Friday, December 4, 2020

Did Houdini really escape a packing case made from Titanic's timber?

It's part of Houdini lore that he escaped from a packing case made of wood used for the construction of the ill-fated Titanic. The idea of linking these two icons of the early 20th century is irresistible. But is it true? Let's dive in and find out.

The story of the Titanic packing case challenge appears to have its origins in Harold Kellock's Houdini His Life Story (1928), which is bad start for any investigation. As we know, Kellock is notorious for pushing and creating Houdini mythology. And on page 205 we find:

One of the toughest challenges was in Belfast, Ireland, where employees of the Harland and Wolff shipyards nailed up Houdini in a chest made of the timber which was being used in the construction of the Titanic. Houdini slipped out in a few minutes, leaving the chest intact, and added Ireland to his list of conquests.

Strangely, the Titanic packing crate challenge doesn't get mentioned in most of the major Houdini biographies. This doesn't bode well for its legitimacy. Then in 2017 the old story got a fresh twist when The Irish News ran a story about the escape, saying it was made underwater!

They built a huge packing case around him, interestingly when they were building the Titanic at the time, and used wood from the Titanic to build this case. It was lowered under the water at Donegall Quay and he had to escape.

This would pre-date Houdini's first known overboard box escape in New York in 1912 (the year Titanic sank) and, if true, would be a game changer indeed! However, the article identifies the source as "his wife memories", meaning Kellock, and the idea that it was an underwater escape appears to be an assumption that all of Houdini's packing case escapes were done this way. But Houdini's challenge packing case escapes were done on stage.

Happily, the facts are not hard to nail down if we turn to primary sources, namely newspapers. It turns out Houdini did indeed accept a challenge from Harland and Wolff on January 29, 1909 during his one and only engagement in Belfast. It was billed as the "Queen’s Island Challenge" and took place on the stage of the Royal Hippodrome Theater. The challenge was well advertised and a full account of the escape appeared in the Irish News and Belfast Morning News the following day:

I love how Houdini poured on the theatrics at the close of the escape: "He attempted to speak: but his voice failed him, and he tottered rather than walked to the wings, and disappeared from view." But notice how this article doesn't say anything about the lumber coming from Titanic. But why would it? Titanic was not yet famous, and according to Wikipedia, Harland and Wolff began construction of Titanic on March 31, 1909, two months after this challenge.

Harland and Wolff had laid the keel for Titanic’s sister ship Olympic by this time. The two ships were famously built side by side. So it would seem more likely this lumber was from Olympic. That is if the lumber came from any ship at all. Again, no newspaper (that I've seen) reported this particular aspect of the escape.

But just when I thought the famous Titanic wood might be all wet, our friend Joe Fox uncovered an intriguing item in the August 1957 MUM that offers up an eyewitness to the events of January 29, 1909.

Okay, so this mystery man doesn't refute the idea that the lumber came from Titanic (although "left over" it certainly wasn't). And while we know Titanic's keel wasn't laid until March 1909, this doesn't mean the wood for the job wasn't already onsite. So, yes, I can see a scenario in which lumber earmarked for the soon to rise Titanic was sent to the Royal Hippodrome that evening. I think the above article gives us permission to believe it (with some careful qualifiers). And it just sounds so good!

What do you think? Was this wood from Titanic, Olympic, or Houdini's own workshop? Feel free to build your own case in the comments below.

Thanks to Joe Fox for kicking off this investigation and for Joe Notaro for uncovering the 2017 article.


  1. It's possible the packing case was ship wood. The Harland & Wolff company was close by. They had wood, but no smoking gun in the articles, so I would believe possible.

    1. Another thought is that companies are notoriously cheap tightwads. It would have been prohibited to take wood out of the shipyard without some kind of permission in the chain of command. Unless the wood used for the packing case was leftover tossed out scrap. The wood used for both ships was purchased by the company and had to be accounted for. Every nut, bolt, and rivet was surely counted and tracked in the building process.

  2. Great that you quoted a column by Frank Fewins. He was a barber in Downtown L.A., at a time there were different competing newspapers in the city and he had them all in his shop, for customers to read while they waited. But from about 1917 - 1955,
    he clipped out EVERY article pertaining to magic/magicians and pasted them in scrapbooks with photos and other items as well. An amazing resource and physical history of magic in Los Angeles and elsewhere. They are now at The Huntington Library, and after securing an appointment, Joe Fox and I spent a number of DAYS, (6-7 hours each day) going thru the dozens of scrapbooks. I pointed out to the curator, that the first scrapbook, which included an autographed photo of HH, was the most valuable, money wise, but the scope of the history these scrapbooks contain is priceless!

    1. Oh my, that sounds like a great few days! I believe Joe shared with me some of the Houdini clippings. Don't recall the photo.

  3. When did HH begin presenting the challenge packing case escape? Gibson describes several methods in his book Houdini's Escapes with prepared boxes, but nothing about escaping from a box constructed on the stage. I've yet to read that secret.

    1. He reportedly did his first in Germany in 1902.

      Having the case built on stage was brilliant.

    2. Just saw the packing case link, a great source! Thank you! Having it built on stage was a brilliant idea.

  4. Two of my favorite subjects from the early Twentieth Century in one! So it is a fact (based on this article being legit) that the same company that constructed the Titanic constructed a box for HH performance. Was it the same wood that comprised the Titanic? That seems unlikely. After shipping the wood to the Hippodrome, nailing and un-nailing the box, what was the protocol for the wood. That era was known to have a "waste not want not" philosophy. Was the wood valuable enough to return to the shipyard? I say most likely. At the time The Titanic was not officially under construction, but only two months away means that the wood that was on hand would be used in the construction of the ship.
    Additionally, done believe that the Olympic and Titanic were actually one in the same but I will save that theory for another day

    1. Happy to have attracted a Titanic buff! There's no question as to the legitimacy that he was challenged by Harland and Wolff. But, yeah, the wood... Thanks for your thoughts. Intrigued by this Olympic/Titanic theory!

  5. I just love this entire article. Like the rest of you, I believe in the facts and getting them sorted out. However, I have always felt that Harry, without even realizing it, could penetrate the mysteries of the 4th dimension-at least in some small way. Ancient records exist of people having extraordinary abilities that defy our typical reality. If there was anyone who could navigate his way through an escape and touch upon the 4th dimension of time and space-it would be The Great Harry Houdini and probably Nikola Tesla in some of his experiments. But that, too, is another story for elsewhere. Gentlemen, great post. Thank you.

  6. Typing this from Belfast as we speak! I too was fascinated by this story. As an Irishman in the magical arts, I found it so cool that he performed an escape on home soil. In my own research of this, William Kalush assisted me and sent me the actual quote from Bess's memoirs:

    "Of husky crews ambitious to construct packing-cases to
    hold the escape artist there was seemingly no end. Each
    fresh group of challengers seemed to think that their
    predecessors had not exercised sufficient vigilance.
    The toughest of these challenges was in Belfast, Ireland, where
    employees of the Harland and Wolff shipyards nailed up
    Houdini in a chest made of the timber which was being
    used in the construction of the Titanic. Houdini slipped
    out in a few minutes, leaving the chest intact, and added
    Ireland to his list of conquests."

    What do you think?

    1. Thanks, Paul. I actually quoted part of that in the post above. It's the first time this challenge has been linked to Titanic, at least that I can find. Maybe you can ask Bill if he knows of an earlier mention?