The year 1902 can be characterized as one of the most combative of Houdini's career. Having proclaimed himself the "Undisputed King of Handcuffs and World's Champion Jail Breaker," the year would find him defending his title in a variety of arenas. Even in court.
Houdini vs Madame Robert-Houdin
Houdini started the new year with Bess and Dash in Paris, where his engagement at the Olympia was extended by two months. It was in Paris that Houdini visited the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, then owned by magician and pioneer filmmaker Geroge Méliès (exciting to think of these two men meeting and Houdini watching Méliès's "magical" movies). There Houdini learned that Robert-Houdin's daughter-in-law (widow of his son Emile) was still living in Blois. Houdini sent her a letter by messenger, asking permission to place a wreath on the grave of Robert-Houdin and thank her in person (the full letter can be read on page 57 of Houdini The Untold Story). Ill and not wishing to be disturbed, she turned the messenger away with no reply.
Undeterred, Houdini traveled to Blois on January 28. There he met with Robert-Houdin's son-in-law, Henri Lemaitre-Robert-Houdin, who welcomed him into his home and showed him several clocks made by the great magician. Henri also told him there was nothing to stop him from paying his respects at the grave.
In the 1959 biography, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls, author William Lindsey Gresham paints a very different picture of these events. He portrays Houdini returning to his hotel and exploding in a rage about being slighted by Madame Robert-Houdin, and vowing then and there to write a book exposing his boyhood idol. But there is no evidence to support Gresham's colorful account, which is loaded with factual errors. In fact, all evidence suggests Houdini was deeply moved by his experience that day. He even mailed himself a postcard from Blois to remember the date.
However, Houdini's rebellion was being seeded as he visited many of Robert-Houdin's contemporaries, and from them learned that the great man's inventions might not have all been his own. But in January 1902, Houdini's journey to discover the true "father" of modern magic was only just beginning.
Houdini vs Werner Graff
After closing at the Olympia, Houdini traveled to Cologne, Germany for the start of his libel trial against the police officer Werner Graff. Houdini had brought the legal action against Graff a year before for an article he wrote saying Houdini's claim that he could escape from any restraint constituted fraud, and that the American had attempted to bribe him. (In his publicity, Houdini never mentioned the bribery charge, and it remained a generally unknown aspect of the Graff trial until 1996.) This first trial started on February 19 and extended over two days. Over 25 witnesses were called, including Bess. During the trial Houdini escaped from a German Transport Chain in full view of the judge and jury. The verdict was announced on February 29. Graff was ordered to pay a fine and print a retraction, while Houdini was fined for insulting a police officer. But Graff decided to appeal the case to a higher court. The next trial was set for July.
After playing a month at Ronacher’s Theater in Vienna (an engagement postponed in 1901), Houdini returned home to the United States for the first time in two years. It would be a whirlwind trip. "I was home 10 days and slept one night," said Houdini, "the rest of the time I was out, and slept in my motor car, while my brothers drove me about." Aboard a train he met with his former manager Martin Beck to explore the idea of returning to the U.S. and tourimg Beck's growing Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Beck advised him to remain in Europe and reap the rewards of his popularity and ever increasing salary. America could wait a few more years for the Handcuff King.
In May, Houdini once again joined the Circus Corty-Althoff, this time in Holland. Inspired by the windmills in the countryside, he arrange to be lashed to a windmill blade and make his escape while it turned. But his weight caused the blade to snap off and crash to the ground. Houdini was unhurt and reaped a windfall of publicity.
Houdini vs Kleppini
That night, Kleppini's manager visited Houdini at his hotel. Houdini showed him an assortment of freshly oiled handcuffs that he proposed to use in the challenge, including a pair of exotic French Letter Cuffs. Houdini made the manager promise not to reveal to Kleppini that they opened with the letter combination: CLEFS (the French word for keys).
The day of the challenge, Kleppini unsurprisingly selected the French Letter cuff as the shackles he would beat. He then said his wife would do the same. The cuffed and confident Kleppini disappeared into his cabinet. He never reappeared. Eventually, the cabinet was moved off the stage so the circus could continue.
After the show, Houdini found the dejected Kleppini in his manager's office, still cuffed with the combination dialed uselessly to CLEFS. Houdini explained that he had changed the combination. He turned the dials and the cuffs snapped open on the word: FRAUD.
"The German performers are, without a doubt, the greatest brain thieves that ever existed," Houdini complained in his Dramatic Mirror column. It may have been around this same time that Houdini took on another pretender: Hilmar the Uncuffable. This time Houdini was not so playful in his exposé, dragging the cuffed man to the footlights and leaving him sobbing "like a spanked babe" until the audience begged Houdini to free him.
In July, Houdini returned to the Colosseum Theater in Essen Ruhr, site of his great victory over the Krupps handcuff the year before. This time he was roped by a challenger named Kinsky in a manner that the newspapers described as "simply inhuman -- [he] tied the American as you would tie a piece of cattle." Houdini's escape after seventeen minutes brought "ongoing, never-ending applause and calls of Bravo" which did not cease until Houdini made six curtain calls.
It was also at the Colosseum on July 31 that Houdini introduced a new type of escape which would become a signature for the remainder of his career: the packing crate challenge.
Houdini vs Werner Graff (II)
In July, Houdini was back in court once again facing off with Werner Graff. This time the police officer came better prepared. Not only did he bring new witnesses, but he also came with a lock created by a master mechanic named Kroch, which once locked could never be opened. Houdini opened the lock in four minutes.
The court upheld the previous verdict, but Graff was still not satisfied and again appealed to a higher court. It's not clear if Houdini was even at the third hearing on September 26. However, he later claimed to have again proven his skill by opening the judge's private safe (which the judge had forgotten to lock).
After spending August and September with the Circus Carre, Houdini returned to England, where he had not appeared for 21 months. There he signed a contract with the Moss Empire chain to play 20 weeks at £100 a week (that's £11,579 or $15,070 today). Some managers baulked at his weekly salary. For those, Houdini agreed to a percentage of the house receipts. It was a shrewd move. His performances proved so popular that in some theaters his percentage earned him twice his salary.
Houdini opened at the Palace Theater in Halifax during the week of October 13. Any concern that the English public had either forgotten or grown cold to his act was quickly dispelled as Houdini smashed all house records. Interestingly, during this run one of the challenge cuffs he faced was the Kleppini-beater French Letter cuffs.
After Halifax, Houdini moved on to the Palace Theater in Blackburn. There he would face the most difficult and torturous challenge of his entire career.
Houdini vs Hodgson
When Houdini finally bounded free after two and a half hours, bloodied and exhausted, Hodgson claimed the shackles had been sawed off. (It's been suggested Hardeen, who was there that night, might have snuck into the cabinet and freed his brother.) But Houdini's struggle had won over the audience, and the newspapers reported that Hodgson had to flee to a police station for protection.
For the rest of his life Houdini referred to the "dreadful night in Blackburn" and never enjoyed returning to the city. William Hope Hodgson went on to be a popular writer of fantasy literature before his death in the first World War.
Ironically, the same day as the brutal Hodgson challenge, the German high court finally ruled in favor of Houdini in his ongoing battle with Werner Graff. Houdini was elated and sent word of his victory out on postcard press releases. He also created a colorful lithograph depicting himself shackled in the German courtroom under the headline: "Apology in the Name of The Kaiser!"
It was then back to Blackburn where Houdini drew such large crowds that ten policemen had to be called in after the theater sold out. "Thousands were turned away," Houdini marveled, "Not hundreds, but thousands."
In December, Houdini appeared at City of Varieties in Leeds where on December 4 he escaped nude from the Armley Prison cell which had held the notorious cat burglar Charles Peace while he awaited execution. On December 9, Houdini freed himself from a Burnley jail, opening six cells in less than five minutes. A local paper observed, "his performances are enough to give Sherlock Holmes nervous prostration."
Houdini then returned to Leeds where he broke all house records and played "extra special" matinees at the larger Coliseum theater. Here he escaped from a straitjacket (still using a cabinet) and a packing case. Leeds was one of the cities where he had arranged a percentage deal. Houdini came away with over £250 (£28,950) for his week's work. An advertisement for his final week noted that it would be his last appearance in the UK.
The Houdini spent Christmas that year back in London at the popular vaudevillian boarding house at 11 Kepple Street, where the American performers bought a Christmas tree. Among his fellow celebrants was magician Howard Thurston. It had been a year of battles for Houdini, and he had emerged victorious every time. But ahead lay new challenges and a whole new country to conquer: Russia.
- A tip of the hat from Robert-Houdin
- Houdini's "Cologne Papers" at auction
- Houdini vs. Hodgson in new book
- Uncovering Houdini's "extra special" performance in Leeds