Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Did Houdini really almost drown in beer?

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)
Moerlbach Brewing Co., Rochester, NY (1911)
Jacob Ruppert, Brewers, Knickerbocker Beer, New York, NY (1912)
Hauck's beer, Atlanta, GA (1912)
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)
The Cleveland & Sandusky Brewing Co., Cleveland, OH (1915)
Interboro Brewing Co., New York, NY(1916)
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)

Thanks to Allan J. Taylor of the UKEA (United Kingdom Escape Artists) for his help with this post.



  1. I think Milbourne Christopher said that on those other challenges, he soaked his body with something that prevented him from feeling the affects of the fumes.

    1. Oh that's interesting. I don't recall hearing that. But it makes sense.

  2. In "Houdini - The Myth Maker", the authors (Lead & Woods) conclude that Houdini did Not fail (pp. 29-33)...and that the stories suggesting otherwise - were a combination of tall-tales & the misremembering of two separate events.

    However, the 1928 eye-witness account (cited above) leads one to speculate that "from the audience's point of view"...Houdini did not fail. But from a "behind the scenes" view - Houdini may indeed have needed some kind assistance - maybe as something as simply helping him to his feet after escaping from the Can.

    Here's a future project for John Cox: "The Unmasking of Harold Kellock" - a line-by-line "fact check" of the infamous 1928 Houdini book.

    1. Oh, dang, I didn't think to check Lead & Woods and I should have.

      It's very possible this first appeared in some article during Houdini's life. But here's a case where Kellock had the truth!

    2. In the eyewitness account the milk can was lifted and put into the cabinet. You would think the can was too heavy to pick up. The cabinet must have been wheeled forward and around the can.

      Notice how the Milk Can was not a challenge escape that required a market tie in with companies. Yet HH managed to continue the publicity train with breweries and milk producers. They must have loved him cuz he generated business for them.

  3. The handles on the can must have been pretty darn strong to pick up the can with Harry in it...weighing maybe 150ish and the liquid at 6 to 8 pounds a gallon. I agree with the above post.

    1. Also--picking up the heavy can with HH inside by the handles would not have been a good idea. Look at where the handles are located.

  4. My great grandad had a dairy in Leeds and was approached by Houdini’s UK locksmith i think it was, to provide them with a milk can for the act on tour. Theatrical digs where music hall stars stayed were on the same street so am guessing they might have been staying there. My grandad also saw the act off Leeds Bridge in 1914 or 15 I forget. Years later grandad took over the dairy and remained friends with the locksmith who I think came from Derbyshire..? Grandad spoke of this but died when I was 9 so I don’t remember much of the story.