Monday, January 25, 2016

Guest blog: Houdini Reflected, Part I

Today I'm excited to share a new guest blog by Neil McNally, who last gave us a three-part look at Houdini in Washington. Now Neil tackles the story of Houdini's most challenging challenge escape.


Houdini Reflected: Part One
by Neil McNally

“Houdini” and “Handcuffs.” These two words are synonymous in entertainment history with bold challenges, daring escapes, and enraptured audiences. During his fifty-two years on this Earth, Harry Houdini never encountered a pair of handcuffs that he couldn’t somehow get out of. His mastery of locks, picks, and their inner workings was so complete that eighty-nine years after his death, people still talk in baited breath about these escapes as if they witnessed them first hand.

Ironically, for all the success handcuff escapes gave Houdini there is one revered pair that to this day looms large over the rest: the famed British “Mirror Cuffs.” They were elegant in design and execution; however, it was this apparent simplicity that seemingly almost defeated Houdini on a London stage. His eventual escape from these is, as you would expect with Houdini, shrouded in mystery, conspiracy, and much debate. What was real? What was not? How much can myth and legend be separated from cold hard facts? There is no better place to start than from a quote from the Great Houdini himself:

“The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.”

Mirror, Mirror

If seeing is believing, than the “official” story of Houdini and the Mirror Cuffs begins in March, 1904. Houdini, then playing a matinee at London’s illustrious Hippodrome Theater, found himself quickly escaping from a string of “mundane” handcuff challenges from the audience. The monotony was suddenly broken when he was approached onstage by a representative of London’s Daily Illustrated Mirror with a challenge seemingly like none other. The representative explained to Houdini and the enthralled crowd the story of a pair of handcuffs made in Birmingham by a blacksmith named Nathaniel Hart. Hart, who had allegedly spent five years working on the cuffs, boldly stated that the handcuffs “cannot be picked.” Apparently, he himself had spent one week crafting the key and allegedly could not break the secret of his own creation. With the crowd holding their breaths, Houdini accepted the challenge. No pressure I’m sure.

The Mirror Cuffs, even by today’s standards still stand out as a bold and remarkable technical achievement. For those unfamiliar, the handcuffs themselves are small, compact, and rigidly hold the wearer’s hands in a vice-like grip. As Kenneth Silverman explained in his book Houdini: The Career of Ehrich Weiss:

These were inflexible handcuffs, without a chain or swivel; the wrist holes coupled to cylinders that housed the intricate locks…The key was a metal tube with slots cut in the end. When the key tube entered the lock it pushed a number of slides, each to a different depth. The key could be turned only when all the slides were depressed the correct distance, which required endways pressure and many delicate rotations.

Okay, so it’s wasn’t going to be as easy as opening up a can of beans. However, in the eyes of the theater going public of the time, there was only one man who could defeat these cuffs and it was Houdini. But, then again, maybe he couldn’t.


A media storm of publicity engulfed the escape artist as Houdini soon found himself in a place he very much liked to be…the talk of the town and in every newspaper in London. The challenge and ensuing publicity eventually reached a fevered pitch as the fateful day, March 17th, arrived. Four thousand ticket holders and over a hundred journalists thronged the Hippodrome to watch Houdini, and his career, literally liberate themselves from this deceptively simple contraption.

Tick, Tick, Tick…

"I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best."

It was with this earnest statement that 29-year-old Harry Houdini addressed the Hippodrome’s electrified audience. By all accounts, when he initially entered the theater he was greeted with a thunderous ovation which was swiftly “rewarded” with the daunting cuffs being firmly and tightly mounted on to his wrists. Then at 3:15pm, with his wife Bess by his side, the Hippodrome orchestra began to play its melodic strains. Houdini was then led to a covered stage cabinet that was ironically referred to as his “ghost house.”

When most people today think of Houdini’s escapes they most likely envision a man in a strait jacket hung upside down or thrashing about violently on stage. But, when it came to escapes, Houdini generally would leave a fair amount to the imagination and, most importantly, tension within the audience’s minds. So, essentially after Houdini would enter his “ghost house,” the audience basically was on their own to envision what kind of struggles he was grappling with within this small darkened enclosure.

However, never one to leave them hanging Houdini’s flair for the dramatic would manifest itself in three separate events in close succession:

Twenty-Two Minutes: Houdini emerged from the cabinet to get a clearer look at the lock in the theater lights.

Thirty-Five Minutes: Houdini appeared once more exasperated and sweating profusely. He explained to the audience that he needed to stretch his knees. Bess then brought him a cup of water as a cushion was provided for him by an attendant.

Fifty-Five Minutes Later: Houdini, looking even worse for wear, began to plead to have the handcuffs briefly taken off so he could remove his constrictive frock coat. When this request was denied, what occurs next has become one of the most famous and dramatic pieces of Houdini lore. By all accounts, he proceeded to contort his body until he was able to remove a pen knife from his vest pocket. Opening the knife with his teeth, Houdini began to systematically cut his upturned coat off of his body in broad slashes until it hung from both of his arms in jagged pieces. Not a small feat to be sure.

Sixty-Five Minutes Later: Houdini triumphantly emerged from the “ghost house” holding the defeated Mirror Cuffs in his hands. The crowd erupted into deafening cheers and according to author Kenneth Silverman, Houdini left the stage for a few moments “hysterical and weeping” to gather himself. When he returned he gave a short speech claiming that throughout the arduous ordeal he had considered giving up. This was Harry Houdini triumphant!

The Aftermath:

As you would expect, the ensuing publicity for Houdini was immense. The feat was reported on not only in newspapers in London, but also the United States, and beyond. In a very important way, it could be argued that this event in Harry Houdini’s life was essential in establishing him as a true and important headliner. If he could defeat the Mirror Cuffs, then he could definitively conquer any escape or challenge thrown his way. The Mirror Cuffs were the real deal and Houdini would never have lied about the struggle they put him though.

Or would he have?


The Mirror saga continues in Part Two.

Special Thanks to Kenneth Silverman.

20 comments:

  1. Interesting that in the illustration, the Ghost House is fairly large, yet the one used for the Mirror Challenge was the size of a doghouse. Not the same newspaper artist who drew the other two illustrations we see.

    I'm guessing Neil's blog is more for the HH neophyte than for those that have been around a long time and are familiar with the Mirror Cuffs epic. The man uses Silverman as a source so he must be serious.

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    1. We talk a lot about the Mirror cuff, but I realized there was nothing on the blog, or really online, that lays out the dramatic details of the escape itself. Neil does a great job of that here.

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  2. It's still very curious to me this escape and the cuffs. The fact that the current cuffs which are owned by Copperfield which are the ones pictured years after the escape were not the ones actually used during the escape was an earth shattering revelation. Even the KEY is different. You can see in a clear photo that the key being used to lock Houdini in the cuffs is short like the one in the "tattler" photo. The keys in all photos since that time are very long. So for some reason both the cuff and keys were changed after the escape took place. A inal observation that just came to me a few days ago......the photo of Houdini holding the SILVER REPLICA he is holding the cuff in a specific manner to hide the fact it's the replica. The inscription is not being shown to the camera and Houdini is holding the cuff between his fingers to hide that the replicas bows are fused. All very curious.

    One question.....does the silver replica look just like the Copperfield cuffs or the Tattler cuffs?

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    1. It's by no means been established that the Mirror cuffs Copperfield owns are not the cuffs used in the challenge. The Tattler cuffs and key -- which are only a photograph -- just raises that possibility. But there needs to be some evidence to move that idea beyond pure speculation. I think the Tattlers were just a prototype used in publicity myself.

      The replica match the Copperfield cuffs.

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  3. There is no doubt that the key in the photo of Houdini being cuffed matches in its size the small key shown in that photo of the Tatler cuffs. So the key was changed but not the cuffs? Why would a prototype be shown to the press to photograph. Makes little sense.

    Interesting that I watched a documentary of Houdini where Radner was interviewed. He showed the "Hungarian" cuffs and stated that he could escape from them very quickly because "he knows the secret". The Hungarian cuffs are thought of as being similar in lock design to the mirror cuffs. The implication is that the Hungarian cuffs were gaffed so release could be me quickly. Perhaps this was Lao true of the Mirror cuffs.

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    1. You know, I had forgotten about the blow-up of the key in the photo. That was on Handcuffs.org, wasn't it? That does add weight to the Tatler theory. Hmmm...

      Intersting point about the Hungarian cuffs. I wouldn't think those would be gaffed. But if Sid said that...maybe.

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  4. Anonymous--I believe HH is holding the Copperfield Cuffs in that famous photo. He's concealing the fact that it is not the silver replicas and probably because the DC Cuffs theoretically were not supposed to belong to him. The Daily Illustrated Mirror supposedly challenged him to release himself from those cuffs and I don't believe they ever mentioned anything about letting him keep them. He pinched the center bow and covered the keyhole of those DC cuffs to...cover his tracks. HH was very clever.

    I also suspect the cuffs we see was a third quick release model. I do remember the blow up of this photo from Handcuffs.org and that very short key. I also saw that documentary where Sid had the Hungarian cuffs on the kitchen table and mentioned that he knew the secret of its quick release. Getting out of the real Mirror Cuffs with the long key between your teeth could not have been easy in that dark little doghouse. It would have been a struggle, and what for? A third "quick release" pair seems like a good solution, and I wouldn't put it past HH.

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  5. BTW, Neil's second part, which he sent me yesterday, discusses how Houdini might have escaped, etc. It's great stuff. I'll work it up and post as soon as I can.

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  6. I have an unrelated question.

    I am an avid Houdini fan and have looked very closely at his life for over 40 years. One thing puzzles me a bit.

    It is said that over 2000 people attended/lined the streets of where his funeral was conducted. I never paid much mind to that number but don't you think this a very small number? Houdini, we feel, was one of if not the most famous entertainer in the world when he died in 1926 and his death was dragon and unexpected. Would you not think there would be much much more than 2000 people if this were true?

    As an example in 1909 a famous police officer was killed and over 200,000 lined the streets for his funeral. So large turn outs in Manhatten were not unheard of.

    I know it has been a discussion among Houdini buffs concerning his true level of fame when he died in 1926. Some argue his fame has grown greatly over the years since his death and although famous in 1926 he was not a mainstream entertainer.

    Just curious as to everyone's thoughts on this. Again I just find it courious that when we think of as the most famous entertainer alive only drew a few thousand at his death. Do we 90 years later overstate his fame at the time of his death? In modern terms was Houdini in 1926 as famous and popular as say Copperfield is today? As famous and popular as David Blaine? OR as famous and popular as say Mark Wilson?

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    1. I do believe Houdini's fame has grown with time, but make no mistake, he was enormously famous in his own lifetime. More so than any magician is today. He wasn't just a famous magician, he was a famous personality in general. If Houdini slipped on some subway stairs it was a news story. Even before he died his name had become iconic and he was already a living legend of sorts.

      BTW, 40s years? You and I appear to have joined the cult at the same time. :)

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  7. Well to be honest I remember visiting Martinkas in NY and talking with Ali Flosso Houdinis old friend in the very early 70's so more like 45 years. I was only 11-12 years old at the time so whatever I asked him about Houdini was minimal. I am sure there were lots of Houdini items in that store which would be worth a fortune today. Plus just think of all the personal info I could find out from Al if I had the understanding of Houdini then as I do today. I am sure he had lots to tell. Another story I was visiting relatives in Australia the 80th anniversary of Houdinis flight. While I was there I visited a magic shop and was told a plaque was being dedicated at the field where Houdini had his first flight. I also have a soft cover book published in Austrailia signed by its author concerning that flight. He was the owner of that magic shop. Also during that trip I drove over the Queens bridge where Houdini did a bridge jump.

    Anyway I still think it is odd only a few thousand people showed up for his funeral. Such a popular celebrity you would think would have drawn much more. As mentioned a NY police detective in 1909 who was killed in action drew a crowd of over 200,000. The great Houdini only 2000? Why?

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  8. Some facts that might help answer your question Mr. A:

    1. The lowest temperature on November the 4th 1926 in Central Park, N.Y. was 31 degrees F. The highest was 47. It was definitely a cold day which could have kept lots of folks indoors. Let's face it, HH exited into the next life during the winter season.

    2. Roughly 2,000 people crammed into the Elks Clubhouse on West 43rd St. About the same amount were outside, according to Silverman. So that makes something like a grand total of at least 4 to 5 thousand people who came out on a cold day no less.

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  9. That does not ring true at all. I live in NJ and grew up in NY. A November day where the temperature ranges from 39-47 F is not considered a cold day in NY. This means the temperature during the morning to afternoon, the time frame of the funeral, would have been in the low to mid 40's. As a comparison the police officers funeral in Manhatten in 1909 the temperature range was 37-45 F and 200,000 came out to pay their respects. Again I ask the question since the weather could not have played a major part.....why such a low turnout for the most famous entertainer in the world? A crowd of 4000 seems meager in a city so large as Manhatten.

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    1. It's a good question. I really don't know that answer. I've never thought about that number being comparatively low until you brought it up. Maybe New Yorkers were burnt out after Valentino's funeral just two months earlier. It was said he drew 100,000!

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  10. I never did either until I read of that police officers funeral in 1909 which drew 200,000 and Valentinos that drew 100,000. 4000 for Houdini was very poor assuming his level of fame was what we believe it was in 1926. I don't know what quite to make of this. If say Tom Cruise passed away would he draw 4000? Pacino? Deniro?

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    1. I wouldn't obsess too much on the comparisons. I'm sure there is a dramatic or tragic story behind the death of that policeman and the turn out contained a show of support element. And Valentino was jazz age icon whose death was dramatically premature and caused a fervor among jazz age babies. Houdini had been around for awhile and, back then, death at 52 probably wasn't all that shocking. There was no larger tragedy to drive people into the streets. Just the curious and those wishing to say farewell.

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  11. Absolutely...... however such a HUGE difference between 100,00-200,000 vs 4000. Comparably no one came out for Houdini.

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  12. If the cold weather wasn't a factor, John's suggestion that Valentino's funeral might have affected the crowd size could be correct. Two back to back funerals may have been too much too soon. Valentino also had movie star draw in those early days of film when film stars were like the Greek Gods.

    HH was getting up there in age as John also mentioned and may have indeed slipped in popularity. The public is fickle and forgets in no time.

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  13. My gut feeling is that Houdini was a hugely popular superstar back in the horse and buggy era. By 1926 he was very well known but no longer had that superstar status. As such his funeral was certainly well attended (4000 people) but it did not attract the kind of crowd seen by the more mainstream performers of that time.....Valentino, Caruso etc.

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  14. Great story by Neil McNally! Anytime there is talk about how HH managed an escape I'm always enthralled. Intriguing comments as well!

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