The Prisoner Who Would Not Stay In Prison

By Anonymous

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Few people out of his own country would have heard of Baron Trenck had it not been for the wonderful skill and cunning with which he managed to cut through the stone walls and iron bars of all his many cages. He was born at Konigsberg in Prussia in 1726, and entered the body-guard of Frederic II in 1742, when he was about sixteen. Trenck was a young man of good family, rich, well educated, and, according to his own account, fond of amusement. He confesses to having shirked his duties more than once for the sake of some pleasure, even after the War of the Austrian Succession had broken out (September, 1744), and Frederic, strict though he was, had forgiven him. It is plain from this that the king must have considered that Trenck had been guilty of some deadly treachery toward him when in after years he declined to pardon him for crimes which after all the young man had never committed.

First Escape Attempt

Trenck's first confinement was in 1746, when he was thrown into the Castle of Glatz, on a charge of corresponding with his cousin and namesake, who was in the service of the Empress Maria Theresa, and of being an Austrian spy. At first he was kindly treated and allowed to walk freely about the fortifications, and he took advantage of the liberty given him to arrange a plan of escape with one of his fellow-prisoners. The plot was, however, betrayed by the other man, and a heavy punishment fell on Trenck. By the king's orders, he was promptly deprived of all his privileges and placed in a cell in one of the towers, which overlooked the ramparts lying ninety feet below, on the side nearest the town. This added a fresh difficulty to his chances of escape, as, in passing from the castle to the town, he was certain to be seen by many people. But no obstacles mattered to Trenck. He had money, and money could do a great deal. So he began by bribing one of the officials about the prison, and the official in his turn bribed a soapboiler, who lived not far from the castle gates, and promised to conceal Trenck somewhere in his house.

Still, liberty must have seemed a long way off, for Trenck had only one little knife with which to cut through anything. By dint of incessant and hard work, he managed to saw through three thick steel bars, but even so, there were eight others left to do. His friend the official then procured him a file, but he was obliged to use it with great care, lest the scraping sound should be heard by his guards. Perhaps they wilfully closed their ears, for many of them were sorry for Trenck; but, at all events, the eleven bars were at last sawn through, and all that remained was to make a rope ladder. This he did by tearing his leather portmanteau into strips and plaiting them into a rope, and as this was not long enough, he added his sheets. The night was dark and rainy, which favored him, and he reached the bottom of the rampart in safety. Unluckily, he met here with an obstacle on which he had never counted. There was a large drain, opening into one of the trenches, which Trenck had neither seen nor heard of, and into this he fell. In spite of his struggles, he was held fast, and his strength being at last exhausted, he was forced to call the sentinel, and at midday, having been left in the drain for hours to make sport for the town, he was carried back to his cell.

Second Attempted Escape

Henceforth he was still more strictly watched than before, though, curiously enough, his money never seems to have been taken from him, and at this time he had about eighty louis left, which he always kept hidden. Eight days after his last attempt, Fouquet, the commandant of Glatz, who hated Trenck and all his family, sent a deputation consisting of the adjutant, an officer, and a certain Major Doo to speak to the unfortunate man and exhort him to patience and submission. Trenck entered into conversation with them for the purpose of throwing them off their guard, when suddenly he snatched away Doo's sword, rushed from his cell, knocked down the sentinel and lieutenant who were standing outside, and striking right and left at the soldiers who came flying to bar his progress, he dashed down the stairs and leaped from the ramparts. Though the height was great he fell into the fosse without injury, still grasping his sword. He scrambled quickly to his feet and jumped easily over the second rampart, which was much lower than the first, and then began to breathe freely, as he thought he was safe from being overtaken by the soldiers, who would have to come a long way round.

At this moment, however, he saw a sentinel making for him, a short distance off, and he rushed for the palisades which divided the fortifications from the open country, from which the mountains and Bohemia were easily reached. In the act of scaling them, his foot was caught tight between the bars, and he was trapped till the sentinel came up, and after a sharp fight got him back to prison.

Third Time Successful

For some time poor Trenck was in a sad condition. In his struggle with the sentinel he had been wounded, while his right foot had got crushed in the palisades. Besides this, he was watched far more strictly than before, for an officer and two men remained always in his cell, and two sentinels were stationed outside. The reason of these precautions, of course, was to prevent his gaining over his guards singly, either by pity or bribery. His courage sank to its lowest ebb, as he was told on all sides that his imprisonment was for life, whereas long after he discovered the real truth, that the king's intention had been to keep him under arrest for a year only, and if he had had a little more patience, three weeks would have found him free. His repeated attempts to escape naturally angered Frederic, while on the other hand the king knew nothing of the fact which excused Trenck's impatience--namely, the belief carefully instilled in him by all around him that he was doomed to perpetual confinement.

It is impossible to describe in detail all the plans made by Trenck to regain his freedom; first because they were endless, and secondly because several were nipped in the bud. Still, the unfortunate man felt that as long as his money was not taken from him his case was not hopeless, for the officers in command were generally poor and in debt, and were always sent to garrison work as a punishment. After one wild effort to liberate all the prisoners in the fortress, which was naturally discovered and frustrated, Trenck made friends with an officer named Schell, lately arrived at Glatz, who promised not only his aid but his company in the new enterprise. As more money would be needed than Trenck had in his possession, he contrived to apply to his rich relations outside the prison, and by some means--what we are not told--they managed to convey a large sum to him. Suspicion, however, got about that Trenck was on too familiar a footing with the officers, and orders were given that his door should always be kept locked. This occasioned further delay, as false keys had secretly to be made before anything else could be done.

Their flight was unexpectedly hastened by Schell accidentally learning that he was in danger of arrest. One night they crept unobserved through the arsenal and over the inner palisade, but on reaching the rampart they came face to face with two of the officers, and again a leap into the fosse was the only way of escape. Luckily, the wall at this point was not high, and Trenck arrived at the bottom without injury; but Schell was not so happy, and hurt his foot so badly that he called on his friend to kill him, and to make the best of his way alone. Trenck, however, declined to abandon him, and having dragged him over the outer palisade, took him on his back, and made for the frontier. Before they had gone five hundred yards, they heard the boom of the alarm guns from the fortress, while clearer still were the sounds of pursuit. As they knew that they would naturally be sought on the side toward Bohemia, they changed their course and pushed on to the river Neiss, at this season partly covered with ice. Trenck swam over slowly with his friend on his back, and found a boat on the other side. By means of this boat they evaded their enemies, and reached the mountains after some hours, very hungry, and almost frozen to death.

Here a new terror awaited them. Some peasants with whom they took refuge recognized Schell, and for a moment the fugitives gave themselves up for lost. But the peasants took pity on the two wretched objects, fed them and gave them shelter, till they could make up their minds what was best to be done. To their unspeakable dismay, they found that they were, after all, only seven miles from Glatz, and that in the neighboring town of Wunschelburg a hundred soldiers were quartered, with orders to capture all deserters from the fortress. This time, however, fortune favored the luckless Trenck, and though he and Schell were both in uniform, they rode unobserved through the village while the rest of the people were at church, and, skirting Wunschelburg, crossed the Bohemian frontier in the course of the day.

Captured Again

Then follows a period of comparative calm in Trenck's history. He travelled freely about Poland, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Denmark and Holland, and even ventured occasionally across the border into Prussia. Twelve years seem to have passed by in this manner, till, in 1758, his mother died, and Trenck asked leave of the council of war to go up to Dantzic to see his family and to arrange his affairs. Curiously enough, it appears never to have occurred to him that he was a deserter, and as such liable to be arrested at any moment. And this was what actually happened. By order of the king, Trenck was taken first to Berlin, where he was deprived of his money and some valuable rings, and then removed to Magdeburg, of which place Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick was the governor.

Here his quarters were worse than he had ever known them. His cell was only six feet by ten, and the window was high, with bars without as well as within. The wall was seven feet thick, and beyond it was a palisade, which rendered it impossible for the sentinels to approach the window. On the other side the prisoner was shut in by three doors, and his food (which was not only bad, but very scanty) was passed to him through an opening.

Escape Plan Betrayed

One thing only was in his favor. His cell was only entered once a week, so he could pursue any work to further his escape without much danger of being discovered. Notwithstanding the high window, the thick wall, and the palisade--notwithstanding, too, his want of money--he soon managed to open negotiations with the sentinels, and found, to his great joy, that the next cell was empty. If he could only contrive to burrow his way into that, he would be able to watch his opportunity to steal through the open door; once free, he could either swim the Elbe and cross into Saxony, which lay about six miles distant, or else float down the river in a boat till he was out of danger.

Small as the cell was, it contained a sort of cupboard, fixed into the floor by irons, and on these Trenck began to work. After frightful labor, he at last extracted the heavy nails which fastened the staples to the floor, and breaking off the heads (which he put back to avoid detection), he kept the rest to fashion for his own purposes. By this means he made instruments to raise the bricks.

On this side also the wall was seven feet thick, and formed of bricks and stones. Trenck numbered them as he went on with the greatest care, so that the cell might present its usual appearance before the Wednesday visit of his guards. To hide the joins, he scraped off some of the mortar, which he smeared over the place.

As may be supposed, all this took a very long time. He had nothing to work with but the tools he himself had made, which, of course, were very rough. But one day a friendly sentinel gave him a little iron rod and a small knife with a wooden handle. These were treasures indeed! And with their help he worked away for six months at his hole, as in some places the mortar had become so hard that it had to be pounded like a stone.

During this time he enlisted the compassion of some of the other sentinels, who not only described to him the lay of the country which he would have to traverse if he ever succeeded in getting out of prison, but interested in his behalf a Jewess named Esther Heymann, whose own father had been for two years a prisoner in Magdeburg. In this manner Trenck became the possessor of a file, a knife, and some writing paper, as the friendly Jewess had agreed to convey letters to some influential people, both at Vienna and Berlin, and also to his sister. But this step led to the ruin, not only of Trenck, but of several persons concerned, for they were betrayed by an imperial secretary of embassy called Weingarten, who was tempted by a bill for 20,000 florins. Many of those guilty of abetting Trenck in this fresh effort to escape were put to death, while his sister was ordered to build a new prison for him in the Fort de l'Etoile, and he himself was destined to pass nine more years in chains.

A New Prison And A New Challenge

In spite of his fetters, Trenck was able in some miraculous way to get on with his hole, but his long labor was rendered useless by the circumstance that his new prison was finished sooner than he expected, and he was removed into it hastily, being only able to conceal his knife. He was now chained even more heavily than before, his two feet being attached to a heavy ring fixed in the wall, another ring being fastened round his body. From this ring was suspended a chain with a thick iron bar, two feet long at the bottom, and to this his hands were fastened. An iron collar was afterward added to his instruments of torture.

Besides torments of body, nothing was wanting which could work on his mind. His prison was built between the trenches of the principal rampart, and was of course very dark. It was likewise very damp, and, to crown all, the name of "Trenck" had been printed in red bricks on the wall, above a tomb whose place was indicated by a death's-head.

Here again, he tells us, he excited the pity of his guards, who gave him a bed and coverlet, and as much bread as he chose to eat; and, wonderful as it may seem, his health did not suffer from all these horrors. As soon as he got a little accustomed to his cramped position, he began to use the knife he had left, and to cut through his chains. He next burst the iron band, and after a long time severed his leg fetters, but in such a way that he could put them on again and no one be any the wiser. Nothing is more common in the history of prisoners than this exploit, and nothing is more astonishing, yet we meet with the fact again and again in their memoirs and biographies. Trenck at any rate appears to have accomplished the feat without much difficulty, though he found it very hard, to get his hand back into his handcuffs. After he had disposed of his bonds, he began to saw at the doors leading to the gallery. These were four in number, and all of wood, but when he arrived at the fourth, his knife broke in two, and the courage that had upheld him for so many years gave away. He opened his veins and lay down to die, when in his despair he heard the voice of Gefhardt, the friendly sentinel from the other prison. Hearing of Trenck's sad plight, he scaled the palisade, and, we are told expressly, bound up his wounds, though we are not told how he managed to enter the cell. Be that as it may, the next day, when the guards came to open the door, they found Trenck ready to meet them, armed with a brick in one hand, and a knife, doubtless obtained from Gefhardt, in the other. The first man that approached him, he stretched wounded at his feet, and thinking it dangerous to irritate further a desperate man, they made a compromise with him. The governor took off his chains for a time, and gave him strong soup and fresh linen. Then, after a while, new doors were put to his cell, the inner door being lined with plates of iron, and he himself was fastened with stronger chains than those he had burst through.

Another Failure

For all this the watch must have been very lax, as Gefhardt soon contrived to open communication with him again, and letters were passed through the window (to which the prisoner had made a false and movable frame) and forwarded to Trenck's rich friends. His appeal was always answered promptly and amply. More valuable than money were two files, also procured from Gefhardt, and by their means the new chains were speedily cut through, though, as before, without any apparent break. Having freed his limbs, he began to saw through the floor of his cell, which was of wood. Underneath, instead of hard rock, there was sand, which Trenck scooped out with his hands. This earth was passed through the window to Gefhardt, who removed it when he was on guard, and gave his friend pistols, a bayonet, and knives to assist him when he had finally made his escape.

All seemed going smoothly. The foundations of the prison were only four feet deep, and Trenck's tunnel had reached a considerable distance when everything was again spoiled. A letter written by Trenck to Vienna fell into the hands of the governor, owing to some stupidity on the part of Gefhardt's wife, who had been intrusted to deliver it. The letter does not seem to have contained any special disclosure of his plan of escape, as the governor, who was still Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, could find nothing wrong in Trenck's cell except the false window-frame. The cut chains, though examined, somehow escaped detection, from which we gather either that the officials were very careless, or the carpenter very stupid. Perhaps both may have been the case, for as the Seven Years' War (against Austria) was at this time raging, sentinels and officers were frequently changed, and prison discipline insensibly relaxed. Had this not been so, Trenck could never have been able to labor unseen, but as it was, he was merely deprived of his bed, as a punishment for tampering with the window.

As soon as he had recovered from his fright and an illness which followed, he returned to his digging.

It was necessary for him to bore under the subterranean gallery of the principal rampart, which was a distance of thirty-seven feet, and to get outside the foundation of the rampart. Beyond that was a door leading to the second rampart. Trenck was forced to work almost naked, for fear of raising the suspicions of the officials by his dirty clothes, but in spite of all his precautions and the wilful blindness of his guards, who as usual were on his side, all was at length discovered. His hole was filled up, and a year's work lost.

Free At Last

The next torture invented for him was worse than any that had gone before. He was visited and awakened every quarter of an hour, in order that he might not set to work in the night. This lasted for four years, during part of which time Trenck employed himself in writing verses and making drawings on his tin cups, after the manner of all prisoners, and in writing books with his blood, as ink was forbidden. We are again left in ignorance as to how he got paper. He also began to scoop out another hole, but was discovered afresh, though nothing particular seems to have been done to him, partly owing to the kindness of the new governor, who soon afterward died.

It had been arranged by his friends that for the space of one year horses should be ready for him at a certain place on the first and fifteenth of every month. Inspired by this thought, he turned to his burrowing with renewed vigor, and worked away at every moment when he thought he could do so unseen. One day, however, when he had reached some distance, he dislodged a large stone which blocked up the opening toward his cell. His terror was frightful. Not only was the air suffocating, and the darkness dreadful, but he knew that if any of the guards were unexpectedly to come into his cell, the opening must be discovered, and all his toil again lost. For eight hours he stayed in the tunnel paralyzed by fear. Then he roused himself, and by dint of superhuman struggles managed to open a passage on one side of the stone, and to reach his cell, which for once appeared to him as a haven of rest.

Soon after this the war ended with the Peace of Paris (1763), and Trenck's hopes of release seemed likely to be realized. He procured money from his friends, and bribed the Austrian ambassador in Berlin to open negotiations on his behalf, and while these were impending he rested from his labors for three whole months. Suddenly he was possessed by an idea which was little less than madness. He bribed a major to ask for a visit from Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, again Governor of Magdeburg, offering to disclose his passage, and to reveal all his plans of escape, on condition that the duke would promise to plead for him with the king. This message never reached the duke himself, but some officers arrived ostensibly sent by him, but in reality tools of the major's. They listened to all he had to say, and saw all he had to show, then broke their word, filled up the passage, and redoubled the chains and the watch.

Notwithstanding this terrible blow, Trenck's trials were drawing to an end. Whether Frederic's heart was softened by his brilliant victories, or whether Trenck's influential friends succeeded in making themselves heard, we do not know, but six months later he was set free, on condition that he never tried to revenge himself on any one, and that he never again should cross the frontiers of Saxony or Prussia.

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