Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Westminster Bridge jump that wasn't


This is a fantastic photo of Houdini that first appeared online. In fact, I don't believe it has yet to be published in any book. But it's also a somewhat perplexing shot. Have you ever wondered why Houdini is wearing shorts, leg irons, and what look like slippers? It certainly isn't like any other photo of Houdini in a straitjacket. But I recently made a discovery that I believe explains this image, and it's one wild what if!

In August of 1908 Houdini returned to tour Europe after an absence of three years. He was bringing with him new escapes, such as the Milk Can, and his new practice of jumping from bridges handcuffed. He opened in Germany where he drew headlines by jumping off the Friedrichs Bridge in Berlin. When he arrived in London to play the Oxford Music Hall in November, he sought permission to jump from the famous Westminster Bridge. However, the night before the feat, permission was denied by the city commissioner. Furthermore, the police warned that if he "even attempted to carry out the project it would mean imprisonment." Just like New York, London was not a city that was going to allow traffic to be brought to a standstill so Houdini could gain publicity.


Here's where things start to get curious. When the feat was first announced, it was reported that Houdini would be "heavily manacled and encased in a straitjacket." Doing a bridge jump in a straitjacket was not something Houdini ever did. This would have been extremely dangerous. At first I thought the papers had simply gotten this wrong; that Houdini would have done the jump in handcuffs as he did all others. But this is where the above photo comes into play.

Houdini being denied permission to do the jump was also reported in the papers, and all the accounts said he was to have bound in a straitjacket. The Alderley & Wilmslow Advertiser even ran a photo (below). As you can see, this photo was clearly taken at the same time as the more familiar image. So this is why Houdini is in shorts. He's in his standard bridge jump attire!


So was Houdini really going to jump from the Westminster Bridge in a straitjacket? I still find this unlikely. Not only because of the added hazard, but if this was his new concept for bridge jumps, why did he never do it elsewhere? He did a jump in Liverpool just one month later in handcuffs only.

I'm wondering if it's possible that Houdini knew full well London officials would never allow him to jump from the Westminster Bridge, so he exaggerated what he planned to do. Or maybe the newspapers just got it wrong. Ether way, Houdini took advantage of the situation and had photos taken showing him in the impossible manner in which he "intended" to do the stunt. And it worked! With some photos as a sweetener, the papers widely reported the cancelled stunt, and Houdini was able to gain publicity for a stunt he didn't even do.

Pretty smart, Harry.

9 comments:

  1. This didn't really fit in the post, but Houdini did eventually do an underwater straitjacket escape in the NY Hippodrome tank in 1918. Of course, conditions where much more controllable, and it's speculated he may have utilized the underwater trap door that was a feature of the tank.

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  2. Years ago, I acquired a press copy of that photo with a stamp on the back that reads THE PRESS ASSOCIATION LTD, 85 Fleet Street London.
    And now I know, the story behind it. Amazing find!

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    1. And we know the date! This wasn't an easy pic to ID. Not sure I would have ever pegged it as 1908.

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  3. Great stuff! Nice catch! Straitjacket and gym shorts never made sense but you unraveled that one. HH really knew how to get promotional mileage out of just about any situation.

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    1. What would have happened had they given him permission I wonder? My guess is he would have done it in cuffs only. There is a precedent for this. He originally announced that he would be manacled and "sown in a sack" for his 1907 Rochester bridge jump. But he discarded the sack as the day neared, saying the mud at the bottom of the channel made it too dangerous.

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    2. Wholeheartedly agree. If given permission he would have done it just in cuffs. A straitjacket bridge jump would have been suicide.

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  4. It WOULD have been interesting if they called his bluff and he was faced with making that jump. But Houdini wouldn't do a stunt without knowledge and precautions established beforehand. Note he warns in "Handcuff Secrets" about doing a bridge jump with cuffs that will just pull open, "as even those can have disastrous results."(this may have been written to discourage imitators.) Keep in mind to do a jacket escape underwater, it can be more difficult with less mobility AND that canvas/leather underwater gets very heavy and unworkable when wet. The less you have to do underwater the better...just as Steranko correctly warned in all caps: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO PICK CUFFS UNDERWATER, Houdini would not want to unbuckle, pull thru a leather/canvas jacket underwater in a less controlled setting.

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    1. Correct on all points. And the Thames is no tranquil body of water here! There's no way he would have done this in a straitjacket. Had they called his bluff, he would have done it in cuffs as normal (see my comment above).

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  5. It's also worth pointing out that this is a case of Houdini respecting the authorities. He didn't always! On more than one occasion he did a jump despite being denied permission. Once even using a double to distract the police!

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