Friday, February 19, 2021

Off-script in Cincinnati

By 1906 Houdini had pretty much established his official show business biography. It always begins with his birth in Appleton, spins colorful tales of his childhood gift with locks, and finds the fully formed Handcuff King making an all or nothing bet on himself by traveling to Europe where he takes the continent by storm. Notably absent are his many years of toil in the lower rungs of show business and the critical role of Martin Beck. But it played well in newspapers and pitchbooks, and to use political parlance, Houdini had control of the narrative.

That's why the following from the November 19, 1906 Cincinnati Commercial Tribune is so striking. It's decidedly off-script by not only crediting Martin Beck with Houdini's discovery and early success in America, but also by saying Houdini was born in Budapest! While you can find mentions of Houdini's Hungarian birth during his early career, I've never seen it mentioned anywhere after his tours of Europe when he firmly established himself as "The Elusive American." Enjoy this rare blast of truth from 1906.

About Houdini

Eight or ten years ago, says Burns Mantle, Harry Houdini, who was seen on the local stage a week or two ago, was a poor unknown, doing twelve shows a day in a cheap western museum. His specialty was to release himself from handcuffs and other manacles.

The same eight or ten years ago Martin Beck was a rising vaudeville manager with about a third of the prestige and a sixth of the fortune that he now draws checks on. Beck saw Houdini, and Houdini talked with Beck. I believe it was Beck who gave Houdini his stage name, though the lad was born in Budapest and may have come honestly by it.

Beck signed a contract with the handcuff breaker which was extended over a period of several years, and Houdini was taken away from the museum and put into vaudeville proper. At the shrewd manager's dictation he visited police stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he invited the officers to hold him with their manacles. He was not a confident performer in those days. Every time he was manacled he was frightened to death for fear he would not be able to get away and that his "act" would be ruined.

He made his first big sensation in San Francisco, after a committee of policemen had put four pairs of handcuffs, an Oregon boot, and a few balls and chains on him, and then fastened them all together. Just to make certain that he did not have a key concealed in his mouth with which he might unlock the cuffs, they sealed his lips with court plaster. Then they put him in the center of the "third degree" room and locked the door.

Houdini told me seven years ago, before he was as famous as he is now, that as soon as the door was closed he began his struggle to free himself and was working as though the devil was after him when he heard the labored breathing of some one. He glanced around the room. There was nothing that could conceal a man. Again he started to release his hands. Again he was certain he heard the breathing. And as he looked up quickly he saw a large oil painting on the wall quiver slightly. Slits had been cut in the canvas and he was being watched from that point of vantage.

The boy was clever enough to outwit the trickster, however. He edged his way slowly to the corner of the room farthest from the picture, turned his back on the spy, and in something like twenty-seven minutes was free. The feat was exploited in all the coast papers, and the "Handcuff King" was started on his career.

No one has been able to explain Houdini's system up to date. Every one is inclined to gasp, sniff and then declare him to be a fakir. Perhaps he is. But he is certainly one of the cleverest that ever lived, for he has fooled thousands of experts.

I don't know who Burns Mantle was, but from the sound of this he knew Houdini and maybe even Martin Beck. Houdini had played two weeks at the Columbia Theater in Cincinnati and was in Chicago when this story appeared, so it's possible he never saw it. If so, he may have felt the need to bring his friend Burns back on-script.

Houdini woodcut illustration from Waterloo Daily Courier, February 19, 1906.

UPDATE: Burns Mantle was a prominent theater critic and the founding editor of Best Plays. He first met Houdini in Denver in 1899 during his first stint as a reporter and Houdini's first tour on the Orpheum circuit. After Houdini's death, Mantle once again wrote about his friend and once again showed rare candor. The below is from the New York Daily News, November 14, 1926, and makes an excellent companion to the above.


  1. Burns Mantle was a respected drama critic of the theater.
    Broadway honors him with its "Burns-Mantle Award".

  2. Mantle was the lead critic at both the Mail and the Daily News. At the end of each season, he'd compile a book of the Best Plays of those years, and even after his death, they're always referred to as "The Burns Mantles Books."

    1. Thanks Dave. I'm embarrassed I never bothered to Google him. But I did a search and found a terrific item he wrote after Houdini's death. I've added it above. It's funny that he now writes Houdini was born in Appleton, but adds, "he said".

  3. Thanks, John, for sharing this rarity, which is cool on many levels. Burns Mantle began as a reporter but, as Joe and Dave mention above, made his name as a drama critic, and was already performing that task in the 1890s. (The Burns Mantle books that Dave mentions were essentials in every theatre library; I still have a couple editions I bought in the 1980s.) But if you haven't already seen it, I'm sure you'll also find this interesting - a column Mantle wrote a few weeks after Houdini's passing, in which he talks about his first meeting with Houdini, and more:

    1. Haha. Looks like we were doing the same research at the same moment, Tom. I just posted that column as an update above. You're right. It's great.

  4. Thanks for posting this John! Mantle's matter of fact no nonsense writing felt like I was reading a Ken Silverman essay. Nice to know there were people in HH's time who weren't buying his Paul Bunyan stories.