Here's another less well-known photo taken at this same time showing Houdini escaping from the jacket. (This appears in the book The Importance of Harry Houdini by Adam Woog.)
So what is this all about? Is it a challenge? Is it Houdini's first stab at an outdoor publicity stunt using a straitjacket? (This is four months before his first suspended straitjacket escape.) It's not a bad idea. Having to free himself within a confined space or risk rolling off the top of the boxcar has a nice element of danger, even more so if the train was moving.
There are a few things we do know. The photo is soured to the Library of Congress which credits it as being Cleveland in 1915. Of course, many LOC Houdini photos are misidentified. But this does look like Houdini in 1915 to me, and he did play Cleveland's Hippodrome Theater the week of March 29, 1915. Unfortunately, the major online newspaper archives have surprising few papers from Cleveland.
You can also see a Wells Fargo office in background. Could this have been a challenge from the bankers? I reached out to Wells Fargo Corporate Historian historian Alyssa Bentz who told me the Wells Fargo office in Cleveland was located on East 9th Street and was indeed by a railroad. Unfortunately, she knew nothing of any Houdini-Wells Fargo connection, but was excited by the possibility. (I suggested they hang this image in their Cleveland branch, and they might!)
So looks like we know the when and where, but not the why. I've pretty much hit a wall, so I figured I'd throw this out in the hopes someone might be able to crack the mystery of the boxcar straitjacket escape.
UPDATE: The always amazing Bill Mullins has cracked the case! Below is a clipping from the Cleveland Plain Dealer showing this was an outdoor publicity stunt "before 4000 spectators" on March 30, 1915. It appears Houdini was atop the boxcar sheerly for visibility. I think we can indeed consider this a forerunner to his suspended straitjacket escape.
|Click to enlarge.|
Thank you Detective Mullins!
UPDATE: Our friend Perry Reed contributes more to our new understanding of this escape. As the article states, the crowds lined the "Superior viaduct", which was a Cleveland engineering marvel at this time. Below is a photo from the 1890s that shows the railroad and gives an idea of where Houdini did the escape. It's likely those 4000 spectators (if we believe that number) lined the bridge above the action.
Thank you Perry!