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10 Greatest Escape Artists in History

Escapology is the art of escaping from restraints of some kind — be it handcuffs, straightjackets, cages or coffins. The skill has been used as a form of magical entertainment since at least the 1860s, although it didn’t become recognized as a performance act in its own right until later in the century. As the demand — and the audience — for more daring stunts grew, so the artists put themselves in more and more danger.

Everyone likes to escape once in a while, but none more so than these guys and gals... These are the ten greatest escape artists in history.

10. Steve Santini

One of Canada’s leading escape artists, Steve "The Dark Master" Santini has been named the world’s most extreme escape artist by compendium of the bizarre, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Tapping into Gothic style imagery and soundtracked by the likes of Black Sabbath and AC/DC, Santini’s shows — which often feature power tools and Medieval torture instruments — are part magic show and part heavy metal concert.

However, although his look is daringly unorthodox, his skills — honed and augmented during his time as a master locksmith — are rarely bettered. Santini’s best-known escapes took place at Ontario’s historic Cornwall Jail. He set a world record there in 2010, escaping from police handcuffs in just seven seconds.

9. Jonathan Goodwin

Jonathan Goodwin is a British escape-artist known for his "lo-fi" escapes and modern, sometimes eccentric take on the art of escapology. He first came to prominence in 2006 when his "Cheating the Gallows" escape went awry on live television. He failed to escape from a hangman’s noose in thirty seconds and had to be cut down, but sustained only minor rope burns — and no doubt wounded pride.

Despite such setbacks, Goodwin has starred in many television specials and serials including the Discovery Network’s One Way Out. As well as being hanged, he has survived being buried alive, acted as shark bait, and been locked in a box practically naked and covered with 50,000 bees. And he's only 31.

8. Kristen Johnson

Kristen Johnson is an award-winning escape artist who performs with her magician husband Kevin Ridgeway under the name "Living Illusions." Johnson and her husband are committed Christians and gained substantial popularity in their early careers by performing at faith-based events.

Johnson’s best-known stunt is the "Full View Water Torture Cell," which requires her to hold her breath while she unpicks a series of chain locks that restrain her whilst underwater. She averages 2 minutes and 48 seconds underwater on one breath and offers $10,000 to anybody who can prove that she takes a second breath or uses breathing apparatus once submerged. It has been dubbed one of the most dangerous escape acts in the world. Incredibly, she once performed the stunt 30 times in ten days. That must have taken a leap of faith.

7. Anthony Martin

Another committed Christian, Anthony Martin is a renowned escape artist known for a purest philosophy that strongly denounces the use of trick or secret locks. His beliefs have led to his exposure of several escape techniques used by magicians in an ABC Television special. He has also performed many of his own death-defying stunts including escaping from a locked coffin thrown from an airplane flying at 15,000 feet.

As well as this, he has escaped being shackled beneath 2,000 pounds of desert sand and from a steel cage submerged in an heavily iced-over quarry filled with water. Martin is also well-known for escaping from the prison cells that once housed infamous inmates; an example was the "Ed Gein escape," in which he successfully escaped from six sets of handcuffs and six steel prison doors.

6. Roslyn Walker

Known as the "Gentleman Escape Artist," Roslyn Walker is a British escapologist and stuntman. Despite being relatively young at 30 years old, Walker has built up a strong reputation owing to his daring outdoor performances and record-breaking exploits.

In April 2011, Walker escaped from nine handcuffs in a single minute, beating the previous record of six. He then went on to set a new world record for most handcuff escapes in an hour, negotiating his way out of 677 police cuffs. These incredible feats are carried out with an air of Victorian sophistication and class, which Walker hopes recalls his main inspiration, the great Harry Houdini.

5. Robert Gallup

Robert Gallup is an American illusionist and escapologist known for cutting-edge performances. He is the originator of what he terms "extreme magic." He made his name on the television special The World’s Most Dangerous Magic in the late 1990s with death-defying stunts such as "Sixty Seconds to Live," which involved an escape while hanging upside down from three burning ropes.

He is also known for high velocity stunts such as the "Skydive Chain Escape," which requires him to escape from handcuffs, padlocks and chains while being thrown out of a plane at an altitude of 14,000 feet. To make things even more dangerous, he is only able to open up his parachute five seconds before impact. Gallup explains the concept of his act like this: “When people see Gallup Extreme Magic, I want them to not only say 'how did he do that?', but 'I can't believe he even tried that!"

4. Dorothy Dietrich

Dorothy Dietrich is probably the best-known female escapologist of all time. Enjoying a long career that began with New York variety shows, she later founded The Magic Townehouse, a popular magic venue. Regarded as the "First Lady of Magic," she has been an inspiration to female and male performers alike. She was famously the first woman to escape from a straightjacket while hanging from a burning rope 15 stories up and without a net.

As well as accomplishing this and many other skilful escapes, she is the first woman to have successively performed the "Bullet Catch Stunt," something that Houdini himself could never do. She managed this feat on a television special in 1988, successfully catching a .22 bullet, fired from a gun, in a metal cup in her mouth. She offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could prove that the bullet was not fired.

3. David Blaine

David Blaine is perhaps the best-known magician and escapologist currently performing today. Although he is famous for performing high profile stunts of mind-over matter and endurance on a grand scale, he first came to the world’s attention as an exponent of close-up street magic. Some of his most renowned feats include being encased in a block of ice for 63 hours and being sealed inside a case 30 feet above the River Thames in London for 44 days.

The famous 1999 "Buried Alive" stunt in New York required Blaine to be entombed in a Perspex box underneath a 3-ton water tank. Incredibly, he managed to endure seven days of this, eating nothing and only drinking two or three tablespoons of water a day. His only outside communication was via a hand buzzer which could be used in the event of emergency. Blaine’s hero Houdini had planned a similar test of endurance but died before he could attempt it.

2. Dean Gunnarson

Canadian escapologist Dean Gunnarson found fame with large-scale escape performances for television audiences. After almost dying early in his career in a stunt that had him handcuffed and shut inside a nailed coffin as it floated down Winnipeg's Red River, Gunnarson has built a strong reputation as one of the most daring and skilful escapologists of all time.

Yes, incredible stunts such as the "Car Crusher" have sealed Gunnarson’s name as one of the art’s greatest ever exponents. This particular frightening stunt saw him handcuffed and chained to the steering wheel of a 1970 Cadillac as it was lifted into a car crusher. Gunnarson managed to leap out, unchained, just before the car was compressed beyond all recognition. To add to these achievements, in 2010, in commemoration of Houdini’s Halloween death, Gunnarson was buried alive and dug himself out, emerging two days later.

1. Harry Houdini

No other escapologist or magic performer comes close to matching the fame of Harry Houdini. His name is a by-word for magic and feats of superhuman skill and courage, but Houdini’s reputation is largely built on his prowess as an escapologist. He was constantly creating new and ever more dangerous escapes; some of his best-known stunts include the "Milk Can Escape" and the "Chinese Water Torture Cell," both of which involved escaping handcuffs, chains, padlocks or stocks while submerged in water.

Houdini performed a "Buried Alive" escape three times, the first of which almost killed him. He died on Halloween 1926 and has become the single biggest influence on magic performers of all time

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