Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Were these handcuffs left behind by Houdini?

McSorley's Old Ale House in New York's East Village has what it claims are a pair of handcuffs locked to a bar rail by Houdini himself. The cuffs are a popular attraction and are even mentioned on McSorley's wikipedia page. But could these really have been left behind by Houdini?

Established in 1854, McSorley's is New York’s oldest continuously operated saloon. So it was around in Houdini's time. And even though Houdini didn't drink alcohol, he still could have found himself in McSorley's for a meeting. Also, Abraham Lincoln, a great hero of Houdini's, was said to have been a customer, so Houdini might have been drawn to the tavern for that reason alone and, yes, felt a need to leave behind his own historical marker.

But what about the handcuffs themselves? At initial glance, they do not strike one as being the type of handcuffs associated with Houdini. They appear too modern. Here's what handcuff expert Joe Fox (my recent lecture partner) has to say on that matter:

"The cuffs pictured ARE from Houdini’s time-period (approx. 1915+)…they are virtually of identical design of today’s modern police handcuff.

However, no photo has ever surfaced of Houdini wearing or holding, or mentioning these new type of "swing-through" handcuffs (meaning that these handcuff can be slapped around the wrist & they will automatically lock).

When these handcuffs were marketed in 1914 -1915, they literally made every handcuff up to that time obsolete – including every handcuff that Houdini was ever shown with. But again, they ARE of his time-period.

They are of this type: Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. (still in business today)."

So the bar was around in Houdini's time, the cuffs are of the correct period, and McSorley's seems to have a good handle on its history (it's said no piece of memorabilia has been removed from the walls since 1910). So while we can't really prove the legend, I'm thinking we can trust it, and having a pint (or several) at McSorley's might now be a required part of any Houdini tour of New York.


McSorley's Bar, 1912 painting by John French Sloan.

McSorley's today.

Thanks to Joe Fox for the info and pics. McSorley's is located at 15 East 7th Street in NYC.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Bruce Thomson, here's a pic of Houdini using Peerless swing-through cuffs!

UPDATE: Important update today from the great Fred Pitella. Looks like these cuffs are not the originals. Check out: McSorley's Houdini handcuffs update.



  1. Great stuff John! Your one-two Houdini punches keep coming. I didn't realize that the modern swivel handcuffs we see cops carrying around goes back to 1914-15. The story certainly isn't impossible. Too bad there isn't a photo of HH snapping those cuffs onto the railing.

  2. There actually IS a pic of Houdini with Peerless swing through cuffs. I was reminded of this by reader Bruce Thomson. It's the pic in Henning of Houdini locking Cecil B. DeMille to a railing. I should have instantly recalled that.

  3. What's attached to the chain in between the cuffs at the bar? A padlock?

    The chain appears too long. Could this be a set of leg irons?

    The new photo you added of Houdini with peerless cuffs is interesting. The chain is only one big link. Unusual. I will go to this bar in the next few weeks and report what I see once I examine them.

    Perry from NJ.

  4. Great story and I agree this cuff existed during HHs time. I'm shocked I never caught the pic in the Henning book. I've always wondered why we don't have any pics of HH with these cuffs. The text book answer would be that he got out of the handcuff challenge game in 1908 but he must have been interested in these cuffs seeing they were such an advanced design and yet he would have found them to be easier to escape then several of the older cuffs.
    The pic from the Henning book looks like a patent 1912 Peerless single chain link. The pic from the bar could be a patent 1915 or a 1925 doynle link cuff. I own a 1925 model 2 and it looks the same. Definitely not legcuffs. I see a small padlock on the chain.

    So yes we can't prove the legend but there's nothing I see to deny that it's true. It's a great story and I know I'll be dropping by for a cold one when I'm in town.

    I used, my personal collection and handcuff knowledge as reference to look up these Peerless dates and details.


  5. Wow, I missed that photo from the Henning book too...Good work, Bruce Thomson!

  6. Greetings Gentlemen,
    I happen to be the Son of the person who attached these handcuffs to the footrail and brass riser at McSorley's. These handcuffs were owned by his Brother Major Walter Murphy USMC. After serving overseas in the early 60's Walt instructed my Dad to take him to McSorleys on the way home to Staten Island. My Dad placed the handcuffs where they still are today. If you check them there will be a USMC stamp on them. I love McSorley's - best to everyone.

    1. Wonderful story. Thank you for sharing. Sounds like the mystery is solved.

  7. Can’t we establish whether these handcuffs were placed during Houdini’s time or the 1960’s? The Walter Murphy story seems plausible, but should be easily verifiable. Is there indeed a USMC stamp on them and were these the ones issued to the military at the time?