Dartmoor prisoner with terrifying reputation vanished without a trace

Living in the shadow of Dartmoor Prison, locals are often privy to some rather wild tales - from daring breakouts to full-blown riots. While many such stories are the stuff of legend, there are a few that are so extraordinary they border on the unbelievable.

Take for instance the notorious 'mad axeman' whose escape from the formidable prison over half a century ago still captures the imagination. Frank Mitchell, who was serving a life sentence, managed to slip away under the guise of feeding some of Dartmoor's iconic ponies.

Officially, Mitchell remains at large, securing his title as the longest-standing escapee of the 20th century, although it's widely believed that he met with foul play and was killed.

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Not all who attempted to flee Dartmoor's walls were as 'successful' as Mitchell. During a riot and fire in 1932, a concerted effort by soldiers and warders thwarted the escape plans of up to 30 prisoners.

Nowadays, the prison stands as a far more secure facility, free from the security woes that plagued it in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, reports Plymouth Live.

Here's a look back at some of Dartmoor's most infamous escapees.

Frank Mitchell aka 'Mad Axeman'

Dubbed the "Mad Axeman" after taking an elderly couple hostage with an axe, Frank Mitchell found himself incarcerated at HMP Dartmoor for life.

Despite his terrifying reputation and a penchant for violence, Mitchell vanished into thin air 50 years ago, never to be seen again.

The disappearance of a man, aided by notorious gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, sparked the country's largest ever manhunt, involving 200 police officers, 100 Royal Marines and a Royal Air Force helicopter scouring the moors.

The man, known as Mitchell, made his escape on December 12, 1966, while repairing fencing on the firing range at Bagga Tor with fellow inmates. Under the supervision of just one prison officer, Mitchell slipped away under the guise of feeding some Dartmoor ponies.

In reality, he was collected by two men near Princetown and by the time authorities were searching the road from Dartmoor, he was enjoying a steak in an East London flat.

This would be the last sighting of Mitchell whose body has never been recovered. Officially, Mitchell remains a fugitive from Dartmoor, making him the longest-running escapee of the 20th century.

Frank Mitchell back in custody after escaping from Broadmoor in 1958
Frank Mitchell back in custody after escaping from Broadmoor in 1958

However, it is believed that he was murdered as part of a gangland feud on December 24, 1966, although reports suggest Ron Kray insisted he was not killed but rather, with his and Reg's assistance, was smuggled out of the country. The incident prompted questions about the prison's security measures in the House of Commons.

Despite posing a significant risk and not being due for release for many years, Mitchell had been permitted to join prisoners' work parties outside the prison.

These tasks on the moor, also referred to as honour parties, were typically reserved for inmates nearing their release date.

The prison regime was so relaxed that Mitchell could easily slip away to visit the Elephant's Nest pub in Horndon, near Mary Tavy, and the Peter Tavy Inn. Incredibly, just a month before his escape, Mitchell was even able to order a taxi to pick him up from the Elephant's Nest and take him to Tavistock.

Harold 'Rubber Bones' Webb.

Harold 'Rubber Bones' Webb wriggled to freedom through the hot air warming ducts. He earned his nickname on November 19, 1951 by prising away the floor of his cell and squeezing through the shafts and sawing through the air intake bars.

Webb claimed he was a track worker and joined a train at Brent Tor station to reach Exeter. He then hitch-hiked to London.

However, Webb was recaptured in less than a week.

William 'Foxy' Fowler.

William "Foxy" Fowler, earned his nickname through frequent escapes from prisons, including Dartmoor
How the national press proclaimed one of his escapes -Credit:Mirrorpix

London mobster Foxy Fowler managed to escape through the toilets in the prison's museum in 1957.

The museum itself states on its website: "They had recently been installed but the builders neglected to fit the windows with bars! ".

One of the country's most notorious criminals at the time, he earned his nickname by his frequent escape bids.

Foxy broke out of high-security Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight twice. He once stole a boat and sailed it single-handedly up the coast.

The villain was once arrested by police who discovered he had spent the night with a certain "lady of leisure'', sleeping with a gun and bullets under his pillow.

Charles 'Ruby' Sparks

The notorious cat burglar and jewel thief, Charles 'Ruby' Sparks, was at the heart of a dramatic escape attempt during a riot within the prison walls back in January 1932.

Prisoners ignited a blaze within the facility, and amidst the chaos, a group of 30 convicts attempted to flee. However, their efforts were thwarted by armed police and military forces from Crownhill Barracks.

At the time, Sparks was serving a five-year term for burglary, then referred to as housebreaking.The inmates launched an aggressive assault on the main gates, hoping to break free en masse, despite the presence of armed guards encircling the jail's perimeter. The prisoners, wielding improvised weapons, were eventually overpowered by a baton-wielding response team.

Sparks found himself behind bars again in January 1940, but this time he successfully escaped, remaining at large for 170 days, marking him as one of the most elusive fugitives. His moniker 'Ruby' is said to have originated in his youth after a heist in Mayfair, London, where he snatched a box containing 40 red stones.

Believing them to be worthless glass after consulting with a fence, Sparks distributed the stones among friends in Soho clubs. It was only later that he discovered, through newspaper reports, that the stones were actually valuable rubies belonging to an Indian Maharaja, valued at £40,000.Additionally, he earned the nickname "Rubberface" due to the peculiar expressions he would make in police photographs.

John Morgan

Historically, newspapers in the 1800s frequently featured stories about prisoners' daring escape attempts. One such account involved John Morgan, whose escape from HMP Dartmoor in 1898 made headlines.

The newspaper report read: "Another convict escaped from Dartmoor convict establishment on Sunday night, but was recaptured last evening (Monday) after an exciting chase.

"The man, whose name is John Morgan, alias Henry Harley, was serving his third term of penal servitude, his last conviction having been at the North London sessions in 1894, when he was sentenced to 10 years penal servitude for larceny.

""The alarm was raised at 8.40pm on Sunday by a night-watchman in the prison who saw a couple of knotted blankets hanging out of a cell window. It was found that the ventilator of the cell had been taken out as well as the pane of glass, and two outside iron bars broken through, probably by blows with a stool which was in the convicts cell.

"Morgan then squeezed himself through the small aperture and, using his blankets as a rope, reached the ground. He scaled the high boundary wall by means of a scaffold pole and, by the time he was missed, he had got clean away from the prison.

"Armed search parties were sent out, and mounted men and cyclists scoured the country in all directions. It was a bright moonlit night, but in spite of this and of the open nature of the county, Morgan managed to elude his pursuers throughout the night and until the following afternoon was well advanced, when he was run down near Chagford, a village about 12 miles on the Exeter side of Dartmoor..."