Harry Houdini (1874–1926), a famous escapologist and magician
Harry Houdini before one of his escapology performances in Boston 1908

Escapology is the practice of escaping from restraints or other traps. Escapologists (also classified as escape artists) escape from handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, coffins, steel boxes, barrels, bags, burning buildings, fish-tanks, and other perils, often in combination.


The art of escaping from restraints and confined spaces has been a skill employed by performers for a very long time. It was not originally displayed as an overt act in itself but was instead used secretly to create illusions such as a disappearance or transmutation.[1] In the 1860s, the Davenport Brothers, who were skilled at releasing themselves from rope ties, used the art to convey the impression they were restrained while they created spirit phenomena.[2]

Other illusionists, including John Nevil Maskelyne, worked out how the Davenports did their act and re-created the tricks to debunk the brothers' claims of psychic power. However, the re-creations did not involve overt escape, merely a replication of tricks with the statement that they were accomplished by secret magicians' skills rather than spirits. It took another thirty years before the pure skill of escape began to be displayed as an act in itself. The figure most responsible for making escapology a recognized entertainment was Harry Houdini, who built his career on demonstrating the ability to escape from a huge variety of restraints and difficult situations.[3]

Houdini made no secret of the fact that he was an expert on restraints and the skills needed to overcome them but he often concealed the exact details of his escapes to maintain an air of mystery and suspense. Although many of his escapes relied on technical skills such as lock-picking and contortion, he also performed tricks such as Metamorphosis and the Chinese Water Torture Cell, which are essentially classic stage illusions reliant on cleverly designed props. Houdini's feats helped to define the basic repertoire of escapology, including escapes from handcuffs, padlocks, straitjackets, mail bags,[4] beer barrels, and prison cells.

A succession of performers have added new ideas and created variations on old stunts, but it is common for even the best contemporary escapologists to be dubbed modern day "Houdinis". During his lifetime, Houdini argued his main escape acts were copyrighted, and sued competitors such as John Clempert, who in 1906 apologized and settled out of court. [5]

Because St. Nicholas Owen successfully escaped the Tower of London and arranged the escape of two Jesuit inmates from the prison, the 16th-century Christian martyr is considered by Catholic escapologists as their patron saint. Along with St. John Don Bosco, the two are considered the primary patrons of Catholic Gospel Magicians.


The United Kingdom Escape Artists was formed in 2004 and is currently the only organisation in the United Kingdom devoted to the promotion of UK escape artists and the preservation of escapology within the UK. Its members are made up of professional escapologists, restraint collectors, master locksmiths, and historians. The UKEA meet once a year for their AGM.[6]

The International Escapologists Society is an online society with its own monthly newsletter that is dedicated to the art of escape on an international level.[7]

Escape Masters (The International Association of Escape Artists) was formed in 1985 by renowned escape artist Norman Bigelow and has been run by Thomas Blacke as International President of the organization and Editor/Publisher of the magazine since 2001. This newsletter ceased publication with the passing of Mr. Blacke in 2019.

Founded in February 2021, Global Escapology Organisation (GEO) is an elite group of Escapologists and subject experts from around the world.

Forms of escape performance

World Records

In 2012, Lucas Wilson, an illusionist from Canada managed the fastest ever recorded escape from a straitjacket while suspended; he escaped in 8.4 seconds while hanging upside down from his ankles at a height of 1m.[9]

In fiction

List of notable escape artists

See also


  1. ^ Dawes, Edwin A (1979), The Great Illusionists, Chartwell Books (New Jersey), p. 193, ISBN 0-89009-240-0
  2. ^ Dawes, 'The Great Illusionists', p. 157.
  3. ^ Dawes, 'The Great Illusionists', p. 193.
  4. ^ Cannell, J. C. (1973). The Secrets of Houdini. New York: Dover Publications. pp. 36–41. ISBN 0486229130. Retrieved August 17, 2012. ISBN 9780486229133
  5. ^ Tait, Derek (2018). The Great Illusionists. Barnsley South, Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History. pp. 260–274. ISBN 978-1473890763.
  6. ^ [1] Archived 2013-04-11 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Home - T.I.E.S". Tiesociety.webs.com. Archived from the original on 2013-10-20. Retrieved 2017-02-26.
  8. ^ "Burning Rope Escapologist - British Pathé". Britishpathe.com. 2014-04-18. Retrieved 2017-02-26.
  9. ^ Glenday, Craig (2013). Guinness Book of World Records 2014. Guinness World Records Limited. p. 89. ISBN 9781908843159.
  10. ^ "Isla Fisher Talks NOW YOU SEE ME, escapist tricks, the cast, and THE GREAT GATSBY". Collider. 2013-04-15. Retrieved 2017-02-26.
  11. ^ "Isla Fisher finds her comfort zone in supporting roles | Movies | the Seattle Times". Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2013-06-16.
  12. ^ "Now You See Me (2013)". Covering Media. Archived from the original on 2017-03-11. Retrieved 2017-02-26.