use a secret camera to photograph their captors in the act, thereby securing tangible evidence of their complicity – an insurance policy designed to guarantee their comrades’ safety.
All went according to plan until, on the eve of their escape, Jones and Hill were betrayed. Their plot lay in ruins. They were forced to adopt a terrifying Plan B: to have themselves committed to a mental hospital on the chance that if they could convince psychiatrists they were insane, they might be repatriated to Britain in an official exchange of sick prisoners.
And so began the caper’s dark last act: Stalag 17 meets One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
To shore up their credentials as madmen, Jones and Hill very publicly attempted to hang themselves (“within limits”) en route
Rigorously coached by a British army doctor interned with them at Yozgad, Jones and Hill managed to simulate mental illness so convincingly that their captors received official permission to transport them to Haidar Pasha Hospital in Constantinople for observation. To shore up their credentials as madmen, they very publicly attempted to hang themselves (“within limits”) en route.
Confined at Haidar Pasha for six months, Jones and Hill were under constant suspicion of malingering and were subjected by doctors to series of traps and tests. They faced a chronic, looming terror: if they inhabited their mad roles as fully as they needed to, they might slip irretrievably into real madness.
In the end, they vowed to make themselves “mad enough” to fool the experts, whatever the cost. And thus they succeeded at last in persuading their doctors to certify them.
Dispatched homeward on the British hospital ship Kanowna in October 1918, they reached England around the time of the Armistice of Mudros, concluded on 30 October and ending the war between the Allies and the Ottoman empire. But while their ruse bought them little time, it may well have saved their lives.
Had they remained at Yozgad, they might easily have been among the dozen inmates who died there amid the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. What was more, in a world devoid of hope, their two-pronged hoax – embracing their careers as sham spiritualists and as counterfeit madmen – gave them a reason to persevere as perhaps nothing else could.
- Read next: Bethlem Royal Hospital: why did the infamous Bedlam asylum have such a fearsome reputation?
Friends out of fraud
Overall, Jones and Hill’s con game succeeded because it took place at a pivotal moment in western history – an era awash with magicians, mentalists and mountebanks; when wide belief in the spirit world stood shoulder to shoulder with hurtling developments in science; and when miracles of disembodied communication like telegraphy, radio, and the telephone made the possibility of discourse with the dead an authentic empirical question.
But while our heroes’ escapade reveals much about life during the early 20th century, it also illuminates the 21st. The psychological techniques that underpinned their con game remain widely used today by advertisers, salespeople and political firebrands. As it was for Jones and Hill, mastery of the art now known as “coercive persuasion” is indispensable to each.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the whole affair, however, is the story of friendship that developed between two men who almost certainly would not otherwise have met.
“For a brief period,” Jones would write, recalling their confinement in Haidar Pasha, “Hill was put in the bed next mine. It seems a little thing, that we should lie there three feet apart instead of 10, but it meant much... We did not attempt to talk – we were too closely watched for that – but at night, under cover of darkness, sometimes he and sometimes I would stretch out an arm, and for a brief moment grip the other’s hand. The firm strong pressure of my comrade’s fingers used to put everything right.”
Margalit Fox is a former senior writer at The New York Times and author of The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History (Profile Books, 2021)
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