Boy Swallows Universe: Is Slim Halliday Based on a Real Criminal?

Netflix’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ presents a heavily fictionalized story of Trent Dalton, on whose book the show is based. The story is rooted in Dalton’s real experiences but takes a life of its own, presenting an imagined alternate world created by the author, who revealed that all characters in the story are based on real people he knew or crossed paths with. One of the characters in the show is Slim Halliday, infamous for murdering a taxi driver and for his daring and almost unbelievable escape from prison. Was he also pulled from reality, or was he more of an imaginary character?

Trent Dalton Knew the Real Slim Halliday

Image Credit: Queensland Police Gazette

Arthur “Slim” Halliday was a real-life criminal and convicted murderer who made a name for himself as the Houdini of Boggo Road for his six escape attempts, two of which were successful. He was first sent to prison in 1939 after he was arrested on the charge of breaking and entering a house. He was to serve five years but ended up getting ten for causing trouble. In January 1940, he made his first escape attempt, in which he allegedly fashioned a hook from two pieces of wood and tied a rope to it to scale the prison wall. This technique is also presented in ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ by Eli Bell when he breaks into the prison to visit his mother. Halliday’s escape allowed him about two weeks of freedom, following which he was captured in a high-speed car chase.

In December 1946, he once again attempted the same feat, but this time, he was accompanied by two other prisoners. The escape was successful, but like last time, Halliday, as well as his accomplices, were captured again. This time, it only took four days for the cops to catch up to him. After serving his sentence, he became a free man, but he once again landed in prison for another crime three years later. He tried to rob a store in Sydney and accidentally shot himself in the leg during the struggle. Later, the cops found that the same pistol was also used in the murder of 23-year-old Gold Coast taxi driver Athol McCowan. Halliday became infamous for this crime but always claimed innocence, which also made its way into Trent Dalton’s book.

In 1953, Halliday once again planned a daring escape. He caused distraction by setting fire to mattresses in the prison workshop and trying to sneak away through the roof. This attempt was unsuccessful. He was caught again in 1959, trying to use a pulley system to open his cell door and escape, after which he was sent into solitary confinement with more precautions taken by the prison authorities to make sure he didn’t run away again. He finally got out of prison in 1976 on parole at the age of 66.

How Did Slim Halliday Die?

Slim Halliday died at the age of 77 on June 29, 1987. He is laid to rest in Albany Creek Memorial Park Cemetery in Brisbane. The cause of his death is unknown, though in his book, Trent Dalton blames cancer for Slim’s death. Not much is known about Halliday’s life before he became a criminal. After he was released from prison for good, he seems to have let go of his criminal past and lived in solitude. This is also when Trent Dalton met him for the first time.

Image Credit: Find a Grave

Dalton revealed that when he and his brothers were kids, Slim was an uncle-like figure to them, who was kind and good and gave them good advice. It wasn’t until later that Dalton discovered Slim’s criminal past and wondered how a person could be good and do so many bad things at the same time. Dalton recalled his memory from when he was five. He’d sit on Halliday’s lap in the car, and the man would let him turn the wheel and honk the horn.

For Dalton, the introduction to Halliday came from his stepfather, who was also involved in shady activities. Despite his dark past, for young Trent, Halliday was a wise man with “some serious fortitude, some incredible inner strength.” Dalton revealed that during his time in prison, Halliday read a lot of books, and when he was a free man, he would talk about the things he’d read in the books, things like the universe, the stars, and galaxies. He also talked about time and how one’s mind can slow down time in difficult situations to ensure their survival.

Dalton remembered stuff like this and poured it into the book, with several of Halliday’s real-life quotes and wisdom finding their way into the story. At the end of the day, Dalton said he couldn’t have not included Halliday in his book, and it was his way to “pay tribute to the memory of that man who was, at once, a good and bad man.”

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