Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hanging Houdini

Houdini to Hang! How's that for an attention getter? In 1922, when this appeared in the Washington Herald, hanging was still the standard form of execution in D.C., so this would have certainly given a reader pause. But that was the whole point.

As you can see, this ad is actually referring to Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape from B.F. Keith's Theater in the Riggs Building on January 12, 1922. I probably don't need to tell you that Houdini survived his public "hanging."

But this begs the question; did Houdini ever do a stunt that involved his own hanging? Programs do show Houdini performing something called the "Jesse James Hanging Trick," but it's likely this was a magic effect and not an escape (possibly Rope Through Neck).

In Walter B. Gibson's Houdini's Escapes (1931) that are notes for what Houdini called "The Gallows Restraint." This did not involve actual hanging, but it evoked it, as you can see in the illustration below. But it doesn't appear Houdini ever developed this escape beyond these notes.

In case you're wondering, Washington D.C. switched to electrocution as their means of execution in 1927. Of course, Houdini had fun with electric chairs as well.

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  1. Interesting that the outdoor suspended straitjacket escape was announced in the papers prior to the event. It was a great way to get that initial crowd started. Inertia took care of the rest.

    First time I've read this stunt worded as a challenge.

    1. Oh, they were always announced in advance. That's how they drew a crowd! And if you look at the ads and newspaper accounts of the time, you'll see they were almost all characterized as police challenges. That also surprised me.

  2. Which answers another curiosity: Why HH usually, if not always had the cops strap him into the jacket before getting hoisted up. In the photos before the escape, you always see cops strapping him in.

  3. And by the way, after the Houdini Revival of the late 1970s, my paperback copy of Gibson's Houdini's Escapes was the first portal to HH's secrets after reading the Gresham bio. Culliton's books were not around yet at that time.

    The illustrator of Gibson's book did a fine job of realizing the illusions from HH's notes.

  4. How on earth did I NOT find this before you? This is in D.C. after all, my backyard. Great job John! Totally enjoyed this.