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York Prison Cell Escape


16TH April 1983 Yorkshire Post


A Children’s entertainer is planning a Houdini- style escape on Monday from the condemned cell in York Castle Museum. The famous dungeon which held Dick Turpin before his execution.

Forty four year old magician David De-val has accepted a challenge from the Museum curator and will be shackled and chained to the six foot thick cell wall and then locked in by staff. He says it will take him 20 Minutes to escape.

Mr De-val who will be wearing a track suit will have a chance to examine his bonds before his escape bid. Staff will also check to ensure he has no keys, although the great Houdini escaped from cells in Bradford, Huddersfield, Manchester and Lancaster, he refused the challenge of York made to him in 1909.


Today Mr. David De-val said “I am confident I will succeed although it could take me more than 20 Minutes, I know how Houdini did his escapes, I have studied his methods but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to put it into practice.” “I think I will be the only man to escape from a condemned cell so I could find myself in the Guinness Book of Records” He added.

Dr. Graham Nicholson the Museum curator challenged Mr De-Val after hearing him say on television that he wanted to escape from a prison cell.


17TH April 1983 Yorkshire Post


Children’s magician David De-val escaped from the condemned cell today – and claimed to have beaten the great Houdini.

In just three minutes he freed himself from the cell in the notorious 18th century debtor’s prison, now part of York’s Castle Museum.

Nearly 80 years ago Houdini turned down a challenge to try one of his amazing escapes from the cell where highway man Dick Turpin spent his last night before his execution.

David 44 of Springhead Oldham had been manacled and shackled to the 6ft thick walls of the grizzly cell by deputy museum curator Hilary McGowan.

He was padlocked into the same Iron waist girdle that held Turpin, had handcuffs attached to the girdle locked around his wrists and had 18th century leg irons locked onto position on both legs with antique handcuffs.


Mrs McGowan then padlocked the irons to a heavy chain that had been there since the prison was built in 1705.

De-val wearing a track suit was locked in the cell with his clothes locked in another room. But three minutes after about 30 Press, TV and media men had filed out of the cell; De-val was seen running down the corridor in his ordinary clothes.


This is an account of David's Dick Turpin cell escape according to Frank Koval.

On March 24th, 1983 David received a letter from Dr Graham Nicholson, Curator of the castle museum, York, challenging him to escape from the very famous prison cell under his care. Dr Nicholson wrote 'I would be very happy to challenge you to try, so long as you allowed yourself to be shackled and chained in an authentic eighteenth century manner. I should add that the windows are double and triple barred, and there are some pretty thick doors and walls.

David was overjoyed. Many people have claimed to have Houdini's jail escape secret but he now had an opportunity of proving that he had the real secret! He wrote back to Dr. Nicholson three days after he had received the challenge saying, 'I wait for you to name the day and date and I'll be more than happy to accept your challenge'.

The cell at York is, indeed, very famous. It was no less than the condemned cell in the Debtors prison. The cell walls are six feet thick and the tiny windows are securely barred. Dick Turpin spent the last night of his life there, before being executed at the Knavesmire in April 1739. So, the escape attempt was arranged to take place on April 18th, 1983.

David swung the publicity machine into operation immediately. He was photographed handover a sealed file on the Houdini secret to his bank manager. Journalist Stephen Pile covered the coming event for the Sunday Times in his column on the leader page of the newspaper. Dr Nicholson also played his part by issuing a press release which began, 'Dick Turpin couldn't do it! Houdini wouldn't do it! Can David De-val do it?'.

On Monday April 18th 1983, the press arrived in strength and crews from BBC TV and Yorkshire television fussed over their equipment. After the interviews with the media, David was taken to the privacy of an adjoining cell by Dr. Rosemary Swain who had been brought in from York district hospital. There David stripped off all his clothing and was examined thoroughly by Dr Swain. She then minutely checked a track suit that David had taken along, before allowing him to put it on. Then, looking somewhat shy after the physical examination, he returned to the Turpin cell. Under the sceptical scrutiny of the press, David allowed the steel waist band to be locked tightly on him. Then his wrists were locked on each side of the waist band. His ankles were secured in heavy leg irons and finally a short chain was locked at one end to the waist band and to a ring attached to the wall at the other end.

Hilary McGowan

The last person out of the cell was Miss Hilary McGowan, Deputy Curator of the Castle museum, who doubled locked the solid oak door calling out, 'Good luck David'. The Curator Dr. Nicholson was unable to be present as he himself was confined - at home with mumps! David had learned of this only at the last moment, but the stunt had to go ahead.

Hilary McGowan summed up the general feeling that morning by declaring that she would be 'absolutely amazed' if David succeeded in escaping. Security guards checked both ends of the passage where the cell door was. No-one would be allowed to open the door from the outside. Five minutes or so after the cell door had been slammed shut there was a cry from the press of 'He's out'! Not only was David out of the 

shackles and the cell, but he had already escaped from the prison and was found fully dressed in his street clothes (but these were locked in the cell adjoining the turpin cell)! They found David some three hundred yards away from the prison, drinking a pint of milk. The press fired questions -Was a double of David used? Was a confederate involved? Was there a tunnel between the Turpin cell and Clifford’s tower, where David was found? These were the questions and a little thought showed them to be very wide of the mark. How did David do it? That’s a good question isn't it?


By Eddie Dawes

In April 1983 national newspapers carried the story of David’s Escape from the dungeon cell at York that held the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin Captive prior to his execution on the Knavemire in 1739. The cell located in the old Debtors Prison is now part of the famous Castle Museum and Curator Dr Graham Nicholson re-issued a challenge which allegedly Houdini had declined almost eighty years previously. David was chained and shackled to the wall but nonetheless made his escape. Visitors to the Museum can enter the cell, gaze upon its six feet thick walls and tiny double barred window and ponder the mystery of how any shackled mortal could possibly get out

Nothing must be left to chance in a magical performance. Everything conducive to enhancing the mystery of the illusions must be arranged with painstaking care and thought

David Devant

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