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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

The Daring WW1 Prison Break That Required an Ouija Board and a Life-or-Death Ruse

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Today’s episode focuses on the true story of the most singular prison break in history—a clandestine wartime operation that involved no tunneling, no weapons, and no violence of any kind. Conceived during World War I, it relied on a scheme so outrageous it should never have worked: Two British officers escaped from an isolated Turkish prison camp by means of a Ouija board.

Yet that scheme—an ingeniously planned, daringly executed confidence game spun out over more than a year—was precisely the method by which the young captives, Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, sprang themselves from Yozgad, a prisoner-of-war camp deep in the mountains of Anatolia.
To tell this story is today’s guest Margalit Fox, author of Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History. Using a handmade Ouija board, Jones and Hill beguiled their iron-fisted captors with a tale, supposedly channeled from the Beyond, designed to make them delirious to lead the pair out of Yozgad. If all went according to plan, their captors would personally conduct them along the road to freedom, with the Ottoman government paying their travel expenses. If their con was discovered, it would mean execution.

The ruse also required our heroes 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.

In chronicling this tale of psychological strategy, Fox also explores a deeper question: How could such an outrageous plan ever have worked? By illuminating the subtle psychological art known as coercive persuasion (colloquially called brainwashing), she reveals the method by which a master manipulator creates and sustains faith … and the reason his converts persist in believing things that are patently false—topics with immense relevance to our own time.
August 10, 2021
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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