Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review: Man Vs History Vs Houdini

Houdini is the subject of the third episode of the new series Man Vs History with Bil Lepp. The show had its first airing last Tuesday on HISTORY and offered up a new and refreshing approach to the Handcuff King.

Instead of a standard biography or rehash of the well-trodden spy and murder conspiracies, this episode tackles two specific claims, both rooted in reality, of how Houdini may have accomplished his feats. This first is Houdini's own claim that he dislocated his shoulders to escape from a straitjacket. The second is the recently uncovered claim by Hardeen that a bullet in his brother's hand allowed him unique dexterity in slipping off handcuffs.

Lepp's investigation brings him to Houdini collector Roger Dreyer and escape artist Matt Johnson. The interview with Roger gives us our first look inside his new Houdini Museum. Lepp also consults with a hand specialist, Dr. Daniel Osei, regarding Houdini's famous bullet injury.

Matt Johnson performs a suspended straitjacket escape at the Garret Mountain Reservation in New Jersey. I'm happy to report that he puts the jacket on as Houdini did and does not cheat it with a straitjacket fail. Good work Matt!

Lepp ultimately concludes that both claims are likely more showmanship than fact. He also quotes Houdini himself as saying, "I can dislocate my shoulders. But I do it the more complicated way without dislocating my shoulders."

Overall, the show was well researched with nice use of photos and film footage. If I had any complaint it would be that the episode wasn't all about Houdini. There is a second segment about Annie Edson Taylor's plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel. However, this was pretty interesting in itself, and there is a Houdini-Annie connection which you can read about HERE.

No doubt this episode will repeat on HISTORY. But you can also stream it at the Man Vs History website or purchase it at Amazon Prime Video.



  1. I kind of had mixed reactions to this episode. In the straitjacket escape it's really not a magic illusion with a secret that needs safeguarding like the Milk Can or Water Torture Cell. In the decades since it was first performed it's just a step by step procedure requiring some physical strength and flexibility. After all, it's based on the principle (recognized by Harry) that a straitjacket is intended to confine a struggling insane person and not a methodical, rational person. With that in mind there was no reason the host couldn't have gotten a tutorial on the escape before his rather pointless attempt.

  2. The shoulder dislocation was a no brainer. It isn't possible even though we see it perpetuated like in the Lethal Weapon film where Mel Gibson has to dislocate his shoulder to get out of the straitjacket. The bullet in the hand theory was also nonsense. Hardeen took a page out of his brother's notebook to create sensational explanations.

    1. I concur. Given that Houdini never let facts get in the way of good showmanship I'm reluctant to use him as a primary source for anything having to do with himself. At least not without additional verification.
      And then for someone trying to debunk the shoulder dislocation hype, allowing Spinach Chin the Escape Artist to scream as he gets out of the jacket allows the whole, "Did he or didn't he dislocate" jive to continue.
      Watching the late Amazing Randi do the straitjacket escape I don't recall him screaming in pain. Like ever.