Strength, flexibility, patience, a steady hand, and a flair for showmanship — these are the hallmarks of any good escape artist. The practice of “escapology” has been a source of entertainment since the 1860s, and it’s still popular today, continuing to baffle awed spectators wondering just how somebody could get out of these seemingly inescapable traps.
As you might expect, escapology has evolved significantly over the years. Handcuffs and straitjackets were favorite tools used by many of the great escape artists, but as the popularity of the stunts grew, so did the demand for more sensational — and dangerous — performances. Read on to see how the most famous escape artists of all time raised the stakes.
Houdini is, by far, the world’s best-known escape artist. Starting his career as an illusionist specializing in card tricks, Houdini soon found that his skills were better suited to escape stunts. On a European tour, he challenged police in each city to put him in shackles in their jails, successfully escaping each time. In Cologne, he was accused by a police officer of using bribery to pull off his escapes. Houdini sued the officer and won the case by opening the judge’s burglar-proof safe.
Houdini elevated the drama in his acts by introducing another element: he would escape restraints while submerged in water or sand. His most famous escape act, “Buried Alive,” nearly killed him when he first performed it. He smoothed out the routine and successfully performed two more variations of this act. The fourth was to be the highlight of his 1927 season — an escape from a straitjacket sealed in a bronze casket and buried in a large tank filled with sand. Unfortunately, Houdini died of peritonitis on October 31, 1926, and the casket he designed for the escape act was instead used to transport his body from Detroit to New York for burial.
If Houdini was the best-known male escapologist of all time, Dorothy Dietrich, the “First Lady of Magic,” is certainly the most popular female escape artist. Dietrich’s skills were obvious from a young age, when she often found herself tied up by her six brothers when they pretended to be Wild West cowboys around their home. Supposedly, an aunt saw her setting herself free and asked, “Who do you think you are, Houdini?”
Houdini became a childhood idol of Dietrich, who began imitating his acts. Her flash acts with doves and clever sleight-of-hand routines were particularly popular in her early career. But she soon broke the glass ceiling for female escape artists with increasingly daring acts. She became the first woman to escape from a straitjacket while hanging from a burning rope 15 stories in the air...with no safety net! Her most famous feat — one that Houdini never achieved — was catching a .22 bullet, fired from a gun, in a metal cup in her mouth.
Known as “The Dark Master” due to his use of heavy metal music and medieval torture instruments in his stage performances, Steve Santini is known for his bent toward the bizarre and macabre. At a young age, Santini apprenticed with a Toronto locksmith, where he learned as much as he could about locks and how they worked. In the evenings, he used that knowledge to practice conquering those same locks.
Santini has more than earned the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! title of “World’s Most Extreme Escape Artist.” In 2010, he set a world record at Ontario’s historic Cornwall Jail by escaping from handcuffs in only seven seconds. In over 35 years of performances, Santini has managed to escape from jails, prisons, and castle dungeons while navigating added obstacles such as flamethrowers, chainsaws, and explosives.
Best known as “The Gentleman Escape Artist,” Roslyn Walker is a British escape artist and stuntman whose performances hearken back to the Victorian era. Walker has recreated two of Houdini’s most challenging stunts — the straitjacket escape and the famous Mirror Handcuff Challenge. In the mirror challenge, though, Houdini had two advantages that Walker did not. Houdini had been able to perform the stunt away from the eyes of the public, and without a time limit. Walker had 10,000 pairs of eyes watching his every move as he performed the stunt within a strict time limit.
In April 2011, Walker broke two world records in the field of escapology. In the first, he escaped from nine handcuffs in one minute, beating the previous record of six. In the second, he managed to free himself from 677 pairs of police handcuffs in one hour.