Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Saint John historian claims Houdini straitjacket origin story a myth

There's a very interesting article today in the Canadian Telegraph Journal in which local Saint John historian, Harold Wright, challenges the wildly accepted story that Houdini got the idea for his straitjacket escape after visiting Saint John's Provincial Lunatic Asylum in New Brunswick at the invitation of Dr. James Steeves, the director of the facility.

While Write acknowledges that Houdini was in Saint John in 1896, he says "no proof exists that Houdini ever knew Steeves or that he ever visited the asylum." Wright says Houdini invented the story about the birth of his straitjacket routine "around 1908" as a way "to create a myth around his show while distinguishing himself from the countless other magicians and illusionists that were touring North America at the time."

I've never heard anyone suggest that this story was a myth, but Wright might be on to something here. Kalush and Sloman give a vivid account of this Saint John Asylum discovery in The Secret Life of Houdini (which is quoted in the Telegraph article), but their only referenced source is Houdini's own account in his Conjurers Monthly Magazine in January 1908, and, as we all know, Houdini is not the best source for the truth.

Kenneth Silverman puts the story in what I think is the proper perspective in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. He cites Houdini's first documented straitjacket escape as taking place in San Francisco in 1899, and then briefly mentions the Saint John story as Houdini's "later account" of its origin (his source being Handcuff Secrets, 1910). Bruce MacNab's authoritative article about Houdini's first Canadian tour in The Beaver, June 2009 ("Hard Times in the Maritimes"), does not mention the Saint John/straitjacket story at all -- maybe because of the lack a reliable source?

I'm not sure where I come down on this one. Reading Houdini's own account in Conjurers, it doesn't seem like he's making any great Houdiniesque exaggeration or boast, and it's not surprising there wouldn't be any documentation of his visit in 1896 as Houdini was a nobody then. And if Houdini were making this up, why set it in New Brunswick? Unless maybe he was looking to absolve U.S. asylums as straitjackets where, even then, considered cruel forms of "treating" the mentally ill.

But what's this about Houdini being in Saint John only "as a stagehand for his wife Bess"? I wish Wright would have elaborated on this. While this at first sounds absurd, know that this was during the hectic days of the Marco Company when Harry and Bess took on many different roles in the ill-fated travelling magic show.

Click to read 'Escape artist: Historian says illusionist created myth, which had Saint John link' at the Telegraph Journal.


  1. John, as you know, I have researched Houdini in Los Angeles in very much the same way that Bruce McNab has researched Houdini in Canada.
    I believe that Bruce or I would admit that we couldn't FIND any evidence of this or that.
    I am of this opinion: if Houdini said he knew Dr. James Steeves, he did.
    It's been written that Houdini only slept four hours a night.
    Kalush says he believes Houdini was doing things the other twenty hours every day.
    No one can track all of Houdini's activities at any given time.
    Harold Wright didn't find any evidence--but did he say there is "no evidence?"

  2. Hi John--
    We all know that Houdini was notorious for his "fakelore." But he did mention that he was invited to St. Johns by Dr. James Steeves. If Houdini fabricated the story, wouldn't he have been afraid that Dr. Steeves could publicly deny this? It would not have been that difficult for a reporter to contact Dr. Steeves to confirm this story.
    Unless Dr. Steeves passed away by 1908 and Houdini discovered this and felt safe in fabricating his story. We need to know the death year of Dr. Steeves. If it was before 1908, I would be inclined to not believe Houdini. If much later, then Houdini may have been tell the truth on this one.

  3. Hey, that's an excellent point, Leo. Yeah, if this was a fabrication, it's very unlikely he'd mention a real person by name. That really might be the best evidence that this was not a case of Houdini "fakelore" (good word). Thanks.

  4. According to this website, Dr Steeves left the hospital in 1895:

  5. Your blog states that, “While Write acknowledges that Houdini was in Saint John in 1896, he says "no proof exists that Houdini ever knew Steeves or that he ever visited the asylum."

    It also says on the Saint John Directors website that, “Dr. Steeves had to end his career at the Lunatic Asylum due to a massive cerebral hemorrhage on September 2, 1895.” (A misleading statement?)

    But then in Dr. Steeves obituary it states he didn’t retire until May 1st, 1896. It appears that he had the stroke on Sept. 2nd, 1895, then retired May 1st 1896, then passed away March 3rd, 1897.

    So, there still is the possibility that Houdini could have Met Dr. Steeves.

    From the Telegraph article. “As the story goes, the next day, Houdini received a straitjacket from Steeves - who Houdini claimed had invented the restraint.”

    It’s popular belief from several sources on the internet that the straight jacket was invented in 1790 by an upholster named Guilleret at Bicêtre, an asylum for the chronically mentally ill near Paris.

    It is easy to conclude that Houdini’s claim that Dr. Steeves was the inventor of the restraint is fictitious and casts heavy doubt on his other claims.

    But let’s put all of this into perspective. As a Master Mystifier, wasn’t it Houdini’s job to fool the masses? If none of this is true, and it cannot be proved or disproved, then, even in death, Houdini is still doing his job.

  6. Replies
    1. His Canadian tour? Think it's pretty well documented that it was 1896. Whole book about it: The Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini by Bruce MacNab. Unless you're saying Houdini did an earlier tour? That would be news to me.


  7. Harry certainly played the Opera House in Saint John, NB prior to 1900, but did he ever appear at the Imperial Theatre there, prior to his death?

    'No mention in MacNab's great book re Harry.

    1. Great comments. I can add a few more things to most of the above. There were two Dr. Steeves. Senior had a heart attack in 1895 and was gone from the hospital. His son Junior was fired a week before Markos visited the City in 1896. The local newspapers gave very detailed account of the Markos tour, even Harrys visit to the local jail. Harry is his own scrapbooks and records makes no mention of the Asylum until his story of 1908. The Imperial Theatre (of which I was the historian for the "restoration" but not the social history) claims he performed there, although at the time of this claim, nobody knew the exact date of the 1896 visit - which I was able to confirm in 1981). The Imperial opened in 1913. In 1917 the Imperial showed a newsreel about Harry, and in 1924 another theatre showed his film Haldane of the Secret Service.

    2. Fantastic information. Thanks so much.

  8. I know I'm late to the game. I have absolutely no problem believing Houdini made up the origin story. He had no problem making up other stuff that would be easy to corroborate, even in those days (example: escaping from under a frozen river; his accounts vary). Regarding the inventor of the straitjacket, Houdini might have truly _believed_ it to be Steeves, but it still does shed doubt on the rest of the related claims. For the record, the straitjacket was invented earlier than 1790. I have a clipping repro from 1788: "Yesterday Spang was reexamined at the public office in Bow-Street; when it appeared that he has been formerly confined at Bethnal-green, where he remained a month or five weeks in a strait-jacket, hand-cuffed." (The Bath Chronicle, June 5, 1788, p. 3)