Has anyone ever been in prison overseas?

On the trail of the mad ax man

Dartmoor Prison is England's most notorious prison. Few escapees ever managed to escape from its high walls. In December 1966, Frank Mitchell held the nation in suspense.

Martin Glauert

To the west, Dartmoor shows its rough side. The land is barren, only a few gnarled trees brace themselves against the wind, which blows incessantly over the brown hills. You drive for kilometers on the narrow country road without encountering a single car. The day is overcast and rainy. A small place appears in the middle of the loneliness. It essentially consists of a street intersection, two pubs and low gray terraced houses. Princetown is the name of the spot. "With its climate of fog, snow, wind and cold rain, this is the most unsuitable place you could ever choose for a city," wrote one writer in the 1950s. The "grim little town" is remote and hardly accessible without a car. The railway line was shut down 50 years ago, and buses no longer run in the evenings. Princetown could sink into the insignificance of a small street village, and yet its name is associated with fear and a certain horror. Because here is the most notorious prison in Great Britain: Dartmoor Prison.
The prison wall opens up to a narrow stone portal at only one point. Whoever walked through this gate with its famous bell left the normal human world behind for a long time, often forever. The blocks made of gray granite with the slate roofs that have been rained down wet look gloomy and intimidating, there is no view through the small barred windows. Entry is strictly prohibited. If you want to know what it looks like behind the prison walls, you can visit the small museum across the street.
The museum keeper is a bear of a man, tall and broad, with long hair and a wild beard, his forearms are densely tattooed. A video with current images from everyday prison life is shown on a television screen. The penal system is as modern and objective today as it is in other prisons. Carpet and teacups, meetings and determine the daily routine. Lunch can be vegetarian or vegan, kosher or Muslim on request. In the low museum rooms, however, the old Dartmoor Prison comes to life. It quickly becomes clear to the visitor why the prison in the moor was still considered hell on earth 50 years ago.

The inhospitableness of the moor sometimes meant death

The prisoners lived in their solitary cells in constant darkness, the only ventilation was a slot under the door, a bowl served as a toilet and was emptied into barrels every morning. At first they slept in hammocks, later on wooden beds with two blankets and a pillow. The stone cells were damp, the water collected on the ground, and in winter it froze to ice. Punishments were harsh and cruel. The “nine-tailed cat” is a whip with a short leather handle and nine narrow ropes that have knots at the end to increase pain and injury. In the museum is the wooden frame on which the men were tied up. Hands and feet were fastened with leather cuffs so that the delinquent was helpless and motionless at the mercy of the blows. The dark spots on the frame reveal where sweat and blood dripped onto the wood.
"This is where the most vicious and incorrigible criminals came who could not be dealt with in other prisons," explains the museum attendant. “This was where the real bad boys were sitting!” One of these tough guys was Frank Mitchell, better known as the “crazy ax man”. Forty-five years ago, in December 1966, England's most dangerous criminal escaped from Her Majesty's maximum security prison. One of the largest car chases in the country's police history followed, and his escape kept the whole nation in suspense for a week.
Frank Mitchell was unusually strong, irascible, and violent. He had attacked and injured fellow prisoners and guards with homemade weapons several times. "He was a gentle giant with a child's disposition, but he could turn into a frenzied cop if something was wrong with him!" Recalls a former prison guard. The guards kept him happy with jokes and favors. This apparently also included going to bars and buying a budgie in town, as eyewitnesses later stated. Mitchell had already been behind bars as a teenager, most recently he was sentenced to life for armed and violent robbery.
The prison inmates had to drain the swampy Dartmoor. The men dug the moors under the strictest supervision, with only a spade in hand, and sometimes they stood up to their knees in the cold water. In addition, the rule of silence was adopted from America, according to which speaking, whispering and even nodding the head were strictly forbidden. The rest of Frank Mitchell's life would consist of hard work and a small, cold cell, the only way out of prison would be in a wooden coffin. With such a fate in mind, Mitchell decided to flee. One winter morning in December 1966 he was out on the moor with a work group. It was an unusually cold, foggy, and windy day. The crew stopped their work and took shelter in a shelter. Mitchell walked away on some pretext and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Since there were no radios, one of the guards had to walk back to the village and alert them over a public telephone.
The former police station is now a bistro, painted bright yellow and cannot be overlooked. Inside there are simple wooden tables, a warm fries smoke wafts towards those entering. Pale young schoolgirls bring British food to the table, "chips and fish", "steak and kidney pie", overcooked peas and carrots. Souvenirs and kitschy oil paintings for sale hang on the wall, and a radio is playing in the background.
One of the greatest car chases in English police history was conducted from this room. The prison bell rang a storm, sirens wailed through the fog. The erected roadblocks and searched farms, detached buildings, barns and cattle sheds. With packs of bloodhounds, the pursuers combed every square meter of the moor, as Mitchell was considered "the most dangerous criminal in England". During an earlier escape he had attacked a married couple with an ax in their house, since then he has been called just "the crazy ax man". Soldiers and marines were called in, and a Royal Air Force helicopter was even used. But Mitchell remained as if swallowed by the earth. Had something happened to him?
The Dartmoor is attractive to tourists, but for those who flee it is fatal: in autumn and winter, a thick fog suddenly falls in the afternoon, which robs the view and makes any orientation impossible. Bizarre rock formations become obstacles that you can trip over and break your foot. Old quarries and abandoned lead mines hide underground shafts that are not blocked off and into which unsuspecting hikers can break. Between the hills there are treacherous ponds of mud that are up to 2.70 meters deep. Even today you can still find the skeletons of unfortunate wild ponies that were swallowed by the moor. Imagine fleeing through such a landscape, in heavy rain, badly dressed, maybe still at night, with a biting cold headwind and completely without protection. Dozens of refugees ended their escape in barns, haystacks and even in pigsties. They were at the end of their strength, hungry, soaked and at the end happy to be discovered by the police. Frank Mitchell, however, had long since ceased to be out in the hostile moor, but was already sitting in a warm apartment in East Ham in London on the evening of his day of escape. Because apparently there were mysterious helpers in his escape.
About 20 minutes' walk from the "Combstone Tor", the road drops steeply into the valley. Exactly in a sharp hairpin curve on the left side of the path is a house made of gray field stone with several chimneys: the "Forrest Inn". You step into a low taproom, the air is stale and musty. The perforated dartboard hangs on the wall, the jukebox has hits from the 80s ready. The residents of the area sit at the wooden tables and on the benches along the wall in the evening, not very many, because the paths are long and confusing in the dark. Everyone knows everyone here. A stranger immediately catches the eye. On a December day in 1966, two gentlemen stepped into the pub and drew attention to each other. The elegant suits didn't quite match the broad shoulders and rough faces. With a distinctly London accent, they asked for directions to Dartmoor Prison. Her big gray limousine was last seen in Postbridge, next to the old stone bridge. In the general store with the gasoline pump in front of the door, they wanted to buy maps of the area, but none of them were available. They probably picked up Mitchell here at the agreed meeting point and drove east, past prehistoric stone circles and places of worship for which they had no eyes. From then on, their track is lost.
But Frank Mitchell could only enjoy his freedom for a short time. His own cronies who got him out of jail killed him 11 days later. His body was never found. Some want to know that it was cast in the concrete pillar of a large motorway bridge. Others insist stiffly that his killers read the obituaries and buried him one night in the cemetery under a newly buried, innocent citizen. In any case, it has disappeared to this day.

"Just get out of here!" - Escape and attempted escape

The first prisoners were admitted to Dartmoor Prison on November 2, 1850. The first outbreak occurred less than five weeks later. Probably every inmate was constantly thinking about how to escape the hard life behind prison walls. There were the strangest ideas. A collection of keys secretly made by prisoners can be seen in the prison museum. They used wood, bones, plastic or metal scraps from the garbage. One key was made from the handle of a toothbrush, another from a piece of thick cardboard. The inmates could not make a print, but made the keys from memory alone, if they had seen the key in use long enough.
On August 25, 1856, prisoner James Lake made a duplicate of his cell key from a bone he had retained from his meat meal. He fixed the key on a small stick, put it through the vent next to the cell door, and actually managed to maneuver the key from the outside into the lock and open the door. After he got out of his cell, he used the key again to free another inmate, and together they overpowered the night watch. But their cries for help had alerted the crew, and so nothing came of the cunning attempt to escape.
Most of the outbreaks, however, occurred when the prisoners were in a work group outside the prison. In doing so, they took advantage of the thick fog that so often lies on the moor. The refugees were then followed across the moor by guards and police officers with bloodhounds. To this end, she had a special agreement with an old lady who bred these bloodhounds. A designated constable was assigned to collect one or two of these dogs from her as soon as an outbreak was reported. In the past, the alarm was triggered by a gunshot, later the bell rang over the main storm entrance. A siren was installed last. Today an escape alarm is triggered by radio message.

Old mine shafts became a deadly trap for some escapes

Every escapee was exposed to the dangers on the moor, a vast open area in which only a few dry bushes and rocks afforded protection. In winter, the terrible cold could kill someone who was out in the open without proper protective clothing. Some of the escapees lost their toes from frostbite, and there was a special reason: the first thing that escapees threw away their boots, because a broad arrow was nailed on the soles with nails, the hallmark of Dartmoor Prison. The footprints in the soft moorland told everyone that a refugee was on the way and where he was going. The prison clothing was also printed with the typical broad arrows, so that the escapees often broke into apartments to get civilian clothes.
Even so, the escapees were often found in a miserable condition after their escape, which often aroused pity in their persecutors. It was not uncommon for the police officers to first take the captured refugees to a nearby cafe or chip shop to buy them a warm meal. Others were provided with sandwiches and many cups of tea. Long after his release, a former prisoner named Rubber Bones described in a newspaper how he was recaptured near Okehampton, soaked to the skin, hungry and exhausted after three days on the run in the icy November weather: “After mine Arrested I fell into the friendly arms of Devon. 'Poor devil!' Said one. 'He must be almost dead!' Said another. Then I found a paper bag full of biscuits in one hand and an orange in the other hand while a cigarette was put in my mouth and someone lit it. I will never forget these great, fine cops! "
Another prisoner who escaped from his work group on a foggy day got unexpectedly lucky because he passed an old scarecrow. He put on her clothes and marched on until he got to his hometown of Islington. At home, however, when he knocked on the door, he received no warm welcome and no good hot food. Rather, his wife refused to let him in and just chased him away again!
On Christmas Eve 1896, Ralph Goodwin, who was serving five years, managed to escape. He threw a few handfuls of dirt on the faces of his guards and used the seconds of amazement to run away. He disappeared into the fog and spent the rest of the day and night wandering aimlessly across the moor to get as far from the prison as possible before it got light again. He waded through rivers, at times sank up to his waist in the swamp, but he kept walking until, at dawn, he saw the blurred silhouette of some buildings. He assumed he was near the port city of Plymouth. But unfortunately he was unlucky, he had walked a large circle in the fog and realized with horror that he was standing directly in front of the prison.

"The final release": cemeteries for the prisoners

In the first six years alone, a total of 1,500 prisoners died, most of them from measles, smallpox, typhoid and pneumonia. Several were shot by the guards when they attempted to break out or died in an argument among themselves. Some committed suicide out of desperation.
The dead were buried right outside the prison walls in cheap wooden boxes or even in a blanket, with no religious ceremony or mourners. After 50 years the picture was horrific: skeletons were scattered all over the area because the wind had exposed the corpses or wild animals had dug up the bones. Therefore, in 1866, the prison governor finally ordered that the bones should be collected and sorted into two large piles, which were then referred to as the French and American remains. These were then buried in a mass grave in two different fields.
Today you can only visit the cemeteries if you are accompanied by a guard, because they are located on the prison grounds. The French cemetery is the size of half a football field, surrounded by large beech trees and framed by a low, moss-covered wall made of hand-made gray stones. Our feet run on soft, bumpy grass. In the middle of the field there is an obelisk on a stone mound amid blooming daffodils. On the stone pillar is engraved in Latin: "It is sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland." Whether death was sweet for the prisoners in Dartmoor is questionable.
The American cemetery is right next door. You enter the cemetery through an iron gate that was made in the prison forge. The cemetery was recently renovated thanks to a donation from America.Here too there is an obelisk, here too the same questionable inscription. Colored granite in pink and gray is laid out in a circular pattern. Two large metal plaques have been set up next to the obelisk, on which you can see the colored American flag, a large war sailing ship, contemporary soldiers in three-cornered hats and with sailors' pistols. The names of all American prisoners of war incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison are written on the two boards. The money from America gave the dead their names back, while the French comrades in suffering continued to rest anonymously and forgotten in the earth.
Back to Princetown: the wrought-iron cemetery gate is rusty and squeaks on its hinges. A wooden sign hangs on the bars, on which it is written in awkward letters that the church is closed and that there are no more services. "St. Michael and All Angels “unique: we are standing in front of the only church in Great Britain that was built by prisoners. The church is made of gray stone and has a mighty, large steeple that is almost reminiscent of a castle. Apparently, no funerals have been held in the cemetery next to the church for a long time. Some grave fields are overgrown with grass. Some of the tombstones have become illegible from the constant wind that blows over the hills. Moss has settled on the grave slabs and sought protection in the inscriptions. At the very back, in the far corner of the cemetery, there are several rows of knee-high, simple gray stones in the grass. It would be easy to miss them if you didn't know that these are the graves of prisoners from Dartmoor Prison. They are lined up, like at roll call. There is no burial motto, no inscription. Only the first letters of the name and the date of death are incised. These inconspicuous stones reveal nothing about the fate of those buried underneath. Many an adventurous life story has come to an end here. A poem about these tombstones reads: “Cut off from everything that makes life sweet, it was fortunate to die. Entrust a brother, because only fate saved you from lying here in his place. "

"Out of sight, out of mind!" - The long tradition as a prison

As a small street village, Princetown would probably have sunk into insignificance if the war with France had not started in 1803. In the process, many thousands of French fell into the hands of the English as prisoners of war. Where to put it? The prisons quickly became overcrowded. That's why the first idea with the notorious wrecks came up. These were decommissioned warships that had been rotting away in some remote bays for years. The conditions on these wrecks were hair-raising. Poor food, lack of sanitation, the stuffy atmosphere on the lower decks, and lack of exercise meant that the prisoners died like flies. The Chancellor of the Exchequer also urged His Majesty to reduce expenditure on prisoners. That's when the idea of ​​building new prisons came up.
Dartmoor made sense because it is lonely and remote. There are also plenty of quarries and water. So the prison was built in this inhospitable area, five prison blocks, a hospital and a separate prison for officers. The first prisoners arrived on May 24, 1809. The dormitories were open and stretched over an entire floor without any partition. There were only iron stakes to which the prisoners could tie their hammocks. 500 prisoners were housed on each floor. Here the men lived, ate, slept, fought, played and died for years next to each other in close proximity. There was no heating, the windows were simple openings in the wall with no glass, so that just their body heat kept them alive in the winter months when the cold made their breath freeze to ice on the walls. The prison was intended for 1,500 men, and soon it was overcrowded with almost 10,000 prisoners. Most officers, on the other hand, had the opportunity to live as free men in the neighboring villages on “on call”, on one condition: they had to give their word of honor not to flee.

The grim walls of Dartmoor Prison

In April 1814 the war with France ended and the French prisoners of war were released to their homeland. Now the American prisoners of war came and took their place. The war with America ended in the Geneva Peace Treaty, which was signed on Christmas Eve 1814. The repatriation of the prisoners dragged on, however, and in April 1815 there was a revolt of the impatient prisoners, in which nine of them were killed and an unknown number were wounded. The incident went down in history as the "Princetown Massacre". What was particularly spicy was the fact that the Americans were not prisoners of war at the time, but officially already free people.
The last American prisoner of war left Dartmoor Prison in February 1816. The prison was abandoned and Princetown fell into disrepair. The prison did not reopen until 1850, but now as a facility for criminals. The overseas colonies, which had long been used as repositories for England's delinquents, refused to continue serving as a social dump. In 1853 the deportations were officially ended. After a short time, Dartmoor Prison had established itself as the safest and toughest prison in the kingdom. That is why the most dangerous criminals in England were moved there, which other institutions could no longer cope with. Here in the moor they were "out of sight and out of mind".