Joe Baker

In last weeks North Belfast News I copiled an article on a sensational escape from the Belfast prison on the Crumlin Road.  Needless to say this was a massive embarrasment for the authorities and they were quite eagar to catch those who had escaped.
A few days later one of them was caught and the following is the report as it appared in the Northern Whig on the 18th of May, 1917: -

William Conlon, one of the convicts who escaped from Belfast Gaol nearly a week ago in company with three others, was re-arrested yesterday during an early morning raid on a house in Leeson Street, Belfast.

Belfast Prison Escape

 William Conlon
Since the daring and carefully planned escape last Monday, the police have been actively engaged in searching for the wanted men, and their efforts were rewarded yesterday by the arrest of one of them almost within a stone’s throw of the prison.
 Conlon, an Irish American, hailing from Gilford, is now back in Crumlin Road Gaol, and it is expected that his companions in  last week’s escape will soon follow him.  The raid on the house in Leeson Street was carried out at 4 o’clock yesterday morning suddenly and with thoroughness.  It followed a weekend of intensive investigation on the part of the police.
 As reported in the “Northern Whig” on Wednesday last week the police discovered a complete suit of convict’s clothes in a lane near the Glen Road, Belfast.  The utmost importance was attached to this discovery, and experts were detailed to follow up the clues afforded by it.
 It was believed in police circles in Belfast that the men were in hiding in the city, and this theory was supported by information which came into the possession of police on Saturday.



 Raids have been carried out unsuccessfully by squads of detectives frequently since the escape of the four men, and by Saturday morning, though no material success had followed these efforts, it was stated that the police had narrowed down considerably the zone of their investigation.
 Yesterday’s raid was  carried out by County Inspector Gilifan, Assistant Commissioner Capt. O’Berine, District Inspector Lynn, Head Constable Slack, and about ten more detectives.
 The street was quiet, and all the houses were in darkness when the police arrived on the scene, but the peremptory knocking on the door of the house where the escaped convict was suspected to be in hiding aroused some of the neighbours.
 “There was nothing sensational about the police methods,” said an eye-witness. “All one could see for the time being was a small knot of plain clothes men outside the house.  Afterwards some who had entered returned to the street with a man securely handcuffed.  No one anticipated the raid, and it was soon over, with only a few neighbours knowing what had happened.”
 When the door was opened by the occupier of the house four detectives with drawn revolvers entered.  Some of the raiding party at once went upstairs, and here Conlon was found asleep.
 One of the chiefs of the raiding party ordered Conlon to get up, and the man obeyed without demur.  After he had dressed in a new suit of clothes which was found at his bedside, he was immediately handcuffed.
 The police afterwards left the house after questioning the occupier, and removed the prisoner to Chichester Street, from where he was later take back to Crumlin Road.
 The three other men who were concerned with Conlon in what will rank as one of the most sensational escapes from gaol that has ever been effected, are Francis O’Boyle, Beragh, Co. Tyrone; Hugh Rodgers, Sixmilecross, Co. Tyrone, and Edward Thornton, Belfast.  They are still at liberty.
 Conlon, together with Rogers and O’Boyle were, it will be recalled, convicted at a court martial in July 1921, for the murder of William M’Dowell, motor car proprietor, Gilford, on 3rd September, 1930.
 The fourth man, Edward Thorton, was undergoing a sentence of twelve years’ penal servitude for wounding a girl in a railway carriage between Holywood and Belfast in November, 1922.
 A reward of £500 has been offered by the Government of Northern Ireland for information which will lead to the recapture of the men.
 The sensational escape carried out by the four men, as described in the “Northern Whig” last week, characterised by the greatest cunning and ingenuity, was effected only after the prisoners had attacked and overpowered their warder.  Thornton, it is believed, was allowed to accompany the others for the help he had given to Conlon, Rodgers, and O’Boyle in the drawing up of their plans.
 It was clear at the time of the escape that the men had long been contemplating their breakaway, for their plans were perfected to the last detail.  It is also evident that they had the advantage of assistance from without, for the escape is said to have been effected with the aid of a high-powered motor car, and for the persons who assisted the four criminals to escape.

 It had been suggested that all four men had crossed the border into the Irish Free State, but the C.I.D. in Belfast have all along discounted this theory.  The Free State authorities, however, are keeping a vigilant watch on the border.  Acting in support of their belief that the men were still in or near Belfast the police have combed the city and searched thoroughly all the areas where the wanted men are known to have friends.  This search is being continued, and the police are concentrating also on finding the red motor car in which the men escaped.
Conlon was the only one who was captured within days but almost two months later the second of the four was captured in an area extremly close to the prison.  The Northern Whig reported the capture on the 26th of July, 1927:

After over two months’ freedom, Edward Thornton, one of the four convicts who made a sensational escape from Belfast Gaol in the early morning of May 9, was recaptured in a house in Dunmore Street, New Lodge Road, last night.  He is the second of the wanted men to be re-arrested, the other, the Irish American, William Conlon, being seized by the police on May 15.
 The recapture of Thorton was effected without sensation of any kind.  Acting on information which came into their possession yesterday, District Inspector Speers, Head Constable Slack, and Detective Sergeant Bell called at a house in Dunmore Street, and after a few minutes stay inside the house, reappeared with Thornton in custody,  So quietly did the police go about their work that little or no attention was paid to them, and there were but a few curious glances at them as they left with Thornton, who was taken to the police station in Chichester Street, and then back to the Gaol.
 Thornton, who is a native of County Monaghan, last residing at 108, Spamount Street, Belfast, was serving a term of twelve years’ penal servitude for wounding a girl in a railway carriage between Holywood and Belfast, in November, 1922.
 It was popularly supposed at the time of the escape that the men had crossed the border into the Irish Free State, but the Belfast police have all along held the opinion that the men were hiding in the city.  This theory would seem to be supported by the recapture of two of the gaol breakers in Belfast, both at no great distance from the prison, and it is probably only a matter of time now till the other two still at liberty, Francis O’Boyle, Beragh, County Tyrone, and Hugh Rodgers, Sixmilecross, County Tyrone, will rejoin their comrades in Crumlin Road.


 It will be recalled that the sensational escape was carried out at dawn after careful and systematic preparation.  It was clear from the manner in which it was carried out that outside aid was available for the convicts, for after having cunningly broken out of their cells, the four men overpowered two of the night warders, and, it is said, made their get-away in a high-powered motor car,
 Immediately the escape was known the police set to work, and the success that has attended their efforts to date is, indeed, gratifying.

Belfast Prison Escape

 Edward Thornton
On the day following the escape the Northern Home Office offered a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of the fugitives.
 Conlon, who was recaptured in a house in Leeson Street, a week after the escape, was convicted with Rodgers and O’Boyle at a court-martial in July, 1921, of the murder of William M’Dowell, motor car proprietor, Gilford, on September 3, 1920.  They were originally tried before Mr. Justice Pim at Ulster Winter Assizes in December, 1920, when, after five days’ trial, the jury disagreed.  At direction of the Crown, the prosecution was transferred from the civil to the military authorities, and the three men were found guilty and sentenced to penal servitude.

Eventulay all were caught but there is no doubt that their escape has went down as one of the most dramatic in the history of the Crumlin Road Jail.



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