It’s not hard to imagine the tedium of a group of energetic young men confined in a prisoner-of-war camp, and the lengths they might go too to keep themselves entertained. EH Jones had spent a year in Yozgad, now in central Turkey, when he came up with the idea of a Ouija board. The shine wore off the idea quickly enough when nothing much happened. A tumbler with two men’s hands on it might sit boringly still, or it might flounder its way between a random selection of letters while both men believed the other was moving it.
Perhaps Jones felt the need to prove his suggestion wasn’t a complete loss as a pastime, because he started guiding the tumbler himself. Over the next few weeks, his fellow prisoners conducted experiment after experiment to prove that the tumbler was indeed moved by the mysterious spook that Jones attributed it to. That, it appears, was their mistake. Enough of his fellow prisoners wanted to believe in the spook that their experiments were aimed at proving rather than disproving its existence.
Jones, meanwhile, was amusing himself by learning the art of the charlatan, seeing how far he could take the trick before he was found out. It was a denouement that he considered inevitable until the Turkish guards started too take an interest in the spook.
At that point, Jones’s idle amusement in his newfound skill was replaced with plans of escape. In cahoots with CW Hill, who had contributed to the prisoners’ outbreak of spiritualism by pretending to be a poltergeist, Jones began to weave a complex web that would lead them both to starve themselves to fake insanity and get themselves repatriated on medical grounds.
Jones’s account would seem extraordinary if it hadn’t been verified by his fellow prisoners, some of whom were in on the plan and some were taken in by it. It is simultaneously the account of an accomplished faker, which should be read by anyone considering consulting a fortune teller, and a remarkable tale of escape. It’s hard to imagine what it must cost a starving man to pretend indifference to being tempted with a plate of food.
But imagine it we must, because Jones’s account skims over the harsher aspects of his story, although he expresses considerable admiration for Hill’s ability to continue to pretend insanity while emaciated by dysentery.
He tells the story in the manner of a boarding school jape, with the Turkish guards in place of dull-witted if generally well-meaning masters taken in by schoolboy pranks. He starts his narrative when he and his fellow officers were well established in Yozgad, saying nothing of his capture in the disastrous attempt to capture Baghdad, or the death march that followed their surrender in which around half the survivors died of disease, starvation or were simply shot out of hand before they arrived at their prisoner-of-war camps.
When Jones speaks of hardships, he describes them as part of his plans to deceive his captors and so self-inflicted. He leaves us to wonder what punishment he and Hill might have faced had their deception been revealed.
It was only after reading the book that I discovered the profound effect it had on the 10-year-old Neil Gaiman, who would go on to adapt it into a screenplay along with the master illusionist and demolisher of charlatans, Penn Jillette. Sadly, their film has never been produced although we can live in hope.