31 August 2016

Slim Halliday: Man or Spider-man?

Arthur Ernest 'Slim' Halliday, convicted murderer and infamous Boggo Road escapologist during the 1930s-1960s, is the subject of some incredible tales, some tall, some true. Like the time he bent a solid metal cell door back with a winch made from bits of wood and bed sheet. Or the time he burned a hole in roof of the mattress workshop in a bid to escape. Or when he made a replica gun from bits of leather. These are some of the true tales.

Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, Brisbane, 1937 (BRGHS)
Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, 1937. (BRGHS)

There is, however, one particular story that is as tall as it gets. During one of my first visits to Boggo Road I took a tour with a highly-respected former prison officer who told our group all about 'Halliday's Leap', the place where Slim Halliday jumped off the roof of E Wing cellblock in 1940 and landed on the top of the perimeter wall before making good his escape. At the time I totally believed it - such is the authoritative power of the tour guide - but after I worked at the museum and spent more time in the area, I realised that the story and the numbers just didn't add up.

The legendary leap would have involved jumping from a three-storey cellblock roof onto the top of the red-bricked outer prison wall, a near-impossible feat involving a drop of eight metres over a width of four metres. The curved top of the wall itself is no more than 30cm wide and is over seven metres high – not the safest landing spot for someone jumping from a great height. Imagine jumping off the roof of a two-storey house, aiming to land perfectly on a 30cm-wide ledge, without breaking your legs or spine or falling over when you do land, because that ledge is seven metres off the ground - and someone with a rifle on the neighbour's roof will shoot you if they see you. It is, basically, a feat requiring all the abilities of Spiderman, and Slim may have been a lot of things but he was no superhero.

Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road (BRGHS).
Track, outer wall, and cellblock at Boggo Road. (BRGHS).

I delved into the official records at Queensland State Archives and a very different story emerged, but one that was no less impressive. To run through it briefly; Halliday had planned this escape for months, secretly making and hiding escape ropes, grappling hooks and wire cutters in the prison workshops. One day he slipped unnoticed from a line of prisoners and scaled the 10-foot high fence of the exercise yard to gain access to the Track that ran around the inside of the perimeter walls. He climbed onto the workshop roof and dropped down through a skylight that gave him access to the inside of the workshop, where he cut through wire mesh walls with the hidden wire cutters to get to his escape ropes. He climbed up onto the roof again and hooked the longest rope over the outer wall, at a place he had worked out to be a blind-spot from the towers. He dropped the shorter rope down the side of the workshop and climbed down onto the Track, then climbed up over the prison wall using the first rope before changing his clothes and making his escape.

Did Arthur 'Slim' Halliday REALLY jump from a cellblock roof to escape from Boggo Road?
A – Location of ‘Halliday’s Leap’
B – Workshops
T – Towers
No.2 Division, Boggo Road, in the 1940s. (BRGHS)

Slim Halliday's escape route from Boggo Road Gaol, 1940. (BRGHS)
Halliday's escape route 1940. (BRGHS)

There is no room in this article for the tale of the massive manhunt, shoot-outs and high-speed car chases that led to Halliday’s recapture, which is all covered in detail in the book The Houdini of Boggo Road. Of more relevance here is how the myth of 'Halliday's Leap' grew. One clue comes from discussions with local residents who were children when the escape happened. When news of the breakout got out, local parents ordered their children to stay home, but the kids had other ideas and formed themselves into 'posses', excitedly roaming the local streets in nervous pursuit of the escaped prisoner. They circulated a story that Halliday had jumped from a roof during his escape, and in the process of ‘Chinese Whispers’ this became a cellblock roof. This story took hold, and 50 years later it had become accepted even within modern prison officer circles.

Halliday escaped over the blind spot at this section of the wall again in 1946, and it gained the name of 'Halliday’s Leap’ quite early on. Following yet another escape attempt by Slim, this time in 1953, a newspaper ran an article with the headline 'HALLIDAY’S LEAP HEADACHE FOR BOGGO ROAD STAFF: WEAK SPOT IN THE PRISON WALLS'. However, the blindspot had in fact been fixed in 1947 with the erection of a new stand-alone guard tower (called E tower) in the prison grounds to the southeast of the workshops. The workshops and Halliday’s Leap were later demolished as part of the prison modernisation of the early 1970s. The myth of Halliday's Leap has only been demolished in more recent years.

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