In 1944-45, 12 inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania dug a tunnel with spoons to make their escape. Bank robber Willie Sutton took credit for the scheme, although burglar Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst was the one with the trade skills to get it done. The caper was ingenious, not only for its engineering, but also for the fact that no one snitched and the guards did not find it.
Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.
Did they escape? Yes, they did, although freedom for the twelve inmates lasted between a couple of minutes and a couple of months. For at least one, it would not be his last prison escape. Prison employees filled in the escape route, and Eastern State was closed permanently in 1971. But that's not the end of the story. The public was still fascinated by the famous escape, so in 2005 a crew of archaeologists went to find the tunnel that prison officials hoped would be hidden forever. Read the entire story at Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog.
(Image credit: Philadelphia Inquirer via Eastern State Penitentiary)