I am a sucker for a good prison escape story. Now I know what you are thinking, and I wish I could tell you that my life is exciting enough for this to be another personal story, but it’s not. Instead of sharing something from my life, for the next few weeks I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened over 140 years ago. This story is a work of historical fiction, as I took liberties to add and modify the details of the original events, but it’s very closely based on a true story. This is an adaptation from something I worked on in college. I’m happy to be able to tell the story again, in a new way. It is told from the point of view of one of the escapees.
Now, dear Friend, remember, this is a voice from the tomb. For is this not [a] living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms but in this living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul.
– Letter from James Wilson to John Devoy, 1873
In all my meetings with Breslin along dirt paths, and against the wild bush that bordered the colony, I had never seen him so dirty, so iconically Irish. His posh white suit was now brown with sludge and torn at the pits and the knees. His neatly trimmed beard which measured just over a pint in length was saturated with the vomit water in which he lay, in which we all lay, as we try to blend our small craft in with the hazy Australian horizon.
“We are going to board that ship, boys,” he spat to us in a harsh whisper, his eyes burning into each of us with an intense fearlessness most Irishmen only talk of having. Up to this point, Breslin had chosen the method of bold and blatant deception in plain sight. And just in case the hasty and suspiciously timed nature of his disappearance from the Emerald Hotel didn’t tip the authorities off, he’d sent a letter floating to shore on the tide shortly after our break. It was addressed to the British Governor of Western Australia and it revealed the true purpose for his stay in Fremantle. The Governor would soon know that he was not James Collins, wealthy American-born investor, new friend of the Fremantle Gaol warden, interested, for investing purposes, in touring the prison facilities. No, in fact, he was not James Collins at all, but John Breslin, the very John Breslin who had facilitated the escape of Fenian founder James Stephens from a British prison in 1865. He was John Breslin, the middle-class Irish-born American, interested in the outlay of the prison so that he might facilitate the rescue of six political captives, and as a result of his success in this matter, he was John Breslin, new enemy of the British Crown.
He grinned a thick, triumphant grin now, as he offered his unfounded assertion that we would make it to the whaler, but I wondered if he were not celebrating too soon. It had been an agonizing four months since my first chance to entertain the prospect of actual freedom. It had come in the form of a note, handed off to me at random while I was at work in the stables: To James Wilson and all the rest, Greetings. Those who have not forgotten are close by. Destroy this for the sake of Old Erin. The door of the Tomb is ajar. The words had filled me with an overwhelming sense of joy and fear, the kind of joy and fear that come when you realize you will either live or die, but you will never again return to the living tomb to rot between the two like a breathing corpse. These were the painful, beautiful, secretive thoughts that went through my mind as I’d chewed the promise into a bitter, pulpy hope and swallowed.
At this very moment, we were hunched over in dead stillness except for the rocking of the boat from side to side, pressed against each other’s reeking bodies—ours the decay and anxiety of dank prison cells, horse hair, natural fertilizer, theirs the stench of stale whale grease—to which was added the odor of the vomit that floated with the foot of sea water sloshing around in the boat.
It was April in the year of 1876, and the Australian shoreline was finally behind us. The large whaler, Catalpa, was anchored in international waters, and had finally materialized on our western horizon. The sun had just peeked out from the east, making a silhouette of Western Australia’s distant bush, and shedding a yellowish light on the raw faces around me. The sixteen of us floated in the small whaleboat built for ten: Anthony, the Catalpa’s captain, five of his crewmen, the four Irishmen who had facilitated the land-end of the rescue mission, and us.
Last night’s gale had weakened me to the point of near immobility, the sharp pangs in my chest intensifying with every shallow breath. I worked my hand up under the soaked civilian clothes and clutched my skin in helpless pain. I could feel with my fingertips the raised scar on my chest where a “D” for what might as well have meant “Death” had been branded so many years before. I remember the pain caused by the hot iron as they’d pressed it against me, and the lingering scab that would rub against my heavy prison garb for weeks. Every time a pain shot through my heart, I could not help but think it was the “D” itself jabbing a little needle into my chest to remind me of my captivity, to remind me that I was an Irish man in a Brit’s world. Only now it was no needle but a harpoon, and close as I was to freedom, all I could think of was the tightness of my chest and whether, if I were to die right there, they would bury me in Australian waters or wait. It was the feeling of hope impaled. My five comrades looked on with a tired attempt at sympathy, but I knew that they had little, if any, strength for sympathy.
Join me back here next week for more about the Catalpa rescue. Don’t miss it– sign up to follow this blog by entering your email on the top of the sidebar to the right of this page. Remember to share this post on Facebook & Twitter if you’re enjoying the blog!