Friday, July 1, 2016

Punching a new hole in the ice story

(First off, I find coming up with headlines the most difficult part of doing this blog. But this one is a masterpiece, if I do say so myself! Okay, moving on...)

Before he published his biography Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, William Lindsey Gresham penned a lengthy article about Houdini for the July 1958 issue of SAGA magazine. Titled "The Incredible Saga of Harry Houdini," it's a well-done piece, even though it contains more than a few dramatic enhancements, which I'm sure Gresham felt was necessary to fit with the style of this men's adventure magazine.

Among the episodes Gresham recounts is the entire story of Houdini being trapped under the ice of the Detroit River during a bridge jump. This, of course, is today considered Houdini mythology. But at the end, Gresham adds a surprise twist to the story that I've never heard before. He writes:

An old diver from Grand Rapids tells another variation of the story:

"Harry swore me to secrecy but I guess by this time he wouldn't mind it if I revealed the truth. The day before he was to dive into the frozen river, Harry and I went out there and cut a hole in the ice. Right there, at a spot just west of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, there was a lot of concrete piling submerged. Harry had me go down and anchor a big tin can upside down to a good heavy chunk of concrete. Then we filled the can with compressed air.

"The next day when he dived through the hole, he swam straight down, found the can and ducked up into it, breathing the air trapped inside it. He stayed down a good long time–the papers said eight minutes. Finally, when Harry figured that the reporters had gone back into town with the news of his death, he took one last good breath, slipped down out of the can and made for the hole in the ice. Later he spread that malarkey about those air bubbles. Harry would never get into anything dangerous unless he covered all the angles first."

While Gresham embellishes his Houdini antidotes in this article, he doesn't make anything up whole cloth, so I believe he may have actually heard this story from an "old diver." However, Gresham (with the help of Robert Lund) would go on to debunk the under ice story in his Houdini biography published just a year later. Maybe that's why he makes no mention of this twist in his book. The Tom Sawyer quote Gresham uses to describe Houdini's telling of the under ice drama could also apply to the old diver: "He just let on he done it."

The under ice drama as depicted in Houdini (1953).

A big thanks to Arthur Moses for providing me with the July 1958 SAGA article. Arthur owns the largest and most complete collection of Houdini periodicals in existence. In 2015, he published an updated edition of his Houdini Periodical Bibliography, which is a must have for anyone serious about Houdini research.

UPDATE: It looks like Gresham was NOT the original source for this diver's story. According to a post at One Tube Radio, in 1944, an annoymous letter was sent to Milwaukee radio station WTMJ after the station broadcast an account of the under ice drama. The writer stated that he was an "expert diver" and "one of Harry's accomplices on that day" and that he was paid $350 for his part. The writer added that "Harry rehearsed the trick in a brewery somewhere in the east" and that the anchored can "is probably still at the spot." You can read most of the letter HERE. Thanks to Joe Notaro.



  1. This version of the ice story also appeared The Milwaukee journal on November 17, 1944:,925219&hl=en

    The above was referenced in the following related article, which should also be of great interest:

    1. Oh, wow, so this did not come originally from Gresham, but from the 1944 Milwaukee Journal. Thanks, Joe. I will update.

  2. Looking back on the weather in November 1906 it was relatively balmy 40-50 F so I can't see it occurring. However you do have Houdini and others stating it did occur. Is it possible it took place in Detroit but at a different time? Different year? Did Houdini only once jump from that bridge? Perry.

    1. Houdini actually said it happened in Pittsburgh. The fusion of this ice story and the Belle Isle Bridge jump first happened, I believe, in Kellock.

  3. Homophone Helper aka HHJuly 7, 2016 at 5:43 AM

    We might never know the whole story about the hole story.

    1. Think it might be time to put the whole hole story on ice.