Breaking Out of Prison With a Ouija Board and Some Clever Tricks
How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History
Going all the way back to the stratagems of Odysseus, certain war stories draw their fascination from the breathtaking cleverness occasionally sparked by the will to survive. “The Confidence Men,” Margalit Fox’s riveting account of two British officers who sprang themselves from an Ottoman prison camp during World War I using a Ouija board, sleight of hand, feigned madness and vast stores of creativity, is such a tale. Like the “Odyssey,” Fox’s book is less about war than the winding path home.
Toward the end of 1915, in the midst of an ill-planned campaign to march on Baghdad, British troops were besieged by Ottoman forces at Kut-al-Amara, a small town on the Tigris. After five months of relentless shelling, dwindling rations and failed rescue operations, the British raised a white flag. Thirty-three thousand Allied troops ultimately perished at Kut. Fox quotes one historian who suggests it was Britain’s worst defeat since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Rather than the high-altitude perspective of much military history, here we get a narrative hovering at eye level. We learn more about Mrs. Milligan, a stoic hen beloved of the British gunners in Kut, than about David Lloyd George, or the Ottoman sultan. Fox’s depiction of the infernal trench conditions in Mesopotamia rivals the more familiar horrors of the muddy Western Front. Near the end of the siege, with 15 to 20 men starving to death each day, “the gunners ate Mrs. Milligan and found her tough.”
More than 12,000 troops were taken prisoner following the surrender. Many of the officers were transported 2,000 miles across present-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey to Yozgad, a prison camp on the high Anatolian Plateau. Among them was E. H. Jones, a Welsh philosopher’s brilliant son, who had been serving as a magistrate in Burma at the outbreak of war. 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, the prisoners of Yozgad turned their energies to killing time. Much of the pleasure of “The Confidence Men” comes from the bewildering pluck of these young men of the empire. Shell and starve them within an inch of their lives, force-march the survivors across Asia Minor and before you can sing “Rule, Britannia!” they have organized a debate society and started dress rehearsals for some light comic opera (title: “The Fair Maiden of Yozgad”). Of course, somewhere outside the frame of Fox’s tale, there are an awful lot of enlisted men from both armies detained in far less humane conditions. Unlike the chaps at Yozgad, they were probably not procuring local greyhounds for the P.O.W. hunt club.
On a lark, Jones made a Ouija board from polished iron and an inverted jar. The hardships of war and a wave of magical new technologies (the phonograph, radio, flight) had renewed public interest in telepathy and the paranormal. It was a “liminal era,” Fox writes, “poised at the nexus of the scientific and the spiritual.” Jones, who studied psychology at university and possessed an astounding visual memory, discovered that he could bamboozle his fellow officers, even blindfolded under close scrutiny. He found a perfect accomplice in C. W. Hill, a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps who had been raised on a Queensland ranch. Hill had been captured after his biplane was shot down in Egypt. Like Jones, he had a knack for secret codes and a willingness to risk his life for freedom. He also happened to be an accomplished stage conjurer.
Jones and Hill gradually ensorcelled the camp’s harsh Turkish commandant, placing him and two underlings under trembling obedience to a powerful ghost named “the Spook.” Speaking through the two prisoners and their Ouija board, the Spook promised to lead the men to a hoard of buried Armenian gold. (The recent genocide had resulted in a lot of buried wealth.) Jones and Hill planned for the Spook to guide the treasure hunters to the Mediterranean coast, where they could make their escape and possibly even turn over their captors to Allied forces in Cyprus. As it happened, things took a darker turn.
Fox, a former senior obituary writer for The New York Times and the author of three previous books, unspools Jones and Hill’s delightfully elaborate scheme in nail-biting episodes that advance like a narrative Rube Goldberg machine, gradually leading from Yozgad to freedom by way of secret codes, a hidden camera, buried clues, fake suicides and a lot of ingenious mumbo jumbo. At moments, “The Confidence Men” has the high gloss of a story polished through years of telling and retelling. Indeed, Hill and Jones each wrote lively chronicles of the escape. To make the material her own, 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.
Meanwhile, the sprawling war mostly grinds on out of view. Fox leaves aside the perennial question of whether or not the Great War was modern history’s bloodiest folly, but her eye for the absurd underscores the senselessness of a conflict that began with a murdered archduke in Sarajevo yet somehow led to this Ouija-guided treasure hunt in remote Anatolia. There is no shortage of valor here, but it has less to do with king and country (let alone British control of Persian oil fields) than with the bravery of two friends helping each other get home. For a few miserable months Jones and Hill were locked up in a Constantinople madhouse. “We did not attempt to talk,” Jones wrote later. “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.”