Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Houdini in 1904

The culmination of Houdini's European adventures and his reign as "The Handcuff King" came in 1904. The year would see him perform the greatest challenge handcuff escape of his career. It was also a unique year in that he only performed in a single country; the United Kingdom.

Houdini began the new year in Glasgow, a city that impressed him with its seven music halls "all doing well." He then moved onto the Empire Palace of Varieties in Sheffield. It was here on January 19 that he escaped from a jail cell that had once held murderer Charles Peace. This was actually the second Peace associated cell he had escaped; the first being in Leeds in 1902.

February found Houdini in Liverpool where he escaped from a jail cell and shackles in the city's local police station. A jail break from the South Shields Central police station followed. Houdini then finished up at the Empire in Birmingham. From there he informed the readers of his Dramatic Mirror column that, by his count, some 72 American acts were currently playing England. "This is certainly an American Invasion," he wrote.

Houdini returned to London in March where he would spend six weeks at the Hippodrome Theater. "Talk about being billed big," he crowed. "You ought to see London and look about. Nothing on the walls but Houdini!" At the photography studios of Campbell & Grey, he took a new series of publicity photos showing him in tux and tails and loaded down with multiple pairs of handcuffs and leg-irons. With his piercing grey eyes and wavy black hair, the images would become iconic.

It was at the London Hippodrome during a matinee performance on March 17 that Houdini accepted a challenge from the London Daily Mirror newspaper to escape a handcuff that had, reportedly, taken a Birmingham locksmith five years to manufacture. The complex Bramah lock contained six tumblers and was said to be unpickable. Today we call this the "Mirror Handcuff Challenge," but at the time it was heralded as "The Great Handcuff Contest."

The dramatic escape took over 90 minutes and was replete with moments of on-stage drama, such as when Houdini used a penknife to cut off his coat. When he finally emerged from his "ghost house" free of the formidable manacle, he broke down and wept as he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering audience.

How exactly Houdini escaped from the truly inescapable Mirror Cuffs is still debated today. Over the years various theories and scenarios have been put forth, including a story from Will Goldstone that Bess had to plead the key out of the Mirror representative and passed it to her trapped husband in a glass of water. But today most believe that Houdini colluded with the paper in arranging the challenge from the very start, and even had a hand in the manufacture of the Mirror cuff itself. His struggle was pure showmanship. But the truth is no one knows for certain exactly how Houdini beat the legendary handcuff.

Houdini being locked into the Mirror Handcuffs, March 17, 1904.

Houdini became ill during his final week at the Hippodrome. The exact nature of his illness is unknown, but it was serious enough for a doctor to order 12 days of bed rest and for Houdini to listen. He cancelled advanced bookings in Newcastle. "First time I ever disappointed," he wrote in his diary. But Houdini still found the strength to visit the home of Henry Evans Evanion, where he marveled at the old magician's magic collection and purchased some select treasures for his own. His brother Dash and the doctor found him at 3AM and dragged him back to his hotel.

Houdini appears to have recovered by April 15 when he escaped from a jail cell at the Vine Street police station in London. He then set out to play the provinces. In Sheffield he met a young superfan named Randolph Douglas, a.k.a. "Randini." The two struck up a correspondence that would run for years. While Houdini was performing in Brighton, the Daily Mirror presented him with a solid silver replica of the Mirror Cuffs, engraved with the date and details of the escape. (Today both the original cuff and silver replica are owned by David Copperfield.)

At 30-years old, Houdini was now earning up to $2000 a week ($57,000 in 2018 money), and he begin to enjoy his wealth. He took to wearing a diamond shirt stud and purchased a 14hp Humber Tourist Car, which he claimed to have entered into several auto races. Evidence of this racing career is scant, but there is a well-known photo of Houdini and Martin Beck ("my erstwhile manager") enjoying the new car with a well-appointed Bess in the back seat with their dog Charlie.

On May 27, Houdini set sail for New York aboard the Deutschland for what would be his first real vacation in years. Martin Beck made the return trip with him, upgrading the Houdinis to First Class. Beck offered him $10,000 to play engagements in the U.S., but Houdini uncharacteristically turned the work down. It was time to rest.

If the Mirror challenge was seminal career event of 1904, then this trip home was the most impactful event for him personally. It was more than a vacation. It was time he used to reflect on his past and prepare for the future.

Laying off for three months, Houdini enjoyed his family, taking new portrait photos with all his brothers. He and Dash then travelled to Appleton to visit the scenes of their childhood. Here Houdini was interviewed by Edna Ferber in front of a drugstore on College Avenue. The interview, which ran in the Appleton Evening Crescent on July 21, said Houdini had just paid a visit to his father's old office "where I used to get my spankings." Bess didn't accompany him on the trip, and when he returned to New York, she met him at the 42nd Street Station. "She looks a treat in her pale blue dress," he wrote in his diary that night. "Am certainly pleased to see her. I missed her on my trip."

On August 11, Houdini purchased a large brownstone at 278 W 113th Street in a German enclave of lower Harlem. This would be the new Weiss family home. Into it he moved his mother, sister, and brother Leopold, who would set up his medical practice inside the parlor. He also bought a farm in Connecticut and a new family plot at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. There he relocated the bodies of his father, grandmother and half-brother Herman. While doing so, he had their caskets opened so he could examine their remains. "Saw what was left of poor father and Herman," he wrote in his diary. "Nothing but skull and bones. Herman's teeth were in splendid condition."

Having secured his family in life and death, Harry and Bess returned to England. There he found himself embroiled in a conflict with his former employer, Moss and Thornton. Houdini's English agent, Harry Day, had negotiated lucrative new contracts for him across England. But the Moss chain claimed they still held an option on his services and tried to get an injunction against his appearance. The matter went to court and was decided in Houdini's favor "without my representative speaking one word." In retaliation, Moss and Thornton hired Frank Hilbert to do an imitation and exposure of Houdini's act, sometimes booking him in direct opposition in the same town.

Success had certainly not mellowed Houdini's feelings about imitators. In late September he clashed with Carl Mysto (real name Sam Sterns). Houdini first met Mysto in 1902. "He was a tramp," Houdini wrote. "I gave him a pair of pants and a few old shirts and a half a dollar." Now Mysto was doing a coffin escape which, his manager claimed, was beyond Houdini's powers. He also said that, unlike Houdini, Mysto did not "talk endlessly of his triumphs." Houdini hired the man who made Mysto's coffin to make him a duplicate. He then exposed Mysto's method on stage in Salford and in the pages of the London Daily Mirror.

It was also in Salford that Houdini introduced a new original creation; The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery. It was a fusion of his jail escapes and Metamorphosis, using a male assistant, Franz Kukol, instead of Bess for the climatic transposition. (It's possible the new effect was developed precisely because Bess wanted a break from the stage.) But it somehow lacked the power of Metamorphosis, and Houdini experimented with its presentation, sometimes doing it as a straight escape. Today it is best known for the handsome poster Houdini made to promote it during his UK tour.

The last part of the year found Houdini playing dates in Bristol, Liverpool, Halifax, Leeds, Newgate, Brighton, and finally the Grand Theater in Manchester. There's no record of how the Houdinis spent the last two weeks of December, but it's likely they spent the holidays back in London.

Humber photo from the Jim Rawlins collection. Houdini Dash pic is from my own collection. Thanks to Joe Notaro for helping date the Campbell & Grey pics.



    1. Good info and lead in as I'm trying to leave for New York tomorrow to take in the mirror handcuffs. Are the mirror cuffs in the Copperfield museum exhibit the original from the March 17 HH performance? --Dale from Cleveland