Thursday, July 26, 2012

Guest Blog: Houdini's encounter with the German police in 1902

Once again, Johan Ahlberg from Sweden shares with us some fresh research via translations of foreign newspapers. This time Johan digs into German papers to uncover some unknown facts about Houdini's lawsuit with the German police in Cologne. The translations from the original German are a little challenging to read, but Johan has unearthed some gold here. Enjoy.

The story when Houdini sued the German police for slander has been told many times and how he got an honorary apology by command of Kaiser Wilhelm II emperor of Germany. The stern policemen with moustaches and spiked helmets, armed with swords, looking down on Houdini standing manacled before the court like a dangerous prisoner makes a superb poster.

Different versions have been told about what really happened. After extensive research in the German newspapers, I found some interesting articles. The following is a translation from four different articles in The Rheinische zeitung and reports from the court proceedings. The originals are printed in old style German and hard to read. I had help from a German scholar to translate.

Court proceedings 26 February 1902

The artist Harry Houdini, who has performed as an escape artist, have given in a personal sue for slander against policeman Graf and editor Merfeld on the Rheinische zeitung. Houdini accuses Graf for have fettered him with a so called dead lock (tricked lock) that can’t opened after it’s locked. Therefore he had to blow the lock.

According to this there was an article in R.Z no.170 that the escape king Houdini in circus Corty Althoff was exposed by police officer Graf that could tell that Houdini had contacted him and that both of them could earn a lot of money on that Graf fettered him in such a way that he couldn’t get free. The private (this is a kind of private employed in the police force common used to transport prisoners) Lott should have received 20 Marks for lending Houdini  an extra transport chain Houdini showed the audience after he had saw through the (first) transport chain. The accused Merfeld (editor) explained that he got the material for the article by a trustworthy journalist.

The accused Graf claims that he told the story as it was told in several newspapers. Graf claims that it not was a dead lock but the lock he had put before the court. Houdini couldn’t open the lock since it has a concealed opening that Houdini didn’t know about. The witness Lott was in the audience at the circus with Houdini and Graf he was changing his story and admitted that he didn’t tell the truth. Houdini had asked him against 10 Mark to lock him so he couldn’t get free. Graf had another extra transport chain he had given to Houdini. Houdini was fettered and went into his cabinet and came out free from the transport chain. He said (Houdini) it was impossible to get free from the chain so he was forced to saw of the transport chain.

Houdini had offered before the court to make an escape from the transport chain. Graf fettered him with the transport chain around Houdini's wrists, as the police commonly do. Houdini went behind a table in the court room and freed himself immediately from the transport chain under the courts supervision.

Houdini's wife Bess statement tells that she noticed how Graf had removed the dead lock from his west pocket and fettered her husband with this lock. She tried to stop this but was forced back. The witness mechanic Krogh swore that the lock put before the court are the same as Graff fettered Houdini with and after the circus show he had altered the lock (?)

The hearing is closed. The plaintiffs lawyer (Houdini) claimed that the accused should be sentenced for slander and public offence.
The accused lawyer claims his client should be free.

The court ruling was given today: Graf was sentenced to pay 200 mark and Merfeld to 50 Mark. 

  1. Gerich Zeithung (report from the court):

    The ruling in the court case Houdini against Graf is fine to pay 200 Mark and 20 days in jail, Merfeld are fined to pay 50 Mark. Of the hearing the judging court finds the witness Lott to be totally untrastable. The sentenced are going to take the case to a higher court.
  1. The escape artist, plaintiff Harry Houdini, in the third court (strafkammer) Cologne, the case are in session on Saturday regarding the complaint by Houdini against police officer Graf. The case against Merfelt was drawn back. The court session took a long time and was not finished before late evening. On Houdini's side was witnesses from London, Breemerhafen, Wilna, Dortmund and Essen.  Graf had one whiteness a police inspector, two captains (commissaries high rank police officer) and around 20 policemen, some private persons. In the court nothing new was presented, it got interesting when a discussion aroused between Grafs defense lawyer and Houdini when Houdini should open a manipulated lock that Graff brought with him to test Houdini's skills. Houdini looked for a short time on the lock and asked for a room where he in privacy could work on the lock. After two minutes had passed by Houdini arrived in the court with the lock opened. Graf was very surprised that Houdini managed to open the lock.
Graf was sentenced for slander and to fine 30 Mark and pay al costs. The costs are high since all witnesses should be compensated and the lost income. Houdini is on Grafs expense publishes the court ruling in al Cologne newspapers.

  1. Plaintiff, the escape king Houdini. In the earlier message that Graf and Merfeldt was convicted for slander, can we report that the court has gone on Grafs line and convicted Houdini for public insult and Houdini should fine 3 Mark. In the court rulings against Graf and Merfeldt it’s heard that they should answer for slander. The newspaper article is impressing slander of the plaintiff as person and artist. The truth in the article can’t be strengthening. Regarding the conversation in the police station , where the plaintiff (Houdini) promised the police officer Graff 20Mark, are Graf accused and his statement cant be trustworthy, furthermore Krog and Bekelz says the lock had been changed (altered) after the circus performance. Krog only said that the lock had been opened. By the statement from Houdini is it clear that Graf in the circus performance changed the lock in the last moment. The other information in the newspaper article in circus is the whiteness Lott responsibility for.

    The court doesn’t think he is trustworthy and that he had given different statements regarding the 20 Marks. Under the cross examination had Lott said that the plaintiff had cut or blown the chain. It could be added by the captain that Lott are totally untrustworthy. Regarding the bribes to the lower ranks with 100 Marks is the captain’s statement right with the whiteness Joseph that didn’t tell this. There are no mistakes that the newspaper article was written to lower the plaintiff’s skills. It must be stressed that the plaintiff did escape within minutes from the police fetters that Lott had put on him.

    It’s possible that Graf not had acted against his conscious like editor Merfeld. In circus Lott had told Graff that he had received 20 Mark. The punishment against Graff have been set so high with thought on the disadvantage for the plaintiff.


I think it’s clear that Houdini had approached the police to fetter him. In other cases it was claimed that Houdini paid challengers to bring their irons to test him. Its not certain that Houdini had paid to get an extra transport chain. There was two padlocks one regular and one special padlock fabricated so it couldn’t be opened once locked. What was told in court it had a hatch covering the keyhole to deadlock, this was fabricated by Krogh master mechanic and Houdini was fettered with it when performing. Bess immediately saw how the padlock was switched and gave Houdini the signal. The only reason was to snare Houdini so he couldn’t free himself even if Houdini had the key for the padlock. Houdini had to cut the chain and it was fair since he had been tricked.

In his book Handcuff Secrets, Houdini states that he picked the padlock with the picks marked X . To pick a three lever padlock with hands chained is not at all easy and if it can be done it will take time. When Houdini explains the method for escaping from a transport chain he either tells a story where he was friend with a locksmith Mr.Mueller, who had a shop in Mittle strasse Berlin. Working for free he repaired locks for Mueller and had him order several gross of locks “with a peculiar shape with 3 or 4 levers” he practiced for hours to pick the padlocks. In another explanation he claimed to have slipped the chain by use of a strong hook, painful at first, or using his teeth’s and by bringing the arms parallel he could slip the chain. Possible if you have small hands but not a method you can depend on if you are fettered by the German police.

It's an excellent example where Houdini the master showman turned the court to his favor by doing an escape from a chain and opening the dead lock. Other escape artists would have failed, or lost their nerves, but this must have confused the judge. Nothing is mentioned if Houdini was locked up in a safe or the special Berliner handcuffs he claimed to have been manacled with. It seems like the story of a public apologies in all German paper is not true it was in the Cologne newspaper Graf had to pay for advertisement.

The story is intriguing and facts points at methods used by Houdini. Houdini got a lot of publicity from this court case. On the other hand had he failed it could have been the ruin of his career at least in Germany. The ruse to trick Houdini by changing the lock or handcuffs was tried in the challenge with Mr. Wilson in Blackburn, England in 1903. Bess did immediately spot the switch and signaled Houdini. Brian Lead and Roger Woods wrote an excellent book on that matter.

Even if the newspaper reporters on the Rheinische zeitung was not accurate, it is as close we ever will come to Houdini's secrets.

Johan Ahlberg ©

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