Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Hanco scoops Houdini (or perhaps Blackstone)

When Houdini toured Australia in 1910, he discovered the country was as jam-packed with rival "Handcuff Kings" as the U.S., UK, and Europe. In fact, part of his stage patter while in Australia was to inform his audiences that he was the originator of the feats they've been seeing other escapists perform for years.

One of the most active of those rivals was "Hanco The Handcuff King" (real name Sam Cooke). Hanco did handcuff, straitjacket, and challenge escapes, and also promoted his appearances with outdoor stunts. After Houdini left Melbourne for Sydney in April 1910, Hanco arrived in town and did a stunt at Queen's Bridge where Houdini had made a handcuffed dive just a few weeks earlier. But Hanco had his own approach. Check out the description below:

Ballarat Star, April 2, 1910.

Yes, that certainly sounds like an overboard box escape to me! And this is two years before Houdini's first overboard box in New York on July 7, 1912. Hanco also did a version of the escape on stage, which you can see advertised below.

Hanco did his overboard box in several Australian cities that year. But he seems to have had repeated difficulty getting his box--which may have been a commercial steamer trunk--to sink. And in Wagga Wagga he had another mishap.

The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, Feb. 24, 1910.

It's possible the issues Hanco had with staging the escape led to him abandoning it by mid year. After Houdini left the continent, Hanco began doing standard bridge jumps instead.

Houdini was certainly aware of Hanco. He posted some of Hanco's billing into his scrapbook of imitators. So there's little doubt Houdini would have been aware of Hanco and his overboard box escape during his 1910 tour. So is this were Houdini got the idea?

We've all heard the story of how Harry Blackstone Sr. said he originated the overboard box escape, a claim Houdini always disputed. I've tried my best to confirm Blackstone's story, but I've never found any newspaper clippings or photos of Blackstone doing the escape before Houdini. But now I'm thinking that argument is moot. From the evidence we have here, it appears both Harrys were beat to the box by Hanco The Handcuff King!

Thanks to Fred Pittella for the top photo which shows Hanco later in his career.



  1. Great find John! The logistics of the Overboard Box escape must have been a pain in the butt to execute. The escape artist needs a small team of skilled and reliable assistants. Hanko prolly didn't have that.

    1. Houdini actually experienced the same problem with his box not fully submerging during his 1912 stunt. Papers reported the top remained visible.

    2. How did he solve that problem? Weights attached to the box? I think I've seen that in photos.

    3. He had weights on the box in 1912. More weight maybe? But also bigger holes so the box fills with water more quickly? Not sure really. But as you can see in The Mastery Mystery, his box SINKS!

    4. In the Master Mystery the box sinks to the bottom of the river, correct? For the overboard stunt the box is still attached to the block and tackle and raised from the water once HH was out. Had to be a pain to get the box to drop below the surface smoothly.

      For the Hippodrome shows wasn't the box just dropped into the water tank to the bottom?

  2. My Grandfather Sidney Smith took that photo of Hanko at the Maitland Show back in1924.