Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gaffed Houdini handcuffs at auction; NOT from the Water Torture Cell

A pair of gaffed Houdini handcuffs that belonged to the late great Billy McComb are among a selection of 260 lots of conjuring books and magic memorabilia at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions Bibliophile sale on Thursday December 12, 2013.

The handcuffs are accompanied by a letter from McComb detailing how he acquired them from an accumulation of props bought by Douglas Geoffrey (aka Hardeen Jr.) from Elsie Hardeen. When cleaning the rusted cuffs, McComb discovered that they had been specially prepared to provide a quick release. The handcuffs and letter are estimated at £2,000-3,000 [Lot 47].

In their report on the auction, the UK's Daily Mail claimed the cuffs "were a vital prop in Mr. Houdini's Chinese water torture escape." It appears the tabloid got this from Mike Heseltine, specialist in conjuring and performing arts at Bloomsbury, who speculated that the cuffs "could have been used in the Chinese Water Torture trick." The Times and other media have now taken the bait and are also reporting that the cuffs "are believe to have been used" in the Chinese Water Torture Cell.

However, there is nothing to indicate that these cuffs were used in Houdini's most famous escape. In fact, Houdini did not even wear shackles in the USD. Houdini did wear handcuffs like these in the Milk Can escape. That might have been the more astute speculation, but it's still a leap. But considering the rust and quick release mechanism, it is likely these were used by Houdini and/or Hardeen for underwater escapes.

Look, Ma, no cuffs!

Other irons at auction include a pair of Lilly Leg Irons estimated at £2,000-3,000 [Lot 45], and a round barrel screw key padlock estimated at £1,000-1,500 [Lot 46]. Both were left by Houdini to Joseph Dunninger and later presented by Dunninger's widow to Richard John Silmser. They were then purchased by Joseph M. Tanner who sold the irons to John Fisher from a catalogue of Houdini memorabilia issued in 1988. Letters of provenance are included in both lots.

Houdini’s personal copy of Arcana of Spiritualism by Hudson Tuttle is among the rare magic-related books in the auction. With engraved portrait bookplate and a few pencil underlinings and markings, it is estimated at £250-350 [Lot 20].

In light of the high prices set this month for Houdini magic props and posters, it will be interesting to see what a pair of gaffed cuffs sell for. It's a shame the Water Torture Cell claim has muddied the waters a bit.

You can view the full action catalog and download a PDF at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions.

UPDATE: Bloomsbury will clarify handcuff claim.

UPDATE 2: The cuffs sold for £2300.


  1. These cuffs could have also been used by Houdini for the Overboard Packing Case escape. There is a photo of him at a harbor in N.Y. wearing a pair of quick release? cuffs before he enters the box. Could also be jump cuffs and may have been the same cuffs he used for the diving board jump into that L.A. pool.

    1. True. These could have been used for any of these underwater escapes. They could have also been used by Hardeen who also did the packing crate and bridge jumps.