Saturday, April 4, 2020

Houdini's 1923 LA Examiner straitjacket escape

It was 97 years ago today on April 4, 1923, that Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. Houdini was appearing at the Los Angeles Orpheum this week. This was his second suspended jacket escape in the city (the first being in 1915). The day of the escape the Examiner alerted angelenos with the following story.

A reported 20,000 people gathered to witness the feat. Houdini, wearing a green plush hat, arrived shortly before 12:30 PM, having had to push his way through the throng. He made a short speech in which he asked the crowd for as much silence they could give him. When someone asked him about a book he had written, he snapped, "I've no time to think of books. This is a big job and I have to concentrate."

Houdini removed his hat, coat and vest, and was strapped into a straitjacket by Police Chief Louis D. Oaks. Also on hand were Lieutenant M. Thornburg (who had also participated in the 1915 escape), Detective Lieutenant Jack Finlinson, and Detective Lieutenant Walter Barr. His ankles were then roped to the block and tackle which was extended from the fourth floor of the building. Houdini called out, "Haul away", and he was raised 50 feet above the sidewalk. The Examiner takes it from there:

And then the impossible happen; the police officers didn't believe it. Nevertheless, there started an agitation up there under the flying jibboom. The magician's arms we're moving in a quick but rhythmical way and his entire muscular composition was in a sort of rapid ebb and flow. After a minute his arms were no longer bound to his back, but working somewhat freely in front, although still within the sleeves. From that moment on no one doubted the conclusion.

It appears Houdini milked an extra bit of drama out of the proceedings by not immediately rising after he had been lowered to the platform. He took several minutes to recover from what the paper called "a spell of dizziness." When he finally did stand the crowd let out a fresh cheer.

The next day the paper gave the escape front page coverage with a nice spread of photos.

Click to enlarge.

"I was not sure whether the police would beat me this time or not; certainly they gave me all they had. And I want to thank The Examiner for making this the biggest open air exhibition of my career." -Houdini

The Examiner building still survives at Broadway and 14th Street and looks much as it did in Houdini's day. The building, which has stood empty since the paper went out of business in 1989, is currently undergoing a massive $56.4M renovation to become an office and restaurant space.

Below is a photo of the empty building in 2013 and an artist rendering of the proposed development.

A postscript. The straitjacket Houdini used that day surfaced on a 2011 episode of Pawn Stars. You can watch the full clip below. As you'll see, photographs from the Los Angeles escape (wildly misidentified as being Jan. 1, 1915 in St. Louis) were used to authentic the jacket. The straitjacket eventually sold at auction for $46,980.



  1. The Pawn Stars straitjacket appears to have been HH's favorite one for this stunt. Pretending to be uncertain about escaping from the jacket, feigning dizziness and laying down for a few minutes. Classic HH showmanship.

  2. I work at this building now which is currently occupied by Arizona State University. Trust me, at night, Houdini’s spirit is still hanging around…