Secret passage

Secret passage

A secret passage (or hidden passage or a secret tunnel) is a hidden route that is used to travel stealthily. Such passageways may be inside a building leading to a secret room, or be a way of entering (or exiting) somewhere without being seen. Hidden passages are a common feature of fiction, but have also served a variety of purposes throughout history. Hidden rooms have helped people evade capture or carry out illegal, religious, political, or smuggling activities.

Appearance and construction

Secret passages have hidden or secret doors that are camouflaged so that they appear to be part of the wall, or so that they appear to be an architectural feature such as a fireplace, a built-in bookcase or another feature. Some entrances are more elaborately concealed and can be opened only by engaging a hidden mechanism or locking device. Other hidden doors are much simpler; a trapdoor hidden under a rug can easily conceal a secret passage.

Some buildings have secret areas built into the original plans, such as secret passages in medieval castles. Some medieval castles' secret passages were designed to enable the inhabitants to escape from a siege. Other castles' secret passages led down to an underground water source, which provided access to drinking water during a prolonged siege.

Traditional Arabic houses sometimes have a "Bab Al-Sirr": a secret door used as an emergency exit built into the walls and hidden with a window ledge sill or bookcase. The name comes from one of the six gates cut through an ancient wall in Aden (in modern-day Yemen), which was opened only in the event of a state security emergency. In modern-day Spain, the Arab fortress of Benquerencia had a Bab al-Sirr known as the "Door of Treason." [cite web | url= | title=Andando por Benquerencia de la Serena | work=Description of La Puerta de la Traicon | language=es]

Other secret passages have sometimes been constructed after the initial construction, particularly secret tunnels. These tunnels have often been created as escape routes from prisons or prisoner-of-war camps, where they are known as escape tunnels. These secret tunnels typically require a hidden opening or door, and may also involve other deceptive construction techniques, such as the construction of a false wall. Other tunnels have been made for different reasons, such as smuggling tunnels used for smuggling arms, illegal drugs, or other contraband.

Historical uses

There have been many instances throughout history of secret passages and rooms having been used:

Ancient times – AD 1000

*Builders of ancient Egyptian pyramids used secret passages and booby traps to protect the burial chambers from tomb robbers. In some cases, a secret door to a burial chamber was hidden behind a statue.

*Early Christians who were persecuted by Roman authorities in the second century used hidden rooms to conceal their religious ceremonies [ [ The Development of Christian Society in Early England ] ] .

AD 1000 – 1500

*In 1330, the young king Edward III was imprisoned by Roger de Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, who took over the rulership of England. A small group of armed supporters of Edward III used a secret passage to attack Mortimer, who was in Nottingham Castle defended by several hundred soldiers. The attackers entered through a long, winding secret passage which led directly into the building in which the queen was lodged. An accomplice inside the castle slid back the bolts to the door, which allowed the attackers to arrest Mortimer. [ [ Ian Mortimer: The Perfect King: introduction ] ]

*Catholic priests in Britain used hidden rooms called priest holes to escape Protestant persecution starting from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

*Protestant and proto-Protestant Christians used hidden rooms to hide their ceremonies during religious persecutions by the Catholic church in Great Britain and Ireland in the 1400s.

*The Passetto is a secret passage that links the Vatican City with Castel Sant'Angelo. Pope Alexander VI crossed it in 1494, when Charles VIII invaded the city, and Pope Clement VII escaped to safety through it during the Sack of Rome in 1527.

1600 – 1900

*In 1789, at the outset of what would become the French Revolution, angry demonstrators in Paris marched in the streets and stormed the Bastille. The revolution spread to smaller towns, where tax offices were attacked, and to the French countryside, where peasants attacked rich nobles living in manor houses and castles. Many French royalty and nobles fled to Austria, Russia or Britain. In October, a mob of 7,000 demonstrators marched to the Royal Palace at Versailles. Although they managed to overcome the palace's defences and kill Marie Antoinette's bodyguards, Marie-Antoinette escaped from the palace through a secret passageway.

*The Mikhailovsky Castle is a fortified medieval-style castle that was built to protect the Russian Tsar Paul I from assassins. Completed in 1800, the castle's protective features included massive walls and water on all four sides (rivers and canals), with drawbridges that were raised at night and gun emplacements overlooking the drawbridges. The Tsar also had a secret passageway built into the hallway outside his bedroom to enable him to escape if assailants managed to get past the castle's defenses. However, he was never able to use the secret passageway. Forty days after he took up residence in the castle, he was murdered in his bedroom by a group of conspirators.

* During the Boshin War (1868-1869) in Japan, the Emperor's Imperial forces attacked the loyal retainers of the Shogun at Aizu Basin. A band of 15- and 16-year-olds loyal to the Shogun, who called themselves the White Tiger Brigade, escaped from Imperial troops using a secret passageway. When the young warriors emerged from the passageway, they saw a burning samurai residence, which they mistook for the castle. Believing that the castle had fallen to the Imperial troops, the young warriors committed mass-suicide by seppuku (disembowelment), rather than face defeat.

* The 5th Duke of Portland created a network of tunnels on his estate at Welbeck Abbey during the nineteenth century so that he could enter and leave the property unseen.

*Dr. H. H. Holmes (1861 – 7 May 1896) was an American serial killer who trapped, tortured and murdered guests at his Chicago hotel, which he opened for the 1893 World's Fair. He tortured his victims in soundproof rooms hidden within the complicated hotel designed by Benjamin F. Pitzel.

1920 – 1930

* The Regal Knickerbocker in Chicago, Illinois is a grand 350-room hotel built in the 1920s, during the U.S. Prohibition era. When the hotel was remodeled in 1980, workers found a secret door in one of the penthouse ballrooms, which leads to a stairway down to ground level. This may have been used to help people engaging in illegal gambling or drinking to escape in the event of a police raid.

* During the U.S. Prohibition era, illegal bars called "speakeasies" were often concealed behind, above or below seemingly legitimate businesses. In Decatur, Illinois, the third floor of Bell's Jewelry Store housed a speakeasy, a gambling parlor, and a brothel during the 1920s and 1930s. Customers went in a stairway from the street and entered a sporting goods shop that acted as a "front". After the customers passed through rows of shelves lined with dusty sporting merchandise, a secret panel in the wall was slid open revealing the entrance to the speakeasy and brothel.

* In New York in 1928, during the Prohibition era, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns purchased a former bordello and converted it into a speakeasy and restaurant called the 21 Club. In 1930, they hired architect Frank Buchanan to design a secret door to hide the speakeasy's liquor supply in the cellar. To conceal the hidden door from Federal prohibition agents, Buchanan designed the door so that it would appear to be solid cement wall. The door, which weighed two-and-one-half tons, was supported by massive precision hinges and faced with a cement slab. The secret door could be opened only by inserting an 18" length of wire through one of several cracks in the cement.

1940 – present

*Anne Frank (12 June 1929 – "ca." March 1945) was a German-born Jewish girl who wrote a diary while in hiding in Amsterdam during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. As persecutions against the Jewish population increased, the family went into hiding in July 1942 in hidden rooms in her father Otto Frank's office building. After two years in hiding, the group was betrayed and transported to the concentration camp system where Anne died. Her diary is published in English under the name "The Diary of a Young Girl" and has been adapted to theatre and film.

*Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch watchmaker, had a secret room constructed in her family home in order to hide Jews from the Nazis. When the home was raided, several people escaped capture by hiding behind the false wall.

* During WWII, British RAF officers held captive in Colditz Castle built a false wall in the attic of one of the POW buildings, to hide a workshop where they were constructing a glider to help them escape. [ [ Colditz Castle : Oflag IVC : Glider : Der Flieger ] ]

*Guerrilla warfare fighters have used tunnels and secret passages to attack their enemies without being captured and transport arms and supplies. The Củ Chi tunnels were used particularly during the Tết Offensive in the Vietnam War, between 1968 and 1969. The troops and supplies for the Tết Offensive were assembled in the tunnels, which contained sleeping chambers, kitchens, wells, and medical facilities.

Recent uses


On 25 January 2006 a 720 meter (2,400 foot) smuggling tunnel which crossed under the border of the United States and Mexico was discovered. The tunnel was used to transport vast quantities of marijuana from Tijuana into Otay, California. The passage linked two industrial warehouses, and was ventilated and well-lit. As well as illegal substances, this tunnel and others that have previously been discovered have been used for illegal immigration. ref|OtayTunnel

Between August 2000 and May 2002 more than 1,000 ancient books went missing from the library of the monastery of Mont Sainte-Odile. Stanislas Gosse stole the books after finding an old map showing a secret entrance into the library. The route was not easy, however, involving climbing up exterior walls, a steep staircase and a secret chamber. A mechanism then opened the back of one of five cupboards. The disappearance of so many books over such a length of time confused the librarian, the monks and the police, with Gosse finally being caught by closed-circuit television cameras. ref|StanislasGosse

Residential "panic rooms"

A small number of contractors in the US and UK specialise in the construction of hidden doors and fortified secret rooms for private residences. These rooms, known as "panic rooms" or "safe rooms" are hidden, secure locations within a residence designed to protect the inhabitants (typically celebrities or executives) in the case of a break-in or home invasion.

The fortified doors and walls protect the occupants so that they can summon help using a cellular or land-line phone. Doors and walls can be reinforced with steel, Kevlar, sound-proof or bullet-resistant fiberglass panels. The door to the safe room can be hidden by covering it with panels that match existing walls or doors in the home.


The 6,000 square-foot penthouse suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, which costs $10,000 per night, takes up the entire floor. It has a marble foyer, a Tiffany skylight, a 24-hour butler and chef, a two-story, circular library, a tiled billiards room, and four fireplaces. Those who want to receive a guest in a more discreet manner can push aside one of the bookcases, and usher the guest in via the suite’s secret passageway.

Mythological and fictional uses

Secret passages are used as a plot element or as part of the setting in mythological stories, fiction, and in television programs or films. Secret passages in old buildings, castles, haunted houses, and the lairs of villains or superheroes enable characters to secretly enter or exit the building, access a hidden part of the structure, or enter a supernatural realm. These passageways are often opened by pulling a disguised lever or lock mechanism. In some cases, a certain book on a bookshelf serves as the hidden trigger for the mechanism.

Mythological uses

In Greek mythology, Hyprieus, the King of Boeotia, hired Trophonius and Agamedes to build a treasure chamber for him. However, the pair built in a secret entrance and stole his fortune.

Detective and mystery stories

In the late 1890s, detective novels featuring seemingly "impossible crimes" became popular. Impossible crimes were sometimes carried out using secret passages or doors. Subsequent generations of detective pulp fiction and mystery story authors also used the plot device of secret passages.

However, the use of secret passages in detective fiction and mystery stories has been criticised, on the grounds that it is not "fair" to expect the reader to guess about the existence of these secret passages. Ronald Knox (1888-1957), a British theologian and detective story author, argued that the plot device of a secret passage was overused in detective fiction. Knox's "Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" states that "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable." Furthermore, Knox urges that secret passages not be used in detective stories unless the story takes place in an old house or castle where a reader might reasonably expect to find a secret door or passageway.

Carolyn Wells' "impossible crime" stories from the first decades of the 1900s, such as "Faulkner's Folly" (1917) are often set in an upper class country house, where a murder takes place. There is a closed circle of suspects, all linked to the murdered man; however, based on the layout of the house, the murder seems "impossible". In Wells' stories, the solution to the seemingly impossible crime plots tend to depend on the murderers' use of secret passageways, secret panels, and hidden doors.


In role-playing games, secret passages, like traps, can be found in all sorts of buildings, especially in the dungeons and castles. The mansion in the board game Cluedo (Clue) has two secret passages that players can use to move to an opposite corner of the board.

Computer and video games often feature hidden areas, sometimes as an important part of the game and other times as an easter egg. Such areas can be a required route in order to continue or may be optional and contain rewards for the player, such as a bonus stage, a secret character, extra items or a shortcut to a later part of the game. Some secret entrances are invisible, such as a normal-looking wall that can be walked through, while others give a slight visual clue, such as a cave behind a waterfall. Interestingly, in many top-down games several passages are "hidden" in locations where they would easily be visible in first-person.

ee also

* Priest hole
* Ley tunnel


# (27 January 2006) " [ Drug haul in secret border tunnel] " at BBC News. Accessed 28 January 2006.
# (19 June 2003) " [,3604,980213,00.html Mystery at the monastery ends as CCTV reveals chamber of secrets' daring thief] " at The Guardian. Accessed 30 January 2006.


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