Escape from Spandau Prison

21 August 2015

Cultural Studies | History

Migration to New Worlds: A Century of Immigration reminds me of a photo-mosaic. The resource sweeps across several cultures, tens of decades and thousands of miles to explore mass migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but this rich narrative is actually comprised of a multitude of stories of the individuals, families and communities that decided to up sticks and ship themselves off to a whole new life. A particular story about one man’s emigration caught my eye whilst delving into the sources from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania – and it’s a bit of a swashbuckler! 

Carl Schurz was a German revolutionary, born to humble origins in Liblar, and grew up with equally humble dreams of becoming a professor of history. Taught by Gottfried Kinkel at the University of Bonn, Schurz was inspired by him to join the revolutionary movement of 1848-1849. Kinkel was imprisoned by the Kaiser in 1849, and later that year Schurz narrowly escaped capture by the Prussian army through the sewers of the Rastatt fortress and absconded to Switzerland. 

Carl Schurz started life as a revolutionary in Germany, and went on to become a revered American statesman

Carl Schurz started life as a revolutionary in Germany, and went on to become a revered American statesman. Image Â© Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

At that time, intellectuals and revolutionaries from all over Europe were fleeing political persecution and seeking sanctuary in the United States, a route the twenty-one year old Schurz surely sought to take. He just had one last thing to do before leaving Europe… spring his favourite teacher from Spandau town prison. 

Several sources from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania contain details of Schurz’s cunning plan, and an article from the American-German Review tells us how booze played a starring role in this exciting tale. In the article, Dr Erich Krüger relates the tale told to him by his grandfather, Friedrich Krüger, who was instrumental in assisting Schurz rescue his friend and mentor.

Krüger was an influential inn keeper and town councillor, but his liberal politics led him to sympathise with Kinkel’s position and help Schurz. He allowed his inn to become the headquarters of the rescue as Schurz tried and failed on several occasions to bribe the guards in Spandau penitentiary. Schurz needed a guard to lower Kinkel by rope from the prison’s attic window to the ground, where Schurz would be waiting with the get-away carriage. When a candidate was finally appropriately greased, Krüger emptied the prison of its principal guards with a bit of good old fashioned boozing:

This article from the American-German Review provides an account of Schurz's rescue mission. Image © Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

“On the night of the break, my grandfather invited the prison superintendent with his officers to his inn, treated them liberally to drinks and arranged it so that Schurz, who had bought Kinkel immediately to the inn, could toast the exploit with a draft of the heady punch made for the warders.”

So drunk were the prison guards that they didn’t notice that they were sharing their beer with their most famous prisoner. Schurz was then able to smuggle Kinkel on to a boat bound for Britain, where Kinkel settled (and incidentally, proceeded to fall out rather publicly with Karl Marx). 

This incident made the Kaiser furious, and Schurz notorious. From Britain, Schurz migrated to the United States in 1851, where he achieved further fame as an orator, lawyer and reformer. He served as a Union Army General in the American Civil War, campaigned passionately against slavery and spoke up for an inclusive concept of Americanism. He also served in Lincoln’s ministry and was the first German-born American to be elected to the United States Senate. His prolific life and career was faithfully documented by the National Carl Schurz Association, and it is their collection of letters, papers and ephemera that is available in the Migration to New Worlds project. 

Carl Schurz, right, pictured with friend and mentor, Gottfried Kinkel

Carl Schurz, right, pictured with friend and mentor, Gottfried Kinkel. Image © Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Available from November, the first part of Migration to New Worlds tracks the migration of people from Great Britain, mainland Europe and Asia to the New World and Australasia. 

Can’t wait until November? Quench your thirst for Schurz by searching for him within our American History, 1493-1945 resource, which contains material on Schurz’s career in the Union Army. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

I have worked in the editorial teams at Adam Matthew since 2015. I've worked on a number of fascinating resources, from Migration to New Worlds and Colonial America, to Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture. I've recently been developing resources such Food & Drink in History, Children's Literature and 19th Century Literary Society.