Saturday, August 10, 2019

Uncovering Houdini's 1915 Los Angeles straitjacket escape (at last!)

For years I've been trying to uncover details of Houdini's first suspended straitjacket escape in Los Angeles. While his 1923 escape is well represented in photos and newspaper clippings, his 1915 escape has proven strangely elusive. This would have been a major event with a massive crowd and snarled traffic, yet there's no mention of it in either the Los Angeles Times or the Herald. How could that be? If fact, the only clue that it ever happened at all is this short undated film clip:



This has been especially vexing as L.A. is my home and I've tasked myself with uncovering all the Houdini connections I can. I've actually been entertaining the idea that the above film is misidentified and there never was a 1915 Los Angeles escape. Maybe this is Oakland? We know Houdini did an escape there before coming to L.A.

But on a recent visit to the Magic Castle, librarian Joe Fox finally helped me crack the case. He showed me a flyer from the 1987 televised séance The Search For Houdini. Joe wondered if I had ever seen it. I told him had. In fact, I own one myself. But I haven't looked at it in years, so I popped it open anyway. There, much to my astonishment, was a paragraph about Houdini in Los Angeles with key details about the 1915 escape. As if to mock me, it referred to it as one of Houdini's "best documented" escapes. Needless to say, I went wild!

Armed now with information, I did some Internet research, but quickly discovered what I needed was not available online. For this one, I needed to go old school. So I traveled downtown to the Los Angeles Central Library's newspaper microfilm archive, and there I discovered gold!

Yes, the escape happened, and today I'm excited to share the full story along with some great unseen images.

Houdini's 1915 Los Angeles engagement began the week of November 29 at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway. It was his first appearance in Los Angeles in eight years. The Saturday before his arrival, the Los Angeles Tribune reported that he had been challenged to escape from the county jail by Sheriff John C. Cline. Houdini accepted the test for Tuesday morning, reportedly wiring: "Just out of Oakland jail; you can't put me in a cell I cannot open."

If this escape ever happened, I could find no evidence of it. Also, Houdini doing a jail break in 1915 is highly unusual. There's also no record of him doing an Oakland jail break. Instead, Houdini began the week by beating a packing crate built onstage by the shipping department of Hamburger's department store.

But then came a challenge that would take the form of a major outdoor stunt. The drama began on November 30 when Houdini appeared to take umbrage to a sentence in the Tribune's otherwise glowing review of his act. In discussing his Water Torture Cell, reviewer Monroe Lathrop noted:

But baffling as the trick is--for it must be such--across the footlights, it still gave the skeptics a chance to say that the wizard's prowess might show up less brilliantly if he were compelled to make his tests in the open, without the use of his specially constructed stage devices.

Houdini responded with a letter to the editor in the same issue:

Gentlemen--With all due respect, your review in the Morning Tribune today does me a great injustice. I assure you that every "trick" I do is on the square, and there is no collusion in any way; neither do I make my escapes by means of apparatus.
However, just to prove this to the satisfaction of your erudite critic, I am willing to perform for you, in public, away from the theater, and at such time as you may set–provided, of course, I have the permission the Orpheum, in whose contract this is provided–some trick that you may invent, select or devise.

By the end of the day, the paper had its challenge ready:


Houdini quickly accepted under the condition that firemen with a life net should be on hand in case of emergency. He told the paper, "I may not succeed in this experiment, but I'll make the effort of my life. I must say, the conditions are extreme, but then so will be the victory, provided I succeed." The date of the test was set for that Saturday, December 4th.

Of course, Houdini had developed the entire idea of the suspended straitjacket escape that same year and had already performed it in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, and Oakland. So it's obvious to us today what would not have been so obvious to the citizens of Los Angeles in 1915; that this was all a publicity stunt cooked up between Houdini and the Evening Express and Morning Tribune. One now understands why the competing newspapers chose to ignore it entirely.

But the other papers were not lacking Houdini headlines. Their pages were instead filled with reports about his wholly unplanned encounter with heavyweight champion Jess Willard during his opening night at the Orpheum (read: Houdini vs. the Pottawatomie Giant). Interestingly, no mention of the encounter appears in the Express or Tribune. They instead remained focused on their own Houdini grudge match with daily updates that built the suspense.

On December 2, the papers introduced two new players into the drama:

POLICE TO FASTEN WIZARD HOUDINI IN JACKET
Plans Complete for Actor's Attempted Escape in Front of Express Tribune Office
Two of the most expert criminal catchers and holders in the police department Detectives M. Thornberg and T.T. Toomey, sat in the Orpheum theater last night and sized up Houdini, the escape marvel. They are detailed by Chief Snively and Lieutenant Heath to put the aforesaid Houdini so securely into a police straitjacket that Houdini cannot get out of it. After seeing Houdini perform, the detectives still believe they can do it.
Thornberg and Toomey will call on Houdini Saturday forenoon at his hotel and search him. And it will be "some" search! Then they will escort him personally to the Express Tribune building, never letting him out of their sight for an instant.
When Houdini at the Orpheum was told that the police heads had assigned two special detectives to his "case" he smiled.
"Well," he declared, "I've had police chiefs try and stop me escaping, without success. I do not say that I'll escape this time, but I'll try, you may gamble on it."
The two detectives were taken to Houdini's dressing-rooms last night at the Orpheum and introduced to him. That was to give them an opportunity of "sizing him up" that they might know what manner of man they had to deal with; to get a line on his personality, as it were. After they left him they admitted that he looked like a "tough nut to crack." They were not discouraged, but all the more determined.

Meanwhile, preparations where being made at the Express Tribune building itself, which stood at 719-721 S. Hill Street. This warranted its own story on December 3:

RIGGING FOR FEAT BY HOUDINI TO GO UP TODAY
Firemen to Erect Tackle at Express Tribune Building for Test Tomorrow
Promptly at 10 'oclock this morning the Pioneer Truck company will deliver at the Express Tribune building the rigging, block and tackle that will be erected under the supervision of Chief Eley's specially detailed firemen and from which, tomorrow at noon, Houdini, the Orpheum man of mystery, will be swung.
The object of putting it up today is twofold–that the public may see it and inspect it and that it may be thoroughly tested by the firemen, that no accident happen at the last minute. So, carefully, each rope, block and fall will be tried out and gone over by Chief Eley, with the permission of the board of fire commissioners. When they and the Pioneer Truck company under fireman's supervision have finished this job no one can doubt the thoroughness of the work. And when, from the end of the ropes Houdini dangles tomorrow, he need have no fear of anything giving way.

Of course, the more talk of safety precautions just reinforced the idea that danger existed and accidents can happen. Houdini himself arrived late in the day and made his own inspection along with the firemen. This drew a nice front page story and a terrific photo in the Tribune (below).


All that was left was the escape itself. Despite an overnight downpour, the stunt proceeded as planned on Saturday, December 4. Houdini arrived on the scene around noon. So did an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 spectators who filled Hill Street from Sixth to Ninth Street. Police on horseback halted all traffic into the area. The Express called it "the greatest street throng in the history of Los Angeles."

Newsreel cameramen were also on hand to record the action. In the surviving footage one can see Hardeen, who was performing at the Los Angeles Pantages this same week, assisting his brother. Maurice W. Clark, "the noted Oklahoma sporting man," acted as the official time keeper for the escape. Bess was also present.

Standing on a fire truck from the No. 7 company, Houdini was bound in a straitjacket by Thornberg and Toomey. At exactly 12:22 he was hoisted approximately 50 feet up. A photo shows that a large white sheet was hung on the side of the building directly behind Houdini. It's unclear if this was for safety reasons (Houdini had hit his head when he swung into the side of a building in Oakland), or to provide a backdrop so people could better see him doing the escape.

Houdini freed himself in two minutes and seven seconds. The papers reported this was "a minute less than he ever removed a similar shackle on the sound planking of the stage floor." The first thing he did on reaching the ground was to embrace and kiss Bess. For all the buildup, one can't help but wonder if the escape itself felt like an anticlimax, not unlike a much hyped championship bout that only lasts 30 seconds. But it didn't matter. Houdini had won.

Interestingly, Houdini would pen a letter that same day to his new friend Jack London in San Fransisco. In it he described his encounter with Jess Willard several days earlier. Hanging in a straitjacket 50 feet above the heads of 25,000 people was, apparently, business as usual and did not warrant a mention.

The next day both the Tribune and Express featured the escape on their front pages. In their account, the Express downgraded the crowd size to 15,000. The Tribune carried a spectacular five column photo of the escape, which you can see below. (And if you're wondering why there are swastikas on the page, know that in 1915 the symbol did not yet have its infamous association and, according to Wikipedia, was often used for ornamentation.)

Click to enlarge.


Houdini performed for another week at the Orpheum. He then moved on to Salt Lake City where film of his Los Angeles escape was shown before his act. He then repeated the feat in front of Salt Lake's Walker Bank Building.

It's not generally remembered that most of Houdini's outdoor stunts were presented as "challenges" coming either from the local police or newspaper. That's what makes the coverage of this particular escape so informative. It shows how Houdini crafted the story in cooperation with all the players, building suspense over the course of several days. For those who remembered Houdini doing such a stunt in their town, I suspect the memory was partly implanted because of the week long drama they experienced. This is what made Houdini, Houdini.

Having uncovered all these wonderful clippings in the L.A. Library (I guess it was one of his "best documented" escapes, if you read the right papers!), there was still one last thing left for me to do. I wanted to find the location of the escape today. Happily, my phone showed it was a mere 12 minute walk.

Today the site of the escape is a parking lot. The Express folded in 1919 and the building was demolished in 1935. None of the surrounding buildings visible in the film footage or newspaper photos appear to be the same. But the parking lot still carries the familiar address of 719 S. Hill Street.

So even though there's nothing recognizable left to see, one can still stand in this historic spot and imagine what it was like to watch Houdini do his first suspended straitjacket escape in Los Angeles on December 4, 1915. A mystery no more.


Thanks again to Joe Fox at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library. Also thanks to Athena Stamos for discovering The Express archive in the Los Angeles Central Library and introducing me to this amazing resource. Film clip comes from Kino's Houdini The Movie Star DVD.

Related:

36 comments:

  1. Ha! I didn't realize Hardeen was behind Harry taking the accessories for his brother. Had to watch the clip again after reading the post. Too bad we don't have the missing footage.

    Great new info for your Chronology, and a nice bit of sleuthing. As Indiana Jones said, "Seventy percent of all archeology is done in the library."

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    1. Thanks Leo. Yep, Hardeen is there, and that was another reason I thought for a while that maybe this footage was actually Oakland. We know HH and Hardeen famously played against each other there. But it turns out they played against each other in L.A., and then again in Salt Lake City!

      The microfilm archive in the downtown library is a wonderful resource because there are still many papers that have not been digitized and, as this show, not all papers covered the same thing. I've just begun my work there. My next "white whale" is his 1923 Ambassador Hotel pool escape.

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    2. And this was less about adding to the chronology than using it. I'm lucky to be the first HH nut to test drive it as research tool, and it works! Allows me to laser target the dates I need. So I don't need to roll through endless microfilm. I know right where to go and, boom, all this gold was right there.

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    3. Yes, the Chronology you built is beginning to pay off handsomely for further research.

      The 1923 Ambassador Hotel pool escape. Is this the diving board ball and chain jump into the pool?

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    4. Yes. Typically misidentified as being San Fransisco.

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    1. Thanks John! I'm always thinking of you when I go on an LA location search. :) BTW, on this same day I drove past one of The Grim Game locations you found.

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  3. Bravo John! Darn I was just in Salt Lake City last week. That's where I'm from and moved to Cincinnati later. Next year when I'm out visiting family in SLC I'll visit the Walker Bank building. Great work on this story!

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    1. Does it still stand? That would be great to see.

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    2. Yes it's still there. I suspect I might have even been inside that building but I had no idea that there was a Houdini connection.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walker_Center

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    3. Fantastic! I wonder if the building owners are aware? Certainly something to include in its official history. Btw, the date of the escape was Dec. 22, 1915.

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    4. I've now done a post about the Salt Lake City escape HERE.

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  4. Really fascinating, and great detective work on your part, John. Terrific photos, too. Thanks for the great post. Maybe the white sheet was more about helping the photographers get a sharp pic of Houdini doing the stunt (he might blend into the dark windows, depending on the angle from which he was being photographed). I also love the super-calm manner in which Houdini takes off his tie and stiff collar in the film. (Too bad Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon weren't around in those days to oversee Houdini's LA escape!)

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    1. Yeah, I was kinda thinking that myself about the sheet. But he never did that again as far as I'm aware. These 1915 suspended straitjackets escapes do have some elements that he didn't continue. He again involved the fire department in Salt Lake City, but I don't think he continued that. But what an attention getter!

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    2. Yes, the Fire Department involvement is brilliant (and wouldn't the fire truck down below Houdini have looked great on a poster) but the logistics of arranging it must've been colossal. And I suppose it would've been decried in some cities as potentially pulling resources away from an emergency. But that's our Harry -- always pushing the envelope!

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    3. Beyond this particular L.A. stunt, I don't remember ever seeing fire trucks on the street in photos of Harry escaping the jacket.

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    4. BTW, the building that housed Fire Dept. No. 7 still stands and "No. 7" is still visible over the door. I came upon it by chance when I was leaving the library, but I was driving and couldn't stop to get a pic.

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    5. Speaking of Houdini and the Los Angeles Fire Dept. See this tweet. A thank you from Harry? Believe.

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    6. Yes, I happened upon that tweet yesterday. Too perfect! (Yes - believe!)

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  5. This is definitely “on the square”. I just re-watched, “The Search For Houdini” and it shows the 5 column photo of the escape, and mentions that they have sent escape artist Dean Gunnarson down to the corner of 8th and Hill Street, where the old L.A. Express Tribune Newspaper Building used to be, to promote the show and recreate the escape from 1915. Great work, John!

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    1. Oh! That explains why it was in that flyer then. They did their research. I haven't watched that special in decades, but I'll check it out now. Thanks!

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    2. Hey, I just discovered I have a couple clippings of Dean doing this escape in my scrapbook. He did it from the Garfield Bldg, which is not the same spot. In fact, it appears he's on 8th St instead of Hill. But it's the same block.

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  6. An interesting twist here and another mystery solved. The undated press photo of HH in a straitjacket from the March 27, 2017 post is a close match the the press photo of HH with the two cops:

    https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2017/03/a-houdini-birthday-present-from-kevin.html

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    1. Yes! Great catch, Leo. I actually thought the exact same thing when I first saw that clipping.

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    2. His hair is neatly combed back and I could swear he has make up on in both photos. It must have been a photo shoot deliberately staged for this "challenge" event. The newspaper people probably asked him if he could pose in the jacket for the article.

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  7. The letter to Jack London. Where did that come from?

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    1. You'll find it sourced in the Silverman and Kalush Notes books. I believe the original is in the Huntington Library.

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    2. It was fun to realize that he wrote this letter on the day of the escape. I wonder if he wrote it before or after? I also wonder if he wrote the lengthy letter to his sister Gladys on this same day (quoted at length in Kellock). IF that Gladys letter is "on the square." There are some who think it might be an invention of Kellock. According to Kalush, no one has ever located the original.

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    3. That's the first time I've ever read that a Houdini author might have faked the information--Harry excepted of course. Kellocked referred to this letter to Gladys as possibly HH's longest. If it's a real letter, it might be somewhere in one of the boxes at the Ransom Center

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    4. I've always believed it would be in the Ernst archive as so much of Kellock seems to have come from there (diaries, etc). The Laid Bare book is now 10 years old, so possibly it has been found. I've never really doubted it. It sounds like HH to me.

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  8. I was in the audience for the Search For Houdini special. It was at the same Hill St. theatre mentioned in the article. To this day, I still remember every detail about that show. A great memory indeed.

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    1. Yes. That part was disappointing, but no one expected Houdini to return. But, the show itself was fun. William Shatner was funny in between the commercials.

      I even met the Amazing Randi who was on a stretcher. I had the nerve to ask him for his autograph. He could have said no being in the condition he was in. But, he was very nice.

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  9. Very happy so many people enjoyed this post. I will have two "spin off" posts coming up, one on Dean Gunnarson's recreation (thanks Joe Notaro) and one on his Salt Lake City escape, which ties into this one.

    I also plan to get back into the microfilm at the Central Library and track down a few elusive LA stunts.

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