Monday, January 21, 2019

Houdini's Last Secrets episode 3 unlocks the Carette


The third episode of Houdini's Last Secrets investigates the Siberian Transport Prison Van escape in Moscow in 1903. This is an ideal subject for this type of series, and it was the episode I was most looking forward to.

Unfortunately, the history in this episode is as misleading as its title: "Siberian Prison Conspiracy." It's a jumble of fact, fiction, and speculation, all twisted together in support of the central idea that Houdini was in Russia working as a spy. Yes, we're back to that. This is a heart breaker after the very good episode 2 which stuck to the facts and showed what this series can be.

But if we set the pseudohistory aside, there are aspects of this episode that are very enjoyable, and it may have even helped settle a controversy about the carette escape that has lingered for decades.

Once again, a highlight are several fine interviews with fresh faces. We get to visit Ken Trombly who shares a rare original Russian playbill from his incredible collection. David Saltman talks about Houdini in Russia and offers some speculation about spy work. It's especially nice to see Rebecca Taylor, whose father, David De-Val, repeated many of Houdini's jail breaks. I love how they teased but didn't show her father's all-important "Gimmick X". And master locksmith Steve Sharp provides some interesting insight into lock picking. Getting into the mechanics of lock picking was one of the aspects of this episode I enjoyed the most.

Meanwhile, Steve Wolf at Stunt Ranch reconstructs a carette for Lee Terbosic to attempt an escape. It's exciting to see this legendary vehicle take form, although I would have expected there to have been some debate about the window size, which is key to the escape and a controversial aspect of the famous poster. In fact, there are a several things the show sidesteps to make their theories work, but that's fine.

In the end, Lee attempts the escape, and here's where the show might have provided a service to Houdini history. Houdini himself admitted that he picked the lock on the carette door. But the 1931 book, The Secrets of Houdini, claimed he actually cut through the zinc floor. This dramatic escape method became popular with biographers and appears in many books, although it was always doubted by the best, such as Milbourne Christopher, Ken Silverman, and Pat Culliton.

Now here we get to see the theory put to the test as Lee attempts to cut through the same zinc floor with his smuggled tool. He quickly discovers it's impossible in the allotted time. It would take hours or maybe days to accomplish. So at least this episode puts one myth to rest. Houdini did not cut his way out of the carette.

But how then does Lee escape? Or did he escape? I will leave that for you to discover.


Houdini's Last Secrets airs on the Science Channel and the SciGO app. You can also stream episodes at their website or purchase the series at Amazon and iTunes.

If you're interested in more information on Houdini's Siberian Transport Van escape and other topics touched on in this episode, check out the below links:

    18 comments:

    1. Hey, I just noticed this is my 4000th post. :)

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    2. This episode was very interesting in different ways. David speculates that any spying in Russia was likely just reporting back observations--not 007 skullduggery. That makes sense. The escape via the padlock also seems the most viable method.

      Cannell noted that the cut thru the zinc floor was done where the floor meets the wall. This would supposedly leave less of a trace.

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    3. The theory that he sawed through the floor seems very unlikely. It would take very long, the saw might break, it would be noisy and eventually someone would have discovered the cut even at the wall as Cannell's book suggests. I think he worked the lock.

      Congrats on your milestone John!

      Jack

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      1. Agreed Jack! The floor method doesn't cut it. Pardon the pun.

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    4. Great article John and well done on the 4000th Post :-) Rebecca says thank you! Im not sure why Lee chose to use modern cuffs, we spent a lot of time at our house going through period cuffs that Houdini would have used, but I guess the vuffs were not the focus. Oh and we were very clear that a few items had to remain off camera :-)

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      1. Yes, I agree, part of the recreation of the escape should have been about Lee wearing the same type of manacles. And it would have been interesting to see them investigate what kind of manacles those could have been (because it's not really known). Sounds like they shot some of that with you!

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      2. And good for you for putting restrictions on what they could and couldn't show. You actually helped them. It made for a better segment!

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    5. If I recall the Cannell scenario, the zinc floor did not need to be sawed through. It was riveted to the iron, not welded. So all that needed to be sawed were the heads of the rivets at the corner, after which the zinc could (presumably) be bent enough to let Houdini slip through. Wish I had been there!

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      1. Hey David. I think you're remembering the rivet cutting from your own book! There you did a great job of making this actually seem feasible. :)

        But here's how Cannell explained it:

        "It was upon the floor of the van that Houdini concentrated in carrying out his escape, in which there was a good deal of hard work and skill. He had in his possession a small cutter with which to cut through the zinc floor in such a way as afterwards to be able to smooth over the joint so that it would not be noticeable. He had to also select the right spot at which to cut.

        When he had neatly pierced the zinc, he pushed the edges back and reached the wooden floor of the van. The next part of his task was to remove enough of the planking to enable him to squeeze through the floor, while he performed the task of readjusting the zinc so as to leave no trace of the fine, straight cut he had made at the point where the sides of the floor and van met."

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      2. Saltman's rivet theory would have meant that Harry was allowed to examine the inside of the carette way before the escape. Was this possible? If a close perusal of the interior was not permitted, we can conclude that the padlock was the way to go.

        Also, one of the bios mentioned that while walking around in Russia, Harry saw the carette and realized the padlocks were crude and easy to open.

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      3. Oops, I'm starting to believe my own fantasies now! Thanks for the correction.... And congratulations on 4000 posts! Further on the kareta (Russian spelling) - one of the accounts states clearly that Harry and Kukol both inspected the wagon in advance, noting the understructure. And as Leonard Hevia notes, Harry found the Russian locks easy. My belief now, after a thorough reading of DeVal's work, is that Harry was able to make a key and use an extender.

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      4. I think (and now I could be misremembering) in Houdini's own account he says he first saw a carette on the street. So he knew what kind of lock he was facing. I think Gresham, who really blew the myth up, talked about Kukol examining the underside. I know Kalush does.

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      5. I've looked back at my research on Houdini Unbound and remembered why I postulated that the zinc floor was riveted to the kareta's iron body. Zinc is very tricky to solder or weld because it has a low melting point. It was customarily attached to iron by bolts or rivets. (This method also helped prevent the iron from rusting, via a chemical process called reduction. I'm now way beyond my pay grade.)

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      6. You know, you should have consulted on the building of the carette and suggested Lee try this method. Maybe it would have worked!

        Maybe it's best they kept us away. We would have made the episode 3 hours long. :p

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    6. Once again, I did not see this episode but I read Cannell's book several times. I've always discounted his explanation because of 2 main factors, one which has already been covered. First, and I'm glad the episode bore this out, it would take a long time to cut through the floor. There just wasn't enough time to do it. Secondly, Cannell says: "The next part of his task was to remove enough of the planking to enable him to squeeze through the floor, while he performed the task of readjusting the zinc so as to leave no trace of the fine, straight cut he had made at the point where the sides of the floor and van met." Now, how does he smooth the zinc back in place in such a way to leave no trace of this work FROM THE OUTSIDE??? Can't be done. He picked the lock. Houdini usually was prepared for both the easy way and the hard way and he always took the easy way first. If he had to resort to the hard way, so be it. But if he could prepare things ahead of time to make it easy he did and when it worked he spent the rest of his energies making it look impossible. That was Houdini and showmanship at their best.

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      1. Good points James.

        And the removing of the planking has also always given my pause. Is he suggesting it wasn't somehow secured, it was sitting loose? Seems very unlikely for any kind of a moving vehicle.

        But my own skepticism of the floor method was never so much the feasibility. It was that it originated in Cannell. The book contains a lot of bogus methods. It not a trustworthy source. And it contradicts what Houdini said himself. He picked the lock.

        The true mystery of the carette, like all his jail escapes, was how he got whatever tools he needed into the cell with him. All the methods Lee uses would have been discovered in the search as it was described. That's one of the things they sidestepped.

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    7. FWIW: In Tales of Magic and Mystery March 1928, Walter B. Gibson mentions: “In Moscow, he was imprisoned in the carette, or transportation cell, a traveling prison, that was considered impregnable. No windows were in the van. The only mode of entrance was through a solid door, which was heavily padlocked.”

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