Monday, February 15, 2016

The Guiteau cell

The other night I watched the excellent American Experience documentary, Murder of a President, about President James Garfield and his assassination just 200 days into office in 1881. I really knew nothing about Garfield and the documentary was extremely enlightening.

The documentary also covered the troubled life of the assassin, Charles Guiteau, and I sat up when this reenactment of Guiteau in his prison cell came on screen. Why should this be of interest to Houdini buffs?

In 1906, Houdini famously escaped from the United States Jail in Washington, D.C. The "Murderers Row" cell he was confined in was the same cell that had held Guiteau while he awaited execution. The United States Jail is long gone and I've never seen a photo of the Guiteau cell, so it was fun to see it in this reenactment, although I have no idea how accurate this is.

For a detailed account about Houdini's Washington D.C. jail escape, check out my blog from last year:

You can watch the American Experience Murder of a President online at

Here are a few more links to enjoy on this Presidents Day.

Obama replaced Houdini with Gordon

UPDATE: Here are some other, potentially more accurate depictions of the Guiteau cell (thanks to Perry Reed).

Handcuff expert Joe Fox shares another Houdini-Guiteau association. The photo below was taken by Mark Lyons at the 2004 Great Houdini Auction in Las Vegas and show "Guiteau" cuffs in a Houdini display case (now in the David Copperfield collection).


  1. I wouldn't count on the accuracy of the Guiteau cell reenactment. The History Channel has earned a reputation for being...inaccurate?

    1. This isn't the History Channel. American Experience is produced by PBS, who actually care about getting their history right. But you may still be correct that we shouldn't count on this as being all that accurate. They may not have had any photo reference. I expect the real cell was much smaller.

  2. Oh dear, you're right. It was PBS, but as you mentioned, they may not have had a photo reference.

  3. Here is a link to a 1940's history of the old DC Jail giving the cell dimensions as 5' x 8' x 9 1/2'

    I've read that after death threats his regular cell door was replaced with a "bulletproof wooden door" but I haven't yet found any contemporary accounts of that. An interesting side note in this history is the almost apologetic revelation that death sentence electrocutions were until recently held in the mess hall.

    1. Thank you for the cell dimensions, John. As I thought, pretty small. Must have been cozy for Houdini who made his escape with another man (a murderer!) in the cell with him.

    2. Always a pleasure to contribute to your discussions. Of course, no sooner did I post then I found the reference I was looking for: The Adventurous Life Of A Versatile Artist Houdini containing his narrative of the Cell 2 escape.

      It's where Houdini describes Hamilton, the occupant of Cell 2 crouched in the corner when they opened his cell door and showed a naked man in. There's also a description of the doors: "All these cells are brick structures with their doors sunk into the walls fully three feet from the face of the outer corridor wall. When the heavily barred door is closed, an armlike 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. One key opens all the doors in the corridor."

      So it looks like PBS missed the boat with set design.

    3. I've updated with a pic that looks of the time. Probably still not exact, but closer than the filmed recreation as it shows it being part of a cell block.

  4. When I hear the name "Guiteau", I think of only ONE thing!

    ...the rarest of all American handcuffs: "The Guiteau"!

    It was closely associated with Houdini, 2nd in fame only to the more widely known "Bean Giant" cuff.

    You can see it among the photographs (taken by Mark Lyons) from the 2004 Las Vegas Houdini Auction.:

  5. Wow! Great update John! That illustration may be the most accurate depiction of Guiteau's cell short of an actual photograph. Each cell door looks to be individually locked. That's the only way HH could have escaped. I take it those are reporters trying to snatch a quick interview with Mr. G. I'm surprised that they were allowed all the way up to his cell door to ask him questions.

    We know that the U.S. Jail was torn down, so the evidence for the Guiteau cell escape has been obliterated. I suspect that many of the older prisons that HH escaped from have also been torn down. The evidence for his jail escapes that might give a clue to his methods is eroding off the landscape. No doubt it would make HH quite happy.

    1. You know, I'm wondering if there's even a single jail cell left that he escaped from.

    2. I don't know if it contains any jail cells but the 10th Precinct Station from where Houdini made his first Washington, DC escape is on the National Historic Register

      It might bear further research by a local resident.

  6. Interesting that if an accurate illustration the cell door is sunken maybe one foot rather than Houdinis description that it was sunken three feet. The lock is far more reachable maybe not directly by hand but perhaps with a small extension with a key. Perry.

  7. The three foot depth measurement apparently is from an account of the escape in the Washington Post. But if the locks were on the doors, as in the illustration with the reporters queuing, the depth wouldn't have made a difference.

  8. If you look at the second photo of the cell you can see what looks like the locking mechanism on the wall outside of the cell. Kind of what was described at the time. Cell door however is depicted not as deep as described. The description was by Houdini from "An adventurous life....." Perry.



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