Sunday, November 5, 2017

100 years ago: Houdini hangs in Times Square

It was 100 years ago today the Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape in New York's Times Square. For the occasion, here's a rarely seen image that gives us a completely different perspective on the escape than the more familiar photos.

Houdini had attempted to stage a suspended straitjacket escape in Times Square (still sometimes referred to by its original name, Longacre Square) a year earlier to promote his appearance at the Palace Theatre. But the police stepped in and stopped it. He did the escape the next day in Battery Park (a story I recently shared HERE).

This time Houdini, who had committed himself to the war effort, was looking to promote a benefit he was organizing at the Hippodrome for families of the 67 victims of the SS Antilles, an Army transport ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat the previous month. Houdini reached out to the politically connected Elsa Maxwell, who was able to help him secure permission to perform the escape "for the purpose of advertising a patriotic performance."

Houdini performed the escape on November 5, 1917 dangling 60 feet above Broadway and Seventh Avenue (Silverman reports the cross streets as Broadway and 46th St.) from a crane being used to construct the new Times Square subway station. In return for the favor of permission, Houdini made a short speech in his support of New York's incumbent Mayor John Purroy Mitchel who was facing reelection the following day. Handbills announcing the Antilles benefit were distributed among the crowd and wives of S.A.M. members sold Thrift Stamps and War Bonds as Houdini completed his escape in 10 minutes.

The next day, The New York Tribune reported the feat:

Houdini's Antilles benefit was held on November 11 and raised $10,000. Houdini would not do another suspended straitjacket escape in New York until 1922.



  1. That's a great shot! Skyscrapers were starting to get taller by WWI.

    1. That's One Times Square which was built in 1904. Today the ENTIRE building is covered in advertising billboards. You can't see a single brick. It's a shame.

  2. Wow I've never seen this photo. Great story!

  3. Since we are looking at anniversaries, it makes me wonder... How many people are alive today who actually saw Houdini perform and remember it? I saw a 1956 episode of "I've Got A Secret" in which the guest was a 96 year old man. His secret was he was at Ford's Theatre with his aunt and uncle the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot. He was 5 years old at the time and had some memories of the night. It was fascinating to hear him speak. There's just something about an eyewitness account that sends chills up my spine. The same would be true to hear from someone who saw Houdini perform or remember when he died and the news it made. I know we have a lot of accounts by folks who are no longer with us as well as newspaper accounts of Houdini's exploits. But I wonder if there are any eyewitnesses to Houdini still out there who are willing to share on this venue? How about that, John ? Do you think it is worth asking? They aren't getting any younger and if there are some out there we will soon lose them to the great equalizer. A first hand account today (or soon) would be thrilling. Just an idea.

    1. I've thought about this a lot. In the past 10 years we've crossed into a place where there now may be no one left who is old enough to have really known Houdini personally. A far as seeing him... I'm sure there are some folk out there, but they would have been very young. It would be wonderful to find at least one person who has some memory. And, yes, I saw that "I've Got A Secret" episode as well. That was great.