Houdini Reflected: Part One
by Neil McNally
“Houdini” and “Handcuffs.” These two words are synonymous in entertainment history with bold challenges, daring escapes, and enraptured audiences. During his fifty-two years on this Earth, Harry Houdini never encountered a pair of handcuffs that he couldn’t somehow get out of. His mastery of locks, picks, and their inner workings was so complete that eighty-nine years after his death, people still talk in baited breath about these escapes as if they witnessed them first hand.
Ironically, for all the success handcuff escapes gave Houdini there is one revered pair that to this day looms large over the rest: the famed British “Mirror Cuffs.” They were elegant in design and execution; however, it was this apparent simplicity that seemingly almost defeated Houdini on a London stage. His eventual escape from these is, as you would expect with Houdini, shrouded in mystery, conspiracy, and much debate. What was real? What was not? How much can myth and legend be separated from cold hard facts? There is no better place to start than from a quote from the Great Houdini himself:
“The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.”
The Mirror Cuffs, even by today’s standards still stand out as a bold and remarkable technical achievement. For those unfamiliar, the handcuffs themselves are small, compact, and rigidly hold the wearer’s hands in a vice-like grip. As Kenneth Silverman explained in his book Houdini: The Career of Ehrich Weiss:
These were inflexible handcuffs, without a chain or swivel; the wrist holes coupled to cylinders that housed the intricate locks…The key was a metal tube with slots cut in the end. When the key tube entered the lock it pushed a number of slides, each to a different depth. The key could be turned only when all the slides were depressed the correct distance, which required endways pressure and many delicate rotations.
Okay, so it’s wasn’t going to be as easy as opening up a can of beans. However, in the eyes of the theater going public of the time, there was only one man who could defeat these cuffs and it was Houdini. But, then again, maybe he couldn’t.
A media storm of publicity engulfed the escape artist as Houdini soon found himself in a place he very much liked to be…the talk of the town and in every newspaper in London. The challenge and ensuing publicity eventually reached a fevered pitch as the fateful day, March 17th, arrived. Four thousand ticket holders and over a hundred journalists thronged the Hippodrome to watch Houdini, and his career, literally liberate themselves from this deceptively simple contraption.
Tick, Tick, Tick…
"I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best."
It was with this earnest statement that 29-year-old Harry Houdini addressed the Hippodrome’s electrified audience. By all accounts, when he initially entered the theater he was greeted with a thunderous ovation which was swiftly “rewarded” with the daunting cuffs being firmly and tightly mounted on to his wrists. Then at 3:15pm, with his wife Bess by his side, the Hippodrome orchestra began to play its melodic strains. Houdini was then led to a covered stage cabinet that was ironically referred to as his “ghost house.”
When most people today think of Houdini’s escapes they most likely envision a man in a strait jacket hung upside down or thrashing about violently on stage. But, when it came to escapes, Houdini generally would leave a fair amount to the imagination and, most importantly, tension within the audience’s minds. So, essentially after Houdini would enter his “ghost house,” the audience basically was on their own to envision what kind of struggles he was grappling with within this small darkened enclosure.
However, never one to leave them hanging Houdini’s flair for the dramatic would manifest itself in three separate events in close succession:
Twenty-Two Minutes: Houdini emerged from the cabinet to get a clearer look at the lock in the theater lights.
Thirty-Five Minutes: Houdini appeared once more exasperated and sweating profusely. He explained to the audience that he needed to stretch his knees. Bess then brought him a cup of water as a cushion was provided for him by an attendant.
Sixty-Five Minutes Later: Houdini triumphantly emerged from the “ghost house” holding the defeated Mirror Cuffs in his hands. The crowd erupted into deafening cheers and according to author Kenneth Silverman, Houdini left the stage for a few moments “hysterical and weeping” to gather himself. When he returned he gave a short speech claiming that throughout the arduous ordeal he had considered giving up. This was Harry Houdini triumphant!
As you would expect, the ensuing publicity for Houdini was immense. The feat was reported on not only in newspapers in London, but also the United States, and beyond. In a very important way, it could be argued that this event in Harry Houdini’s life was essential in establishing him as a true and important headliner. If he could defeat the Mirror Cuffs, then he could definitively conquer any escape or challenge thrown his way. The Mirror Cuffs were the real deal and Houdini would never have lied about the struggle they put him though.
Or would he have?
The Mirror saga continues in Part Two.
Special Thanks to Kenneth Silverman.