Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who coined the word "Escapologist"?

Who coined the word "escapologist"? Most will tell you it was Murray, an Australian escape artist who gained fame in the 1930s with some spectacular escapes, including a handcuffed parachute escape that Houdini once proposed but never performed. That's because Murray himself always claimed the word originated with him. Indeed, posters from the time bill him as "Murray the Escapologist." It's even on his tombstone.

However, in a discussion on this very topic at The Magic Cafe forums, user "Moxahalla" uncovered a quote by Houdini in the Australian newspaper The Argus dated Feb. 18, 1910. The opening paragraph of the article reads:

"If I might be allowed to coin a word, I would call myself an escapologist", said Houdini, the handcuff king, who arrived in Melbourne yesterday, to appear at the Opera-House to night.

In 1910 when this was written, Murray was only 8 years old.

So it was Houdini, not Murray, who actually coined the word escapologist. But it could be argued that Murray is the one responsible for making it part of the magic lexicon as Houdini never used it, to my knowledge, in any advertising of his own. So maybe they can share the honor. After all, Houdini has a lot of trophies on his mantel, and I've always liked Murray.

In 1974 Val Andrews penned a delightful "autobiography" of Murray (cover posted above). It says Murray because interested in magic at age 5. Unfortunately, the book does not record whether the young Murray remembers Houdini's visit to his home town in 1910. But this certainly could have left an impression on the 8-year-old budding magician. Perhaps enough for him to became an "escapologist" himself one day.

Murray the "Escapologist" in life and death.

UPDATE: Here are a couple clippings from a March 1915 Indianapolis Star that show Houdini not only used the word "escapologist," but also used it in his advertising. Sorry Murray!

Click to enlarge.


  1. Interesting. I thought the word was created by the great escapist Cyril St. John.

  2. Great find John. Funny I saw a challenge notice in Gibson's The Houdini Scrapbook today with "Escapologist" in the title.


  3. A small point seems to be unoticed. In the above clippings, it's the word escapeologist (escape-ologist) that's used not escapologist. Another interesting poins is that I've also searched all the available Australian newspapers (at the TROVE website)for the time Houdini was there and there is no further mention in reviews or advertising of the word used in the above clippings.So, while Houdini used the word escapeologist, it was Murray that coined the word escapologist. Only a small point but a point nonetheless.

    1. Good points, Karl.

      In the Houdini quote from the 1910 Argusm he uses "escapologist." Escapeologist is used in the 1915 clippings.

      But maybe I need to recheck that Argus interview and see if it actually says "escapeologist." I might have just typed it wrong. Hope I can find that again.

  4. Here are the links for you John but now he is a conundrum.
    The article in The Argus (BTW correct date is 7th Feb.) does use the word 'escapologist'

    The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) Monday 7 February 1910 p 9 Article|||dateTo=1910-12-31|||l-title=13

    And the exact same article was syndicated to:-
    Darling Downs Gazette (Qld. : 1881 - 1922) Friday 11 February 1910 p 2 Article|||dateTo=1910-12-31

    Yet the two clippings above on this page use the word 'escapeologist' and are dated March 1915. It could be thought that the article writer had wrongly spelt the word escapologist BUT the advert for Keith's is very specific in using the word escapeologist so I would think that the article clipping has the correct spelling. Which could lead us to think that perhaps the reporter (or typesetter) for The Argus spelt it incorrectly. At least we know that 'escapologist' did appear in print, whether by purpose or mistake, before Murray used it.

    1. Great stuff. Thanks. A conundrum indeed. But that's Houdini for you!