Friday, July 15, 2016

Houdini vs. the Siberian Transport Cell Part II: How did he do it?

Houdini's escape from the Siberian Transport Cell or "Carette" in Russia on May 10, 1903 is one of his most famous and celebrated feats. But like the Mirror Handcuff challenge, the carette escape is steeped in mythology. In PART I we looked at the escape itself. Today, we tackle the question of how Houdini did it.

So how did Houdini escape from Chief Lebedeff's dreaded Siberian Transport Cell at Butyrskaya Prison? Interestingly, this is one escape that Houdini didn't feel the need to keep secret. In an article he wrote in March 1904 titled "Russia" (reproduced in Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key), Houdini freely admits that he picked the lock through the window, although the task was not an easy one:

The lock was on the outside of the door, about 30 inches below the window in the door, the former being about 6 inches square, and divided into four by iron bars. Through this small aperture I had to do my work. For half and hour I struggled with the lock for all I knew, during which I could hear the police laughing and chuckling. However, I persevered, and at the end of 45 minutes I had the satisfaction of seeing the door swing open. But I was very exhausted and was pouring down with perspiration, cold as it was.

How exactly Houdini smuggled in his lock picking tools is one secret he did not reveal.

Now, one would think this would be the final word on how Houdini escaped from the carette, especially as this was also the explanation given in the first Houdini biography, Houdini His Life Story. But in 1931, the book The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell offered up a radically different method that would up-end the story of the carette escape for the next 70 years.

In Cannell's version, the police insisted that the carette door be reinforced with additional locks and bolts that could not be reached from the inside. At first Houdini objected to this new condition, but eventually conceded. But according to Cannell, Houdini's objections were just clever misdirection, as he never intended to exit via the door:

It was upon the floor of the van that Houdini concentrated in carrying out his escape, in which there was a good deal of hard work and skill. He had in his possession a small cutter with which to cut through the zinc floor in such a way as afterwards to be able to smooth over the joint so that it would not be noticeable. [...] When he had neatly pierced the zinc, he pushed the edges back and reached the wooden floor of the van. The next part of his task was to remove enough of the planking to enable him to squeeze through the floor, while he performed the task of readjusting the zinc so as to leave no trace of the fine, straight cut he had made at the point where the sides of the floor and van met. [...] The replacement of the floor planks was the simplest part of this remarkable escape.

How Houdini acquired his escape tools is, once again, not part of the explanation.

It should be noted that Will Goldston published The Secrets of Houdini and was probably responsible for much of the content. Goldston, who knew Houdini, is also responsible for the story of how Bess managed to get the Mirror handcuff key and pass it to Houdini in a glass of water. Today many feel that's an elaborate fiction created Goldston's book, Sensational Tales of Mystery Men. So was he doing the same thing here?

The idea of Houdini sawing through the carette floor proved irresistible to William Lindsey Gresham. Gresham embraced the story and embellished it, first in an article for the July 1958 issue of Saga magazine ("True Adventures for Men"), and a year later in his own biography, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Gresham also provided an explanation for how Houdini acquired his tools.

In Gresham's account, Lebedeff orders the carette wrapped in chains only after Houdini has been locked inside. Having not agreed to this, Houdini complains loudly from inside, but the police ignore him. Bess is present during the escape, and she rushes to the door and delivers a lingering kiss before being pulled away by the police. During the kiss, she passes Harry the necessary tools for his escape, including a saw capable of piercing the zinc floor. Despite the improbability of this, and that fact that no previous account has Bess present, Gresham went all in on the floor sawing theory.

Ten years later, Milbourne Christopher threw cold water on the theory in his own biography, Houdini The Untold Story. Christopher rejected the floor sawing story along with the veracity of the original source, the Cannel book, writing: "This "explanation," which has been accepted an expanded by other writers, is as fanciful as many of Cannell's other "revelations.""

Christopher says he believes Houdini reached through the window and picked the lock. For him, the tell is in the lithograph Houdini created in Leipzig showing the escape. That illustration shows the carette window smaller and located higher up on the door than it was in reality. "A showman would not give a clue to his method in his advertising," Christopher argued. It is true that Houdini did modify his apparatus on posters to conceal the methods of escape.

Kenneth Silverman in Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996), which offered a much needed house cleaning of Houdini history, makes no mention of the floor sawing theory. Instead, Silverman goes with lock picking, saying that Houdini probably used an extension tool of some kind to reach the lock. Silverman admits he doesn't know how Houdini smuggled the necessary tools into the van, but he does note that "the Russian police were famously bribable."

Just when it looked like the floor sawing theory was consigned to popular Houdini mythology, the story made a roaring comeback in the 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. This account includes all the dramatic embellishments as well as verbatim dialogue between Lebedeff and Houdini. It's also said that Houdini concealed his saw tool in a false finger. (Bess is not a participant in this version.)

But the source book, The Secret Life of Houdini Laid Bare, reveals no new evidence for the old theory. Instead, the author's cite Gresham's colorful Saga article and biography. The notion that Houdini used a false finger (which I think has some merit) is revealed to be speculation based on the image of Houdini's false finger in his book Handcuffs Secrets. On the plus side, the book does offer a nice photo of a Transport Cell that might be very close in appearance to the one that Houdini escaped.

Finally, Patrick Culliton in his 2010 book Houdini The Key again rejects the floor sawing theory and returns to lock picking. Like Silverman, Patrick believes an extension tool was necessary. As to how he acquired the tool (which today is owned by Joe Holland), Pat suggests a bold new theory. In the Leipzig lithograph we see Houdini shackled with restraints that have large lunch box size weights below each wrist (right). Patrick believes Houdini's tools were concealed inside these weights, planted by a confederate.

The time it took for Houdini to escape the carette has also undergone revision over the years. Houdini originally said it took him 45 minutes. By the time of the Leipzig lithograph, that had been reduced to 28 minutes. Later it became as little as 11 minutes. But all accounts agree on the most important point. Houdini escaped!

In 2013, David Saltman of The Houdini File opened a fresh new inquiry into the carette escape. In all accounts, Houdini's nemesis is said to have been Chief of Secret Police Lebedeff. But David could find no police officer by that name in Russia at this time. Interestingly, the notary who signed Houdini's Russian contract was Mihail Lebedeff. Coincidence? Confusion? Or did Houdini for some reason co-opt the name of his notary for his nemesis? The mysteries continue.


It's safe to assume the Transport Cell Houdini escaped from that day, with or without a hole in the floor, is long gone. In the 1950s, Stalin erected factories around Butyrskaya Prison to obscure it from view. For years it was unmarked on Russian maps.

Then on October 30, 1989, Russian magician and S.A.M. member Alexander "Sasha" Vorobiev received special permission to visit the prison museum. There he discovered on display the original manacles said to have held Houdini that day. The museum also had a police uniform from 1903, the year of Houdini's escape.

Alexander Vorobiev with the Houdini manacles. Police uniform from 1903.

Despite being put up for sale in 2006, Butyrskaya still stands today. It's still a prison and still has its museum. While Houdini's escape was considered a source of embarrassment in 1903, today it's a source of pride. The official website even gives a brief description of the feat (here translated via Google):

In May 1908 [sic] in Moscow there was the famous American magician Harry Houdini. For marketing purposes, he made a bet that he could escape from any prison in Moscow. The Butyrskaya prison experiment was conducted: thoroughly searched, Houdini put in chains and locked in a special Bound, an iron box. After 28 minutes, covered with sweat, Houdini appeared in front of the audience goggles.

So maybe Houdini's greatest accomplishment that day in May was to perform a feat that would outlast both Imperial and Communist governments, and today stand as a proud part of Russian history.

Illustration of Bess at the carette door by Annabel Large from The Great Escaper (1979) by David Warren. Photograph of Alexander Vorobiev with Houdini's shackles from Conjuring (1992) by James Randi. Additional thanks to Arthur Moses.



  1. The explanation that wasn't listed is one that Conan Doyle
    came up with to for some of Houdini's escapes. I believe
    it is worded something like this " come clean Harry, just
    admit that you go under the door in a vapor" LOL

    1. Ha! Yes, no mystery to Doyle how HH did it.

  2. Fantastic material John!
    I find it interesting that the prison museum photo of the the so-called original manacles said to have held Houdini that day doesn’t look anything like what is depicted in the Lepzig lithograph.

    1. That's true. But I wonder about those manacles. I love the idea that they are the actual manacles used that day, but how likely is that really? I don't think anyone in 1903 was thinking about preserving the memory of what happened that day for all time. It might have been many decades before the prison decided to commemorate the event, and they might have just pulled some restrains from their collection that matched the time period.

      Identifying the type of manacles we see in the Lepzig lithograph might be a job for the good folks at

    2. You know, it just hit me. The large weights in the litho might have just been added to cover Houdini's little Houdini.

    3. In Silverman there is a poster that I've never seen reproduced anywhere else. It also has an illustration of the carette escape based on the Lepzig litho. But in that image HH is wearing shorts. Unfortunately, the image is too small to tell if the weights are there. If those were created just to cover his nudity, they wouldn't be necessary here.

      Another interesting aspect about he Silverman image is the man doing the shackling is not the man in the checkered suit as we see in the Lepzig sheet, it's a police office as you'd expect. What's with that man in the suit?

    4. Love that Silverman image. That’s an interesting thought, that the weights might have been created to cover his nudity. I zoomed in on an iphone photo of the Silverman image and it appears to me that the weights are there. Not sure what to make of the man in the suit in the Lepzig lithograph.

    5. Pat in his book says the man looks like "a carnival barker" and he's certainly right about that. He also believes "he's in on it."

      I decided not to get into the shackles, but there's some mythology around that as well. Houdini didn't specify what type of manacles they used. I believe Gresham is the one who writes that the Russians used English shackles, which came as great relief to HH (and Bess) as they were so easy to open. Kalush repeats the English shackle claim.

  3. Putting the tools inside the actual manacles via a large hollow padlock or other device was a devious way to hide them. HH really had this cornered.

    If he was rigorously searched then this would have been a good way to sneak the lock pick into the carette.

  4. I have my doubts the shackles that gentleman is holding were the actual shackles used for the test. If they were, Houdini would still be in them. Why you may ask? Simple, the shackles being displayed in the photo do not have a built in lock but are of the type that take a rivet which is hammered in place to secure them and then chiselled off to remove them. I have two such shackles in my collection. Steve Santini

  5. I am absolutely thrilled to rediscover that the escape occurred at Butyrskaya Prison.
    I remember reading about this escape long, long ago, but the name did not stick in my memory as it is hard enough to say it let alone remember it.
    15 or more years ago, I acquired an old set of handcuffs which are marked "Butyrskaya Prison" and I believe them to be authentic. Probably not as old as 1909 but maybe 1940's or 50's.
    It is not a big deal but now that I can associate the cuffs as being where HH did this escape, this fact lends more importance to the cuffs.
    It made my day reading this and making the connection.

    1. The fact that this occurred at Butyrskaya was not mentioned in any of the early accounts of the escape. The first I heard the name of the prison was in the 1990s. I believe the Kalush book is the first bio to call it by name. I was excited to learn the prison still exists.

      That's fantastic that you have shackles from Butyrskaya, Mark. Maybe you need to check them closely for a concealed saw tool. :)

  6. We know that HH would first examine the locks in jail cells before attempting an escape. We know that he would tour the prisons first in a low key fashion away from the press to check out the locks and look for a possible way of escape. We also know that he rejected certain prisons as impossible or too difficult to attempt.

    Was he able to examine a carette before attempting this escape? I remember reading somewhere that HH thought that Russian locks and manacles were crude by Western standards. It would still appear to be a very risky escape without prior examination of that carette and the door lock or padlock.

    1. In some tellings it's said that HH got a look at the carettes, and presumably their locks, on the streets of Moscow.

  7. That is in keeping with HH's strategy of checking the prison first before attempting an escape. I just cannot believe he would attempt this without some prior examination.

    The people on the streets didn't know who he was so he must have had good opportunities to get up close to one or more carettes to inspect the door locks and so on.

  8. Hey John
    Im sitting here in a hotel waiting to go on and looking at this story again and have a thought regarding the method of escape. Some are suggesting HH used an extension to reach the lock and escape. Im looking at the photo of the Carette and to me the bars go almost all the way down to where the lock should be. I think he just reached thru and maybe because in the lithos he might be using trojan horse shackles, he might also have used a trojan horse lock and chain to hold the door because he couldve steered their concerns to using something a bit more modern. Didnt they say the shackles were so old they used more modern english ones? just sayin,,,,,its usually not hard to steer circumstances in these types of exhibitions at all.......ok back to getting ready to magic their brains out LOL