Saturday, September 16, 2017

Did Hardeen reveal Houdini's most secret secret?


While visiting the Houdini Museum of New York last June, I saw a remarkable document on display. It consisted of two typewritten pages by Hardeen from a biography he was writing about his brother at the time of his own death. That book was to be called The Truth About Houdini, and if anyone knew that truth, it was Dash!

Among several fascinating tidbits is the following paragraph in which Hardeen apparently spills the secret of Houdini escape abilities, which I share here with the permission of museum and document owner Roger Dryer.

Hardeen first explains how Houdini ran away from home at the age of nine, then follows with this bombshell [spelling errors as written]:

While on this trip he became a jockey rode horses and mules &...any thing they put before him. He was accidentally shot in the palm of his left hand, and though at the time it seemed a misfortune--it proved to be the turning point of his life. Because the bullet remaing in the palm of the hand, caused the groth to seem the same as the other hand and apparently was the same. Houdini could contract the hand so that he was able to pull it through the smallest kind of hole. This was the secret that he carried to his grave, and not even his wife knew of it.
No one ever knew about the musclare contraction Houdini was able to perform.

The story of Houdini being shot in the hand is one Houdini himself told, although he set it later in his life. According to Harry, early in his career, he was taken at gunpoint by gamblers and forced to unlock the door of a casino after hours. But Houdini flung the door into the crooks and ducked inside. They took at shot at him through the door, and when Houdini threw up his hand to shield his face, the bullet lodged inside his hand, where it remained for his entire life.

Also on display at the museum is an original x-ray photo showing the bullet in Houdini's hand. This photo has appeared elsewhere, but seeing the original is a revelation. That's because one can see the "bullet" has clearly been added, or at least filled in with black ink. Possibly this was done to enhance the image. Or could it be a fake?

I admit I've never entirely bought the story of the gangsters. Seems like a bit of Houdini fiction. But possibly it was a way to romanticize or misdirect from what Dash claimed was a childhood accident. But I'm still not sure how an object inside Houdini's hand could aid in his escapes. Seems to me it would actually impede his ability to slip out of cuffs, etc.

That brings me to this intriguing footnote in Houdini's Fabulous Magic (page 19) by Walter B. Gibson and Morris N. Young:

Many people thought that Houdini could slip cuffs that were locked about his wrists, but he found that impossible. He even tried compressing the knuckles of his hands in special clamps for hours at a time, hoping to reduce their girth, but it was no avail; so he gave it up.

I've never heard about these clamp compression experiments, but it's likely the source was Walter Gibson, who knew Houdini personally. Was this Houdini once again misdirecting from his big secret? It should be noted that Houdini did slip handcuffs on occasion, sometimes in full view of the audience, and he can be seen slipping cuffs during the jail break sequence in The Grim Game.

Finally, it's worth noting that as he aged, Houdini's left hand gave him problems. He repeatedly broke his wrist, and in 1926 he told a doctor that he only has "50% strength" in his left hand. Could all this be related to the big secret?

While Dash was not above myth-making when it came to his own career (he also claimed to have been once trapped under an ice sheet), he seemed to be the most candid of all the Weisses. He also famously took umbrage to the Harold Kellock biography, Houdini His Life Story, as being "full of lies."

Unfortunately, Hardeen never completed his Houdini biography, so all we have this tantalizing tidbit. But what a remarkable thing to hear from the man who knew all of Houdini's secrets.

Thanks to Roger Dryer and the Houdini Museum of New York, located inside Fantasma Magic at 421 7th Avenue, 3rd Floor, New York, NY.

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22 comments:

  1. Dash's BIG secret here is hogwash. He was not above to lying when it came to his and bro's magic and escapes. A clear case is Dash's essay on the straitjacket escape, which I culled from Culliton's Houdini Unlocked set:

    To escape from a regulation straitjacket...is possible only if the performer can dislocate at least one shoulder.

    We now understand that dislocating your shoulder to get out of a straitjacket was Harry or Dash's? way of creating a bit of mystique around this escape, and make it look impossible to achieve for the average person.

    Dash may have been candid about family matters, but when it came to the skinny about the magic & escapes, he kept up the hokum long after Harry died. This was his bread & butter that paid the bills and naturally he was not going to spill the beans to the public.

    Rauscher's book on Dash is still awaited...

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    1. I was just talking to Joe Posnanski about the dislocated shoulder thing. He's looking for an example of when Houdini said it. Here we have Dash saying it. So who's the originator of this? Probably Houdini, but I'm not sure where.

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    2. WRT to dislocating a shoulder, HH mentions it in Conjurers Monthly Magazine Volume 2 No. 5 (January 15, 1908) when he describes the first time he saw a strait-jacket while in Saint John’s Nova Scotia. This is also mentioned in other places like Handcuff Secrets and the Kellock book.

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    3. The dislocating shoulder whopper is also in the June 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal where Harry describes how he gets out of the straitjacket thru a series of photos:

      At this point I employ a "talent" which from boyhood I have been able to do at will and at ease: I dislocate both shoulders!

      Both shoulders...egads!

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    4. Houdini did write about the dislocation. He compared it to the gymnastic trick of "skinning the cat" or hanging from a bar and turning completely over through the arms without letting go with his hands. Now, if you watch Houdini escape from his jackets, getting his hands over his head is no problem -- no dislocation necessary. Hardeen (ghosted by John Mulholland) described the boy who would become Houdini as a "truant." We know when he ran away. It was after his brother Herman died, so Houdini would have been about twelve. My own theory about the bullet wound is that Houdini was trying to catch a bullet, maybe a half or quarter load, with his hand. Just my theory.
      No truth at all to the gambler story. Houdini said as much in a letter, I think, to Bessie.
      Houdini wrote about having clamps made to try to reduce the circumference of his hands. He mentions that the experiment didn't work.
      My cousin Jann Haworth (won a Grammy with her husband Peter Blake for designing the album cover for Sgt. Pepper) could clasp her hands together and go straight over her head until her hands were in the small of her back -- then come back the other way. No bending at the elbows. If anything was a dislocation, that was it -- and I never saw Houdini do that.










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    5. Ah, it's in the Ladies Home Journal article. I really should have known that, especially as it's hanging on my wall. :)

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  2. I as well do not believe the bullet being in his hand would make his hand able to be contracted like Hardeen claimed. That just SCREAMS of fallacy in my mind. & as for the kellock book, I've read all I've come across on Houdini, book wise {which is a TON!}, & I'd have to say it's my favorite one, & sounds more feasible to me, plus, Bess helped with the stories. A great read if you haven't. Whitt Smith. :)

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    1. I love the Kellock book as well. I love the first hand Bessie stories. But there's a lot of malarky in it. Still, it's Houdini era malarky, so there's something charming in that.

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  3. I think it is BS also. Too good a story for Gibson not to have mentioned it, after all, Gibson was a writer of fiction as well as a biographer and if he passed on the tale it's because Harry told him it was BS or wasn't invented until Hardeen made it up.

    As for slipping cuffs, there was just a news story with police car video the day showing a young woman escaping from the cuffs in a police car! If your wrists are narrow at just the right pressure points on a cuff you can do it. That's why many cops put the cuffs on higher on your hands and folks complain they hurt so much, because they really aren't placed proper on just the wrist often, but, purposelessly higher to curb slipping.

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    1. Ha, I've seen that video. Aren't they calling her "the shoplifting Houdini"?

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  4. The compression of the wrists part brought back some memories for me. When I was younger I had also looked for ways to compress my hands to aid in escapes. I wondered "what" would happen "if" I had bones such as carpals or metacarpals removed could it help? Further at times over the years I have bound by ropes or cuffs so tight that my hands turned dark from lack of circulation, today I have some nerve damage and weakness in my left hand. On one occasion a spectator pressed the cuffs so tightly that they cut into my wrists. The compressions techniques did nothing and I still have all my bones. However the "What if " thoughts still come to mind, "What if" I did this or "What if" I did that. Many of the escapes and magic routines arrive from the "What If's" as well. I'm not sure of the bullet aiding in his ability but, What If.......

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    1. You know, for many years I've wondered if Houdini might have done something like you suggest. We know he was well acquainted with sideshow folk and you can imagine he was a pretty extreme young man who might have experimented with self-mutilation to achieve certain skills. We know he put he put needles through his cheeks. Might he have tried something more extreme in his youth? As you say, What if...

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  5. As someone with a natural ability(?) to compress my left hand (but not my right) in much the way described, I can testify that having a metal ball between the metacarpals would impede, not help, that compression.

    Metal in an x-ray should look bright white, not inky black. The more white, the more dense. Google "bullet in x ray" to see how this goes.

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    1. But it looks like this is a positive print of an x-ray negative.

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  6. WRT to slipping handcuffs, on March 20th 1904, three days after the Mirror Handcuff Challenge, HH offered a challenge to the Mirror that included the following statement: “Furthermore, it has reached my ears that people are saying that at the contest I slipped one hand before undoing the Mirror Handcuff. I now agree to forfeit a further sum of 25 guineas to anyone who can pick the handcuff within twenty-four consecutive hours with one hand locked in the manacle.”

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    1. I think there's a good chance he did slip one side of the Mirror. Remember this post.

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  7. I can't imagine how a bullet in his hand could have given him the ability to compress his hand. It does sound like Hardeen was making this up perhaps to generate interest in the book. As far as the bullet being from the gamblers gun, unless that bullet was lodged at a perfect angle making it appear round, it looks to be a round lead ball bullet which is used in black powder muskets and muzzleloader rifles and pistols used prior to the turn of the century. The bullet catch trick was done with smooth bore muskets so maybe Patrick's on to something here.

    I didn't find anything in handcuffs secrets about dislocation of the arms for the straitjacket escape. I did find it described in Hardeen's pitch book 'The Life and History of Hardeen'.

    Jack

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  8. I think we are missing something here. Is Hardeen saying this bullet caused Harry's hand to grow in length the same as is other hand but it actually stunted or altered the growth of the hand from age 12 internally so it could be compressed yet to the naked eye you could not detect this defect?

    To quote Hardeen:
    Because the bullet remaing (remaining during growth) in the palm of the hand, caused the groth (growth of the hand from age 12 to adulthood when he started doing handcuff escapes) to seem the same as the other hand (appear to be the same size) and aparently was the same (undetectable). Houdini could contract the hand so that he was able to pull it through the smallest kind of hole.

    Jack

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    1. Nice dissection. I think that is what he's saying. Hard to tell.

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  9. Reading all of the theories and responses to them is very interesting. As a physician, although not an orthopedic surgeon, I have a little perspective on some of the theories. First of all, growth occurs via the elongation of bone, which occurs at area of the long bones called the Growth Plate. Unless the bullet damaged the BONE, in particular , the Growth Plate, I don't understand how that would affect the growth of the hand. And that damage, if it occurred would have to be Before the growth plates close, after which there is no longer any further linear growth of the bones! The bullet appears to be lodged in the muscle or soft tissue between the 3rd and 4th metacarpals. If anything, I would imagine that in the process of healing there might be the formation of some scar tissue which if anything would restrict hand flexibility and movement, rather than enhance it. For that reason none of Hardeen's explanation seems logical to me. With regard to the dislocation of shoulders, There are certain conditions which carry along with them a tendency toward hypermobility of joints. Hence the ability of contortionists. While theoretically one can dislocate a shoulder, for a normal healthy shoulder it would be difficult and very painful!! There are certain situations where people can dislocate their shoulders. This generally may occur after people have had one or more shoulder dislocations which causes weakness and laxity of the ligaments, allowing hypermobility and the ability for the shoulder to dislocate with minimal trauma, or with certain positional movement. So unless Houdini , had a genetic disorder, or multiple earlier dislocations, I would doubt that he really did dislocate his shoulders. That being said, I would imagine that it is THEORETICALLY possible for one to stretch ligaments over time to achieve necessary laxity to occur this to happen. I would appreciate if there is any expert Orthopedic opinion to weigh in.

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    1. Thanks so much for this. Very interesting.

      One of the reasons I don't think HH really dislocated his shoulders is because he only said that he did. I expect if he really could, he'd whip off his shirt and demonstrate it for every reporter in sight. He would love that.

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  10. I agree, John. With his huge ego, and the fact that he already revealed this, I'm sure he would have wanted to display it! It would be an extraordinary and unusual feat, that no doubt, would have garnered him much praise, AND publicity!!

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