20 December 2011

Slim Halliday: Man or Spider-man?

Arthur Ernest 'Slim' Halliday, convicted murderer and infamous Boggo Road escapologist during the 1930s-1960s, is the subject of some incredible tales, some tall, some true. Like the time he bent a solid metal cell door back with a winch made from bits of wood and bed sheet. Or the time he burned a hole in roof of the mattress workshop in a bid to escape. Or when he made a replica gun from bits of leather. These are some of the true tales.

Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, Brisbane, 1937 (BRGHS)
Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, 1937 (BRGHS)

There is, however, one particular story that is as tall as it gets. During one of my first visits to Boggo Road I took a tour with a highly-respected former prison officer who told our group all about 'Halliday's Leap', the place where Slim Halliday jumped off the roof of E Wing cellblock in 1940 and landed on the top of the perimeter wall before making good his escape. At the time I totally believed it - such is the authoritative power of the tour guide - but after I worked at the museum and spent more time in the area, I realised that the story and the numbers just didn't add up.

The legendary leap would have involved jumping from a three-storey cellblock roof onto the top of the red-bricked outer prison wall, a near-impossible feat involving a drop of eight metres over a width of four metres. The curved top of the wall itself is no more than 30cm wide and is over seven metres high – not the safest landing spot for someone jumping from a great height. Imagine jumping off the roof of a two-storey house, aiming to land perfectly on a 30cm-wide ledge, without breaking your legs or spine or falling over when you do land, because that ledge is seven metres off the ground - and someone with a rifle on the neighbour's roof will shoot you if they see you. It is, basically, a feat requiring all the abilities of Spiderman, and Slim may have been a lot of things but he was no superhero.

Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).
Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).

I delved into the official records at Queensland State Archives and a very different story emerged, but one that was no less impressive. To run through it briefly; Halliday had planned this escape for months, secretly making and hiding escape ropes, grappling hooks and wire cutters in the prison workshops. One day he slipped unnoticed from a line of prisoners and scaled the 10-foot high fence of the exercise yard to gain access to the Track that ran around the inside of the perimeter walls. He climbed onto the workshop roof and dropped down through a skylight that gave him access to the inside of the workshop, where he cut through wire mesh walls with the hidden wire cutters to get to his escape ropes. He climbed up onto the roof again and hooked the longest rope over the outer wall, at a place he had worked out to be a blind-spot from the towers. He dropped the shorter rope down the side of the workshop and climbed down onto the Track, then climbed up over the prison wall using the first rope before changing his clothes and making his escape.

Did Arthur 'Slim' Halliday REALLY jump from a cellblock roof to escape from Boggo Road?
A – Location of ‘Halliday’s Leap’
B – Workshops
T – Towers
No.2 Division, Boggo Road, in the 1940s. (BRGHS)

Slim Halliday's escape route from Boggo Road Gaol, 1940. (BRGHS)
Halliday's escape route 1940. (BRGHS)

There is no room in this article for the tale of the massive manhunt, shoot-outs and high-speed car chases that led to Halliday’s recapture, which is all covered in detail in the book The Houdini of Boggo Road. Of more relevance here is how the myth of 'Halliday's Leap' grew. One clue comes from discussions with local residents who were children when the escape happened. When news of the breakout got out, local parents ordered their children to stay home, but the kids had other ideas and formed themselves into 'posses', excitedly roaming the local streets in nervous pursuit of the escaped prisoner. They circulated a story that Halliday had jumped from a roof during his escape, and in the process of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this became a cellblock roof. This story took hold, and 50 years later it had become accepted even within modern prison officer circles.

Halliday escaped over the blind spot at this section of the wall again in 1946, and it gained the name of 'Halliday’s Leap’ quite early on. Following yet another escape attempt by Slim, this time in 1953, a newspaper ran an article with the headline 'HALLIDAY’S LEAP HEADACHE FOR BOGGO ROAD STAFF: WEAK SPOT IN THE PRISON WALLS'. However, the blindspot had in fact been fixed in 1947 with the erection of a new stand-alone guard tower (called E tower) in the prison grounds to the southeast of the workshops. The workshops and Halliday’s Leap were later demolished as part of the prison modernisation of the early 1970s. The myth of Halliday's Leap has only been demolished in more recent years.

14 December 2011

The Woman in Black: Solving the Mystery of a Vanishing Ghost

Learn about yet another bit of 'paranormal industry' fraud, this time the invention and sudden disappearance of a cemetery ghost.

This story can be read at the 'About Those Ghosts...' website.

19th-century mourning clothes

08 December 2011

How to Build a Boob Gun... & Why You Shouldn't

Some of the most popular objects in the Boggo Road Gaol Museum collection were the 1980s prisoner-made tattoo machines, or 'boob guns' in jail slang. These illegal items were not only testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of some inmates, they were also an artefact of resistance against the powers-that-be. Our tour guides had working models of these things that were always a big hit with visitors, and I once put together a display about these tattoo machines at the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland. The sight of passing uni students stopping to take notes is always a good indicator of interest!

Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).
Tattoo machine from the Boggo Road museum collection (BRGHS).

Tattoo machines like this were an illegal item in prison, not only because prisoners were required to maintain the same appearance during their sentence, but also because they could be used as weapons. Another important reason for restricting their use in more recent years has been to minimise the spread of communicable diseases such as hepatitis C by sharing needles. However, none of this stopped inmates from getting tattoos, and there were over 100 tattooing items in the Boggo Road collection, including both complete and incomplete machines and components, showing that tattooing was a widespread practice within the Queensland prison system.

These machines could be cobbled together using bits and pieces found around a 1980s prison. The diagram below shows what the components were, and the table below this shows where these bits and pieces came from:
Parts of a tattoo machine, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson
Probable source
Drive rod and barrel
Issued for hobby work, etc, in cells
Needle and connecting pin
Needle or pin
Sewing needles and pins from industry workshops
Wire (later sharpened) from workshops, or paper clips issued as stationery
Diabetic needles from the prison hospital surgery
Mathematical compass, issued for hobby work
Guitar string
Prison issue
Connecting pin
Prison issue
Prison clothing
Extracted from audio cassette players or radios (allowed in cells)
Electrical wiring
Same as above
Tattoo ink
India ink
Issued for hobby work in cells
Ground from spent matches, mixed with oil
Pen ink
Obtained from split tube of pen and mixed with margarine
Binding for frame and components
Cotton thread
Prison clothing or workshops
Adhesive tape
Industry workshops
Industry workshops

Ink was applied to the skin prior to puncturing with the needle, although sometimes a mix of ground charcoal and water was used. Professional tattoo shops use special inks that do not irritate the skin and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Makeshift inks used in prison tattoos may be unsafe and damage the skin, causing permanent scarring. They can also contain dangerous chemicals.

This is how the machine worked:
How a tattoo machine works, Boggo Road Gaol
Image: C. Dawson

Apart from the obvious risk that an inmate could leave prison with some bloody awful tattoos, there are SERIOUS health risks involved with prison tattoos, as sterilising the makeshift equipment is difficult or impossible. Apart from basic skin infections, deadly diseases like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS can be passed from one prisoner to another when needles are re-used. The playing card on the left below is from a deck issued to prisoners, while the poster to the right was also used in Queensland prisons.

Anti-HIV promo materialAnti-HIV promo material, Queensland

So all-in-all, brilliantly clever devices but potentially fatal to use. So don't.

Bad tattoo
Did I mention the bad tattoos?
More about tattoo machines and other prisoner-made illegal devices and objects can be found in the book Shivs, Bongs & Boob Guns: Made in a Queensland prison cell.

05 December 2011

Brisbane's Lost Plague Cemetery

This story can be read at the 'South Brisbane Cemetery' website.

Destroyed rats, Brisbane, circa 1900-02. (John Oxley Library)
Destroyed rats, Brisbane, circa 1900-02. (John Oxley Library)

01 December 2011

Australia's Next Top Bizarre Death-Contraption

Learn about the bizarre methods of execution proposed by 19th-century Queenslanders.

This story can be found at 'A Scaffold High'.

Humane and civilised execution in the Philippines.
'Humane and civilised' execution in the Philippines.