Friday, September 11, 2020

Did Hardeen really discover the full view straitjacket escape?


It's an established part of Houdini lore that he originally performed his straitjacket escape inside a cabinet until Hardeen discovered the power of doing the escape in full view when challenged to do so one night by an audience that didn't believe his cabinet escape. After that, Houdini quickly adopted the full view presentation and the straitjacket became one of his most iconic and popular escapes.

I've always found this perplexing. How could Houdini, who knew full well the power of rope escapes done in full view of the audience, fail to see this himself? Nevertheless, here's proof positive that as late as November 12, 1904, Houdini is still doing the straitjacket escape inside his "red velvet tent." This is from the Birmingham Daily Gazette:

Click to enlarge.

From this it appears the escape is still effective ("the applause was tremendous"), so maybe that's why Houdini never felt the need to experiment. I should add that I've found another cabinet straitjacket escape on December 2, 1904, at the Pavilion Theatre in Newcastle (with a carpet laid on the floor to ensure no traps), but the above clipping makes better reading.

So if Hardeen really did make this seminal discovery, exactly when and where did this happen? Turns out that is NOT an easy question to answer. There are conflicting claims and not one of them commits to a date. But we know Houdini is still in his cabinet in November-December 1904, and it's said he did his first full view escape in Paris in March 1905. So we can assume Hardeen made his discovery sometime between those dates.

Thanks to my recent deep dive into the British Newspaper Archive (which I've re-upped for another month), I have Hardeen's schedule at this time. So with this in hand, let's examine the major candidates:

Christopher:
In Houdini The Untold Story, Milbourne Christopher says Hardeen made his discovery at the Swansea Empire in Wales. He does not provide a date, but Hardeen played Swansea the week of December 26, 1904, which is within the timeline. Christopher says Dash sent Houdini a newspaper clipping. That makes me suspect his source is a letter. I wish I knew for sure, because Christopher is also the sole source for Houdini doing his first full view escape in Paris in March 1905. (The first account I can find is April 14, 1905 in Cardiff.) This is two months after Swansea, so either Hardeen took his time telling him or Houdini took his time in adopting it. Or maybe there's a better candidate...

The pitchbook:
I believe everyone, including Christopher, uses Hardeen's pitchbook, The Life and History of Hardeen, as the primary source for the dramatics of this event. And why shouldn't they? The pitchbook contains what appears to be a detailed newspaper account (which, unfortunately, is undated and unattributed). It even has a photo of the theater announcing the re-challenge on a huge outside banner.


The pitchbook identifies the events as having played out at the "London Empire." Now, when I hear "London Empire", I think of the Empire Theater in Leicester Square. But Hardeen never performed there. So this could be a reference to greater London, and Hardeen did play Empires in Hackney, Holloway, and New Cross in late November 1904, which are (just) within the timeline. [UPDATE: The photo is the Holloway Empire.]

But here's the problem. Elsewhere this pitchbook photo is credited as being 1906. This is well after Houdini is doing the straitjacket in full view. In fact, I have found numerous accounts of Hardeen being called out of his cabinet to repeat his straitjacket escape all throughout 1906. It appears to have been a standard (staged) re-challenge, similar to how Houdini would be "re-challenged" to do his packing crate escape. In fact, Hardeen becomes so associated with this, the English press dubbed him "the straitjacket man." Here is one such account from the Empress Theater in Hartlepool on April 7, 1906:

Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail.

I now believe everything in the pitchbook is referencing one of these later staged escapes. It's also possible the story in the pitchbook is not even an actual newspaper clipping, which is why it is unattributed and suspiciously vague. So the pitchbook is pure misdirection.

Does this mean the entire story of Hardeen discovering the full view straitjacket escape is manufactured mythology? Did the brothers discover it in some other way, maybe even seeing an imitator do it? When going down one of these Houdini rabbit holes the "it never happened" option always has to be considered. But before we jump to that conclusion, there's one more candidate to hear from...

Hardeen (Himself):
In the March 1941 issue of The Sphinx, Hardeen provided a lengthy article called "Houdini-Hardeen Strait-Jacket Escape". In it he states he made his full view discovery at the "Bedford Music Hall, Camdentown, London." He also says the escape took a full "grueling hour." He doesn't give a date (why make it easy on us?), but I've discovered Hardeen at the New Bedford Palace of Varieties in Camden Town on March 24, 1905. Presumably Dash played the full week which began on March 20.

Music Hall and Theatre Review, March 24, 1905.

This engagement fits like a glove! It is within the timeline and, better yet, it is while Houdini is in Paris. So Christopher's claim that Hardeen told Houdini about the escape via letter and that Houdini first tried it in Paris works beautifully. We also know Dash joined Houdini in Cardiff for his battles with Frank Hilbert during the week of April 12, and it's on April 14th that Houdini does the first documented full view escape that I can find.

(By the way, Hardeen states in this same article that he and Houdini saw their first straitjacket in Berlin in 1900, which cannot be right. But that's a can of worms for another time.)

While I'm still not sure we have this is 100% locked down, I do feel pretty good about the March 1905 New Bedford engagement as being the time and place Hardeen discovered the full view straitjacket escape. I also still believe the core claim; that it was Dash who made this discovery and not Houdini. The primary reason are the 1906 staged re-challenges. Only Dash did these, and that suggests he had some ownership over this particular twist on the act. Not to mention he was able to put the story in his pitchbook.

So, yes, I think we are safe leaving this one in Hardeen's column. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.


Thanks to Joe Fox for providing me with a copy of the original Hardeen Sphinx article. It is also reprinted in Pat Culliton's Houdini The Key and Hardeen: Monarch of Manacles by William V. Rauscher.

38 comments:

  1. In case you’re wondering, Henning and Koval say Swansea and 1904. I'm certain they are using Christopher as their source. Kalush cites Henning as his source and uses the date 1904, but drops Swansea. Cautious Ken Silverman doesn’t mention it at all. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting... its traditional for people to downgrade Hardeen and his career, so this helps shore up my contention that he was a capable escapologist, and even a good showman.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Based on available images, you can probably rule out Hackney (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackney_Empire) and New Cross (https://database.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/3240-new-cross-empire) - BUT... it would appear to be ... The Holloway Empire Theater: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/30206/photos/162723

    There are more images that match the location if you do a search on Google. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, wow, thank you! Man, I was looking everywhere for a photo match. That certainly makes Holloway a contender. However, I still think the pic is 1906. Looks like it's back to British Newspapers Archive!

      Delete
    2. Ok, Hardeen also played the Holloway Empire in November 1905 and December 1906. Could not find a specific mention of a challenge straitjacket escape during his engagements, but in 1906 he's doing the straitjacket at other venues. So this pic could conceivable be 1905 or 1906. Or 1904! In which case we'd have our smoking gun. Hmmm...rabbit hole opening back up. :p

      Delete
    3. You've possibly seen this (or maybe not!) - but it confirms the Holloway concept, although unfortunately not the date precisely. Take a look at the left end of the card - it confirms location. :)

      https://www.lotsearch.net/lot/hardeen-billboard-challenge-postcard-34684374?page=9&orderBy=lot-title&order=ASC

      Delete
    4. Oh, wow, you are incredible, Eqrepro. I had heard this image was put on a promotional postcard, but I had never seen one.

      But note the listing description says it's 1907! Even later. Back to the Archive!

      Delete
    5. Holy cats. I just went through my Hardeen folder and I have an image of one of these postcards front and back. I must have scrolled past it a dozen times this week. No date on the back unfortunately.

      Delete
    6. Interestingly, the Library of Congress has a copy of this card, although unhelpfully, they date it as 1910-1930. They also observe in the notes: "Like his brother Houdini, Hardeen used challenges as a way to promote his act. He is credited with having conceived the idea of dramatizing the strait jacket escape by conducting it in full view of the audience." - but don't expand upon that observation (https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96519235/)

      Something I do find of interest, and possible import is the precise wording on the hoarding above the entrance:

      "Hardeen has agreed to release himself from the same strait jacket in full view of audience... to prove there was no trickery"

      This suggests that performing the escape "in [the] full display of the audience" was not a normal practice, although it should be noted that at the top it observes "Hardeen again challenged", so it could all have been part of the act.

      The rabbit hole just got deeper...

      I'll follow the progression with interest.

      Kind regards,

      Jos

      Delete
    7. Thanks for the LOC tip. Many of their dates are disasters. Maybe I can get a grant to go in there and re-date all their Houdini stuff? So many of their bad dates get spread around.

      Good observation on the theater advertising. But note the wording that he "has agreed to release himself from the SAME straitjacket", suggesting this is a re-challenge. Also that it's the 2nd house on Friday. My guess is the first challenge was the Tuesday or Wednesday night show. It's the same re-challenge dance that Houdini did with the packing case.

      Delete
    8. Yes, that was one of the points I intended to make, but my browser crashed and ate my initial post!! :)

      It does indeed appear that it's a rerun of a previous escape, but this time fully in the public's view - but was that a ploy to fill the house on a second night, or was it a new mode of performance? ;)

      Rabbits everywhere...

      Good luck with your LOC grant!! :)

      Delete
  4. Great job identifying the photo as the Holloway Empire Theatre.
    While Hardeen played the Holloway Empire in November 1904, got to believe that photo is from a later year for the reasons stated in the post.
    FWIW: The Yankee Magic Collector #9 is supposed to have a photo of Sid Radner in a “Swansea” straitjacket he got from Hardeen. According to Genii January 2005, it was “the all-leather escape-proof garment that Houdini called the Swansea straitjacket”.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh! I bet Fox could show us that pic. There is a pic of Sid on page 43 of Houdini's Fabulous Magic. For some reason I always thought that was the Swansea straitjacket?

      Delete
    2. Sorry...I don't have access to Yankee Magic Collector #9.

      Delete
    3. The photo in Yankee Magic Collectors #9 is most likely the same as the one on p43 of Fabulous Magic. Wonder why it was called the “Swansea” straitjacket. Thought there might be some connection to the claim Hardeen discovered the full view SJ escape in Swansea Empire in Wales.

      Delete
    4. I also wonder why it was called that. I assume Dash told Sidney that? I also sometimes wonder if it really burned in the Hall of Fame fire.

      Delete
  5. That is a great photo of Hardeen in the straitjacket. It would be interesting to see some of the current "escape artists" try to escape from the same style of jacket. Applied in the regulation manner of course.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hardeen posed for a front and back portrait shot in the straitjacket more than once. You can see another set of photos in the J.C. Cannell book. I never doubted it was Hardeen who first realized the impact of the open view escape. It's also not surprising he kept milking it with more challenges to perform it out in the open.

      Delete
  6. In the Hardeen poster the artist depicted him in straitjacket fail for the front view. I wonder if Hardeen ever noticed that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That illustration is drawn from a real photo. It's debatable whether that's a fail. It never struck me a being such in the photo. It's just the sleeves are very baggy and wrap up around this elbows. But I'm pretty sure his arms are folded. And if people are wondering what the heck we're talking about, check out this post.

      Delete
    2. Interesting--is there a link to that straitjacket photo the illustrator used? And get this, the bottom right corner of the poster says: Forcing elbows against floor to assist in duplicating shoulders. Was it Hardeen who also created the shoulder dislocation nonsense to make the ecape more dramatic? What is the date of this poster?

      Delete
    3. Don't know the year of the poster and I can't seem to find the pic of Hardeen. I was looking for it when I did this post. There are shots front and back.

      I think Houdini probably came up with dislocated shoulder idea. It was said Houdini could do both shoulders and Dash just one.

      Delete
    4. I read the shoulder dislocation explanation by HH in that 1918 Ladies Home Journal article: How I Get Out of a Straitjacket. This Hardeen poster predates(?) that article.

      Delete
    5. I'm sure this poster predates 1918. Dash was running the FDC by then. But I bet we can find Houdini mentioning it before the Ladies Home Journal, right? I don't know. Maybe that's a new rabbit hole to go down one day! Good catch that this poster mentions it.

      Delete
    6. When I clicked on the image and expanded it to get a closer look at the Hardeen straitjacket fail illustration, the drawing of Dash on the floor and the explanation caught my attention. I give Hardeen the credit for creating the shoulder dislocation faux explanation until I see something from HH that predates this poster. May HH is quoted on record and it's in the Culliton Tao of Houdini Unlocked book.

      Delete
    7. The other drawing of Dash on the floor says: Shoulders being dislocated allowing arms to be forced over head.

      Delete
    8. In the Sept 1907 Conjurer’s Monthly Magazine, Handcuff Secrets Exposed by Harry Houdini The Strait-Jacket Release, Houdini mentions that the first time he saw a man struggling in a strait-jacket: "I noted that were he able to dislocate his arms at the shoulder joint, he would have been able to cause his restraint to become slack in certain parts, and so allow him to free his arms."
      This is reprinted in his 1910 book, Handcuff Secrets.

      Delete
    9. Perfect. Thank you, Joe. So funny. I woke up this morning thinking about Leo's comment and thought I should check Handcuff Secrets at some point.

      Delete
    10. Great find Joe! But was this Hardeen poster produced before that September 1907 issue of Conjurer's Monthly?

      Delete
    11. Correction: It was the Jan 1908 Conjurer’s Monthly Magazine not the Sept 1907. That said, I don’t know the date of the Hardeen poster, but in the Jan 1908 issue, Houdini mentions that it was during “the season of 1894-5” [1896] while in St. John’s that he saw a man in a padded cell of an insane asylum struggling in a strait-jacket.

      Delete
    12. According to John's research I would put Hardeen doing the full view straitjacket release in 1905-06. Well before that 1908 Conjurers Monthly article. I suspect Hardeen had the poster made within that timeline to promote his full view release soon after he discovered its power. He certainly looks very young.

      Delete
    13. Agreed, it does look like a young Theo. FWIW: The poster was made in London. That is, I believe the lower left of the poster reads St. Paul’s Printing Co Archer St. Works Piccadilly,W. based on a 1907 Hardeen postcard (Lot 263) made from the same place that sold at Potter & Potter’s Houdiniana auction in April 2016. But in the Jan 1908 article, Houdini claims it was during the 1894-5 season in St. John [1896] that he saw his first strait-jacket and that dislocating arms at the shoulder joints would allow him to free his arms. And in the March 1941 Sphinx article, Hardeen states he and Houdini saw their first strait-jacket in Berlin in 1900; and Hardeen also mentions dislocating one shoulder to escape. So it’s clear as mud.

      Delete
    14. Great job establishing this was made in England. My own feeling is Houdini came up with the dislocation angle. He was the one who created the script both brothers followed. I'm working on a post about another classic Houdini tall tale that Hardeen adopted for himself.

      Delete
    15. Ha! I found the photos HERE. Amazingly, all I needed to do was Google "Hardeen straitjacket." Dated 1905!

      Delete
    16. Great catch John! That's a turtleneck straitjacket.

      Delete
  7. Thanks for all this amazing research, John!

    ReplyDelete

Legal Disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Translate

Receive updates via email