Thursday, November 21, 2013

Suspended straitjacket escape in 1913, but it's not Houdini

It's been said that Houdini got the idea for his famous suspended straitjacket escape from a super fan, Randolph Douglas (a.k.a. Randini), during a visit to the Douglas home in England in June 1914. The most recent biography, The Secret Life of Houdini (2006), even goes as far to state that Randini "changed the course of magic history" that day. Houdini would first perform the suspend straitjacket in Kansas City on September 8, 1915. It would become his signature outdoor escape.

But now reader Bill Mullins sends in a clipping that throws us a curve in regards to where Houdini might have gotten the idea for the escape and how original it was to the escape king.

Here we have a magician named "Mysterio" performing a suspended straitjacket escape in 1913, a full year before the Douglas demonstration and two years before Houdini first did the escape himself. Furthermore, it appears that Mysterio did this escape a number of times. Digging a little deeper (via Ask Alexander) reveals that Mysterio is actually "The Great Alvin." Alvin would come into conflict with a magician named L.L. Gaffney who performed magic and handcuff escapes as "Mysterio" in Europe and the U.S. and objected to the use of his name.

Here's the full clipping from the Buffalo Evening News which ran 100 years ago today on November 21, 1913.

So did Houdini know about Mysterio and his suspended straitjacket escape? It seems unlikely that he wouldn't. Mysterio's escapes were well reported in the pages of The Sphinx. It appears he last did the escape in 1914, so perhaps by 1915 Houdini felt enough time had passed that he could do the escape himself. Funny to think that Houdini would imitate an imitator who was himself impersonating an imitator. (Did you get all that?)

To be fair, I don't believe Houdini ever claimed the suspended straitjacket escape to be an "original invention" the way he advertised the Milk Can and Water Torture Cell as such. Of course, he also never said it wasn't. But Houdini had the foresight and courage to be raised over 100 feet, which truly made this a spectacular escape. When it comes to suspended straitjackets, height does matter.

The loser here may be Randolph Douglas and the notion that he introduced Houdini to the idea of the suspended straitjacket escape. Magic history was not changed that day. But it could be that Houdini let the young man believe that he had indeed showed him something new. Heck, it took us 100 years to discover otherwise.

Thanks to Bill Mullins for this revelatory discovery.

UPDATE: Only after I finished this post did I learn that Joe Notaro revealed this news on his blog Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence in October. Joe also discovered that Mysterio/Alivn's real name was Al Pitroff. Good work, Joe!

UPDATE 2: It appears Pitroff is still doing the suspended straitjacket escape in 1915, as can been seen in the below ad from the Perth Amboy Evening News, February 12, 1915.


  1. I think these revelations are fascinating but at the same time reveal Houdini's limitations. I grew up wanting to believe his skill and genius were boundless.

  2. I've also posted this reply on Joe Notaro's site.

    Interesting piece.
    Houdini did the Suspended Straitjacket first in Sept of 1914, not 1915. This was just a couple of months after his visit with Douglas.
    I'm sorry we missed the Pitroff reference when researching "Secret Life" but I can now shed a bit more light on it.
    I can verify that HH did have contact with Pitroff. At least two letters were exchanged in 1914 but Houdini seemed to be miffed about Pitroff using Houdini's name in his advertising (Pitroff, Houdini's only rival). The suspended straitjacket was not mentioned in these letters.
    I can also report that Pitroff is included in Houdini's imitators scrapbook and in two clippings contained therein Pitroff is credited with doing the Suspended Straitjacket escape in Boston at the Bowdoin Square Theater. Unfortunately the clipping is undated and I haven't tried to date it yet.
    I can also verify that Douglas absolutely claimed to have done it first in 1913 and I can not find evidence that Douglas was aware of Pitroff at all let alone his doing the Suspended Straitjacket.
    My present conclusions are: Both Douglas and Pitroff performed it before Houdini and quite possibly each discovered it independently; Houdini knew of both men; It has always been my belief that very few performed this stunt concurrently with Houdini. It's possible that Pitroff sold the idea to Houdini and then ceased performing it, but that is mere speculation and needs further research. I believe that Prof. Krayak did it while HH was alive and perhaps Nicola did too but most escape artists, including Hardeen, did not do it while Houdini was alive.

    1. Very interesting! The plot thickens. I would love to see or hear more about the evidence and details for the September 1914 date for Houdini and the 1913 claim for Randolph. Thanks!

    2. Wow. Thank you so much for chiming in on this, Bill. Great info on Pitroff. You know, I was wondering if HH maybe bought the idea from him. Seems convenient that Pitroff stops when HH starts. I do think it's possible Pitroff and Douglas came up with the idea independently.

      I'm very interested to know more about that 1914 suspended jacket escape. That's news to me. We were knocking ourselves out a while back trying to find out which 1915 date was correct. Now this.

      What do you want to bet that at some point we'll discover evidence that HH did the jacket in 1908 or something like that and it will blow all this out of the water. That's the way it seems to go with Houdini research.

      Thanks again, Bill. Please stick around. I love hearing that latest info you've uncovered.