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Dugan, Darcy Ezekiel (1920–1991)

by Glenn Mitchell

This article was published online in 2017

Darcy Ezekiel Dugan (1920-1991), robber and serial escapee, was born on 29 August 1920 at Newtown, Sydney, elder son of Victorian-born Ezekiel David (Richard) Dugan, mason, and his New South Wales-born wife Nonie, née O’Connor. With a strong Irish Catholic background, Darcy attended St Benedict’s School, Chippendale. Before his teens he began shoplifting in and around Annandale with schoolmates who included Lenny (Lennie) McPherson. He became a juvenile cat burglar with a fascination for locks.

In 1937 Dugan was found guilty of stealing from his uncle’s hotel and sentenced to a term in Gosford Farm Home for Boys. During this sentence he experienced brutal treatment by prison guards and other boys. His escape from the centre was the beginning of a long cycle: crime, capture, bashing, gaol, and escape. Before he was twenty-one, he had served time at Long Bay Penitentiary, Emu Plains Prison Farm, Goulburn Reformatory, and the Oberon Prison Farm.

After his release from Oberon, Dugan enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces for service in World War II and on 2 June 1942 began full-time duty in Sydney. On 10 June he was posted to Cowra to train as a sapper but on 22 July he absented himself without leave. While on the run, he committed a burglary for which on 7 October at the Sydney Quarter Sessions he was sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was discharged from the army the same day. After a sentence in Bathurst gaol, he taught ballroom dancing in Sydney studios, as he had done between previous periods of incarceration.

Crime rather than his passion for dancing, however, dominated Dugan’s life. In January 1946, with Harry James Mitchell, he escaped from a prison van taking prisoners from Darlinghurst to Burwood. Recaptured and facing court in March 1946, he cut a hole in the roof of the prison tram and escaped with another prisoner near Centennial Park. Captured a day later, he was sentenced to three and a half years in Bathurst gaol. On his release in 1949 he changed his name by deed poll to Darcy Clare, took a job in a warehouse, and began saving for a truck.

This plan was soon curtailed. In August 1949 he was remanded in custody to Long Bay gaol after a failed robbery with William Mears. The pair escaped within two hours but were recaptured little more than a week later. Judge Adrian Curlewis gave Dugan and Mears each a ten-year sentence. In December that year, Dugan asked Mears to call him as a witness in another matter, and began planning an escape from the Central Court of Petty Sessions. He sawed through cell bars, allegedly wrote ‘Gone to Gowings’—a popular advertising slogan—on the cell wall, and both escaped.

On 13 January 1950 Dugan and Mears robbed the Ultimo branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Mears shot and seriously injured the bank manager, and in February Detective Sergeant Ray Kelly and others arrested both at Collaroy. This would be the first of four arrests by Kelly of Dugan. In court in May, Dugan made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. In June 1950 Justice Leslie Herron sentenced Dugan and Mears to death for the Ultimo bank shooting. The McGirr Labor government, re-elected later that month, commuted their sentences in December to life imprisonment in Grafton gaol.

At Grafton Dugan experienced a regime of brutal treatment for those considered never likely to reform. Twice he unsuccessfully attempted escape, and he was involved in a failed large-scale break-out. A petition to the New South Wales governor, Sir John Northcott, in 1953—signed by two hundred people, including the Anglican bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Ernest Burgmann—called for him and two others to be released from solitary incarceration. Another petition from five thousand residents of Grafton had called for an end to the system in use at the gaol for dealing with prisoners considered intractable. Neither succeeded. In 1956 Dugan was transferred to Parramatta gaol.

Parramatta became another escape challenge for Dugan, who had come to be known as ‘Houdini.’ After an unsuccessful attempt in 1958, he was returned to Grafton. In August 1960 he was transferred to Long Bay and, after some minor trouble, returned to Grafton in May 1961, then to Parramatta in 1963, followed by Brookfield Afforestation Camp Mannus, Long Bay, Parramatta, and Bathurst gaol. His exploits attracted the attention of New South Wales ministers. In 1960 the attorney-general, Reg Downing, had recommended consideration of his release in 1964 subject to good behaviour. Jack Mannix (the minister of justice) also visited Dugan and restated Downing’s advice.

Released from Bathurst on licence in September 1967, Dugan worked as a counsellor at the Wayside Chapel, Kings Cross; became a popular speaker at service clubs; starred in the play Fortune and Men’s Eyes; and began campaigning against police corruption and brutality in gaols. He was arrested for a jewellery store robbery in 1969 and sentenced in May 1970 to fourteen years gaol, which he spent alternately at Maitland gaol and Long Bay. His evidence to the royal commission into New South Wales prisons (1977-78) led to significant changes in the treatment of inmates. In 1971 and 1974 he had sued Mirror Newspapers Ltd for defamation, and in December 1978 lost an appeal to the High Court of Australia on the grounds that he was a prisoner at the time of the alleged defamation.

In May 1980 Dugan was released, having spent more than half his life in gaol. On 12 July that year he married Janice Florence Jackson, née Simmonds, a widowed proprietress of a health studio, at the Wayside Chapel of the Cross, Potts Point; she was the sister of Kevin Simmonds, another robber and gaol escapee. The couple lived in Canberra. Arrested in July 1981 for an attempted armed robbery, he was gaoled once more. In November 1985 he was released. In prison he had begun to paint, and several of his paintings were auctioned in an exhibition at Mudgeeraba, Queensland. He and Jan separated, and he moved to Glebe House, a halfway house in Sydney. Having suffered a stroke in 1985, he died on 22 August 1991 at Cabramatta, and was buried at Rookwood cemetery. The folk singer Bob Campbell told Dugan’s story in song, and his autobiography, Bloodhouse, written with Michael Tatlow, was published in 2012.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  •   Hay, Rod. Catch Me If You Can: The Life and Times of Darcy Dugan. Sydney: Sun, 1992

  • Morton, James. Maximum Security: The Inside Story of Australia’s Toughest Gaols. Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2011
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N187540
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 7198, Frank Fahy—Scrapbook of an Undercover Policeman, 1920-1952
  • Young, Brent M. ‘Dugan v. Mirror Newspapers Ltd.’ Monash University Law Review 4, no. 1 (December 1977): 81-86

Additional Resources

Citation details

Glenn Mitchell, 'Dugan, Darcy Ezekiel (1920–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dugan-darcy-ezekiel-25998/text34068, published online 2017, accessed online 15 December 2018.

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