The celebration of the outlaw as folk hero is a common theme in history, literature, and movies. Jesse James, despite his murderous villainy, became cherished by some people in the American West. The bank robbers of the Great Depression are romanticized. Robin Hood is seen as a noble character, despite the fact that he was a thief. And Al Pacino is famous for his roles as Michael Corleone and Tony “Scarface” Montana, criminals who capture our imagination. We love heist movies and getaway stories. We tend to, at least to a certain and possibly secret degree, enjoy tales of people brave enough to fight the system, despite their immorality.
We also love escape artists. There is a certain charm to those people who can’t be caged. Harry Houdini, almost a hundred years after his death, is still world famous.
Alfred Hinds was both criminal and escape artist. It’s, in part, why he became famous in mid-20th century Britain.
Hinds was born to a father who was lashed to death for theft. Young Alfred was shipped off to an orphanage, from which he naturally escaped at age seven. The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree–crime was in his future. He was subsequently sent to the British borstal system, similar to juvenile hall, after a theft arrest.
Hinds was even able to escape from British military service before returning to his criminal ways.
The thief certainly does not look the part. Possessing a chubby, unassuming face, topped with thinning dark hair and thick glasses, Hinds looks more like a book worm or bean counter than daring criminal. Maybe that’s exactly what he was—his studious ways and attention to detail certainly would pay off later in life.
In 1953, Hinds was arrested in connection with a major coup—the theft of jewels and cash that netted $90,000 from a Maples store. Authorities never found the money and the evidence used against him was circumstantial, but Hinds’ eight previous convictions may have played a role in the jury’s guilty decision. Hinds was placed in a high security prison and sentenced to 12 years for the crime. He pled his innocence and became determined to declare it as publicly as possible.
Shortly after beginning his time at Nottingham Prison, Hinds turned to his set of very particular skills for his next move: he escaped. He slipped through a series of locked doors with keys he had copied from memory and climbed a 20-foot wall to freedom.
Instead of slipping off into the darkness and keeping a low profile, Hinds began inundating British authorities with letters requesting a retrial, according to the obituary of his future attorney Percy Rolf. Over this time, the British press began referring to the escape artist as “Houdini” Hinds. He remained free, living in Ireland, for over eight months before Scotland Yard tracked him down and threw him back in jail.
He would not stay for long, as he began planning his next escape. He sued the police department and while making court appearances was able to smuggle a padlock into his cell. Two screw-eyes were installed on a cloak room door by accomplices. According to the Bryan Eagle newspaper, while being escorted down the hall, Hinds attacked his two guards and was able to push them into a cloak room. He then used the padlock and screw-eyes to secure the door and fled the jail.
This time his independence was fleeting, as he was caught five hours later attempting to board a plane to Ireland.
Believing the third time may be the charm, Hinds conducted one more escape, this time from Chelmsford Prison. He made it to Ireland once again, working as a used car dealer under an assumed name for two years before being taken into custody.
Prison escapes were treated with little regard in those days and so Hinds never faced extended sentencing for his breakouts.
His diligence and knowledge of the British legal system eventually paid off, as he received a pardon in 1964, despite 13 appeals being denied. He often represented himself and a judge in an early case supposedly commented that Hinds knew more about the law than anyone in the room.
With the help of a legal team, Hinds successfully sued his arresting officer for libel, using statements the officer made against him in his now-determined wrongful conviction. Considered a loophole, case like that would no longer be possible.
Hinds later became a well-traveled speaker and critic of the British legal system and published a book on his life and views, entitled Contempt of Court. He achieved celebrity status throughout the Queen’s land and his exploits garnered attention in U.S. papers.
Though permanently free, his talents were once again called upon in 1967. During university rag week on a campus at which he was speaking, he was taken captive by a group of students. He was forced into a basement room, but was able to turn the locks on his captors after securing the keys.
After spending a lifetime fighting the British legal system and real prison bars, a group of kids was no match for the elusive antihero Alfred “Houdini” Hinds.
As we all think about the metaphorical bars that jail us, may we give a tip of the hat to a man who, while possessing obvious flaws, was brave enough to strive for freedom.