6 Crazy Methods Prisoners Used To Escape Execution

Imagine you've been sentenced to die -- how do you escape? Tunnel your way out? Smile seductively at the guard? Request 10 tons of dynamite for your final meal?

Sadly, none of those will work ... but maybe the following methods will, because they did for some people. 


Beating The Warden At Chess

Ossip Bernstein was a chess master, which is rad title but didn't pay the bills in the last days of Imperial Russia. For a living, Bernstein worked as a financial lawyer, and it was this job that got him in trouble. Oh, he didn't commit any financial crimes as far as we can tell (making him the most honest financial lawyer in history). But by counseling rich bankers, he marked himself as an enemy of the people once revolution broke out, so in 1918, he found himself arrested and about to face the firing squad. 

Should've been a bricklayer, Ossip. 
via Wiki Commons Should've been a bricklayer, Ossip.

He got as far as lining up with his fellow prisoners against the wall when an officer recognized his name. "Are you really the famous chess master Ossip Bernstein?" he asked. Bernstein said he was, but surely anyone would have said "yes" if meant a chance of not being immediately shot 30 times, so the officer needed to be sure. The two of them would play chess, he said. If the condemned man played with the skill of a grandmaster, he'd earn himself a reprieve. If not, the punishment would be instant death.

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So Bernstein sat down and played. It was like those stories of a dying man playing a game against Death -- another half century would pass before The Seventh Seal came out, but that image comes from an older and more universal myth. In fact, maybe this officer was Death. Sources do not record his name so we have no way to be sure.

He did carry a scythe, but maybe that's just because he was communist.
Albertus Pictor  He did carry a scythe, but maybe that's just because he was communist.

Bernstein beat the officer handily, was released, and got the hell out of Russia and into Paris. His life's adventures weren't quite over. After a couple decades more of professional chess, he saw the Nazis took over France, and so it was time to flee once more, as he figured even chess skills wouldn't convince Nazis to spare a Russian Jew. He had a heart attack while making the journey by foot to Spain, but he got through. He survived another heart attack a decade later as well, and that one wasn't from doing anything terrifying. He was just so excited because he was finally returning to Russia to play chess again. 

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Having A Conjoined Twin

Here's a surprisingly common question you'll see online: "If a Siamese twin commits murder, do we sentence him to death, given that this would kill his twin too?" The answer is more obvious than people seem to realize. Of course we wouldn't. We avoid punishing or even prosecuting various crimes all the time for various reasons, and when it comes to the death penalty, we have all kinds of room for skipping on it if we want. Courts won't even put you to death if you have a fetus in you, let alone if you have a full-fledged twin. It's possible, come to think of it, that the people asking this question are trying to make some kind of broad philosophical point and aren't truly asking about legal procedure.

All those people complaining about trolley problems also might not genuinely care about rail infrastructure.
Wolfgang Rottmann/Unsplash All those people complaining about trolley problems also might not genuinely care about rail infrastructure.

So the really surprising thing here isn't the answer to the question but whether the question ever actually had to be answered in real life, given just how few conjoined twins ever really existed. And it seems that, yes, historians say one such case really came up. 

Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo were conjoined twins in 17th-century Genoa, in Italy. Or, as some would instead describe it, Lazarus had a parasitic twin named Joannes -- Lazarus was intelligent and even handsome, while Joannes just hung off him with his mouth open and eyes closed. Lazarus usually covered him up with a cloak. Which couldn't have been much fun if Joannes was aware of it, but based on the vague accounts by historians, it sounds like Joannes wasn't aware of anything.

The two supposedly looked like this. Or maybe this is the King of Clubs.
via Wiki Commons The two supposedly looked like this. Or maybe this is the King of Clubs.

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Lazarus killed another man in a bar fight and faced execution for murder but successfully defended himself by saying executing him would kill Joannes Baptista too. Now, all you literary analysts have definitely noted that "Lazarus" was the guy in the Bible who came back from death, and Lazarus Colloredo came back from a death sentence. And John the Baptist is best known for having his head on a platter, while Joannes Baptista Colloredo was basically just an inanimate head. It's sounds just like a fable. Yet historians say these two really did exist

They toured in freak shows, and Lazarus ended up getting married and having kids. Which could answer the other most common question people have about conjoined twins, but Joannes sadly never commented on what it's like to be attached to a twin while they're boning. 

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Just Not Dying When They Hang You

We've had some truly dramatic cases of people surviving executions. These cases only fail as inspiring stories of the innocent prevailing against injustice because the executioners tried a do-over a little later, and next time, they succeeded. But if you want to hear of someone who really did get to the gallows but who lived for years afterward, we present to you John "Babbacombe" Lee.

To answer your first question: Babbacombe was the bay where he lived. It is not the name of an Australian monster.
Lorraine Cornwell To answer your first question: "Babbacombe" was the bay where he lived. It is not the name of an Australian monster.

Lee may well have been innocent -- there was nowhere near enough evidence to convict him based on our modern standards of proof. But he was in the building when his boss was killed, and he had a record as a thief, so he was convicted and sentenced to hang. The hangman was James Berry, who was working his way toward killing over 100 criminals, including one suspected of being Jack the Ripper, so he was kind of famous. As is standard practice, Berry examined the gallows before the hanging, checking the rope and the trapdoor. All seemed well.

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He put the noose around Lee's neck, and he pushed the lever. The trap door didn't open. He paused the execution and examined the door again, and it seemed fine, so he resumed the ceremony, pushed the lever, and still, the door stayed shut. Once more, he went through the whole process, and yet the door remained closed. People have speculated about someone wedging the door shut, but it's unclear when anyone could have had a chance to do this.

It seems no trickery was at play. Though the band did play The Final Countdown.
Lorraine Cornwell It seems no trickery was at play. Though the band did play "The Final Countdown."

Everyone agreed three attempts was enough and cited divine intervention for Lee's survival. His sentence was commuted to life, and he later ended up being released altogether. As for Berry, he went on hanging people and even put out a book where he wrote proudly about his experiences, so it doesn't sound like he was in on a secret scheme to save Lee's life. But after that, he found Jesus (i.e., joined a church) and campaigned against the death penalty. At least a part of his grievance was over how executions take a toll on the hangman.

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Finding A Beetle Inside Your Cell

The next person we're talking about was another man whose only crime was being around when the revolution began. His name was Pierre Andre Latreille and he was a trained priest but worked as a zoologist. The priest part was what angered everyone when the French Revolution got going, so they arrested Pierre and threw him in a dungeon

While there, Latreille came upon something extraordinary. In one corner of the cell was a man with a mop-top hairdo, and rather than being scared of his impending fate, he beat a drum with a stick that guards had for some reason left with him. "How are you able to manage in these miserable conditions?" asked Latreille. "Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends," said the man. "Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends. Gonna try with a little help from my friends." The man's name was Ringo Starr.

They say you want a Revolution?
UPI "They say you want a Revolution?"

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Wait, no, sorry. We read our source wrong. Latreille did not find a Beatle in his cell. He found a beetle. It was a rare specimen, a Necrobia ruficollis. As its name suggests (we expect literary analysts AND fluent Latin speakers to be reading this article right now), the insect feeds on corpses, and so perhaps it would be feeding on Latreille before long. But when the prison doctor saw him examining the insect and talking about how unusual it was, he collected it and sent it to a bug expert he knew -- and this bug expert had heard of Latreille, and he used his position to set the zoologist free. 

The beetle escaped too, as was its plan. 
Blm2010/Wiki Commons The beetle escaped too, as was its plan.

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Every single other man who'd been arrested with Latreille was dead within a month. Truly, the moral of this story is that by valuing even the simplest life we see around us, we too will be saved. Or that the justice system always bends to serve the well-connected. Whichever you like better, really.

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Agreeing To Execute People Yourself

Okay, now for an actual story about a drummer in jail. This one's from a long while back, all the way in 1648 in Montreal. It would be another two centuries till Canada became a nation, so for now, Montreal was just a tiny settlement home to a handful of French colonists. The military garrison over there had a drummer, referred to by some sources as Rene Huguet dit Tambou. And the military folk discovered to their horror that the man was gay.

We don't have his picture. If you like you can scroll back up to the photo of Ringo.
Desire Girouard We don't have his picture. If you like you can scroll back up to the photo of Ringo.

They charged him with committing "the worst of crimes," a capital offense. That sounds like they caught Rene engaging in some very clear homosexual activity with another person, and we have no details about this other person getting charged, but then people have historically had some very strange and specific ideas of what acts make you gay and what's just typical military roughhousing. 

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Before the military could drown him in tub or whatever the preferred execution method was in that region, the drummer received help from an unlikely source: the Catholics of Quebec. The bishop there asked that the military not kill him outright and instead present him with a choice. He could accept his death sentence. Or, he could agree to become an executioner himself. The first executioner of New France, in fact

This is like a story where you meet Death and instead of playing chess, he makes you his replacement.
Francois Dollier de Casson This is like a story where you meet Death and instead of playing chess, he makes you his replacement.

Rene chose to live. He may not have had the most fun life, going by James Berry's talk of how tough a job being an executioner is, but he got to live. As executioner, we hope he swung his blade cleanly, and whenever someone came out with some especially smart gallows humor, we trust his drum was ready with a ba dum dum tss.

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Getting Super Fat

The last prisoner we're looking at today was not an innocent man. Donald Snyder escaped from Green Haven State Prison in New York, invaded a home, and took a family hostage. He killed a girl, age nine. His lawyers' only defense was that maybe he hadn't meant to cut her with his knife -- maybe he'd fallen on her accidentally when police shot him to take him down. The strategy didn't work, and he was sentenced to die. 

Though first he had to recover from being shot three times
Albany Times Union Though first he had to recover from being shot three times

Snyder was tried for murder in September 1952 and wound up scheduled for execution in the electric chair the next July, when he'd be 26. That's a much quicker process than happens today, and it's likely that, guilty or not, he would not be sentenced to death if he were tried now. Within those ten months, Snyder resolved to gain so much weight that he'd be unable to properly fit in the electric chair. He successfully put on a lot, going from 150 pounds to over 300 in less than a year.

On death row, this is known as the freshman 150
Florida Dept of Corrections/Doug Smith On death row, this is known as the freshman 150

For his last meal, he asked for "pork chops, eggs, and plenty of 'em!" Right up to the hours before his execution, he was convinced he'd soon be explaining to reporters how his overeating saved his life. 

He was wrong. He fit into the chair just fine