Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Steel Straitjacket

Near the end of Houdini (1953) we see Tony Curtis' Houdini challenged to escape from what the movie calls "a steel straitjacket." It's a terrific escape performed by Curtis without a cut. The "steel straitjacket" was provided by Houdini's technical advisor Joseph Dunninger, who claimed it was used by Houdini himself. Below is a photo of Dunninger with the jacket from the July 26, 1967 Middletown Journal.

The steel straitjacket was purchased along with the rest of the Dunninger collection by Henry Muller in 1967 to supply his Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. The jacket was displayed as the "Armoured Breast Plate" (it was no longer on display when I went to the museum in 1990). After the catastrophic fire of 1995 the steel straitjacket was housed in a warehouse along with the rest of the surviving collection.

One person who remembered seeing the straitjacket in the museum was magician and collector Rob Allen from Niagara Falls, New York. "I always remember seeing it on display there," says Rob. "I would always stop and look at it as I thought it was the most intriguing piece among the Houdini escaped pieces." Following the fire, Rob purchased some items from Henry's warehouse. But there was one item he always coveted. In a November 2007 issue of Magicol, Rob remembered:

After my first purchase from Henry, I met him numerous times, often taking things he owned to sell at Yankee Gatherings and Magic Collectors' Weekends. It was fun for me and I finally told Henry during one of our meetings that I wanted to buy the Steel Straitjacket although I couldn't afford to pay for it at that time.

"Rob, it's yours," he said. "It won't leave the warehouse. When you have the money you can come pick it up."

That day finally came. If I had not arranged to buy it, the Houdini Steel Straitjacket would have been shipped with the rest of the warehouse contents to Hollywood, where the items were auctioned by Butterfield & Butterfield in November 1999.

Happily, Rob still owns the steel straitjacket today. Here's a photo he shared. Still looks fantastic!

But the question remains. Did Houdini really use this? Like the iron overboard box from the movie--also supplied by Dunninger who also claimed it was Houdini's--I've never seen any photo or read any reference to Houdini doing this particular escape. But how great would it be if one day we did find a photo of Houdini in this now iconic restraint?

Until then, we'll have to be satisfied with the scene from the movie (this is copyrighted so may have ads). Enjoy.

Thanks to Joe Fox for his help with the post, and a big thanks to Rob Allen for showing us the steel straitjacket today.


  1. Did HH actually leave anything to Dunninger? I suspect he approached Bess after his death to obtain stuff.

    1. Correct. Only person to receive props direct from HH was Dash, at least according to his Will. Dunninger (presumably) got his stuff from Bess.

    2. Confirmed. Thank you! The Middletown Journal photo caption says, "Part of the apparatus Houdini left Dunninger..." I've yet to see a photo of Harry in this. Sounds like hype, but Dunninger was a disciple of HH, the guru of hype.