Houdini was appearing at Chase's "Polite Vaudeville" theater at 1424 Pennsylvania Ave., and had already garnered headlines with two jail escapes in the city. The first occurred at the 10th Precinct police station on January 1, 1906. On a challenge from Superintendent of Police, Major Richard Sylvester, Houdini escaped from "invincible bracelets" and cell No. 3 in just 18 minutes.
Two days later came a familiar Houdini pattern; what I call the "mid-week drama." Typically this involves a challenger announcing they were unsatisfied with the conditions of the first test and/or revealing a method by which they believed Houdini escaped. They would then "defy" Houdini to repeat the escape under stricter control. These mid-week dramas were almost certainly orchestrated by Houdini to generate suspense for a grand finale "rematch" at the end of the week. In this case, the mid-week drama might have been genuine. Newspapers reported that 10th street jailer, H.B. Elliot, found a "needle" on the floor which he thought Houdini might have used to pick the cell lock.
Major Sylvester then challenged Houdini to repeat his jail escape, this time from the new Fifth Precinct jailhouse at 5th and E street, which had locks that were considered more secure. Even Houdini proclaimed the locks of the very best quality and "really too good for station purposes." Nevertheless, Houdini beat the jail, passing through six locked doors in 31 minutes. It was while he was at the 5th Street station that Houdini received a message from Warden J.H. Harris, challenging him to "try his art" from the most formidable cell at the United States Jail -- the grand finale.
The next day, January 6, Houdini travelled to what was described as "a cathedral-like prison along the Eastern Branch of the Potomac." There a large group of officials gathered in Warden Harris' office. Houdini was shown to Murderers Row in the south wing of the jail, which contained seventeen cells. Current residents included seven convicted murderers, a man named James Backus -- "the alleged money-order raiser" -- and a housebreaker named Clarence Howlett.
Houdini was "stripped to the skin" and searched, presumably by one or all of the three Jail Physicians in attendance. He was then locked into the cell with Hamilton who, the press reported, remained "crouched in the far corner of the cell, presumably laboring under the belief that one of the arch-fiends was already there to get him for the red hot furnace." It's not recorded whether Houdini was also shackled. The officials then returned to the warden's office, leaving Houdini and his fellow inmates on their own.
The police had reason to be confident of their success in holding Houdini this time. The lock on the Guiteau cell was unreachable from the inside. A detailed account of the escape in The Washington Post explained:
All these cells are brick structures with their doors sunk into the walls fully three feet from the face of the outer corridor. When the heavily barred door is closed, and arm-like bar runs out to the corridor wall and then angles to the right and slips over a steel catch which sets a spring that fastens the lock. The latter is only opened by a key, and there are no less than five tumblers in the lock.
It only took Houdini two minutes to escape from the cell. (On page 134 of Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls, author William Gresham speculates on how Houdini might have escaped based on a device found in the Sidney Radner collection.) Houdini then embarked on a course of action that would make this escape legendary.
"I'm a housebreaker," said the astonished Howlett.
"You're a bad one, or you could get out of here," replied Houdini.
Houdini then took Howlett from his cell and thrust Chase inside. Houdini then locked Howlett into Chase's cell.
Houdini repeated the process with each and every one of the convicted men. He then retrieved his clothes from another locked cell, dressed, and appeared in the warden's office. The Post reported that the men's "amazement passed all bounds." As to the prisoner exchange, Warden Harris "took the change with the utmost good nature." The escape had taken 21 minutes, and by Houdini's own count was his 64th jail break.
Warden Harris and Superintendent Sylvester both provided Houdini with glowing testimonials. Sylvester thanked the Handcuff King for providing him with information that could make his jails more secure. (You'll noticed that Warden Harris states Houdini dressed before swapping the prisoners around; but that makes the story a little less fun, so we'll ignore that.) Houdini later featured the letter from Harris on the back of his pitchbook, HOUDINI: The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist.
Houdini would repeat his prisoner swapping stunt two months later when he escaped from a cell in the famous Boston Tombs. This time he added a new twist in that he scaled the wall and sped off to the theater in a waiting car. But it was his escape from Murderers Row and the Guiteau cell that always held a special place in his publicity material.
The United States Jail, later known as the D.C. or District jail, stood until the early 1980s. Here are two photos of the jail, inside and out, from the website, The Hill is Home.
Houdini would return to Washington D.C. seven months later. How would he top himself? I'll have that story next week.
Clipping source: Newspapers.com.