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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Did Houdini do a jail escape in 1923?

The following article appeared in the Sun Chronicle in 2007. I thought it was worth revisiting in light of some new revelations. If Houdini did indeed escape from this Massachusetts jail in 1923, it is his latest jail escape on record. By all accounts, Houdini had given up jail escapes, along with his handcuff act, some fourteen years earlier.

However, after I first posted this on Houdini Lives back in 2007, Bruce Rosenbaum provided an update in my comments section, and in light of what he said, I now believe it's entirely possible Houdini did perform this late career jail escape. But first, the original story:

Something about Harry
By Amy DeMelia
October 13, 2007
NORTH ATTLEBORO - The legend of Harry Houdini's escape from a North Attleboro jail cell may not rank up there with his greatest escapes, but it may be among his most intriguing.
The story has often been repeated.
In a stunt meant to attract residents to a show held nearby - possibly at the old Elm Theater or at a venue in Providence - Houdini showcased his miraculous talent for escape by slipping out of jail cell No. 3 at the former police station on Mason Avenue.
A plaque commemorating the event hung outside the cell attributing the date of the great escape as November 1923. Other than the plaque, evidence of the visit to North Attleboro is fairly scanty - there is no mention of a visit by Houdini in the Evening Chronicle or Providence Journal newspapers in November 1923.
 To Bruce Rosenbaum, an amateur magician with an interest in Houdini, part of the fun of the story is looking for evidence to back it up.
Rosenbaum's interest in the story led him to purchase the cell door, bench and key for the cell from the new owner of the Mason Avenue building.
Rosenbaum's knowledge of the local Houdini story came this summer while he was researching information on the Benjamin Freeman home on Mount Hope Street, which he is restoring.
Rosenbaum ran across a picture of a plaque indicating that Houdini had escaped from a jail cell in November 1923 in the North Attleboro Historical Society's records.
"I have a Web site for the house I'm restoring, and I put it up as a fun fact about North Attleboro," Rosenbaum said. "Two weeks later, I was on e-Bay checking out different Houdini stuff, and up pops jail cell No. 3. I couldn't believe it - I felt like it was karma."
Rosenbaum didn't reveal how much he paid for the cell door, but said he was able to strike a deal with the owner to keep the piece local.
Finding documentation of the jail break has proved more challenging.
Rosenbaum is hoping that the story is true and that the newspapers just made no mention of the stunt or that the date on the plaque is wrong.
"I've been trying to find out more information about this, but so far I haven't had much luck," Rosenbaum said. "No one seems to have any documentation or articles."
While Houdini did visit towns with the intention of showcasing his escape stunt, that was early in his career, Rosenbaum said.
"Houdini would appear at major theaters and opera houses and would go out and challenge nearby towns to break out of prisons. It would drum up publicity for his show," he said. "But most of what I read indicates that Houdini made his escapes from prison around 1910 and 1912. He had moved on from that in the 1920s, when the police station was built."
However, North Attleboro's police station was fairly new in the 1920s, so it's possible that Houdini tried the stunt again because the technology was new.
"A that time it was very state-of-the-art and had brand new lock technology," Rosenbaum said of the Mason Avenue police station.
Rosenbaum intends to put the cell door on display at the Mount Hope Street home he is rehabilitating - complete with a banner of a manacled Houdini behind it - when he begins having open houses there.
However, residents can get an early look on Monday at the Historical Society's presentation on the life of Harry Houdini.
Ed Hill a historian and collector of magic memorabilia will give a talk about Houdini's life.
The meeting, hosted by the North Attleboro Historical Society, will be held at 7:30 p.m. at the Little Red Schoolhouse at 362 North Washington St.
Bruce Rosenbaum with jail cell door from which
Houdini was said to have escaped in 1923. 

Here's the update from Bruce Rosenbaum himself:

"I just found out that Houdini was promoting his movie - Haldane of the Secret Service at the same time of the jail escape. The movie was of limited release and was showing at a brand new theater in Attleboro -- The Star Theatre. I also found out that he actually had a live performance when he was promoting the movie in Dec 1923 at the Poli Theatre in PA -- just a month after the N Attleboro jail escape.
I'm assuming that he did the jail escape in North Attleboro to promote the movie that was showing in Attleboro. There might not be any newspaper articles about the escape because there was a major gas explosion in North Attleboro a few days before the movie premiered that could have taken any stories about Houdini out of the press. Your thoughts?"

Bruce saying Houdini was in town promoting Haldane of the Secret Service (his second feature for his own Houdini Picture Corporation) provides the key for me. If you look at the posters and advertising material for Haldane, it bills its star as "HOUDINI World Famous Handcuff King." There's even one poster that boasts of his performances before the crowned heads of Europe (in the wake of WWII, was this really appealing?), all triumphs from his early career when he was known as the "Handcuff King and Jail Breaker."

Note Houdini's "World Famous Handcuff King" billing

I always thought it odd that Houdini would use his old moniker in the Haldane promotion, but he was doing all he could to save his waning movie career at this point, so he "went there." And just as he revived the vanishing elephant for The Man From Beyond, it now seems entirely possible he revived a good old-fashioned jail escape for Haldane. After all, on this promotional tour he was once again "Houdini The Handcuff King" (and Jail Breaker), and he appears to have proven it in North Attleboro.

Thoughts?

10 comments:

  1. Maybe it was a Houdini imitator. Did this escape happen on April 1st by any chance? ;-)

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  2. Excellent! Hey if they run out of room storing the jail cell door, let me know :)

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  3. No doubt this really happened. Good work!

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  4. Maybe Mr escape senteeni did it before Boris

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  5. I'm really surprised how popular this story is. It's well on its way to becoming my second all time most viewed post.

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  6. This story really needs to be checked out thoroughly. Houdini's life and schedule are well documented and in short time this story could be proven to be a hoax or the truth. So far there has been absolutely no evidence proving the claims that Houdini was ever in North Attleboro,MA. I am a fan of Houdini and well read on him but I encourage everyone to be skeptical of this story until proven fully. Houdini hated charletons and people who make false claims such as psychics etc. let's find out for real whether Rosenbaums claims are real about the cell door. E Bay is NOT the most dependable source here. Don't you think that if the door were real that the item would have been sold at Christies. For those who aren't familiar with Houdini memorabelia there are collectors who would spend possibly millions for a real houdini jail cell door. This whole story about the door is very very suspicious.

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  7. Dear Bruce and people of North Attleboro. Housini Did Not do a jail escape at the North Attleboro jail on Mason Ave in 1923. Please stop perpetuTing this lie about Houdini.

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    Replies
    1. Whoops typos. Sorry. Houdini. Aka Erik Weiss.

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  8. Houdini did NOT do an escape in the Mason Ave jail in North Attleboro, MA in Nov 1923. Houdini was on the west coast and in Texas at that time. Please stop the North Attleboro Houdini Hoax!!!!!

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  9. Bruce, you owe the citizens of North Attleboro and fans of Houdini a sincere apology for your charade.

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