While doing research for his book, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, Ken uncovered a clipping from an unidentified Boston newspaper dated January 11, 1922. Under the headline, HOUDINI IN FALL, the paper describes how Houdini was badly hurt "a couple weeks ago" in a traffic jam on the Boston Elevated railway.
When the trains were stalled by a short circuit, Houdini forced open the door of his car. He then jumped a four foot space to the roadbed of the bridge, and then dropped 12 feet to the street. On landing, he hit a piece of ice and his feet shot out from under him. Houdini fell on his hip, "wrenching it badly." He was, however, able to continue his engagement in Boston without canceling.
There are a few ways to think about this incident. As this is 1922 and Houdini is still in the thrall of being a movie "action hero", this could be yet another example of Houdini attempting to play the role of real-life action hero with predictably un-movie-like results. This hearkens back to another incident while filming Terror Island on Catalina Island when Houdini tried to rescue a stalled boat in the bay and was almost drowned himself.
But there is another, much stranger way of reading this.
I can't help but think about how this curious story helps support Bernard C. Meyer's provocative theory, put forward in his 1976 book, Houdini: A Mind in Chains - A Psychoanalytic Portrait, that Houdini may have suffered from latent claustrophobia, and that his escapes where compulsive attempts to "master" his anxiety disorder.
Meyer notes how in several real-life situations in which Houdini found himself unexpectedly "trapped", he would fly into rages or act out in ways that could be classified as claustrophobic panic. One famous example was when he was jokingly locked into a telephone booth at the Savoy hotel. He flew into a rage, kicking and banging at the door until the terrified prankster let him out. Meyer also suggests Houdini's famous seasickness could be partially attributed to the disorder. Bess even once had to tie him to his bunk for fear that he would make good on his threat to throw himself overboard.
So here we have another example, and a classic one at that. According to Wikipedia, "a typical claustrophobic will fear restriction in at least one, if not several, of the following areas: small rooms, locked rooms, cars, tunnels, cellars, elevators, subway trains, caves, airplanes and crowded areas."
So what do we think? Was Houdini playing action hero that day in Boston? Was he having a claustrophobic panic attack? Or did he just have somewhere he really needed to be?
The doctor is in.
UPDATE: While this was reported in the paper in 1922, it's likely this happened during the week of December 19, 1921 when Houdini was playing Keith's Theater in Boston.
- Willard's side
- Houdini and the Transatlantic Flight
- Miracle Mongers the Movie
- Houdini's wristwatch
- What happens in Vegas...