Thursday, August 20, 2020

Houdini and the New Britain mystery stunt (update)


Recently reader Brittany Hart reached out to see if I has any information on a stunt Houdini is said to have performed in her hometown of New Britain, Connecticut. While she could find no information in the local newspaper archives, she points out there's a plaque on the historic Andrews Building commemorating the feat. She was kind enough to send over this image.


It certainly sounds like what Houdini did here was a suspended straitjacket escape. However, I can find no record of an outdoor stunt in New Britain. In fact, the only appearance I have for Houdini in New Britain is a two day stint with the American Gaiety Girls in early March 1896. This was long before Houdini was famous and well before his suspended straitjacket days (not to mention before the Andrews was built). But he did do a handcuff escape at the local New Britain police station.

Houdini performed in nearby Hartford in 1906 and 1926. He also gave charity performances in Westport in 1917 and Southport in 1924. But it doesn't make much sense for him to promote these appearance in New Britain.

However, I did discover that Houdini's The Master Mystery played at the Lyceum Theater in New Britain in December of 1918. This was among the first theaters to show the serial and this was during a time Houdini was on the road making personal appearances. Is it possible he promoted the movie with a suspended straitjacket escape from New Britain's famous 5-story landmark?

Hartford Courant, Dec. 22, 1918

I'm afraid this one has me stumped, so I'm throwing it out there. Can anyone help crack the case of Houdini and the New Britain mystery stunt?

UPDATE: Thanks to our friends Jim Klodzen and Joe Fox, it appears the mystery may be solved, and it's not good news for New Britain nor the Andrews Building.

In 1919 an escape artist calling himself "The Great Luther" toured New England in the wake of Houdini's The Master Mystery, playing theaters that had shown or were showing the serial. Luther advertised himself as a "former assistant to Houdini," but Houdini told Billboard that he had never heard of him.

In February, Luther appeared at the Lyceum Theater in New Britain, which had just played The Master Mystery. On February 23, 1919, he performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the New Britain National Bank Building at 272 Main Street. This is not the same as the Andrews Building which stands at 132 Main Street. But they are on the same block with the Lyceum between them, and as Luther seemed to be doing all he could to be confused with Houdini, it not hard to believe that over time Luther became Houdini in the minds of the citizens of New Britain. At least I think this is the best explanation that we have so far.

Thanks to Brittany Hart for bringing this to our attention in the first place!

13 comments:

  1. One would think that this outdoor public plaque was sanctioned and approved (and researched) by the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, and/or the local New Britain Historical Society.

    Perhaps a direct inquiry to them is warranted.

    I'd be curious what their response would be (maybe they know something that would interest us all).

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    1. Jim Klodzen messaged me on FB to say he did call the New Britain Chamber of Commerce about this and they had nothing. He said all they had was the year 1920 (which is unlikely as Houdini only toured the UK that year).

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    2. Harry returned from the UK around May or June. He still had the rest of 1920 to perform the suspended straitjacket.

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    3. He returned in late August and turned down offers Keith-Orpheum for Fall and Winter tours. By all accounts he remained in NYC for the rest of the year. The only public performance we know he gave were two suspended straitjacket escapes at the Police Field Day Games in Brooklyn.

      Not impossible he might have done an escape in New Britain during these months. But it's not clear why. He didn't do these for fun!

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    4. Wait a minute, according to your 1920 deep dive, he and Bess returned in July--not August:

      Then, on July 6, the Houdinis set sail for New York aboard the RMS Imperator. It would be the last ocean crossing of Houdini's life. Ironically, it was the first in which he didn't get seasick.

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    5. Oops, you're quite right, Leo. I mis-read my own work. HH landed in NYC on July 12. Late August when when he did the Field Day Games escape. Thanks for the correction.

      But let's not get too hung up on the date 1920. The plaque itself says 1920s. So a range. And I wouldn't even pay attention to that. I'd look for any stunt in NB at any time. I do think my 1918 Master Mystery idea has merit. Heck, I'm wondering if his 1896 police station escape entered into New Britian's folklore and somehow morphed into an escape at the Andrews Building?

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    6. Agreed--It may not have been 1920. I would suspect somewhere between when he started doing the suspended straitjacket escape and 10/31/26. It had to have been for film or theater appearance in or near NB.

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  2. Jim Klodzen is continuing to pound the pavement on this. He's in contact with the New Britain Historical Society. But the fear is if they cannot corroborate the stunt (as so far they can't), the plaque will need to be changed or taken down. Nooooooo!

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  3. Why not take down the plaque, and change it?

    If there is no substantiated evidence that Houdini ever performed there...then its just perpetuating another "Houdini Myth" - which is exactly what this blog's goal has been trying to correct.

    Frankly, by just slapping words onto a public plaque, without any clear evidence...is kind of scary. Where's the quality-checking before such a thing gets officially approved by the city?

    What next? - Just pick any notable building at random, and slap a sign on it that reads "Washington Slept Here".

    Talk about "Fake News".

    As Ed Saint cried: "Come Through with the Evidence!"

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    1. Yes, but what if they take it down and a year later we find that evidence? Remember how long it took us to find evidence for his 1915 Los Angeles straitjacket escape. They're not going to redo it again. And then we're the buttinskies responsible for removing Houdini's name from a historic location. I'd never forgive myself.

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  4. Feb 21, 1919 The former assistant to Houdini, The Great Luther was performing at the Lyceum. He did the straitjacket escape among other escapes. At the same time at the same time Master Mystery was playing in the town.

    I believe there was a bit of confusion over the years and Luther was Houdini.

    John I sent you the page.

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    Replies
    1. Holy smokes I think you've solved it!!! Standby everyone for an update.

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  5. Ok, see update above. I'm pretty convinced this is the answer. But let us know what you think!

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