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Lori Beth Crawford



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The Fremantle Prison had its share of escapes during its 150 year history. The best one was done by John Boyle O'Reilly. This guy nearly caused a war between the U.S. and Great Britain with his little escapade. And he's the only prisoner they were never able to recapture.

Mr. O'Reilly was a Fenian political prisoner since he was an Irish spy in the British Army. He was sent to Fremantle with six other Fenians. This guy made nice with the warder and with the help of the Prison Priest escaped on a whaling ship. He made it all the way to Boston where he joined up with other sympathizers, bought another whaling vessel, the Catalpa, and returned to Fremantle to free his fellow Fenians.

They sent a couple other Fenians ahead to pose as wealthy businessmen and open lines of communication with their imprisoned brothers. They used the chapel shown to the left to get the message to the remaining six that they were to make sure they were outside the prison walls without their guards during their work detail on Easter Monday morning because apparently they were frequently without their guards outside the prison walls while on work detail.

The six did as instructed and hopped on carriages sent to pick them up. They were taken to a small whaleboat that would row them out to the Catalpa which was waiting for them in International waters.

Of course, the British were on to them immediately, but couldn't catch them in the whaleboat. After spending the night in the open boat during a squall, the prisoners made it to the Catalpa. By this time, the British had found them again.

They demanded to board the ship and retrieve the prisoners, but the captain refused. The British prepared to fire on the Catalpa. The captain told them, "That’s the American flag. I am on the high seas; my flag protects me. If you fire on this ship you fire on the American flag." Since the British had just lost a similar case costing them 3 million pounds - that was a whole lot in 1876 - they weren't eager to repeat the situation. They had no choice, but let the Catalpa go with the prisoners on board.

Mr. O'Reilly returned to Boston where he was a newspaperman and regularly went on lecture tours. He wasn't even trying to hide out. When he died in 1890 his funeral was the second largest in American history. Only John F. Kennedy's was bigger.

Oh yeah...and they wrote a
song about the Catalpa escape. Unfortunately, until insanely recently it was still illegal to sing it in Australia.

Fremantle Prison Escapes: John Boyle O'Reilly and the Fenians