Friday, February 26, 2021

Boxcar straitjacket escape mystery (SOLVED!)

Here's another one of those familiar Houdini photos that has long had me scratching my head. It shows Houdini being put into a straitjacket while standing atop a railway boxcar. Everyone has smiles on their faces, which in itself is a little unusual.


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!

14 comments:

  1. I bought this photo in the mid-90s from a shop here in New York that specialized in selling only photos printed from the original negatives. I asked about it too, but they didn't know, unfortunately. So it's been a 25-year mystery for me. Hope someone else has some ideas about it. I love it, though, precisely because of the mutual smiles; feels like a true "behind the scenes" shot.

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    1. Took me several years to even notice they were on top of a boxcar. :)

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    2. I know, right? Maybe Harry had been watching a lot of Harold Lloyd movies!

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    3. Is there a date for this clipping?

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    4. Just got it from Bill. March 31, 1915.

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    5. This clipping is gold as it not only dates this, but it confirms the Hippodrome engagement (the sole source I had for that was Koval) and it gives me a May Company challenge packing crate escape. And also that weird mention of him going the Cleveland Athletic club to learn to "walk in water"? What is that all about? Hey, a new mystery! :)

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    6. Hey, this is great news! Thanks for sharing and thanks to Bill. For the first time in 25 years, I can look at the photo and know the real deal. (Maybe this even explains why they're laughing - perhaps Houdini is joking with them about having the names Nutting and Hanratty!)

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  2. Gotta luv the names of the two deputies who strapped the jacket on HH: Deputies Nutting and Hanratty. Was Deputy Hanratty possibly another imitator?

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    1. Haha. I thought the same thing. Great names.

      BTW, I don't believe for a second that there are 4000 spectators somehow watching this.

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    2. All I see is one guy standing in front of the Wells Fargo office. This definitely needs to be the suspended stunt. I wonder if HH already had that in mind before the train car stunt.

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    3. I'd like to think what we're seeing here is HH developing the idea. He knows he wants to do an outside stunt with a straitjacket that will have good visibility. But we also know the suspended straitjacket escape idea was already out there, so who knows.

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    4. What is the date of the first outdoor suspended straitjacket escape?

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    5. According to Silverman the first suspended straitjacket escape was on September 29, 1915 in Minneapolis. Roughly five months after the rail car stunt.

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  3. We actually tackled that a while back and discovered the first was Kansas City on Sept. 8, 1915.

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