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Escape Artists

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 05:40 PM

Prison bars Prison bars (seantoyer/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

While working on the Escape! show, a couple of prison break stories caught my eye.

Donald Snyder

The first story takes place in upstate New York in the late 40s, where this fellow named Donald Snyder was serving time in Green Haven Prison for his second auto theft charge. He escapes from prison, but almost immediately ends up kidnapping and killing a 9-year-old girl during a standoff with the police. Snyder was captured and sent to Sing Sing, where he awaited his execution in the electric chair.

This time, Snyder knew he wouldn’t be able to escape from prison – especially not Sing Sing – so he came up with a new plan: he figured that if he was too big to fit in the electric chair, they wouldn’t be able to execute him. He started to eat like a madman, anything and everything he could get his hands on. I’m a little fuzzy on the details – how did he get so much food in prison? – but apparently in his final months, Snyder ballooned from 150 lbs up to 300.

The planned date of his execution arrived, and for his final meal he ordered pork and eggs, “and plenty of ‘em!” Snyder was led to the execution chamber to be strapped into the electric chair, and it’s at this point that the accounts I’ve read diverge a little bit. One is that he fit perfectly, and the other is that they had to rig up a bigger one to fit him; either way, they flipped the switch and it worked.

Richard McNair

The other story has gotten quite a bit of media coverage in the last few years, but there’s an accompanying video that I just can’t get over. Richard McNair was a convicted murderer who escaped from prison near Pollock, Louisiana, in April of 2006. A couple hours later, as word of the escape spread, he was stopped and questioned at length by a cop, and the entire conversation was recorded on the police car’s video camera. It’s worth watching – you get the sense that even as the cop tries to be as diligent as possible, he really wants to let this fellow go. All he needs is a good enough alibi.

There’s also a great 2006 New Yorker article on McNair by Mark Singer, definitely worth reading; McNair comes across as a fascinating blend of brilliant, warm, and cold-blooded.

And before I sign off, here are a couple photos Brenna stumbled across in the Library of Congress archives:

Houdini's Underwater Box Escape

Harry Houdini about to be lowered into NY Harbor in 1912

Harry Houdini, in leg irons and handcuffs, steps into a crate to be lowered into New York Harbor on July 7th, 1912 (Carl Deitz /

Houdini lowered into NY Harbor in 1912

Houdini sinks into the East River handcuffed, manacled, and nailed into a wooden box (Carl Dietz / Reporters watching the stunt clocked the escape at under one minute.


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Comments [2]

ChristineU from Berkeley, CA

The Dietz photos are amazing--you can practically feel the water. Houdini's face is a mask of determination.

Mar. 12 2012 10:34 PM

Mind Blown...

Feb. 28 2012 02:29 PM

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