Darcy Dugan in 1965 (photo: www.dailytelegraph.com.au/)
Darcy Dugan in 1965 (photo: www.dailytelegraph.com.au/)

Career thief Darcy Dugan lived his last years in Glebe and was at least once on the run in the suburb. An armed robber but never a killer, Dugan spent over half his life in prison but was more famous for his derring-do than his crimes. Nicknamed ‘Houdini’, he masterminded six successful escapes from custody and attempted four others, stating that it was the prison system’s job to keep him locked up and his own job to get out. Now largely forgotten, his was a household name from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Darcy Dugan was born on 29 August 1920 in Newtown. The son of Nonie Turner and Ezekiel Richard David Dugan, an ornamental tiler of Irish-Catholic ancestry, he had a younger brother, Tom, who stayed out of trouble. When not truanting, Darcy received his early education from the Christian Brothers. At age 12 he moved with his family to Annandale and began shoplifting from local shops such as Grace Brothers. Soon he was selling stolen cosmetics to cinema usherettes and brothel-keeper Tilly Devine and her working girls in Woolloomooloo.

His parents married in 1933 and divorced five years later; Tom going to live with his mother and Darcy with his father, an ex bare-knuckle boxing champion. Following his tenth appearance in the Children’s Court, Darcy in 1937 was sent to the Gosford Training School for Boys, a brutally run facility housing young offenders and orphans. He absconded from there twice. He then served a sentence at the Emu Plains prison farm where he expanded his knowledge of lock-breaking and safe- blowing.

After periods of incarceration at Goulburn and the Oberon prison farm, Dugan was drafted into the army and sent for training to Cowra but soon went AWOL. He then survived as a cat burglar in Sydney’s eastern suburbs before being caught. Released from Bathurst Jail in 1945, he specialised in safe-breaking (‘I hardly ever encountered a locking device I would not beat’). Physically fit, small and light on his feet, Dugan also made money in competitive ballroom dancing.

In January 1946 Dugan and an accomplice Harry Mitchell, arrested for burglary, were being transported in a Black Maria from Long Bay Jail to Burwood Court. Armed with a screwdriver fashioned from a prison fork, Dugan loosened a ventilator panel in the roof of the van and both men squeezed through. In March, within days of his recapture, Dugan was again on the loose, having cut through the roof of a prison tram with a saw made from prison knives. Newspaper coverage labelled the escape as ‘sensational’ and ‘daring’ and Dugan as ‘the India-rubber man’. However, with no food or water, he gave himself up at Boronia Park after just 37 hours’ freedom.

Having served three and a half years in Bathurst Jail, Dugan changed his name to Darcy Clare and moved in with his father at Mountain St Ultimo. He lost his job at the PDF canned butter factory when police revealed his background to his boss. In August 1949 he was back in the dock with William Cecil Mears, charged with armed robbery. Within half an hour of their arrival at Long Bay, the pair had picked a lock, prised off part of a roof, scaled two walls and caught a city tram. Another manhunt followed plus a £500 reward and they were soon recaptured in a hide-out at Lugarno. In December they broke out of Central Police Court during a lunch recess when Mears subpoenaed Dugan as a witness. Using a hacksaw blade threaded between his shoulder blades, Dugan sawed through the bars of their holding cell and scrawled ‘Gone to Gowings’ on the wall. The two then scaled down a drainpipe and mingled with Christmas shoppers. Rumours flew that they were in disguise as women, Santa Claus or hospital patients.

Dugan and Mears had been on the run for a month when they held up a bank in Ultimo, leaving almost empty-handed after Mears shot the manager and a clerk. They abandoned the getaway car in front of Roland Campbell’s house in Eglinton Rd Glebe and walked into Jubilee Park where they sheltered under trees until picked up by Dugan’s childhood shoplifting friend Lennie McPherson. A witness at the subsequent trial, Campbell recognised Mears from a newspaper photograph.

Two months later an informant betrayed their hideaway house in Collaroy. In readiness for another break to freedom, Dugan made an impression in wet bread of a handcuff lock, fashioned a flat key from a belt buckle and hid it in his mouth. At Central Court in May 1950 he undid his handcuffs but unexpected problems with a bolted door foiled his escape. He dropped a pin as a diversion while retaining the real ‘key’ in his mouth for future use (but lost it in front of police on the train trip to Grafton when he spat it out thinking it was an orange pip).

The ALP’s narrow win in the June 1950 State election meant the commutation of Mears’ and Dugan’s death sentences to life imprisonment, to be served with other ‘intractables’ in Grafton Jail, the State’s toughest prison, known as ‘the Bloodhouse’. Nine months later Dugan was caught after sawing through his cell bars. The next year, feigning insanity by refusing to wash or eat, he became as ‘thin as a match’, but was sent back to Grafton after force-feeding at Long Bay. With a key made from a steel thimble he unlocked his cell door but was again caught in the act and sent to solitary. In 1953 he organised an unsuccessful breakout of a dozen prisoners who bolted after leaving the prison chapel.

In 1957 Dugan was in Parramatta Jail where he met George Freeman who revealed that Lennie McPherson, now ‘Mr Big’, was a police informant who had squealed on Dugan. After being discovered hiding in a hole dug under a shed in the prison garden, Dugan was sent back to Grafton where he read up on Houdini and practised swallowing and regurgitating knives and forks. In 1960 he was transferred to Long Bay but was soon on a prison merry-go-round – Grafton, Tumbarumba, Parramatta, Bathurst, Long Bay – before being secretly released in the dead of night in 1967. He sold his story to the Telegraph, bought a house at Rozelle from his 1946 accomplice Harry Mitchell, started working as a counsellor at Ted Noffs’ Wayside Chapel, wrote a play, and acted in Max Cullen’s 1969 stage production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes (set in a prison) at the Anzac Auditorium.

By now Dugan was a well-known campaigner for prison reform and the exposure of corrupt police and guards. He claimed innocence on a charge of robbing a jeweller but was sentenced to 14 years. He sold back the Rozelle house, then spent time in Grafton, Long Bay and Maitland, where he was a debater and painted in oils. After being again released in 1980, he married Jan Simmonds, the sister of prison escapee Kevin Simmonds who, like Dugan, had been pursued and recaptured by Detective Ray ‘Gunner’ Kelly. The couple soon split up but remained friends.

In 1981 Ted Noffs found Dugan accommodation at Glebe House on Glebe Point Rd, a halfway facility for those who had served time. His stay was short. Needing money, he took part in an aborted service station robbery and was again jailed. After his final release in November 1985 he returned to Glebe House where he developed Parkinson’s disease. He was moved to a nursing home at Cabramatta (not far from Parramatta Jail) where he died on 22 August 1991, and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood Cemetery near his father who had died in the Sacred Heart Hospice Darlinghurst on 23 August 1965.

Darcy Dugan’s scribbled memoirs were smuggled out of jail and entrusted to journalist Michael Tatlow, with strict instructions that they not be published until he, Lennie McPherson, Ray Kelly and Fred Krahe had all ‘turned to dust’. The book Bloodhouse appeared in 2012.

Someone doing community service at Glebe House in the late 1980s recalls meeting the place’s most famous occupant: ‘He was well settled into dementia by then, and spent most of his time sitting on the back verandah, silent and staring. I was introduced to him on my first day. I felt it was a kind of initiatory rite – ‘come and see a real hard character’ – but he was just a harmless shrivelled old man. Then we shook hands, and it was like being gripped by an industrial robot. But he never spoke.’ The facility was ‘just an ordinary house with open doors and windows. But I guess his escaping instinct was still intact, because I was told he kept walking out and wandering off. For some reason he usually ended up at Balmain, where someone would tell the police Darcy’s out again, and the local officers would eventually find him roaming the streets, and pop him into a car and send him back to Glebe. I think he was regarded by the police as a sort of wayward pet.’

Sources: Darcy Dugan with Michael Tatlow Bloodhouse; Daily Examiner (Grafton) 16.8.1937; Sydney Morning Herald 9.12.1938, 7.10.1942, 26.1.1946, 19.2.1946, 5.3.1946, 6.3.1946, 21.8.1949, 24.8.1949, 31.8.1949, 3.12.1949, 16.12.1949, 15.2.1950, 18.4.1950, 13.5.1950; Truth (Sydney) 24.3.1946, 2.6.1946; NSW registry of births, deaths, marriages; personal information.