Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guest blog: Houdini secret revealed?

Today I have a Guest Blog from magician, escape artist and magic inventor Jay Leslie. Jay was at the opening of the SAM exhibit in Whittier and shared with me an interesting theory that I encouraged him to write up for WAH. Take it away, Jay.

This last weekend I attended the re-revealing of a few collectibles from the S.A.M. Museum. Among which were handcuffs belonging to Houdini.

Looking at the display boards, it's fairly obvious the Harvard cuff does not belong there, but I suspect there was another cuff in that location originally and someone took it then realized the board had holes running through it so they threw the Harvards on there to take-up the space.

But seeing photos of the Russian Manacles and of the Mirror cuffs (both Challenge cuffs) I noticed what I thought were differences in the sizes of the bows on both cuffs.

Photo 1

In the first photo you'll notice the bows are not fully closed, Why? Possibly to show how they work but none of the other cuffs or locks are open or partially open, so why? I believe both sides are different. Look at photo 2. What I did was a quick photoshop where the left bow is flipped horizontal and rotated a bit to line-up with the approximate angle of the right bow, then that was superimposed over top.

Photo 2

Granted this was a quick job, but I think it’s easy to see both bows are different. If you are familiar with making castings then you would know there is no difficulty making two bows from the same form.

What does that mean? It would have been easier to make two exact same bows then two different bows. So, was this done as a way to show that the Manacles were made crudely so no one suspected the amount of work that went into making them? I don’t think so. I believe it was on purpose. The purpose for one bow to be larger is possibly to slip the bow or so your smaller hand can maneuver easier.

I have a similar observation (right or wrong) about the Mirror cuff. One bow is larger. Somewhere in the past I read a book that had an outline of Houdini’s hand drawn on a page. Harry was a lot shorter then I am but if that drawing is correct then my hands (at six feet tall) are the same exact size and shape as Harry's. We’re talking exact, to the length of the fingers, size of the wrist, size of the pal, width and height.

But supposing that the drawing was a slight bit larger then real life. In that case this next observation is even more interesting. I have one of the first repro Mirror cuffs that a young man named Ian made. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Here's the deal. I can slip my smaller hand out the bigger lobe of the Mirror cuffs. That means, if Harry's hands were the same size as mine or smaller it's entirely possible he could slip the one side and work the lock, turn the dial, bang the spring or whatever he did to get out.

Now would be a good time for DC to chime-in. No? OK. I’m sticking to my thoughts that Harry could slip one side of the Mirror cuff and use the extra room, on the Russian Manacle, to maneuver his smaller (probably left) hand.

Incidentally, if I really really wanted to, I could slip the Russian Manacles with one hand. I'd probably break a bone but if I was making huge money and hanging my reputation on the line, I would. In the past I've almost broke my right elbow doing a jail escape and, in the moment, I would have done so rather then not escape.

So that's it. But If it was me doing a custom challenge escape, I'd figure out how to get the cuffs made to the size that worked for me. Remember, Houdini was not a gambler, he was a showman.

-Jay Leslie


  1. Looks like an artifact of light in an imprecise photograph rather than a difference in size or shape.

    1. I think Jay is going by personal observation rather than this photo. This is just a photo to help illustrate his point. And I have always noticed that one of the Mirror loops is bigger than the other. But it never really hit me why until Jay brought this up. But what I have always wondered how Houdini could have possibly opened the Mirror in his ghost house, even with the key. Being able to free one hand would do it.

  2. Houdini opened the Bean Giants with a key that had an extension rod attached to it. He clamped the other end of the rod with his teeth to open the lock. If he could not slip his wrist out of the Mirror Cuff, this would certainly be one way of doing it. He certainly had the time to design some kind of custom made extension rod for the key. Hell, if you look at the key itself for the Mirror Cuff, it's fairly long already.

    The loop on the right does look a bit larger, but not by much to me. I think it would have been obvious to the committee at the Mirror Challenge, for example, if one one loop was obviously bigger than its counterpart. They had the opportunity to wriggle the cuffs to make sure they were tight on both wrists.

    I believe that custom made escapes like the Mirror Challenge and the Water Torture Cell were designed to look impossible. The wrists were locked tightly in the cuff, or the ankles were held securely in the stocks with no room for freedom. These were some of the aspects that gave conviction to his escapes.

    1. Wiggle the cuffs? There are ways to take-up more room then it appears possible during various wrist ties and the same techniques could absolutely be used on metal.

      The sizes are different both on the mirror and the Seiberian. I used the photo within a CNC program that can measure differences to half a human hair and I didn't need to get an exact figure. All I needed to see was such a distinct difference on a quick look-see to know that in that day amd age, craftsmen had more time then money and would have gone out if their way to make the opposit sides perfect... Unless they were told to do otherwise.

      One of the things craftsmen did EAs to make a toolbox using the best work and ability possible. Those toolboxes were their sample cases. They were very proud of their work and they showed it.

      Here is a riddle; Why would a newspaper go to all the trouble of making an imperfect looking device to challenge the most famous person on earth? Why would a powerful newspaper company, who is creating a huge advertising promotion, go to the trouble of making a lopsided "masterpiece"?

      Answer: Because they didn't.