On February 9, 1911, Houdini was challenged by the Joshua Tetley & Son Brewing Company in Leeds to escape from his Milk Can filled with beer. This was the first of his popular "beer challenges." But the reason the Tetley challenge is so famous is not because it was first; it's because Houdini is reported to have failed. In Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock, it's said Houdini, a teetotaler, became "stupefied" by the beer fumes and passed out before he could free himself. Only the quick action of an assistant "who entered the cabinet and hauled him out" saved his life.
Tetley's is still around today and they've not forgotten this night. They even feature the following on their official website:
But there's a problem with all this. If Houdini really had such a dramatic on-stage failure during such a well-publicized challenge escape, one would think it would have been big news at the time. But I have yet to find any newspaper account of any accident or failure that night. Furthermore, in his book The Great Houdini: His British Tours, author Derek Tait reproduces an eyewitness account from audience member who says the escape went as planned.
So what really happened at the Leeds Empire exactly 110 years ago? They can't both be right. Or can they?
I think the truth is actually hidden in the eyewitness account itself, which is also filled with nice details about how the challenge was staged. I'm reproducing it below with Derek's permission. This comes from the Yorkshire Evening Post, December 22, 1928:
"When the curtain went up, the barrel of ale was on a gantry and four brewers' men were on the stage. To a lively tune by the orchestra, they tapped the barrel and filled a jug. They poured out a glass and handed it to Mrs. Houdini and she put it to her lips but did not drink any. Then Houdini pretended to take a drink. Then the brewers' men had a glass each. After that, they filled up a tin (which was something like the milk churns you see on the railway) with beer.Houdini, who in bathing costume, kissed his wife, and went head first into the tin. Immediately, half-a-dozen men, who were are on the stage as a committee, fastened the lid on with padlocks all around the lid, the padlocks being locked to staples that were on a collar on which the lid fitted. The can was then lifted into a cabinet and the curtains closed. In a very short period, one of the attendants went into the cabinet and almost immediately opened the curtains and Houdini walked out. The tin was then brought out and the padlocks were still fastened.Although I met Houdini many times, I never heard of him being stupefied by the beer as his biographer says. And, by the way, a few nights after the beer episode, he did the trick in the can filled with milk."
While the eyewitness said nothing went wrong, it seems clear to me that something did. Notice he says "one of the attendants went into the cabinet" shortly before Houdini appeared. This may have appeared normal, but it was not. The only reason I can think of an assistant going into the cabinet is if something was wrong. This also comports with the Kellock account. But the speed in which Houdini appeared suggests he wasn't fully unconscious and was able to cover. So the accident appears to have happened. It's just no one in the audience knew it!
There are a few other things that stand out here. It's interesting to see Bess present, suggesting that while she retired from performing in 1908 she still appeared on stage during select escapes. I also love the whole staging of the challenge with the tapped cask and everyone taking a drink. It's also striking that the eyewitness says Houdini went into the Milk Can "head first." This was not typical. Could this have been the real reason Houdini had difficulty escaping and not the fumes?
Houdini went on to do the beer challenge (successfully) many times. Below is a list of brewers who challenged Houdini to either escape from his Milk Can or a beer-filled cask. Is your brand among them? Cheers!
Joshua Tetley & Son Brewing Company, Leeds, UK (1911)
Independent Brewing Co., Pittsburgh, PA (1911)
Hoster-Columbus Associated Breweries Co., Columbus, OH (1911)
Louis Bergdoll Brewing Co., Philadelphia, PA (1912)
Fink's Brewery, Harrisburg, PA (1912)
Schlitz Brewing Company, Milwaukee, WI (1912)
Hacker Brewery, Munich, Germany (1913)
Burkhardt Brewing Company (Tivoli beer), Boston (1914)
The Louis Bergdoll Brewing Company, Philadelphia, PA (1914)
Haberle Brewing Co., Syracuse, NY (1915)
Dow's Brewery, Montreal, Canada (1915)
Standard Brewing Co. (Tru-Age Beer), Scranton, PA (1915)
Hanley Brewery (Hanley's Peerless Ale), Providence, RI (1915)
Indianapolis Brewing Co., Indianapolis, IND (1915)
Frank Fehr Brewing Co., Louisville, KY (1915)
Abner and Drury's - Washington D.C. (1916)
G-B-S Brewing Co. (Arrow Beer), Baltimore, MD (1916)
Phoenix Brewery, Buffalo, NY (1916)
Olt Brewing Co., Dayton, OH (1916)