Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Albany accident

On October 11, 1926, Houdini broke his ankle while performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell at the Capitol Theater in Albany, New York. This is generally considered the start of a chain of events that would lead to his death 20 days later. This ankle breaking incident was dramatized for the first time in the recent Houdini miniseries with Adrien Brody.

To mark the occasion, here's a sensational letter from the collection of our friend Thomas Ewing of Haversat & Ewing Galleries. This is Houdini's own account of the accident in a letter to magician James S. Harto written 88 years ago today.

Click to enlarge.

I met with an accident with the Water Torture Cell last night. The cover snapped as we were drawing it up, and I have some sort of a fracture on the left leg. The left side of my body is somewhat weaker than the right, or perhaps it just struck a glancing blow. Anyway, it hit with enough force to smash the cover which is of heavy nickel-plated steel. If the blow had not broken the cover, I was informed by a doctor who was in the audience that it would have cut off my left ankle. I cannot believe that, hardly, but I guess it is so.

Tom points out the intriguing mention of Houdini's body being weaker on the left side than the right. Evidence of some early stage of illness? The final paragraph is utterly chilling as he maps out exactly what will be his final days on stage.

Thanks to Joe Notaro for reminding me of this anniversary. Joe also has some info on the Albany accident today on his blog Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence.

Thanks to Tom Ewing for allowing me to share this remarkable letter on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

UPDATE: Here's an interesting addendum to this story. This is a newspaper notice from the Van Curler Theater in Schenectady, Houdini's next stop in his tour, downplaying the accident and assuring audiences that he would perform as planned.


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20 comments:

  1. I am not understanding this....what is meant that the cover snapping AND what hit the cover that smashed it in? Perry.

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    1. I'm not entirely clear either. Click over to Joe's article. Many newspaper accounts said it was a counterweight of some kind that fell on his ankle.

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    2. Same here. Counterweight that tangled and broke the cover/stocks?

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  2. Ok I get it. The cover broke after being it by the counterweight. I was confused since I have examined the original USD lid and it was predominantly made of wood with metal trim and handles.

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    1. That's an interesting point. Houdini says here that the stocks were damaged, yet the surviving USD was fine. Collins cold have fixed them the next day, or maybe what was on the cell that Hardeen gave to Sid were backup stocks.

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  3. But the cover was not made of heavy nickle plated steel. No matter how I try to interpret Houdinis remarks I cant make sense of it. Am I wrong to remember that the cover/stocks was made predominantly of wood? I do remember trying to lift the lid from the cell myself and it appeared very heavy.

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  4. Something heavy must have fallen onto the stocks with enough force to cause damage. According to Silverman, the stocks twisted while Houdini was being hoisted and that lurch cracked the stocks and broke his left ankle. I'm sure Houdini meant that the stocks were reinforced on the outside with the nickel-plated steel. When you read Houdini's letters, you have to interpret his mental shorthand.

    If this accident had not happened, Houdini might not have need to lie on that dressing room couch in Montreal to get some pressure off his left ankle.

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  5. Here is another account of the accident from The Key:
    Six inches, three seconds and the goddess of luck last night saved Houdini, master magician, from an injury which would have left his physical prowess only a memory.
    When the heavy wooden frame binding his feet loosened as he lay flat on his back on the stage of the Capitol theatre, the vise-like snap of the stocks fractured his left foot. He was being lifted by the shoulders for the beginning of the Chinese Water Torture Cell trick.
    In another three seconds he would have been free of the stage. Had the frame loosened then, its snap would have severed his leg. Dr. Elwynn Hannock, who attended him, said today, Or had the frame struck his leg six inches higher, it would have snapped his leg, he said.
    Houdini plays today and tonight. When the foot is better, he will try the Chinese trick again.

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  6. Interesting stuff. I always enjoy hearing things from Houdini himself. I'm inclined to believe that his comment about being weaker on the left side would have to do with hand dominance; do we know whether he was right-handed or left-handed?

    -Meredith

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  7. I think he was right handed. I've seen 2 photos of Houdini writing at his desk holding a pen in his right hand.

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  8. Friends,
    An item of clarification on this letter. This letter (and the one on the Buried Alive) are from the collection of the late Gene Keeney of Indianapolis. When I was writing the monograph on Harto, Gene allowed me to copy letters from Houdini to Harto and use them both for the monograph and for historical research purposes. So, what you're seeing are photocopies of the original letters. I want to clear that up.

    Also, I know in an earlier posting someone asking if Harto ever did escapes. He certainly did and he and Houdini corresponded on types of cuffs, wire escapes, and Harto was a real resource for Houdini. I also have several Harto broadsides and flyers illustrating his escape work. He "borrowed" imagery of Houdini for these flyers and I must assume he waited to do this until after Houdini was dead. I can't imagine Houdini allowing anyone, friend or otherwise, to purloin his imagery. I will send them to you John and you may post as you wish. They came from my lecture on Harto before the Magic Collectors' Association.

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    1. Thanks, Tom. I will indeed share those Harto images in a post on their own.

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  9. One thing about the USD, half of the effect was hoisting Houdini up in a safe manner to the opening of the tank. Are there any diagrams illustrating the mechanism by which he was lifted up? If the counterweight fell, wouldn't Houdini have come crashing down, or yanked up quickly? Since the counterweight is pulling something like 200lbs at least.

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  10. There wasn't a counter weight.
    Everyone is writing about this as if they don't understand how the effect worked and was presented.

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    1. Would love to hear your take on this, Patrick. You gotta admit, it's not really clear what happened from the various descriptions.

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    2. Patrick is correct. There wasn't a counter weight. I found an article by Houdini Himself, in the January 1919 Strand Magazine where he states:

      “It is this element of danger that makes my Chinese torture-cell a good trick. Before doing the trick the audience sees the narrow glass case filled with water and my legs clamped with a three hundred and fifty pound weight. It then watches me as I am lowered, head downward, into the water. In sight of the audience the case is then locked and closed.”

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  11. Ahhhhh......now I get it. Perry from NJ.

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  12. That's great Joe but it doesn't say anything about the mechanism by which Houdini was hoisted off the stage. Perhaps Houdini used the block and tackle system:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Block_and_tackle

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  13. Could have also been different theater to theater, depending on my what kind of system them had in place.

    I wonder if the block and tackle we see being used to hoist Houdini during a suspended straitjacket and the overboard box is the same one used during the USD? HERE

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  14. The Key has a photo with a caption that reads: “Kukol handles the block and tackle while Vickery and Collins prepare to guide Houdini into the cell.”
    The Key also says that Houdini laid flat upon his back on a mat resting on the stage floor while his assistants and members of the volunteer committee clamped down the stocks-shaped cover of the Cell upon his legs. Ropes lowered from the flies were then hooked on to the corners of the cover securing Houdini, and by means of a windlass in the wings the cover was slowly raised until Houdini was suspended head-down, directly above the transparent and water-filled Cell…
    It appears that the weight referred to in Newspaper accounts, is really referring to the stocks-shaped cover.

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