“The Houdini of Boggo Road” – “Slim” Halliday
Author: Gaol Director, Jack Sim
It is hard to understate the impact this difficult, tall, thin criminal had on the history of Boggo Road Jail. For decades “Slim” Halliday would be regarded as a public enemy, a dangerous and difficult prisoner, who could not be underestimated. The only man to ever escape No.2 Division twice, Halliday’s escapes in January 1940 and December 1946 caught his jailers unawares and deeply embarrassed prison officials – something they did not forgive or forget. Halliday would become even more legendary in the decade that followed after his jailing for murder.
Halliday’s Leap (1940)
Nicknamed “Slim” on account of his tall, thin frame, 29 years-old Brisbane-born Arthur Ernest Halliday already had criminal history as a housebreaker in New South Wales before moving north to Queensland to try his luck. In February 1939 however Halliday was convicted and sentenced to five years hard labour for break and entering. Halliday did not take well to being jailed.
From late 1939, Halliday methodically tried to escape. His first attempt with another prisoner in an adjoining cell was unsuccessful. Next Halliday was caught using a hand drill on the door of his cell to drive out the rivets that held the bolt. Though sentenced to additional time, undeterred, he tried again.
Mid-afternoon on Sunday 28th January 1940 wily Halliday slipped out of line while under escort, scaled a yard wall, timber fence and broke into the prison workshops to retrieve his escape kit – a grappling hook made of two wooden hammock sticks and a 30 feet (10 metre) long rope of plaited coir – doubled and knotted every 18 inches (45 centimetres) to create footholds. It had taken months to create.
Halliday had identified a perfect “blind spot” – an unpatrolled section of wall at the rear of No. 2 Division near the workshops which could not be seen from the towers. Halliday worked the grappling hook into a corner of the perimeter wall and pulled himself up and over to freedom.
It was not until 4.10 pm Halliday was discovered missing during the routine muster of prisoners. By that time Halliday was far away.
Halliday was recaptured a week later after a state-wide manhunt which ended in a sensational chase in which he toyed with police in a stolen car. Asked why he escaped, Slim replied: “I was sick of the bloody place!” He was sentenced to an additional nine months imprisonment cumulative on the sentences imposed for his attempts to breakout the previous year.
Halliday’s ongoing testing of prison security earned him the title of the “Houdini of Boggo Road” after Harry Houdini, the world famous escape artist. The section of wall Halliday went over became known as “Halliday’s Leap”.
Halliday Strikes Again (1946)
On the afternoon of Wednesday, 11th December 1946 Halliday struck again. This time he would take two others with him.
Victor John Travis, 20, gunman and housebreaker, worked in the prison storeroom. There he used a gas stove to bend a piece of metal into a curved hook, to which he secured a length of clothes line. Travis gathered discarded warders shirts and trousers, to be worn under their uniforms, so they would blend in once they were free.
Derwent Evans Arkinstall, 25, talked himself into Travis’ and Halliday’s scheme. Seven years earlier Arkinstall had murdered an elderly taxi-driver. The desperate killer, not wishing to grow old in prison, had money smuggled in to him from the outside which the trio could use to buy supplies while on the run.
The three avoided guards and met by the prison storeroom. They had a five minute window of opportunity. They secured the hook and went over the wall merely 15 yards (13 metres) from “Halliday’s Leap” – the “blind spot” where he had escaped six years earlier. Despite the furore over his one-man escape in 1940, the security of this part of the prison had not been improved.
They pulled off their prison garb and took flight. Within minutes their absence was discovered; armed guards poured out of the jail. Their clothes were still warm when found. The trio caught a taxi to the northside and even tipped the driver.
What followed was one of the greatest police hunts in Queensland’s history.
Police warned residents to lock themselves in. Taxi-drivers feared for their lives given Arkinstall’s previous crime and armed themselves.
Arkinstall and Halliday were recaptured north of Brisbane four days later. Though handcuffed to Halliday by his right wrist, Arkinstall stupidly made a grab with his left hand for Detective Sergeant Bill Cronau’s revolver: ‘You can’t blame a man for trying, can you?’ Asked why he escaped again Halliday replied: ‘A man’s liberty means everything to him’. Arkinstall added: ‘I am doing life. I have nothing to lose.’
Arkinstall did not die in prison as he had feared; he died in 1983 the year after his release, having served 42 years – believed at the time to be the longest serving prisoner in Queensland history.
Travis was recaptured on Christmas Day at a military camp at Redbank, west of Brisbane. At the end of his sentence he was reunited with his family.
A Commission of Inquiry following Halliday’s 1946 escape led to a major upgrade in security including the installation of external lighting; in 1948 – E Tower – manned by an armed warder during the day was erected in the gardens behind the workshops.
Halliday could now lay claim to being the only prisoner to have ever escaped No.2 Division, twice.
Halliday Returns – The Taxi-Driver Killer (1953)
In 1952, Halliday returned to Boggo Road Jail, on remand for the brutal murder of taxi-driver Athol McCowan whose blood and brain spattered cab was found at Southport on Queensland’s Gold Coast. His body was found north of Brisbane; it had drifted from Currumbin Creek where police believed it was dumped. The victim had been killed by blows to the head from the butt of a Colt .45 calibre hand gun. In a struggle when arrested in Sydney, where he had fled after learning police discovered he had been living on the Coast, Halliday was shot in the leg by the same model gun that he had in his possession. Detectives swore Halliday admitted to the murder; Halliday claimed senior police framed him. In the Brisbane Supreme Court in March 1953, Halliday was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.
Halliday was in D Wing cell block, No.2 Division – used to hold the most dangerous prisoners. His cell – D9 – would be his home for the next 23 years. Halliday’s bed was bolted to the wall. He remained under tight security, given a double-escort whenever moved.
Through the 1950s Halliday lived up to his reputation as the “Houdini of Boggo Road” making eight escape attempts. Regarded as the most dangerous man in the British Commonwealth, in one attempt, he set fire to the prison mattress-shop as distraction while he climbed up to the roof. His escape attempt in the early hours of Thursday 17th September 1959 made headlines. Halliday hid a hacksaw blade in a wooden drafts-board. After cutting through the lower hinge of his cell door, Halliday created a Spanish windlass with platted blankets secured around his bed frame to bend the door from the bottom.
As he slipped out into the corridor, Halliday’s shadow was seen. Officers with their guns drawn, cornered Halliday before he could use an improvised key to unlock the cell block gate. Halliday also had in his possession a fake gun carved from soap. Darkened with black boot polish it was a realistic replica of a Colt .45 caliber handgun.
Security was dramatically upgraded – Halliday’s cell door was fitted with three slide bolts, each secured by individually-keyed “Jackson” brand padlocks. Strip-searched multiple times a day he was isolated from other prisoners, working alone in a special steel mesh cage in the Boot-shop binding books. By the end of the decade Halliday settled down, as extremely tight security, age, and poor eyesight sapped his resolve to escape. The Houdini was beaten.
On 22nd December, 1976, Slim Halliday, now 65 years-old, was quietly released on parole, no longer any threat. He found it hard to reintegrate into society. In total Halliday spent more than half of his life in prison.
As a young boy, author Trent Dalton was baby-sat by an elderly Halliday. In 2018 Trent released his now best-selling book Boy Swallows Universe which detailed his personal connection to Slim. Trent even visited Boggo Road Gaol to see where Halliday served his time.
Arthur Ernest “Slim” Halliday, died in hospital in 1987 aged 77 following an operation for cancer. His funeral was attended by many friends, including prison warders and former criminals. His final request was to be cremated. Slim was finally free.
In 2006 veteran award-winning journalist Ken Blanch released his book “Slim” Halliday: The Taxi Driver Killer published by local true crime writer and Boggo Road Jail Director Jack Sim. In researching his book, Blanch discovered evidence that casts significant doubt on Halliday’s guilt.
Boggo Road Gaol is now one of the top-ten must do experiences of Queensland through the efforts of Jack Sim and his team. Halliday’s unique three-lock cell can be seen daily on the History Tour and the monthly Escapes Tour – which tells the stories of the jail-breakers who managed to get over the walls.