Australia’s own ‘Houdini’: The Maxwell Skinner Chronicles

HISTORICAL CRIME: Maxwell Carl Skinner was an unremarkable petty criminal who would go on to scale the greatest of heights. Well, at least the biggest of Australia’s prison walls, writes Sarah McLean.

Maxwell Carl Skinner – the man who became one of Victoria’s most well-known prison escapees (he clocked up a total of four successful escapes throughout his life) – crossed paths with the law at quite a young age.

He was just 10-years-old when he committed his first crime of stealing a loaf of bread. His excuse when caught? “Dad’s on sustenance and I’m hungry.” It was almost as if this boy from Heidelberg, who didn’t go past grade four and subsequently fell in and out of work was destined to walk into the criminal world and never leave. Coming from a family of eight children, Skinner would go on to spend most of his life living in, and mostly escaping from, various reformatories and jails around Victoria (and New South Wales in one instance). It was this pattern of escaping from and returning to jail, his love of finding new ways to escape the hands of the law, that led him to earn the title of, or rather caused him to crown himself as, the man who no jail could hold; the “‘Houdini’ of the underworld” as he boasted to newspapers and fellow inmates. “I’m Houdini … Call me ‘Houdini’. No jail can hold me”.

An egocentric, over-confident and yet petty criminal – Skinner’s rap sheet included charges of break-ins, larceny, illegally using cars, and eventually, the numerous escapes – Skinner helped lead his first jailbreak in 1943 at the age of 15. In an article published in 1955, Skinner recalled his time spent at the Castlemaine Reformatory, a place where he “learnt the whole crooked lot”, including “how to pick locks and start cars with tinfoil”. Within a few months of being there, he became involved in an escape plot with four other prisoners. The leader, an inmate known as Merv, had been removing the screws from the trapdoor in his cell door. On the night of the escape, he reached up to the padlock and used a key that he had made in the gaol workshop to get out. Once freeing himself, he unlocked four other doors – including Skinner’s. Then, using a set of stolen bolt cutters, the five escapees cut through the main door, ran through the kitchen for food, and to the reformatory’s outer wall, using a rope to climb it. Skinner claims that on their way out, he trampled the governor’s garden “to a pulp” and let out all of his fowls, so called payback after being dressed down by him the day before.

The five of them stole a car and drove to Melbourne, Skinner ditching them somewhere along the way. While the others were caught within two days, Skinner wasn’t caught until three weeks later in Carlton. It was this first escape, his ability to outwit police every time they raided the house he hid in, that gave his ego “a great boost”.

It was from this moment too that Skinner would develop his first taste of illegal freedom – and become further entrenched in the one thing he could not escape from – criminality. And here began his notoriety, his career of being an escape artist – one of the best the country had seen since Darcy Dugan (Skinner’s hero as The Daily Telegraph in 1951 wrote), who managed to clock up four escapes from various New South Wales prisons in three years – a record that Skinner was aiming to break. Ironically, though, Skinner’s numerous escapes earnt him more time on the inside than what he would have had on the outside had he done the right thing.

For the Castlemaine escape, Skinner ended up in Pentridge Prison when he was only 16 years old. In two months, however, he was moved to French Island, a prison known amongst criminals as Australia’s Alcatraz. Here, he was sentenced to hard labour amongst older criminals. Though he already had one easy escape racked up, Skinner admitted that he did not have the energy to think about escaping this prison. Only the skilled, professional criminals could master an escape from French Island, of which Skinner did not consider himself one; he was not yet at this level of escape artistry – a skill which would develop in only a few years’ time.

From the moment of his release from French Island, Skinner, after being “educated in badness” for 18 months, gradually devised his own catalogue of escape methods and techniques, which included breaking through roofs using his head, digging away at walls and dumping the debris in prison gardens, forging fake weapons to hold up warders, and, in his most famous and “sensational” escape, scaling a 20ft. (six metre) high wall at Pentridge Prison in 1951, only a month after his previous escape from Richmond watch house (to be chronicled shortly). The more this lifestyle carried on, the more confident he became, seemingly aiming to shorten the time that a prison could hold him, shooting for new records each time he was sentenced and placed into a new jail. Skinner’s record for the quickest escape time? Half an hour, according to newspapers covering his Richmond escape in the 1950s.

Max Carl Skinner (Image: The Argus / Trove)

Two months of freedom was all that Skinner enjoyed after his stay at French Island, again arrested for a string of housebreakings committed around Melbourne. His next stay was to be at the Fitzroy watch house. Within an hour, Skinner had already decided that he wasn’t sticking around – he broke through the plaster roof using his head. 30 officers were called in to scour Fitzroy, who couldn’t find Skinner despite him being in almost plain sight on a factory roof nine metres away from officers on the ground. He remained out of police custody for another two weeks, before, according to him, he was ratted out and arrested in a house in Fitzroy. From this moment onwards, he regarded those on the outside as “mugs”, adopting this attitude after becoming so bound up in that mindset from a young age as he remarked in a 1955 article.

Of course, no matter how big his catalogue of techniques grew, Skinner was subsequently arrested, charged, and sent back to Pentridge. Surprisingly, he managed to remain out of trouble and off the news radar until he was 20 – he spent around four years on his second round in Pentridge, making up for his life of petty crime, escapes and evasions prior to 1950. But a pattern was already forming, taking hold of Skinner’s life and attitude towards it. Once again, it only took two months before the criminal world called out to him, a call he couldn’t help but answer as he always did. This time, however, it was a stolen bike with false plates that brought him undone.

Instead of being forced to serve six months in jail for the theft, Skinner was given a two-year good behaviour bond, a comparatively lighter sentence to what he was used to – which, of course, would not stop him from living his usual life. Upon leaving the Carlton Court, Skinner met with another criminal, ‘Sad Jake’ and a stolen car. And so the two headed to Sydney, though their ideas of establishing their names as criminals collided. While Jake wanted to get a gun and commit a series of hold ups, Skinner claimed that he was never that type of criminal. Jake and Skinner did manage to avoid police attention for a while, before being pulled over by police when Jake made an incorrect turn. Panicked, Jake admitted that he was in a stolen car, and informed on Skinner for hold ups committed. Skinner got two years at Long Bay Prison in New South Wales.

Skinner made plans to escape Long Bay, lying about his appendix causing him grief. While he actually did get it removed, warders caught on to his plan and put a stop to the escape.

Skinner was eventually returned to the care of the Victorian law, winding up in the Richmond watch house on a charge of illegally using a car in April 1951. But in true Skinner style, he intended to escape as quickly as possible – this time in half an hour. Skinner broke through the trapdoor in the roof of his cell and went on the run for about three weeks. During this time, according to a 1955 article published in The Daily Telegraph, Skinner worked in Heatherton, living in a hut along with another woman. About seven weeks later, on October 10 1951, Skinner was found and recaptured by police acting on a tip off. When facing court, Skinner tried to state that “I appreciated my liberty after escaping … it made me realise that there was a better life than crime.” Nevertheless, Skinner was sent back to the place that was more of a “home” to him than anywhere else – Pentridge. The Richmond escape, where Skinner decided that he didn’t belong there either – earned him an additional nine months behind bars. He may not have realised it at this point, but everything was leading up to the main event of his criminal career, his fourth and biggest escape in eight years – resulting in “one of the biggest [and sweeping] manhunts for many years”, as the Canberra Times in 1951 called it.

On November 18, 1951, it was reported that Skinner, along with several others, were under the rather relaxed watch of warders in Pentridge’s B Division. Forced to exercise while other prisoners ‘enjoyed’ a concert by a Salvation Army band, Skinner leapt into action, despite only weeks earlier admitting in court that his “stolen liberty” had “reformed” him.

With this perfect distraction, Skinner dashed to the prison’s 20ft. inner wall and, according to warders and prisoners, scaled the wall “like a cat” – no hesitations, no falls or stumbles, just a clean run up and over the wall. Skinner didn’t need the assistance of ladders, ropes, or other prisoners – this was a one-man operation. (Later reports would theorise, however, that Skinner used jutting stones in the wall as foot and handholds, or that he was in fact assisted by other prisoners when making that initial leap for the wall. No one has any concrete answers as to how he made it over though.) Upon landing in the adjoining prison farm, Skinner ran 200 yards (182 metres) across the farm, all while dodging a hail of bullets from warders eager to bring him down and back into Pentridge, still astonished at how Skinner climbed such a height. But this was one escape that really was meant to be for Skinner. Finally making it to an empty watch tower, Skinner climbed up the last hurdle, the 12ft. outer wall, and jumped down into the street to freedom.

Pentridge Prison (Image: Wikipedia)

Immediately he stole a bike from right under the nose of its owner, hopped on, and rode back down past the prison and a crowd of onlookers attending a tennis match, quipping, “It looks as though I’ve got a long run in front of me today, girls.” More than 50 cars and 100 officers joined the hunt for Skinner.

Witness accounts state that Skinner dumped the bike before boarding a bus. He then made it to a tram heading from Coburg to Carlton, where he hid under a conductress’s coat. Police halted and searched the tram after seeing Skinner boarding, quickly noticing the mound in the rear driver’s compartment. When an officer lifted the coat, Skinner jumped out, narrowly avoiding the cuffs. An “exciting” chase ensued, winding through houses and over back fences. Skinner then disappeared amongst a crowd attending a street meeting, and was later sighted entering the Melbourne General Cemetery. Searches of surrounding suburbs in the proceeding days returned no results.

Skinner, on the other hand, gives a slightly different account of the 1951 Pentridge escape. Writing in a six-part series published in The Argus in 1955, he claims that Pentridge is one of the easiest jails to escape from. He details how he managed the escape, noting his thought processes in the moments leading up to the escape – after making it to the wall, “bullets whistled around me on all sides … it was a close duel with death.” Once he got over the outer wall, he was apparently cheered on by the crowd at the tennis match, of which no one attempted to stop him from running. After dumping the bike, Skinner clambered up a tree, but was soon discovered by two boys, who reported him to the police. It is here that he jumped on to the tram and hid under the coat. The conductress, who soon found him there, “told him to stay under the coat” and offered advice on where to alight.

After escaping the police who found him in the tram, he ran through a synagogue, over three fences, through the two-up school, and into a civilian’s house. He made the decision to hide under more clothes in the woman’s house. Rather than kicking him out, however, Skinner reports that the woman acted as a look out for the police. Finally, he made it into a cab and to a relative’s house in Carlton. Whichever way it all played out, Skinner didn’t emerge for a month. He was heard from a few days after this escape, in a letter addressed to The Herald. In it, he wrote about his reasons for escape, blaming the Indeterminate Sentences Board for stating he would be detained in prison, and the state of prisons themselves, which he accuses for turning him into a criminal. That, and the fact that he was a “neglected child”. Even Skinner’s father, Alfred, who lived in worry about his son’s early restless behaviour, stated at the time (or seemed to blame the law) “Our family hangs its head in sorrow about Max – because he’s a tragedy that could have been righted – but we won’t hang our heads in shame. Max has been hounded by police since he was a stripling … I’ll stick to Max like glue […] Max is not dangerous. He has thieved, but would not harm anyone. I believe police might try to shoot him because they have shown us the bullets they said had Max’s number on them.”

Skinner also wrote that “I have been locked away for about 15 years, and I have only had about two and a half years with society, so you can see that I don’t know much about this side of prison walls.”

But his time on the run suggests otherwise. Although Skinner went to great lengths to avoid returning to jail – he had dyed his hair, grown a moustache and even dyed that – and while he thought that he finally had the art of escaping mastered, a decision to visit the Rose Hotel in Fitzroy in December 18, 1951, brought his time of being on the run, and Victoria’s largest manhunt of the time, to an abrupt end. It was only by chance, however, that police found him here enjoying a beer, taking time out from being on the run. Despite his attempt to change his appearance, it didn’t take police long to realise that they had found the man that no jail could apparently hold. He was taken away quietly, before getting into a fight with officers when being placed into the police car. It would be downhill from here for Skinner, for whom the same lifestyle lay ahead. When facing court in January 1952, Skinner described his reasons for escaping: acting on impulse. “I escaped because I had at last found something I had been looking for for 18 years – an interest in life.” He also stated that gaol was his only home and criminals his only friends. “Society did not care about me.” Despite telling the court after being captured that he had been reformed by his numerous stints on the outside, it was clear that he was not yet on the honest path – evidenced by his next escape attempt in April 1952.

This time, however, he was accompanied by fellow ‘lifer’ Kevin Joiner, who together planned to escape with nine other prisoners. Skinner, reflecting on this attempt, reckons that it would have been a success had the others not gotten cold feet. Joiner and Skinner discussed the escape using the sewage pipes between cells. They arranged for another prisoner who was being released to have a car waiting on the outside, who was supposed to signal to the men when he was there. The signal – a tennis ball – never arrived. The slim chances of freedom didn’t stop Skinner and Joiner, though, who went ahead with the escape on April 14. Along with a few other inmates, Skinner and Joiner broke the lock on one of the prison gates, and ran to the boiler house. Here, they grabbed ladders left by workmen, and waited for the others to catch up – but they instead bailed out. Skinner and Joiner continued to the wall, although warders had by now been alerted of the escape. Joiner reached the top of the wall, holding up a warder with a gun the two men had made in the workshop. But maybe this was one escape that was never meant to be – Joiner was immediately shot down by one of the warders, collapsing in the adjoining church garden bed. Skinner on the other hand, who had arranged to meet a woman that night, assuming that he would never fail at an escape attempt, never got that far. Instead of a date with a woman, he earned a date in hospital handcuffed to police with a broken ankle, sustained when dragged down from the wall by a pursuing warder – the same wall he once had no problems climbing. This marked Skinner’s fifth and final escape attempt (his first and only unsuccessful one). For the next three years, no glory and hate from fellow prisoners haunted Skinner after Joiner’s death.

Inside the walls of Pentridge Prison (Image: Wikipedia)

In 1954, Geoff Clancy, writing on behalf of Skinner, published a piece which painted Skinner as a sympathetic and remorseful criminal. Even this early (and pending a release, which would not come until 1955), Skinner had started to regret the life spent in jails and reformatories. Clancy argues that Skinner was one of the criminals left “to go down society’s sink”. Despite once being into “hot” music, girls and American culture as stated by a former flame, Skinner had by then turned his life around, evidenced by two letters to his siblings accompanying the article.

When 1955 arrived, Skinner lawfully said goodbye to Pentridge for the last time. Serving out the rest of his cumulative sentences, Skinner was released on August 18. What followed was a rather quiet, apparently ‘redemptive’ life, as he would tell Argus police reporter Geoff Clancy in that six-part series published in September that year. In these articles, Skinner comes across as a confident man, someone made more knowledgeable by a life of crime and prison walls. Upon his legal release, Skinner wrote “I’m definitely not going back. I’ve made my last escape – a legal one.” Apparently, he wanted to start living a normal life. While reflecting on and of course gloating about his many ‘achievements’ since the 1940s, Skinner claims that he was also reached by the prison chaplain, and thanked him for letting him see that there is some good in leading an honest life; for reforming a “no-hoper gaol bird” like him after all those years in prison where he was “taught nothing” but crime, not knowing what the right thing was. Skinner went on to work as a truck driver in September 1955, which he described as giving him a renewed interest in work – opening up a new world for him along the way.

And while Skinner freely stated that he had renounced the life of crime, and that his new aim in life was to instead focus on reformation, which he thought of as far more superior to prison, it wouldn’t take long for the only life he was familiar with for over 17 years to creep back up on him, to take over his honest way of life – all of this despite his comments about his legal escape being his last brush with the law. Skinner was never done running from the law though. In 1956, allegations were made against Skinner by Colleen Wentworth, who reported that Skinner “stood over her”, forcing her to accompany him during a robbery in Melbourne on July 21, 1956. Argus Police reporter Geoff Clancy pleaded with Skinner on September 5, 1956, to live up to his claims of a crime-free life, to come forward and try to clear his name of these allegations. Clancy truly believed that Skinner had genuinely given up crime, and that therefore the police would be willing to not convict him if he showed his face again. However, Skinner never showed up in court, as he never reported to the police or the parole board before this time. The only correspondence to come from him was in the form of a two-and-a-half-page letter written to Clancy and published in The Argus a day later. In the letter, Skinner explained that he was at home with his wife – whom he married after his release in 1955. He also added that the man with Colleen used matches, and that him being an expert at burglaries, would have used a torch for the job.

Other research conducted on Skinner revealed that he was wanted in NSW in 1956 for jumping bail, and for not reporting to his parole officer. Perhaps his declaration after the 1952 escape – “I’ll really do it. I’ll get away, and no one will get me ever again,” had some truth in it.

Further research into Skinner’s whereabouts after 1956 did not return any results. It is therefore unknown whether he ever presented himself to police, was convicted for not adhering to his parole conditions, or returned to his wife, ever again – made more hypocritical by the fact that he had promised to start leading an honest life. It is believed he died in 1998, at the age of 70, and that his body lies in rest at the Fawkner Memorial Park cemetery.

If one thing stands out from chronicling the life of Maxwell Carl Skinner, it is the phrase once a criminal, always a criminal. Even if he was serious about trying to make good on the outside, and even if the help and time that was invested in him did set him on the straight and narrow for a while, it seemed that he found it hard to commit to something other than a life of crime, a life of perfecting his art of escape. If he really did earn anything, it was the (self-appointed) title of ‘Houdini’. After all, as Skinner himself confessed (or rather gloated), no jail – or person – could ever hold him.

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About Sarah McLean 3 Articles
Sarah McLean recently graduated from a Bachelor of Arts (Humanities) (Honours) at Federation University Australia. Now that her head isn’t in the books all the time (with the exception of the occasional novel or true crime book), she has more time to enjoy her true passions – researching and writing about historical crime, films, and narrowing down her ‘to watch’ list. Her feature articles and short stories can also be found in FedPress Magazine. She is a consumer of, and is often consumed by, true crime and popular culture.

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