Sunday, February 16, 2014

The untold story of Houdini's 1914 Battery Park escape

On July 15, 1914, Houdini performed his overboard box escape off New York's Battery Park before a crowd of 15,000. It's an escape that, while well-represented in photos, receives scant attention in most Houdini biographies. This is surprising as it was a major event and also gave Houdini one of his closest calls (according to him). So I thought it was high time to shine a light on this uncelebrated but still spectacular Houdini escape.

Houdini returned from Europe in late June 1914 (famously entertaining President Theodore Roosevelt aboard the ocean liner, Imperator) to fulfill his regular July booking at New York's Hammerstien's Roof Garden and Victoria Theatre. The first week, July 6, Houdini performed his Water Torture Cell. But during the second week he revealed an all-new, semi-original magic effect, Walking Through A Brick Wall.

This was a significant time for Houdini, who has just turned 40. The previous month in England he had experimented with presenting his first all-magic show, the Grand Magical Revue, and he was making ambitious plans to embark on a world tour in a traveling caravan. What Houdini didn't know was that World War I would break out in Europe in just a few weeks, preventing him from traveling overseas for six years. It's also worth noting that July 17 marked the first anniversary of his mother's death, which still haunted him.

Houdini would promote his Hammerstein's engagement in a major way. On July 13 newspapers announced that he would make a "DARING DIVE!!" off Manhattan's Battery Park "near the aquarium." Houdini would be shackled and nailed into a packing crate and then thrown (always "thrown") into the harbor. The "special free test" would take place on Wednesday, July 15 at 12:30 p.m., "rain or shine." (As a side note, the Battery Park aquarim was once Castle Garden, where emigrants were processed in the years before Ellis Island, including the 4-year-old Houdini.)

This was actually Houdini's second overboard box escape in New York. On July 7, 1912, he performed the feat from a tugboat off Governors Island. (He was forced to hire a tug when police arrived and forbid the performance from the pier.) In that escape, his crate was sent down a seesaw plank into the water. This time Houdini would again use a tugboat, the J.A. McAllister, but a block and tackle would lower the box. It may have been the first time he used a block and tackle for the overboard box, and, as we'll see, it may have caused him some problems.

Clad in his bathing suit and accompanied by Hardeen, Houdini drove to the challenge in a 60-horsepower racing car. He was cheered all along the three-and-a-half-mile route from the theater district to the harbor. On his arrival, he found that 15,000 people turned out to witness the escape. The New York Tribune reported that the massive crowd "surged back and forth along the water front" with such force that police had to drive them back so those in the front wouldn't be thrown into the harbor. The paper also reported that Houdini had "an equally hard time driving away the moving picture photographers who insisted upon reeling off his feat despite the fact that he had his own staff of film-makers on hand."

It's a heartbreaking detail to learn that this escape was filmed because, as far as I know, not a frame of this film survives today. (However, we do have footage of another overboard box escape HERE.)

Photos show Houdini, dressed in a dark colored bathing suit (in 1912 he wore an all-white bathing suit), shackled in two pairs of handcuffs and leg-irons, with chains running from his hands to his ankles. He was then nailed into the packing box which was then roped and secured with what the Tribune called "steel tape." The box was then lowered over the side of the tug under the careful eye of Jim Collins. The unpublished photo below from our Hinson Endowment shows Collins using his foot to adjust the box's assent or keep it steady, which might indicate the first sign of trouble that Houdini later described.

The tugboat blew its horn as the box descended and disappeared below the water. One minute later, Houdini appeared at the surface to the cheers of the crowd. This was faster than his 2.5 minute escape in 1912. (The paper doesn't record whether the tugboat blew it's horn a second time to signal that Houdini was free, but it's very likely it did.) The paper said that "the spectators wandered off debating, some saying that he kept the keys in his thick hair; others that he had an evil genius."

But the escape had not gone as smoothly as it appeared from the surface. In an autobiographical article Houdini wrote in 1919 called "Dying For A Living," he related what had happened that day under the water:

Some of you who read this may have been at the Battery in New York on July 15, 1912 [sic]. The date is seared on my memory, and so is the picture of the crowd that I saw just before I lowered myself, manacled and handcuffed into a packing-box that stood at the water's edge. Into this box had been placed 200 pounds of lead so that it would quickly sink, and with the top securely nailed it was bound about with ropes, and held for a moment until I gave the word, and then thrown overboard.

Whatever happened I don't know until this day. It may have been that a passing boat disturbed the water, for as the box was sinking it seemed to be thrown about roughly. What I had to do to make my escape from the box had to be done in seconds, and even as I write of it now there comes to me a feeling of suffocation and I recall the moment of my discovery that the ropes had become entangled and I was face to face with the dreaded one chance of the thousand.

Always when under water, and of necessity holding my breath, my mind works just as freely and clearly as under normal conditions. On this day, down there under many feet of water, it became necessary for me to work faster than I had ever worked in my life before and my mental apparatus proved equal to the task. However I did it I am not quite sure now, but my time hadn't come and the thousands of persons who watched cheered loudly as I came to the surface freed of the manacles and handcuffs.

It should be noted that in this same article Houdini goes on to tell the tale of being trapped under the ice during an overboard box escape (post on that coming soon), so maybe this battle under the Battery is an invention as well? You never know with Houdini. However, there is some indication that it might be true. As I pointed out, the photo of Collins shows him steadying the box, and the papers report that there was a second boat, "P.D.7" on the scene, so this might have caused the disturbance Houdini talks about. The use of a block and tackle connected to the tug would have made the box highly susceptible to turbulence. Finally, Houdini rapid escape jives with the 1 minute escape time described by the paper.

So there we have Houdini's 1914 Battery Park escape. It's really a great stunt and it's odd that these details have been largely lost to Houdini history…until now.

With thanks to Mantoo, Dana Keller, Patrick Culliton, John C. Hinson, and especially Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence for providing me with the newspaper accounts of the Battery Park escape.

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  1. A few details that didn't fit in the article. Houdini performed his double-fold death-defying mystery along with the brick wall at Hammerstein's, which I never knew. Also, I suspect the reason the details of this escape are overlooked is that it wasn't covered by the NY Times (as was 1912). The Times archives were probably what most biographers used pre internet.

  2. I would've panicked and become irrational. It's amazing how he was able to finish the trick like that!

    1. I would be in a panic no matter what. Just to sit in that box and let it fill with water around you would be terrifying.

    2. Hey John,,,just reading this great post. I can tell you first hand being in the box and feeling it hit the water is one thing, however when you see the light disappear from around the top as you sink below the surface and all the sounds change to muffled oppressive darkness and that water starts pouring in,,,it just doesnt stop until its full and then in a heartbeat what was once dark and scary yet able to breath is now blindly dark, under cold water, wierd sounds and total total isolation......

  3. Thank You for finally giving this escape the attention it deserves. July 1914 was quite the month. Look forward to hearing more about Harry dying for a living.

    1. And July 15 was quite a day! Definitely a candidate for time travel. You could see HH do the overboard box in the afternoon and then the Brick Wall, Needles, and Double-Fold that night. Wow.


    Two thoughts come to mind.
    1) Never believe anything Houdini says unless it is backed up by an independent source.

    2) Any time you do a dangerous stunt, no matter how carefully planned, you are still risking your life on the outside chance things foul up!

    Dorothy Dietrich & Dick Brookz

    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini.
    The Original Houdini Museum in NYC at The Magic Towne House

  5. In his article, Houdini describes the July 15, 1914 overboard escape as having taken place in 1912. So it appears that he got the year wrong. The newspaper article notes that the spectators walked away from the stunt theorizing about the method such as keys hidden in his hair. I thought that was interesting because it reminds us that folks back then were not that stupid.

    I'm wondering what happened to the box. Was the it released to the bottom of the river or just lowered a few feet underwater and then lifted back by the crane? The earlier escape in 1912 has the box sliding off a plank into the water. One assumes it sank to the bottom of the river. The waters around Manhattan were already polluted by the early 1900s, so this type of stunt was dangerous in more ways than one.

    1. Leave it to Houdini to get the year wrong. The more I do primary research the more I discover he's a disaster with dates. I think Silverman makes mention of the same thing. You can't trust his dating of anything.

      Seems to the me the plank method was far more dangerous as the box was really on it's own once it hit the water. The block and tackle gives more control. I'm also wondering if the box in 1912 was irretrievable. Check out the pic in Pictorial Life of the box going down the plank. There is just an ordinary rope attached to the back. No way are they pulling it back out with that.

    2. Wonder if he remembered his anniversary

    3. Re my comment above. Clearly the box was retrievable as Houdini was photographed with it after the escape.

  6. Regarding your post from Dec. 4 2011, "Houdini's only filmed overboard box escape": This footage is really fantastic. Great editing. A few thoughts: Did you notice his shoes? It look like they have heels on them. Maybe to help with the escape? I agree that the flag is probably just a device to indicate that he is actually inside the box. The date could be in July, as it was still close to the fourth of July, hence the American flag. Probably not because of World War I because the U.S. didn't get involved in that until 1917.
    Also, Battery Park Aquarium and Fire Boat,

    1. Good points. Houdini wore lifts on his shoes, so maybe that's what we're seeing here. Good point about the U.S. not getting into the War until 1917. Probably wouldn't have been a patriotic swell this early. Also interesting idea about it being July 4. But the one mention of the NJ escape that it took place after Battery Park, which was July 15. But it's all very unclear, so it could be anytime.

  7. I'm curious why this past post is getting so much traffic lately? Are we linked somewhere? Thanks.