Saturday, May 16, 2020

At last! Evidence of Houdini's near fatal buried alive surfaces

The story of Houdini nearly dying during a buried alive stunt in California is one that appears in most biographies. As told by Houdini in a 1925 Collier's article ("When Magic Didn't Work") he was trying the escape at different depths. But when it came to six feet, he found the weight of the earth too much and for the first and only time in his career he panicked and shouted for help. But he could not be heard under the soil. By sheer will he was able to claw his way to the surface and collapsed as his assistants hauled him from what had almost been his real grave. Houdini called it "the narrowest squeak in my life."

Illustration by Noa Kelner.

It's a great story, but there has always been a problem with it. There's no evidence that it actually happened. Exactly where the stunt took place has never been clear. Houdini first said it happened "in Hollywood." But it later became "Santa Ana", which is a good 30 miles from Los Angeles. Nor has a date ever been established. Most biographies, while never explicitly dating it, place it in their chapters covering the years 1915-16. But in Collier’s Houdini wrote that it occurred "six years ago," which would make it 1919. But Houdini was famously bad with dates.

The only thing that has kept me from dismissing this story as Houdini-generated mythology is a handwritten annotation Houdini made on some Buried Alive notes which appears (undated) in Walter B. Gibson's Houdini's Escapes (1930):

"I tried out 'Buried Alive' in Hollywood, and nearly [?] did it. Very dangerous; the weight of the earth is killing." 

So this is where things have stood on the Buried Alive story for decades.

But last Wednesday while doing some unrelated research, I stumbled on the following from the May 16, 1919 Los Angeles Times and nearly fell out of my chair!

Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1919.

So is this THE buried alive? Let's dig deeper.

Houdini had arrived in Los Angeles in late April 1919 to begin work on The Grim Game. By mid May he had already performed with the Lasky players at two Liberty Loan drives in Pershing Square (in which he was tied to a cannon). So this is right in line with his activities at this time. And it looks like Houdini had the year right after all!

The Air Memorial Day circus was a major event featuring over 50 airplanes and staged dogfights. The grand finale was to be the bombing of a German balloon, but it broke loose and drifted off over Hollywood. The crowd was estimated at 100,000.

The location, De Mille Field, sat at Crescent and Melrose Avenue between the cities of Hollywood and Santa Monica, which is likely what Houdini meant when he wrote Santa Ana. If DeMille Field sounds familiar, that's because it's where The Grim Game airplanes were leased and took off on their own fateful flights.

DeMille Field.

But there are some problems. In Houdini's telling it was a private test done on a bet with the magician trying the escape at graduating levels. I was also able to find several accounts of the Air Memorial Day event itself, including a detailed schedule, and there is no mention of Houdini, let alone a near death experience. Not something you'd expect a newspaper to ignore! So it appears Houdini did not do the escape at the event itself. Nevertheless, I still think we've found it.

My thinking is Houdini's close call occurred while he was practicing the escape, likely a day or two before the event. This fits with the graduating levels. He then cancelled the performance when he discovered six feet, as announced, was not feasible and damn dangerous. For it to be announced on the 16th, and then the papers show Houdini removed from the lineup on the 18th, suggests this test happened on the 16th or 17th. It seems logical Houdini would have tried it at DeMille Field itself, although we can't know that for certain. But a test before the event makes sense, and the fact that he didn't do the escape as announced only reinforces the idea that something happened.

So there we have it! Houdini's near fatal buried alive stunt is not the stuff of mythology but appears to have happened in mid May 1919. Maybe even 101 years ago today?

The illustration at the top of this post is by Noa Kelner and used with permission. Bottom illustration is from Patrick Culliton's Houdini The Key.



  1. This is great! I always wondered about this and if it really happened.

  2. Did you get my email? It's in Houdini's Escapes. WBG is writing about Houdini's notes on an escape from a buried box and he says, as I recall, "there is a handwritten note. . ." "tried out Buried Alive in Hollywood and nearly 'did it.'" So that's why we were thinking Kellock -- same time period. I knew I saw it before Christopher.

    1. Ah, shoot, I didn't see that email. Great find! I'll make the change. Thanks Pat!

    2. BTW, I'd love to see these original notes and notation. Wonder if they were dated?

  3. Great catch John! Your thinking here makes perfect sense. The buried alive experiment as a prep for that Memorial Day show appears to be the answer to this mystery.

    1. I'm especially excited about how this story now has a context that makes sense. It always felt off to me before.

    2. Yeah--the experiment now has context to it rather than just a one off experiment Harry was trying. Note that his memory was spot on in the Collier article he wrote, it was 1919. He kept mum on the reason for trying the Buried Alive experiment as a failed rehearsal for that Air Show. That's why it took so long to exhume this. :)

  4. Excellent find and quite credible theory, John. Thanks for sharing; this is great new knowledge to have.

  5. Groundbreaking (pun intended) piece of work.

  6. Brilliant work yet again John. This is just awesome, Thanks for uncovering this!

  7. If Houdini yells for help while buried 6 feet under and nobody's there to hear him, does he make a sound? ;)

    Bad joke aside, I would think he wouldn't have bothered to admit that he yelled for help while under there. If nobody heard him, he coulda kept it to himself and not had to reveal the desperation. But I'm guessing when he crawled out of there, he probably said, "Didn't anyone hear me yelling for help?!" and gave it away.

    I wonder if he ever bothered to try being buried that deep with a little tube for air to the surface, just to test how heavy the dirt would have been when trying to crawl to out of there.

  8. Delightful find there! WELL DONE!!!

  9. I wonder why Houdini didn't appear regardless and perform some other stunt. It's not like him to cancel a show.


  10. Notice the other Lasky actors like Gloria Swanson participated in this event. When the studio pulled your leash, you had to bark on command. It was in the contract. Actors today have to appear on talk shows to promote their films. It's in the contract.

    Is it possible HH decided to do something else instead of showing up? The papers took him out of the lineup so he must have announced he wasn't going to be there.

    1. From The Whole Equation by David Thomson: In the first half of the 20th century, Hollywood actors were governed by contracts with the major studios, which dictated their roles, their schedules, and their pay—leaving many to feel they were little more than "slaves" to the studio system. Only the most powerful stars were able to break free, and not without considerable effort. A case in point was megastar James Cagney.

      Thomson confirmed what I had suspected of the Laskey stars auctioning off tickets for this event. I love the way HH pulled a no show for this event, even though we don't know why.

      Where did that leave Harry? He didn't make it l