Saturday, March 14, 2015

Houdini's escape from Murderers Row


On January 6, 1906, Houdini performed one of his most spectacular jail escapes. It occurred in Washington, D.C. during Houdini's first engagement in the nation's capitol, and it helped establish him as the premier "Handcuff King and Jail Breaker" in America.

Houdini was appearing at Chase's "Polite Vaudeville" theater at 1424 Pennsylvania Ave., and had already garnered headlines with two jail escapes in the city. The first occurred at the 10th Precinct police station on January 1, 1906. On a challenge from Superintendent of Police, Major Richard Sylvester, Houdini escaped from "invincible bracelets" and cell No. 3 in just 18 minutes.

Two days later came a familiar Houdini pattern; what I call the "mid-week drama." Typically this involves a challenger announcing they were unsatisfied with the conditions of the first test and/or revealing a method by which they believed Houdini escaped. They would then "defy" Houdini to repeat the escape under stricter control. These mid-week dramas were almost certainly orchestrated by Houdini to generate suspense for a grand finale "rematch" at the end of the week. In this case, the mid-week drama might have been genuine. Newspapers reported that 10th street jailer, H.B. Elliot, found a "needle" on the floor which he thought Houdini might have used to pick the cell lock.


Major Sylvester then challenged Houdini to repeat his jail escape, this time from the new Fifth Precinct jailhouse at 5th and E street, which had locks that were considered more secure. Even Houdini proclaimed the locks of the very best quality and "really too good for station purposes." Nevertheless, Houdini beat the jail, passing through six locked doors in 31 minutes. It was while he was at the 5th Street station that Houdini received a message from Warden J.H. Harris, challenging him to "try his art" from the most formidable cell at the United States Jail -- the grand finale.

The next day, January 6, Houdini travelled to what was described as "a cathedral-like prison along the Eastern Branch of the Potomac." There a large group of officials gathered in Warden Harris' office. Houdini was shown to Murderers Row in the south wing of the jail, which contained seventeen cells. Current residents included seven convicted murderers, a man named James Backus -- "the alleged money-order raiser" -- and a housebreaker named Clarence Howlett.

The group stopped before cell No. 2, famous for having housed Charles J. Guiteau (right), the man who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881. Guiteau himself escaped an assassination attempt inside this very cell when a man tried to shoot him through the bars. Guiteau was later executed by hanging. The cell currently housed Walter W. Hamilton, a black man who was convicted of smothering his wife, after which, according to press reports, he "sat all night beside the body of his victim, indulging in a drunken orgy."

Houdini was "stripped to the skin" and searched, presumably by one or all of the three Jail Physicians in attendance. He was then locked into the cell with Hamilton who, the press reported, remained "crouched in the far corner of the cell, presumably laboring under the belief that one of the arch-fiends was already there to get him for the red hot furnace." It's not recorded whether Houdini was also shackled. The officials then returned to the warden's office, leaving Houdini and his fellow inmates on their own.

The police had reason to be confident of their success in holding Houdini this time. The lock on the Guiteau cell was unreachable from the inside. A detailed account of the escape in The Washington Post explained:

All these cells are brick structures with their doors sunk into the walls fully three feet from the face of the outer corridor. When the heavily barred door is closed, and arm-like bar runs out to the corridor wall and then angles to the right and slips over a steel catch which sets a spring that fastens the lock. The latter is only opened by a key, and there are no less than five tumblers in the lock.

It only took Houdini two minutes to escape from the cell. (On page 134 of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls, author William Gresham speculates on how Houdini might have escaped based on a device found in the Sidney Radner collection.) Houdini then embarked on a course of action that would make this escape legendary.

First, he opened the cell door of Richard Chase, who was serving 12 years for manslaughter, and ordered the stunned man to follow him. After the initial shock ("What are you doing without clothes?"), Chase followed the naked magician to the cell of Clarence Howlett. Opening the cell door, Houdini asked the prisoner, "What are you in for?"

"I'm a housebreaker," said the astonished Howlett.

"You're a bad one, or you could get out of here," replied Houdini.

Houdini then took Howlett from his cell and thrust Chase inside. Houdini then locked Howlett into Chase's cell.

Houdini repeated the process with each and every one of the convicted men. He then retrieved his clothes from another locked cell, dressed, and appeared in the warden's office. The Post reported that the men's "amazement passed all bounds." As to the prisoner exchange, Warden Harris "took the change with the utmost good nature." The escape had taken 21 minutes, and by Houdini's own count was his 64th jail break.

Warden Harris and Superintendent Sylvester both provided Houdini with glowing testimonials. Sylvester thanked the Handcuff King for providing him with information that could make his jails more secure. (You'll noticed that Warden Harris states Houdini dressed before swapping the prisoners around; but that makes the story a little less fun, so we'll ignore that.) Houdini later featured the letter from Harris on the back of his pitchbook, HOUDINI: The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist.


Houdini would repeat his prisoner swapping stunt two months later when he escaped from a cell in the famous Boston Tombs. This time he added a new twist in that he scaled the wall and sped off to the theater in a waiting car. But it was his escape from Murderers Row and the Guiteau cell that always held a special place in his publicity material.

The United States Jail, later known as the D.C. or District jail, stood until the early 1980s. Here are two photos of the jail, inside and out, from the website, The Hill is Home.



Houdini would return to Washington D.C. seven months later. How would he top himself? I'll have that story next week.

Clipping source: Newspapers.com.

Related posts:

56 comments:

  1. Given the design of the locking mechanism of this prison, some kind of long tool had to be used--if it was a genuine escape. It becomes clear that HH could not have escaped from jail cells without a preliminary tour of the location. A way out had to figured out beforehand.

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  2. From what I could find the jail began to be torn down in 1978. It may have been completely demolished and removed by the early 80s. There is nothing but an empty lot where the jail once stood today. Some of the locations where Houdini performed remain and some are gone. Chase's Polite Vaudeville Theatre is gone. Keith's Vaudeville Theatre is gone, but in it's place is a restaurant and the outside is still pretty much the same except for the Keith's sign. The 10th Precinct Police Station still stands where Houdini escaped on Jan 1, 1906. The Gayety Theatre on 9th St. is gone. The Munsey building where Houdini did a straightjacket escape is now a Marriott but it's still there. And of course the Capital Building where Houdini spoke before Congress is still there, though highly dysfunctional.

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    1. Thanks Dean. What about the Fifth Precinct jailhouse at 5th and E street? That jail break was new to me.

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    2. New to me too. But it's long gone. I imagine it was 5th and E St NE and that location has a school on the corner. 5th and E St NW is all redeveloped.

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    3. Thanks Dean. You've done great work on Houdini in D.C. on your blog. I'm going to cover Houdini's Sept engagement at Chase's next and will include a link to your own article.

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  3. These are the escapes that always have amazed me. These were the jails of Washingtom DC. Very prominent and I am sure very strict. These were not small town locals that could be easily bribed. I can see the photo of the one cell and Houdini could reach the lock to pick it. But how could he have trusted a devise as described in his bio to get out of that cell? He could not see the lock!

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    1. The photo above is sometimes credited as being the Boston Tombs, although I'm not sure it is. As far as I know, there are no photos of the D.C. jail escape. Very few photos of Houdini in jail cells, in fact.

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    2. Pretty sure that it is Boston; compare it to the Boston photo on p 54 of "Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist". The painted stripe on the wall above the padlock matches in both photos.

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    3. There's also that famous pic of him handcuffed with arms spread wide across the cell bars. That appears to be this same location. Makes me suspect this was a photo shoot, and not the escape itself.

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  4. I read the account in Gresham and also agree that it would have been tough to open that lock even with the duplicate key. How could Harry see the lock if it's around a bend? The prison officials may have been greased with free passes to the evening show. At least enough to allow HH to try his luck with the jail.

    Silverman notes that HH was caught with an unspecified something under a foot during a jailbreak in New York.

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    1. Certainly Houdini made use of extension tools, so it's no surprise to find one among his equipment. To conclude that's what he used in D.C. is a stretch by Gresham (or Radner, who might have given him that idea). Remember, the Guiteau cell had an occupant, a convicted murderer. I don't see them planting keys and/or devices that could be used a weapon in that cell for later use by Houdini.

      I always think of the Paul Michael Glaser movie that shows Houdini regurgitating a telescopic extension device. That actually seems more likely to me than collusion on the part of someone like the Warden of the United States Jail.

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  5. I always had huge difficulty believing that Houdini would offer a bribe to a jail official to obtain a key or stage the entire event. That same official could take something like that very personally and went right to the newspapers with the huge story that the great Houdini is a fake. I just do not think Houdinis jail break secret was simply to bribe the warden. Houdinis methods have been revealed over the years....none of which involved bribes. Just wayyyyy to dangerous. ONE person going to the press ruins his career.

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    1. Well, one police officer did do that, Werner Graff in Germany. It was Silverman who revealed that the genesis of the famous Cologne trial was that Graff said Houdini had offered him a bribe, and that did get in the papers.

      I believe Houdini had a number of ways he could escape from a jail. One of those might very well have been sensing when a jailer might be open to helping.

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    2. And Houdini sued him for libel and won.

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  6. The free passes or bribe was to give HH a chance to break out of the jail, not to get the prison officials to lie about his escape. The escapes may have been genuine. I think most of the prisons HH escaped from were small local jails with easier locks to open. That means he probably didn't need the actual key to open the jail door...but...

    A duplicate key can be made with a wax impression. Perhaps Harry or somebody else would ask the jailer to lock and unlock the jail doors to ensure that they were in working order. The key may have been examined by HH or one of his assistants long enough to make the needed wax impression.

    No matter which method Harry employed, one needs cojones to pull this off.

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    1. Pat Culliton describes some of the very clever ways Houdini was able to make impressions of keys in his book, Houdini The Key.

      Cojones...indeed.

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  7. Most officials provided Houdini with a signed affidavit after the escape that certified the escape was genuine. So yes the official would be lying if the stunt was a set up. As mentioned all it would take is one warden to come forward and state Houdini is a fake and his career would be over. Over and above this not a single individual came forward at any time to tell the true tale of an escape that was portrayed as genuine but instead was fake. You would think someone even after Houdinis death would come forward with these details. Never happened which gives huge credibility to the thought that these escapes were totally genuine.

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    1. That's a good point about the testimonials. If you look at the one above, Warden Harris states, "There was positively no chance for any confederacy or collusion." While this isn't a legal document, I don't think he'd include that if it wasn't true.

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  8. Re: Photo at the very top...I always thought that THIS one particular photo showed Houdini in an UNflattering way- in terms of his physique.

    It may very well be the lighting or angle of the photo...but Harry just looks kinda dumpy, like he has a bulging "gut"of a common man...and not that of the athletic physical specimen, that is part of his myth.

    btw--This head-to-toe shot of Harry in his bare feet...really does show how short he was too.

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    1. I don't see a belly there. Looks like muscle to me. He's just a little oddly shaped. He was sort of a fire plug.

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  9. So what was the secret? Here's what we do know:

    HH didn't start jail breaking until April 5, 1900, where he escaped from a police jail cell in Chicago. That was roughly a year after he went under Beck's management. Harry spent that year challenging the local police in each town he performed to lock him in handcuffs and leg irons--but not jail cells.

    I suspect that throughout 1899, he studied the locks of the police jail cells, and local prisons whenever possible. He asked questions, and did field research whenever time permitted. Since HH wasn't challenging the local police to lock him in their cells, they may have inadvertently given him valuable information about the construction of the cell door locks such as make and model.

    Instead of some superhuman ability to pick jail cell locks, HH might have discovered, as he did with regulation handcuffs, that jail cell locks were not complicated, and manufactured from one or two factories. A strong possibility existed that those cell door locks were identical from town to town. So if he was locked in a cell in Boston, the chances were good that the cell door in Providence utilized the same locking mechanism. The locks of the cell doors on the West Coast, for example, might have been different than their eastern counterparts, but probably identical in that area.

    HH couldn't be certain of this so it made sense to first tour the local prison when he arrived in each town. This gave him the chance to check the cell door lock for some identification marker, perhaps the manufacturer's stamp or a serial number. If he already had the key, or pick for that lock, he was In Like Flynn. All he had to worry about was hiding the tool or key.

    If HH didn't feel comfortable challenging a particular prison, he would thank the jailers and leave. The press was certainly not apprised of these episodes, so we don't know the number of jail cells he inspected and quietly turned down.

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    1. Yeah, Houdini was escaping from handcuffs and shackles in police stations throughout 1899, so he certainly had time to familiarize himself with their jail cells (and maybe even start a key collection).

      Is Chicago in 1900 recognized as his first? I've always suspected there might have been a jail escape in the 1899 tour that we've yet to uncover. With Houdini, seems we're always finding he did things earlier than the general thinking.

      Of course, Sid Radner always claimed Houdini's first jail break occurred in Holyoke in 1895, extremely early in Houdini's career. I believe there's a clipping in Houdini's first scrapbook (which Sid owned) to back this up.

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  10. Unrelated but just saw a nice video...Waiting for Houdini on YouTube....with lots of discussions with Radner and Morris Young. Also see the Hungarian cuff and Radner indicates he could escape from it quickly since he knows its secret. Implying the cuff is potentially gaffed.

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  11. According to Bruce MacNab in Metamorphosis, Harry escaped from the Halifax police station jail on June 25, 1896 (pg. 203). This appears to be HH's first documented jail escape. The April 5, 1900 Chicago escape came out of Houdini!!!, and by Professor Silverman's admission, more information about HH would eventually surface down the road. MacNab uncovered much about Houdini's adventures in Nova Scotia that was hitherto unknown.

    And get this, a fellow by the name of John Cox noted that "This book will wow the magic world." I believe it, I believe it...

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    1. Ah, good idea checking Bruce's book! He uncovered SO much that is not to found in the major bios. I didn't remember that he uncovered a jail break. But I'm sure it was one of the many things in that book that "wowed" me. :)

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  12. The jailbreak stood out to me in MacNab's book, mainly because I put a marker on the chapter after that and didn't finish the book! The jail escape was my last recollection from its pages, and it hit me as soon as I remembered MacNab this evening.

    The fact that HH relied on August Roterberg's knowledge about handcuffs and restraints early on wowed me.

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    1. And his pet chicken named by his mother, his first assistant, the levitation he did with Bess... I would recommend finishing the book. It's just sensational. A new biography of Houdini CAN'T be written without taking Bruce's discovers into account.

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  13. Yes, finishing MacNab's book is on my bucket list.

    That unflattering photo of HH emerging from that cell door is one of at least three photos taken in this session: HH sitting on the bench inside the cell, this one, and the other where he's cuffed to the bars.

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    1. Yeah, I considered using the shot of him sitting on the cell, but I thought this worked better with the headline.

      You think it's unflattering? I've never though so.

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  14. The photo of HH emerging from the cell certainly doesn't make him look at his best. The muscles are there but he has a gnomish pot belly and the large cell door makes him look even shorter, smaller. He may have had a heavy lunch before that photo shoot.

    On the other hand, this photo is rife with symbolism. We see an image of an average naked Joe, not a superstar, defeating a scary prison cell and carrying the manacles that were supposed to hold him. He's been snapped in action, as if he was caught right in the middle of his escape. It has drama and movement.

    HH has appeared leaner and meaner in later photos, just look at the photo of him posing next to the Milk Can. He never looked better. Also, look at that classic USD photo of HH dangling over the tank. He looks absolutely fit and lean and he was approaching 40 by then.

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    1. Yeah, good points. He does indeed look a little gnomish. But I think he was gnomish. I guess I just like the very candid nature of it. Those other shots you mention are all posed muscle man shots. This is just him walking out of a cell...naked!

      BTW, you can see he's wearing a jock strap type of thing. I'm wondering if this was just for the photo session, or if this was actually what he wore during his reported "nude tests." Was he ever really entirely naked?

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  15. Average Joe? What average Joe has those muscular legs. Arms, Chest and shoulders? Quite a Hercules standing there by any standard. The belly you think you are seeing is a function of shadows and angle in which the picture was taken more so than anything else.

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    1. Especially at that time! Houdini had the build of a circus strong man of his era. Muscles of this kind were far from common.

      And I've never seen a "belly" there. I see hard muscle. It's just the shape of his body that's odd to our eye and, yes, the light and angle of this pic.

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  16. Further proof would be the other two photos taken that same day. Looking through the bars at a handcuffed Houdini all you see are thick muscular legs, broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms and chest. If thats an average Joe then average is Hercules. No sign of a pot belly....looks like a mini Sandow.

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  17. Houdini embodied the image of the everyday man, the average Joe who stood up to authority and succeeded in defying the restraints imposed on the citizenry by governments. Yes, he is muscular and athletic, but he is also short and stocky. I don't see Hercules. When I think of Hercules, I see an image of Steve Reeves: tall, handsome, and incredibly muscular:

    http://www.stevereeves.com/images/stories/biography/actor/hercules_pulling_down_temple.jpg

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  18. The Hercules of Houdinis day was Sandow not Reeves. Houdini with his exotic look and incredible presentation was looked at as a mystery man not an everyday man.

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  19. Have you guys ever read "Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America" by John F. Kasson? It's all about the stuff we're discussing here. Very interesting book. Sandow's story is fascinating.

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  20. Leo is confusing how Houdinis feats were subconsciously perceived by some during his time vs the persona Houdini projected. Houdini was a man of mystery who performed feats that many perceived as miracles. His intense personality and handsome features were mesmerizing to his audience.

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  21. I thought I was describing that short, stocky man emerging from that prison cell. He doesn't appear to be a Hercules character to my eyes. Perhaps you are confused about what you see in the photo. And I also don't believe his audiences felt like they were witnessing something resembling a Greek god. Do you?

    It was HHs everyday man personality that audiences related to. The persona Houdini projected naturally would have ultimately affected the subconscious perceptions of his audiences: An everyday man who could perform miracles.

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  22. I could not imagine anyone further from an everyday man than Harry Houdini. The photo shows a very muscular man...do you see the knot like calves, broad over muscled shoulders, thick chest and how about that tricep flex? If you look at the other two photos taken that day you do not see a pot belly as you described it. So obviously what you believe you're seeing is a play of light and camera angles. Houdini came upon the scene when physical culture first became prominent. His physicality and Physique is one aspect of many that drove audiences to see him. They went to see an extra ordinary man not an ordinary one.

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  23. No--they went to see an ordinary man do extra ordinary things. Also, I have yet to read a review of HH's performance where the audience oohed and awed over his physicality. He could have been godlike but was just too short. Look at the photo of Harry in Silverman's book just after page 113 with the caption: A Sandowesque moment. These is a small belly protruding. That won't win you a Mr. Olympia contest.

    Yes Mr. Anonymous, you are correct in that the physical culture movement began at the turn of the 20th century. Many people were working out and becoming athletic. That meant HH wasn't unique nor awe inspiring in that aspect.

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  24. You could not be more wrong. I believe you are confusing his audience linking his on stage struggles with their own immigrant past with how he was perceived as a performer. People who saw Houdini felt they were seeing him perform miricles. An ordinary man does not have the capability to produce miricles. An ordinary man does not have a dynamic intense personality. Take a look at Houdini being strapped into a straight jacket in 1909 within his French made short....that's prime Houdini. Note his barrel chest, thin waist, broad shoulders. Watch the film of Houdinis first filmed bridge jump where he strips down on camera. Where is his pot belly? There is another short whee houdini struggles to free himself from bandages on his wrists using the spikes of a metal fence to aid his release. He is shirtless...no pot belly. You continue to have a distorted view of Houdini. Very odd from someone who posts so often here.

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  25. I'm not feeling it. Houdini was athletic, not godlike as you have suggested. Gods are much more taller, more imposing than mortals. And take a look at his later images in The Man From Beyond and that recently published USD photo from Britain. Not exactly what was...

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  26. Leo takes the prize for having the most distorted view of Houdini I have ever heard. One thing though...where is the pot belly you re claiming he had in all the films where he is bare chested? He strips down to his shorts to jump off that bridge in Rochester in 1909....perfect physique. Many other photos show him to be very trim at the waist. The photo of Houdini standing by the USD in a bathing suit shows a middle aged Houdini again in fantastic shape. I am continually amazed at how you seem to do your best to knock Houdini every chance you get. Odd. Very odd.

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  27. That photo of a middle aged HH next to the USD shows him, stouter, and heavier than when he started to perform the USD in 1912. Were you aware Mr. Anonymous that he injured his right ankle on that tour of Britain in 1920 performing the USD? I've wondered about that injury and I suspect that it was because he was heavier by about 10, 15, maybe even 20 pounds by 1920.

    That doesn't seem like a lot of extra weight, but when you're hoisted up and hanging from the stocks, that can be quite a bit more stress on your ankle joints. Did Harry's extra weight contribute to this injury? Maybe.

    Mr. Anonymous, go watch The Man From Beyond. After HH is chopped from the ice, he panics and runs from his rescuers bare chested. It's painfully obvious HH was out of shape by this time. It was only when HH prepped for the Shelton Pool Miracle that he shed the extra weight he had put on over the years. He definitely looked leaner in the photos of the SPM.

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  28. Every person has times in their lives where they may gain weight. That's not the claim you initially made. There was no Steve Reeves back in Houdinis day. Men like Sandow were considered the perfect male build. Sandow was, depending on accounts, 5'7 to 5'9. He looked nothing like Steve Reeves. Houdini if you understood his history was a fantastic athlete. With that athleticism came not only a great physique but get pride in his physique. What you claim concerning Houdini breaking his ankle is complete speculation. Whether he gained a few pounds during one point in his later years is not the point of contention. It is quite well known that he trimmed down for the Shelton pool exhibition but that does not mean he was out of shape for any long period of time. The photo of him standing next to the USD he looks in great shape. He is no longer a 20-30 years old young man anymore but that does not mean he has a pot belly ordinary physique as you claimed.

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  29. It seems that you have become HH's guardian and protector. Norman Bates felt the same way about his mother...

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  30. Just one more point to further discredit you. The man from beyond was Houdinis last film and he was approaching 50 years of age. To put this in perspective it would be akin to a man approaching 60 years of age in 2015. You pointing to what amounts to an old Houdini as evidence that he had an ordinary physique is a huge stretch from your original statements. My points are just to be truthful. "Houdini was a pot bellied performer looked upon as an ordinary man" which is what you claim is totally unsupported by the facts. As you have now discovered.

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  31. You guys are starting to beat a dead Hungarian horse here. Might be time to agree to disagree.

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  32. A picture is worth a thousand words...

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  33. As a final thought I leave you with this.....there are many photos of Houdini dressed in only shorts or less that show a very muscular Sandow like physique. This is undisputed...just do a google search of Houdinis name and you will find them. The very day that the first photo posted Bove was taken there are several others both show a heavily muscled Houdini void of any pot belly. Why then does Leo speak of Houdinis physique as ordinary with a pot belly and then when pressured shift to an old Houdini pushing 50 which would be pushing 60 in 2015? There is an obvious alternative motive here which falls in line with many other statements he has made in the past. I will leave it up to him to explain his many misstatements.

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  34. All of that Paprika Chicken and Bread and Butter Custard caught up with dear old Harry...

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  35. So all The Grim Game whatnot came between this and my promise of continuing the D.C. story "next week." Things are finally settling down, so I'm planning on getting that delayed post up this week.

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