Day 195: England’s Master Of Escape – Houdini Hinds

originally published July 13, 2012

Over the past six months I have skimmed through over a dozen Wiki-pages on British criminals. I don’t know if there’s something in the air across the pond, but somehow their criminals seem often to come packaged with cinematic plotlines and quirky twists. I’ve even written about a few of them.

Today Ms. Wiki has led into my subject-matter lineup a criminal from 20th century England. Around the time that American crime stories were packed full of names like Gambino, Lucchese, Corleone, and a young Biff Tannen, this British celebrity crook was a mafia of one. Actually, it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t a criminal at all, that he was innocent. If so, Alfred George Hinds was innocent with style.

Hinds’ childhood was such an obvious road to criminality, it’s almost cliché. His father had been arrested for armed robbery when Hinds was tiny, and his punishment was ten lashes from one of these:

The whipmaster must have doubled his intake of crumpets that morning, because he lashed the life right out of the elder Mr. Hinds. Alfred was sent to an orphanage, from which he bolted at age seven.

A seven-year-old kid in the big city has to make a living, so naturally Alfred turned to crime. As a teen he was arrested for petty theft and sent to a borstal, a kind of young-offenders’ prison. The borstal system, which was meant to be ‘educational’, was really just Prison Jr., and the program wound up discontinued in England after 1982. But for Alfred Hinds, it was only a temporary layover. He escaped.

Hinds’ next interaction with the government came when he received their invitation for a complimentary vacation to the continent to kill some Nazis. Hinds accepted, but deserted shortly after arrival. Fleeing was becoming his trademark.

In 1953 Hinds allegedly staged a massive jewelry robbery that netted him a small fortune, $90,000 of which was never recovered. I say ‘allegedly’ because Hinds spent the next several years protesting his innocence. Like I said, with style.

He pled not guilty, but was convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Hinds had escaped an orphanage, escaped kids-prison and escaped the British Army – he wasn’t about to rot away ten prime years of his adulthood for a crime he claimed to have never committed.

Hinds was locked up in Nottingham prison. Somehow, he found a way to slip through the locked door of his cage, then bolted over the twenty-foot wall to freedom. The authorities at Nottingham prison were perplexed.

Having been dubbed ‘Houdini Hinds’ for his escape, Alfred fled north to Ireland. He worked on and off as a builder/decorator, but Scotland Yard caught up with him in 1956 and once again Hinds was incarcerated.

Alfred Hinds took a cool look at his situation and realized (probably quite correctly) that when he got locked up again, they’d make sure he was locked up to stay. So he calculated a means for escape that would put him at an advantage. He sued the cops.

Whether or not he had a case wasn’t important. He sued for illegal arrest, and Hinds was legally entitled to the trial. For this plan, he’d need a few friends.

First he needed someone to smuggle a padlock to him while he was at the Law Courts. I’m not certain how often Hinds was frisked, but I’d think the timing had to be pretty slick for this. Then he needed someone to affix a pair of screw eyes onto the outside of a toilet stall near the courtroom.

Padlock in hand (or in waistband or in rectum… the article isn’t clear where he hid the thing), Hinds requested to use the loo. Two guards accompanied him, and when they removed his cuffs Hinds pulled out his John McClane fighting moves and crammed the two guards into the stall. He then slapped the padlock on the door and sauntered out into Fleet Street, blending in with the crowd.

A brilliant, flawless escape. But it only lasted about five hours. Hinds’ record of swift thinking and outsmarting the authorities took a sputtering hit when he showed up at an airport later that same day and found himself back in handcuffs. Just a handy tip – when you successfully evade police custody in the largest city in your particular nation, find a place to be anonymous for a little while. Don’t go to an airport. Wow.

Hinds’ next big escape came from Chelmsford Prison, and the details have been tragically shuffled loose from any and all pertinent sites on the web. He was apparently the only person “in living memory” to have escaped from Chelmsford at all, so perhaps his method was covered up and concealed in an effort to deter copycats. Here’s how I imagine it went down.

Working in the prison laundry, Hinds methodically removed the elastic waistbands from all prison underwear, fashioning them into a large slingshot which he used to propel himself over the wall. Good enough story? Alright, let’s move on.

It was less than a year and Hinds was on the run again. He changed his name and started a new life as a used car salesman in Ireland. He routinely sent memorandums to members of the British Parliament, claiming his innocence. He spoke with the press and sent them taped recordings, even sold his life story to the News of the World for a $40,000 paycheck. Hinds remained under cover of mystery for two years until he was stopped with an unregistered car and hauled in.

Hinds was sent to Parkhurst Prison where he actually served the remainder of his term. While locked up he executed one more walloping jab at the authorities, filing a libel suit against Scotland Yard’s Herbert Sparks, the guy who had arrested him. While Hinds was on the run and broadcasting his innocence through the press, Sparks had written a number of articles criticizing Hinds’ claims. Because Sparks’ specific criticisms couldn’t be backed up, the court sided with Hinds. Sparks was forced to pay about £800 in damages.

Hinds was a free man, just in time to see the publication of Contempt of Court, his autobiography. He was a national celebrity, became a member of Mensa, and was often called to speak publicly about his criticisms of law enforcement and the legal system. That would be Hinds’ ultimate fuck-you to the powers that be.

One last great Hinds story. In 1967 he was invited to debate at the Polytechnic (now known as the University of Westminster), and found himself kidnapped by six students in what must be one of the most bizarrely inappropriate pranks in college history. Hinds was locked in a basement, but quickly found a way out, locking up his captors in the process.

Hinds was simply never meant to be caged.

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