Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Houdini v. the Siberian Transport Cell Part I: The escape


Houdini's escape from the Siberian Transport Cell or "Carette" in Russia on May 10, 1903 is one of his most famous and celebrated feats. No account of his life goes without a mention of it. But like the Mirror Handcuff challenge, the carette is an escape steeped in mythology and controversy over how Houdini managed to escape. So today we head to Moscow to unlock the mysteries of this famous challenge.

Houdini traveled to Russia in May of 1903. [For an account of his adventurous entry, read Breaking into Russia.] Houdini opened at the Yar, a popular Moscow dinner theater frequented by high society (where a drunken Rasputin once exposed himself). Houdini was an instant hit with his handcuff act, but he still wanted to perform an attention getting outdoor escape. He found his opportunity at Moscow's centrally located Butyrskaya Prison.

Butyrskaya prison in Moscow, site of Houdini's 1903 escape.

There's an amusing story of how Houdini was arrested while practicing his stage patter in an open Moscow park (some accounts say it was a deserted racetrack). As he recited in Russian how he "defied the police of the world to hold him," he suddenly found himself surrounded by police who feared he was a madman.

At police headquarters, the Yar theater manager explained things as Houdini endeared himself to the police by performing cards tricks. He then asked the Chief of Police, identified as "Lebedeff," if he could attempt to free himself from one of their prison cells. Lebedeff felt the locks on the Butyrskaya cells, which dated back to 1771, would be too easy for the jail breaker, and instead suggested their Siberian Transport Cell, a rolling "safe on wheels" used to send prisoners to Siberia. Lebedeff insisted it be a private test. Houdini agreed under the condition that Lebedeff provide an affidavit should he be successful.

Houdini arrived at Butyrskaya on May 10 with his newly hired assistant, Franz Kuklol. The police were ready for him. After having him remove all his clothes, they conducted the most thorough search of his career, as Houdini recalled:

All my clothes were taken from me and I was thoroughly searched, but, perhaps the word "searched" is too mild to describe what chief Lebedeff's spies did to me. I was laid on a table and one man started from my head and searched down to my feet, while another man started at my feet and worked up to my head. I was then turned round and about, being rather roughly handled. No doubt the spies wanted to impress their superiors, but they found nothing.

In a private letter to a friend (Don Turley) he added...

Talk about getting the finger, well I received it three times, but Mr. Russian spy found nothing.

Houdini was then led nude across the cold prison courtyard, manacled in heavy irons, and locked inside the transport cell after it had been thoroughly searched. Lebedeff then told Houdini that if he failed to escape, he would have to travel 21 days to Sackolin near Siberia where the only key that unlocked the door was kept. Houdini requested that the van be backed up against the prison courtyard wall so he could work out of sight of the police. This was agreed to. However, Lebedeff ordered two men with binoculars to spy on the escapist at work.

Artist rendering of the Carette escape (Ray Abel).

Within an hour, Houdini walked into Lebedeff's office free. He was drenched in sweat, despite the cold. The police rushed to the carette and found it still locked with the shackles inside. Lebedeff's spies had, apparently, witnessed nothing.

But instead of applause, Houdini was seized and again searched. When nothing was discovered, the police turned on Franz Kukol and subjected him to the same vigorous search. Finding Kukol's house key, they tried it on the carette door lock, much to Houdini's amusement. "They have a swell lock on the cell and the house key is a cheap lodging house lock, so you can imagine how little it fitted," he said. The police then photographed Houdini, "In case I turn out crooked."

Despite his promise, Lebedeff refused to provide an affidavit, and no Russian newspaper reported the escape. Nevertheless, word of the feat spread among the populace, and Houdini's Russian tour was extended. He even performed for the Grand Duke Sergei Aeksandrovich and the grand duchess at Palace Kleinmichel. (The duke was later killed when a revolutionary threw a bomb into his carriage.)

Houdini left Russia never to return. He recorded in his diary that he felt the country itself was "some sort of mild prison" from which he had "managed to escape." While he had no news clippings or affidavit for his successful carette escape, he later had a lithograph printed in Leipzig showing the dramatic scene that had played out in the courtyard of Butyrskaya prison.

Houdini's 1903 lithograph.

A similar view today.

So how did Houdini escape from the Siberian Transport Cell? We will tackle that in PART II.


Top illustration by Peter Burchard from Saga, July 1958, courtesy of Arthur Moses. Houdini in van sketch by Ray Abel from Escape King: The Story of Harry Houdini (1975) by John Ernst. "Houdini in Russia" lithograph from the Nielsen Collection, MUM Nov. 2006.

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18 comments:

  1. This excellent story repeats some historical errors which we've gone to some length to investigate. No one named "Lebedeff" was ever chief of the Moscow police or the secret police in Russia. The non-existent first name "Gaspadne" is clearly Houdini's mangling of the Russian word "gaspadin," which means "Mister." For more on the real Mister Lebedeff see http://www.houdinifile.com/2013/05/houdini-russian-mystery-solved.html

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    1. Cool. Thanks, David. In part 2 I address the mythology, primary having to do with how the escape played out and how HH might have freed himself. But I admit I didn't remember your good work on Lebedeff. I will add that to the next post.

      Gaspadne is my bad. I pulled that from Houdini's account because I was excited to see a first name. But now I know why I hadn't seen that elsewhere. I'm actually going to zap that in the above. Thanks for the correction. I've also added your post to the related links.

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  2. In old Russia, before they called everyone "tovarishch" (comrade). they called everyone "gaspadin" (citizen).

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  3. Great story. Waiting for part 2. How'd he do it?

    BTW: this would've been great in the miniseries. Oh well.

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    1. They've yet to do the carette escape in a Houdini movie. It would be great. But they typical show HH escape from Scotland Yard, and that represents the jail break aspect of his career.

      The miniseries was the first HH biopic to show him in Russia, so this would have been ideal. But instead we got a bullet catch that never happened.

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  4. Another misunderstanding that Houdini would tell, was that he was not allowed to keep any of the Faberge items given to him by the Czar family.
    He keep two items that I know about. One was a bowl that Ruth Kavanaugh had sold at auction in the 70s.
    It brought over $6000.00
    Jon Oliver

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  5. Kept Charlie? Are you sure about that? Houdini wrote at length about the death of Charlie if I am not mistaken. You can find this within "Houdini On Magic". Or was this Charlie number 2?

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    1. The obit in Houdini on Magic is for Bobby, his second dog.

      The story is the Grand Duke gave the Houdinis Charlie, their first dog, as gift while they were in Russia.

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  6. Named after Charlie Chaplin, then a relatively unknown music hall comedian they had met in London.

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    1. Really? That I've never heard. Chaplin was only 14 in 1903. Where does that info come from, David?

      BTW, Part II is up. Link above.

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  7. Something else I've been thinking about. Houdini says the Russian police photographed him that day. I wonder if those photos still exist somewhere buried in the Butyrskaya archives?

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  8. I've reached the part in Eduardo's new Houdini bio where Harry is in Russia. According to Caamano, Charlie stayed with Harry and Bess until it died in 1911. Then Bess found Bobby, the fox terrier, straying around a butcher shop near 278 and gave it to Harry as a present.

    As for the carette escape, I just realized that since the key to open the lock was in Siberia, it helped to hide the secret of the escape. Harry must have realized that after his escape, the prison ward had no way of opening the vehicle to examine it for evidence unless the lock was busted open.

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    1. The whole key in Siberia thing seems a little unlikely, but it makes for a great story.

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  9. The whole carette escape makes for a great story. All we have so far is HH's word. The fact that he commissioned a lithograph to document the escape doesn't raise the proof. Is there any shred of evidence this actually happened?

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    1. Oh, I'm sure it happened. Houdini wouldn't go as far as to completely invent this.

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  10. One definition of faith: The unknowable promoted to the irrefutable.

    We still don't have any tangible evidence of this escape. No sworn statements from prison officials, and no journalist or eyewitnesses who reported this.

    Silverman reminds us in his bio of Harry's fear of annihilation. It is one reason, besides ego, why he continually embellished his life to journalists: Prevent the poverty and near annihilation he experienced in his younger days to knock on his door again.

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    1. I guess a case can be made that it didn't happen. You can play that game with many famous events in his life. But the uncooperative Russian police and controlled press is why none of the typical documentation exists. And we do have private letters Houdini wrote about the escape. And, for me, the poster is all the evidence I need to believe that some form of this escape happened. Houdini exaggerated events, but he didn't invent things whole cloth. He didn't need to. And and he never made a poster that advertised a total fiction. That would have been a bridge too far and, again, something he just didn't need to do. Also the fact that the prison itself commemorates the escape in their own museum could be seen as independent corroboration. Of course, they could be reading the same bios we are. I'd love to know what exactly they have on display there.

      We can and do question a lot of the events in Houdini's life. But for me, the carette esacpe is not one that warrants skepticism. I question some of the details, but I'm comfortable accepting that the escaped itself really did happen.

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