Saturday, July 7, 2018

Houdini first went overboard 106 years ago today

On July 7, 1912, Houdini performed his first overboard box escape in New York. He had planned on doing the escape off the East River's Pier 6, but police stepped in and forbid the stunt. So Houdini, who had arrived with his assistants and equipment via the tug boat Catherine Moran, loaded reporters onto the tug and turned it toward Governors Island, which was federal land and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the New York City police.

The escape, in which Houdini freed himself from handcuffs, leg-irons and a nailed and roped packing crate "thrown" into the water, is well documented in biographies and in photos. The New York Times reported that at least 20 photographers were present, as well as a "cinematograph operator." But below are several photos from Getty Images that are not among those generally reproduced. What I love about these is they show us some different moments and fresh details from this famous feat.

This first shot shows the packing crate being prepped by Houdini's assistants. Notice that James Vickery and Jim Collins are attaching weights to the side of the box, meant to help sink it below the waterline. This did not entirely work. According to the Times, the top of the box remained visible. Also notice a fully dressed Houdini standing off to the side watching the preparations. We can also see the camera man. What happened to that footage, I wonder?

This next photo shows the packing crate, now containing Houdini, being nailed shut. One detail I like is that you can see Franz Kukol standing at the head of the case with a gentleman who appears to be handling something. Perhaps a volunteer selected to examine and hold the nails?

This photo shows the box being lowered into the water via a plank which would tip down into the water as the box was pushed toward the end. In later overboard box escapes Houdini would use a block and tackle. (But you can see this same plank method being used in The Master Mystery.)

This last shot shows Houdini after the escape. One has to imagine that getting the waterlogged box back onto the tug boat was no easy task. But there are photos of Houdini beside the box after the escape, so they did it somehow!

Houdini had a large lithograph created commemorating the feat, transforming the tug Catherine Moran into an ocean liner and showing the box sinking below stormy seas among circling sharks. (This rare poster is currently on display at the New-York Historical Society's Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection.) Below is a syndicated news account of the escape with some more nice images. This ran in newspapers across the country.

History currently records this as being Houdini's very first overboard box escape. He would go on to perform the escape as an outside stunt at least seven more times, and also developed an indoor version that he performed at the New York Hippodrome and Hammerstein's Victoria Theater. The overboard box also appears in two of his movies, The Master Mystery (1918) and Terror Island (1920).

Today one of Houdini's original overboard boxes can be seen at the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan.



  1. Is HH in his underdrawers here? That outfit doesn't really look like a bathing or track suit.

    1. The Times called it "a bathing suit of spotless white."

  2. So I now see the catch with being able to embed Getty Images for free. After a few days, they stick ads on them. But if you click the X, the ad goes away and you can see the full pic.

    1. Nothing's free John. Harry could have told you that.