How Two WWI POWs Conned Their Way Out With a Ouija Board
The Turkish prison at Yozgad was so remote that its jailers did not bother with barbed wire. It was considered escape-proof. Two wily inmates begged to differ.
The men huddled in the passageway in the flickering candlelight. Some were wrapped in blankets against the Anatolian winter; others wore pajamas. Still others were dressed in British military uniforms, very nearly the only clothing they had. The passage in which they gathered each night, at the top of a dark staircase in a drafty old house, was their de facto sitting room. The house had once been a private home, but the family who lived there had been murdered more than a year before. Since the summer of 1916, when the men were remanded here, this house, with its woeful food, furniture, space, and sanitation, had been their only home. Merely to reach it they had withstood battle, capture, and, for many, a two-month forced march through desert and over mountains, on which scores of men would die.
Every evening, after their sentries locked them in, the men had watched keenly as two fellow officers faced each other across a table, built, like most of the furniture in the house, from disused packing crates. On the table lay a sheet of polished iron; atop the sheet was a raised wooden ring to which the letters of the alphabet had been randomly affixed. The board, too, was made from salvage: the planchette that slid across its surface was an inverted drinking glass, which had begun life as a jar of potted meat.
The sitters at the table closed their eyes and placed their fingers lightly on the glass. Like almost everyone there, they had little faith that they could raise the spirits: They hoped only that a night of “spooking” would help fill their long, empty hours in confinement. They had already tried chess, poker, and roulette, with a wheel made from a discarded door, but all had paled over time. “In spite of the outward cheerfulness, the brave attempts at industry, and the gallant struggle against the deterioration that a prison environment brings, an atmosphere of hopelessness pervaded the whole camp,” one of the sitters, the Welsh artilleryman Elias Henry Jones, would write at war’s end.
For weeks, pairs of officers had taken turns manning the Ouija board, but each time the board refused to speak. At first the glass wouldn’t move. When it did—seemingly of its own accord—that caused a ripple of excitement, but still the board was mute: The glass touched only meaningless strings of letters.
“Mere movement was no longer satisfying,” Jones wrote. “We were tired of our own company, and knew one another as only fellow-prisoners can. We wanted a chat with somebody ‘outside,’ somebody with ideas culled beyond our prison walls… It did not matter who it was—Julius Caesar or Socrates, Christopher Columbus or Aspasia… but any old Tom, or Dick, or Harry would have been welcome.”
As days went by with no results, men dropped out. On this winter night in early 1917, only four remained. They agreed to give the spook-board one last try, and on this night, in Jones’s hands, it began to speak.
“For the last time,” Jones’s companion, the army doctor William O’Farrell, intoned, addressing the board, “WHO—ARE—YOU?”
“S,” the board replied. “A-L-L-Y.”
A ghost—and a woman! And a most welcome spirit Sally proved to be, teasing, cajoling, and flirting as the glass spelled out her every word. From then on, Sally was joined nightly by a panoply of shades, including the gentle Dorothy, the cantankerous American Silas P. Warner, and a commanding presence known only as the Spook. At each séance, more and more men pressed eagerly round the table.
Jones intended to come clean and tell his comrades he’d been guiding the glass himself, having memorized the positions of the letters long before. But he was constitutionally puckish—“an arch leg-puller,” his future co-conspirator, Cedric Hill, would call him—and found Sally and her spectral brethren too delicious to give up. He also felt he owed it to his comrades to keep his ghosts alive:
With the exception of a monotonous melancholic, who butted in at regular intervals to inform us plaintively that he was “buried alive,” the spooks were a decidedly jovial lot. They kept us in touch with the outside world. We walked with them down Piccadilly,dined with them in the Troc, and tried to hear with them the music of the band. We conversed with Shackleton on his South Polar expedition, with men in the trenches in France, and with ships on the wide seas... 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. A successful night at the spook-board was the nearest we could get, outside our dreams, to a breath of freedom.
It was all just a lark, a prank pulled by Jones to pass the stagnant time. But in the coming months, as his humbuggery gained real converts, he began to dream that he could parlay their newfound faith into a far more serious enterprise. “If I could do to the Turks what I had succeeded in doing to my fellow-prisoners,” he wrote, “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.”
And so it would, by virtue of a master confidence game, spun out over more than a year, that entailed impeccable planning, immense personal risk, and no small amount of luck. Had Jones not possessed a stellar visual memory; had Hill not been a sleight-of-hand artist of uncommon prowess; had both men not had a keen aptitude for secret codes; and had they not managed to con their way out of a catastrophic turn of fate that threatened to capsize the entire scheme, they would never have gained their freedom and might well have forfeited their lives.
Their plan seemed born of a fever dream. At the Ouija board, Jones and Hill would regale their captors with a tale, seemingly channeled from the Beyond, designed to make them delirious enough to lead the pair out of Yozgad, a prisoner-of-war camp high in the mountains. The ruse would also require the two men to feign mental illness, stage a double suicide attempt that came perilously close to turning real, and endure six months in a Turkish insane asylum, an ordeal that drove them to the edge of actual madness.
And yet in the end they won their freedom.
There was no barbed wire around Yozgad, nor did there need to be. One of a constellation of World War I prison camps spread over Turkey, it was among the most remote. More than 4,000 feet above sea level, it had been earmarked for incorrigibles—those British officers deemed most likely to escape. The town of Yozgad, in which the camp was set, lay 150 miles south of the Black Sea and 300 miles north of the Mediterranean. The nearest railway station, Angora (present-day Ankara), was five days’ journey by cart through forbidding terrain: jagged mountains round the camp and the Anatolian desert beyond. As a result, Yozgad was considered escape-proof, the Alcatraz of its day.
If an inmate did manage to get out, he would have to contend with the cutthroat brigands, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, who roamed the surrounding countryside. “A solitary traveller, however well armed, would not have stood a dog’s chance,” Major Edward Sandes, interned at Yozgad with Jones and Hill, would write in 1924. Men who had fled other camps and been set upon by brigands had been known to beg the nearest Ottoman official they could find to take them back.
But for the British officers at Yozgad, something else precluded escape even more forcibly: On orders of the camp commandant, an attempt by any one of them would bring down severe reprisals—including lockdown, isolation, and even execution—on those who remained, a punitive rite known as strafing. Men of honor, the prisoners swore to one another that they would not flee.
As Eric Williams, who in 1943 escaped from the Stalag-Luft III prison camp in Silesia, would write, “The exhausting… march to Yozgad… so told on the survivors that once they had settled down the opinion grew among them that it was wrong to escape, that the loss of privileges by those who stayed behind far outweighed the slim chance of the few who might get away.”
Yet some, including Jones and Hill, dreamed of liberty. The question was how to attain it without compromising their countrymen.
In winning his converts, Jones had the advantage of quick wit, a superb visual memory, and his civilian training as a lawyer, which had schooled him in “the gentle art of drawing a red herring across my questioners’ train of thought.” He realized early, for instance, that he could deflect suspicion by having the spirits “speak” only when he and Doc O’Farrell worked the board as a team. As a result, he wrote, “suspicion centered not on me, but on the perfectly innocent Doctor… He swore vehemently that he had nothing to do with it, but it was pointed out to him that the glass only wrote when he was there—a fact he could not deny.”
Jones also had the times on his side, for in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one could hardly spit without hitting a ghost. By the time he began spooking his way out of Yozgad, the wide popular belief in spiritualism, along with a profusion of literary ghost stories and ghoulish entertainments designed to frighten and delight the paying public, had, as one modern scholar observes, “placed ghostly apparitions and supernatural phantasmagorias at the very core of popular culture” in Britain and the United States.
Today, most of us view scientific rationalism and spiritualist belief as mutually exclusive. But in that era, as one modern observer has noted, “science was to a degree the ally of ghosts.” The reason was simple: In order to define what is supernatural, one must first define what is natural, and the border between the two seemed far more porous then than it does now. It was a time of hurtling scientific change, which saw the development of technologies such as radio, in which disembodied voices sailed through the ether; the phonograph, which let bygone men and women speak as if from beyond the grave; and X-rays, which made visible the ghostly scaffolding of the human body. If technology had the power to do all those things—to transcend space, time, and the body’s innate opacity—then what was to say, scientists reasoned, that communication across the ultimate divide was not possible, too?
Jones had used precisely this argument to win converts to his sham spiritualism: “A few years ago,” he cajoled his fellow prisoners, “I expect you were saying that wireless telegraphy and flying and all the rest of our modern scientific marvels were impossible.”
In the autumn of 1917 Jones discovered that spiritual charlatanism might be the means to a far more vital end. His epiphany came from a most unlikely source: the Yozgad interpreter, Moïse Eskenazi, a young Ottoman soldier whom the captives called “the Pimple” for his diminutive stature and oleaginous mien.
“The little man glanced furtively… to make sure no one was within earshot,” Jones wrote, “and lowered his voice to a confidential whisper.
“‘Can the Spirit find a buried treasure?’
“‘That depends,’ said I.
“‘On who buried it, and who wants it, and whether the man who buried it is still alive; or, if he is dead, on whether he can communicate… You want me to find this Armenian treasure?’ I went on, risking the ‘Armenian.’
“‘You know about it?’ the Pimple asked in surprise… ‘Did the Spook tell you?’
“‘I have had several communications,’ I said guardedly. ‘You’ve been concentrating on the wrong places.’ (I did not know whether Moïse had been digging or merely thinking about digging. ‘Concentrating’ covered both.)
“‘We tried the Schoolhouse garden,’ said the Pimple, ‘but did not find it.’
“‘Of course not,’ said I. ‘Digging at random is like looking for a needle in a haystack.’ The Pimple was much struck by the phrase, and made a note of it in his pocket-book."
What finer enticement could there be than a treasure hunt? Jones also suspected that one of the hunters was Yozgad’s iron-fisted commandant, Kiazim Bey: Describing the digging, the Pimple had used the word ‘we.’
“I was filled with the growing hope that my door to freedom lay through the Ouija,” Jones wrote. “I intended to implicate the highest Turkish authority in the place in my escape, to obtain clear and convincing proof that he was implicated, and to leave that proof in the hands of my fellow-prisoners before I disappeared.” [italics in original]
Jones’ confidence game would have to be planned to the last detail. He would need time, privacy, props, and the raw materials from which to make them. He would need a narrative so compelling that it would hold his captors’ attention for months or even longer. He would also need an accomplice: The task ahead was too large for a single con man. He chose Hill, an Australian-born flier who longed to escape as fiercely as he.
“There were probably many men in the camp who would have joined me had they been asked, but there was only one who had given clear proof of his deadly keenness to get away,” Jones would write. “He possessed… qualities which would make him a valuable collaborator for me. He had extraordinary skill with his hands… He could find his way by day or night with equal ease, and he could drive anything, from a wheelbarrow to an aeroplane or a railway engine… He was a wonderful conjuror, the best amateur any of us had ever seen.
“I knew I was choosing well, but I little knew how well. Seeking a practical man, with patience and determination and a close tongue, I was to find in Hill all these beyond measure, and with them a great heart, courage that no hardship could break, and loyalty like the sea.”
Over the coming months Jones and Hill would need to perfect a plot centering on a hunt for a nonexistent treasure, with clues supplied by nonexistent ghosts. Jones, by agreement, would take primary charge of planning the hoax; Hill would handle the mechanical engineering. And somehow, working under constant surveillance and with limited resources, they would have to make the whole thing utterly irresistible—and utterly plausible.
From the book The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History. Copyright © 2021 by Margalit Fox. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.