The Problem of Cell 13

In just two short seasons Prison Break has earned its place among the best television shows of all time. Granted, the story has gotten increasingly absurd with each passing week. The fact remains that it is relentlessly suspenseful and has as interesting a cast of characters as any show in recent memory. Plus, I have a soft spot for “impossible escape” stories. So Prison Break earns a spot in my personal pantheon of all time great television shows, right alongside the original Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The A-Team, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the first two seasons of MacGyver. (There are some others as well, but that will do for now).

So in honor of tonight's Prison Break season finale, which I am assured will air in its entirety after the President's speech, let us take a moment to honor the very best prison break story ever written.

I refer, of course, to the short story “The Problem of Cell 13,” by Jacques Futrelle.

Cell 13 was published in 1906. It was one of some forty-eight stories to feature Professor S. F. X Van Dusen, nicknamed the Thinking Machine. Van Dusen was one of those fictional, eccentric detectives who could, with a few moments thought from his armchair, solve problems that had utterly baffled the police. Most of the Thinking Machine stories featured impossible situations of one kind or another: murders in locked rooms, thefts out of heavily guarded museums, motor cars that seemed to disappear from the middle of streets being watched on both sides, that sort of thing.

The stories were rather uneven in quality, though most managed to be highly enjoyable. But Cell 13 stands so head and shoulders above the rest you would almost think it was written by a different person. My father first showed me the story when I was in middle school, and I've been rereading it over and over again ever since. The story's gimmick is brilliant, and the execution is flawless.

Futrelle tragically died on the Titanic in 1912.

The Modern Library recently published a new anthology of the best Thinking Machine stories. It features an introductionby Harlan Ellison, who describes Cell 13 this way:

Oh, baby! What an epiphany. What a mortal lock sweetie of a story. I was knocked out by it. Blown away. A guy who could solve such unfathomable problems just using his wits and his intelligence. I don't know about you, but for a smart kid in a small Ohio town, it was a beacon. It was that illuminating moment when you understand the unarguable truth of Pasteur's admonition that “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

So what's the polt line? Well, this excerpt from the story's opening states it pretty clearly:

Dr. Ransome laughed tolerantly. “I've heard you say such things before,” he said. “But they mean nothing. Mind may be master of matter, but it hasn't yet found a way to apply itself. There are some things that can't be thought out of existence, or rather which would not yield to any amount of thinking.”

“What, for instance?” demanded The Thinking Machine.

Dr. Ransome was thoughtful for a moment as he smoked. “Well, say prison walls,” he replied. “No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners.”

“A man can so apply his brain and ingenuity that he can leave a cell, which is the same thing,” snapped The Thinking Machine.

Dr. Ransome was slightly amused. “Let's suppose a case,” he said, after a moment. “Take a cell where prisoners under sentence of death are confined -- men who are desperate and, maddened by fear, would take any chance to escape -- suppose you were locked in such a cell. Could you escape?”

“Certainly,” declared The Thinking Machine.

“Of course,” said Mr. Fielding, who entered the conversation for the first time, “you might wreck the cell with an explosive -- but inside, a prisoner, you couldn't have that.”

“There would be nothing of that kind,” said The Thinking Machine. “You might treat me precisely as you treated prisoners under sentence of death, and I would leave the cell.”

“Not unless you entered it with tools prepared to get out,” said Dr. Ransome.

The Thinking Machine was visibly annoyed and his blue eyes snapped. “Lock me in any cell in any prison anywhere at any time, wearing only what is necessary, and I'll escape in a week,” he declared, sharply.

Dr. Ransome sat up straight in the chair, interested. Mr. Fielding lighted a new cigar.

“You mean you could actually think yourself out?” asked Dr. Ransome.

“I would get out,” was the response.

“Are you serious?”

“Certainly I am serious.”

Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding were silent for a long time. “Would you be willing to try it?” asked Mr. Fielding, finally.

“Certainly,” said Professor Van Dusen, and there was a trace of irony in his voice. “I have done more asinine things than that to convince other men of less important truths.”

That, my friends, is good dialogue. After this quote ends Dr. Ransome and Mr. Fielding arrange with the local prison warden to try the experiment. The Thinking Machine is taken that very night from his study and placed in the darkest, dankest, death row cell you can imagine. Futrelle describes the scene so skillfully that by the end of it you are thinking, “This is crazy. There's no way he's going to escape from that cell.”

Well, I really don't think I will be spoiling anything if I tell you that the Thinking Machine does, indeed, escape. The mechanism by which he does so, while not exactly plausible, is nonetheless totally satisfying. I'm frankly dying to quote more from the story, but I will control myself so that you may enjoy the suspense for yourself.

It is inexplicable that Cell 13 has never been made into a movie. However, MacGyver once escaped from a prison cell by essentially the same mechanism in this memorable second season episode.

One reason I like this story so much is for the story itself. It's a real page-turner. But I also find something very inspiring about it. It's hard to imagine any situation more hopeless than the one in which the Thinking Machine finds himself at the start of the story. I mean, there is nothing in his cell, and piles of security between him and freedom. Yet he voluntarily put himself in this situation, absolutely confident that his own ingenuity would be sufficient to turn whatever he found into an effective plan of escape. My kind of guy.

And on that note, let me close with one more quote from the story, this time from right after the Thinking Machine made his escape:

“But how did you do it?” insisted the warden.

“Don't ever think you can hold any man who can use his brain,” said The Thinking Machine. “Come on; we shall be late.”

I just never get tired of that line.

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Thank you for this post. Although I am an English teacher and have read many authors, including Harlan Ellison, one of my favorites, I had never heard of Jacques Futrelle. "The Problem of Cell 13" is a fascinating tale. As I like to tell my students and colleagues, the list of authors whom I have not read is quite impressive. So thanks again for introducing me to yet Jacques Futrelle.

Jason you don't watch "Numbers" about the crime-solving math genius? They even work a little math lesson into each show.

Didn't Jacques Futrelle go down with the Titanic? I think that is why there was so little of Professor van Dusen in literature.

pablo -

Jason wrote "Futrelle tragically died on the Titanic in 1912.", in the opening post.


Glad you liked the story. Futrelle's work can be hard to find in print, but the website where I found Cell 13 seems to have most of his Thinking Machine stories. Futrelle wrote some novels as well, but I have never actually seen a physical copy of one.


I do watch Numbers on a semi-regular basis, and I enjoy the show quite a bit. I'm all in favor of any show that presents a knowledge of math as a good thing! I just don't rank it among the greatest shows ever.

While I'm at it, I can't believe I forgot to include Columbo among the greats. Not only is the show great, but Peter Falk is a serious chess player! He even showed up on the cover of Chess Life magazine once.

The novel The Titanic Murders, by Max Allan Collins, stars Futrelle solving a mystery on board. I don't remember much about the book, but it's an amusing premise.

By Jim Ruwaldt (not verified) on 17 May 2006 #permalink

I'm ambivalent about Numb3rs. It's great that there is a show that promotes mathematics, making it relevant to people. On the other hand, the math doesn't seem very good much of the time. Mining a dataset of under 10 points for trends?

The logic stinks as well. "Her fingerprint was on the pen -- she must have been present at the murder." Ummmmm, no.

I had to stop watching because things like that annoyed me too much.

Reminds me of the "Encyclopedia Brown" stories I read as a child.