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.