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:
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...
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...
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.