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The great escape of Norman Neal, "The Human Eel"

Posted by Chris Bateman / January 26, 2013

toronto norman nealNorman Neal might not sound like the name of a jailbreaker and a fugitive, but the man dubbed the "human eel" and "slippery elm" proved a cunning escape artist when he shocked the city in 1926 by sawing through the bars of his cell and escaping through a third-floor window of the Toronto Jail at Gerrard and Broadview without attracting the attention of security.

Neal would elude capture for five months, spending his time on the lam committing petty crimes in the townships outside Toronto. The $50 police reward for his capture would ultimately wind up in the hands of a W. Claude Fox, a broker and part-time chicken farmer near Bronte. Amazingly, if it hadn't been for a chance meeting, the "human eel" might have slithered on for much longer.

toronto jailIn 1942, the Toronto Jail had a problem. A shady group of prisoners had managed to establish a way to smuggle in tools and other high-value items using a truly clandestine method: simply, tossing packages over the jail's north wall near the nurse's quarters at the Isolation Hospital into the yard. As the delivery thudded into the dirt, unnoticed, a prisoner would scoop it up and deliver it to a hiding place inside.

The smuggling ring was uncovered when a package of eight-inch saws, an optimistically large item to throw into the exercise yard, was found hidden in a wall crevice near a ventilator. A subsequent inspection found several window bars had been sawn off and patched up with blackened soap. Clasps holding screen windows in place had also been removed.

Prison staff, led by Governor Basher, estimated two more bars needed to be cut before the roughly 18 prisoners involved in the scheme could have checked out. Unfortunately for them, the package of saws contained only five blades when it was discovered. It held six.

The leader of the saw plot, Norman Neal, was in the jail awaiting transfer to Kingston Penitentiary to serve a three-year sentence for burglary. As punishment, Neal was placed in a disused cell in solitary confinement and his exercise privileges revoked until his transfer vehicle could be arranged.

The saw plot mastermind was a habitual petty thief. In 1920 he received his first conviction of 90 days on a jail farm in Toronto. That same year, in Cobalt, Ontario, Neal was picked up for breaking, entering and theft and served just under two years at Burwash. Four years would pass before the rap sheet began to grow with convictions for stealing chickens and burglary.

The night before he was due to leave, Neal was given his civilian clothes and sent to bed. It was Dec. 2, 1926. At dawn, in a scene similar to the Shawshank Redemption, guards arrived to rouse the sleeping prisoner only to pull back the blanket and find a straw dummy stuffed against the wall. Outside, three sheets knotted end to end flapped in the gentle breeze against the east wall of the jail as the transfer car pulled into the yard.toronto norman nealSometime during the night in his isolated part of the prison, Neal had used the sixth saw blade to cut a small section out of the steel cell door and wormed his way out along the ground. He then picked the lock of a door leading to an outer hallway and smashed through a heavy-glazed outer window with a table leg. Then, using a sink for support, the brazen prisoner sawed through the final set of bars separating him from Broadview Avenue.

Using spare bedsheets as a rope, the eel lowered himself down the jail wall and jumped the remaining distance to the ground. Police believe a car was waiting for him when he hopped the small perimeter fence and disappeared into the chill Toronto night.

The fiasco underscored the jail's lack of security, and Governor Basher came under intense scrutiny in the immediate aftermath. Months before, Frank McCullough, a man convicted of killing a police officer awaiting execution at the prison, also escaped under Basher's tenure.

Neal was a seasoned escape artist: in Guelph, while serving a sentence for a different crime, he had made a similar successful bid for freedom only to be captured a short time later. McCullough was found a short time after his escape too and hanged as intended.toronto norman nealThough Neal was long gone, prison guards and police searched the city and kept a close eye the missing prisoner's hangouts to no avail. The story died when police were forced to admit defeat and issue a $50 reward for information or capture of Norman Neal.

Then, in May 1927, an early-morning disturbance a hen house in the small community of Trafalgar in Halton County woke Irvin Laidlaw, the custodian of a farm owned by wealthy city broker W. Claude Fox. Snatching his pistol, Laidlaw grappled with the intruder who was busily shoving chickens into a sack while a get-away driver waited near the road.

After a brief scuffle and another attempt to slip his shackles, the man who gave his name as William Reid of Hamilton was transferred to a jail cell in Oakville with the woman who identified herself as his wife. The police station's Chief Kerr didn't know he had just arrested a known fugitive and may never have realized if he hadn't been summoned as a witness in a Toronto court case.

Speaking with local cops outside the court, Kerr produced a picture of a decidedly familiar hen-disturber for John Hicks and Moses Mulholland of headquarters division. "It was just my luck that I came to Toronto today," Kerr told The Star. "Hicks met me and I told him about the arrest and that settled it."toronto norman nealThe pair immediately recognized Neal and later that month the "human eel" was sentenced to three year's hard labour at Kingston Penitentiary for carrying a concealed gun during his scuffle at the farm. His accomplice, Mabel Grimshaw, was given a suspended sentence but remained in custody. Neal's tearful appeal for leniency for his long-time partner may have had some sway when he explained how the pair were unable to marry because of his legal troubles.

Neal's greatest escape was seemingly his last. Though his name shows up in a short blotter report several years later, it's not clear whether the man sentenced to two years in prison for breaking and entering in an attempt to "help" a friend acquire a refrigerator "and some other articles" from a locked Pickering property is the same man.

It's quite possible the slippery eel finally came good.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Star



KT / January 26, 2013 at 02:18 pm
Interesting. These local historical articles are a good read. I hope Norman and Mabel reunited and managed to get their chickens from the local grocer.
Baldy / January 26, 2013 at 07:11 pm
Very interesting.......! Read this article several times. Love the graphics. And the backstory, ie how he got the saw. I find the Don Jail just about the most compelling landmark in Toronto. Even more so after reading about the Eel. Anyone see the Scott Speedman picture, about Edwin Boyd? That was fun. Ignored his murders in High Park though.
Mark Moore / January 26, 2013 at 07:42 pm

Great read. One thing - in paragraph 3, you talk about 1942, but the rest of the article talks of the 20's.
Which is it ?
Emmanuel Bengelsdorf / March 21, 2013 at 02:29 am
Fantastic posting! Good to find someone that knows what they are talking about and can produce informative content for us readers. Definitely looking forward to your next offering. Emmanuel Bengelsdorf
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