Thursday, September 28, 2017

Is there a Houdini prop in the basement of 278?

If you were lucky enough to attended last weekend's open house at Houdini's 278 in Harlem, you got to experience something not afforded to those who attended the first open house in June. This time the basement was open to visitors. This is where Houdini is said to have worked on and kept some of his famous feats, some of which were still being stored there right up into the 1980s.

In fact, the basement may still contain one last iconic Houdini prop! Check out the photos below, taken by one of last weekend's lucky attendees.

Now, I know we discussed this back in July when David Saltman posted a photo of this "giant wheel" on his blog The Houdini File. But that photo didn't show the same detail. It looked like it might have been part of the house, possibly a gear from the disassembled dumbwaiter. But now getting a closer look, as well as learning the diameter (approx. 40"), one can see that this is actually a wagon wheel. All the elements are there, the most notable being the "Flat Steel Tire" as seen below.

So what's this have to do with Houdini? Well...

Before we get too excited, the wheel we see Houdini tied to above is not the exact same wheel (different number of spokes). But that doesn't mean the wheel in the basement wasn't used by Houdini in exactly this same way. This was one of Houdini's escapes. In his 1920 book, Magical Rope Ties & Escapes, Houdini devotes a section to what he calls "The Big Wheel Release." He even expresses a preference for the type of wheel to use, allowing for dramatic "scenery":

An audience which would go to sleep while and artist was making a really difficult escape from the wheel of a farm wagon will break into tumultuous applause over a comparatively easy one from a cannon wheel.

So how has this wheel remained in the basement all these years? Maybe it was just too impractical to take away. Or maybe those who say it didn't recall that the "Big Wheel Release" was part of Houdini repertoire. But after seeing these photos, I'm thinking the basement of 278 holds one last Houdini treasure, and that's pretty cool!

Here's a look at the full basement (which had a dirt floor in Houdini's day). I especially love those arches. Also notice the horseshoe on the far left. In his book Houdini Question Reality, Dixie Dooley reports seeing a horseshoe over the front door in 1985 that dated back to Houdini. Same one?

So what do we think? Is this wheel for real? Or are we going in circles? Sound off in the comments below.

Thanks to our open house attendee for sharing these terrific pics.



  1. Definitely is a wagon wheel. And why else would you keep a wagon wheel in your basement?

  2. Great pics. In the basement photo, zoom in to the bottom left, at the far end of the room. Draped over something, I see chains, Chains! Probably just modern day chains belonging to the owner, but you never know…

    Also, that horse shoe might be the same one Dixie Dooley saw. It looks aged, dark and rusted. Also on the left, below and to the right of the horse shoe, it looks like a nail holding a chain with a key. Curious…

    And, the first pic with the wheel shows what looks like a steel ladder on its side. Maybe the same as the wheel’s flat steel tire. Maybe another lost Houdini prop?

    I searched ‘Houdini fire engine’ and found pics of early 20th century fire trucks. The wheels of this one ( ) have 16 spokes, the same number as the wheel in HH’s basement. So, maybe the wheel and ladder in the basement are from an old fire engine. Just a thought.

    1. Strike my ladder theory. I just saw the Houdini File story about the trap door ladder.

    2. Good eyes on those chains! Our attendee who supplied these pics noticed those as well. But they are modern. However, there is a very old telephone down there. Houdini's phone!? We hoped so. But according to the owner, it wasn't original the house.