Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Houdini freezes the Detroit river in 1912

Recently I came across this intriguing article from the February 11, 1912 Washington Post. The quotes here come from an interview Houdini gave while appearing at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore. It's short so I'm sharing the entire thing, but it's the last part that interests me the most.

The Washington Post, Feb. 11, 1912.

While I've not done an exhaustive search, I believe this might be the first mention of any bridge jump into a frozen river through a hole cut in the ice. Here it's the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1906. That was a real jump, but the river was not frozen nor was it Christmas day. Still, this appears to be the genesis of the famous myth of Houdini being trapped under the ice of a frozen river.

Houdini would tell that story in full for the first time (as far as I know) in an article he wrote for the September 1918 issue of The American Magazine called "The Thrills in the Life of a Magician". But now he relocates the action to Pittsburg and doesn't provide a specific date. It's also become an overboard box escape instead of a handcuffed bridge jump.

The dramatic story was picked up by newspapers at the time, including the Boston Sunday Post below (click to enlarge):

Boston Sunday Post, Sept. 1, 1918

Houdini told the tale again in his 1919 article for Hearst's magazine, "Nearly Dying for a Living". But it's interesting to note that this story, as with other Houdini mythology, does not appear in any of his pitchbooks. It seems to me that Houdini made a distinction between disposable media, such as newspapers and magazines, and what he considered to be the official record. His pitchbook does record that he had to "break through the ice" during a bridge jump in Breman, Germany, which is likely true. That jump was made during a snow storm.

Later biographies made no such distinction, and the full under the ice drama became part of the official record with the publication of Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock in 1928. Interestingly, Kellock moves the action from Pittsburg back to the Belle Isle bridge in Detroit in 1906.

Then, of course, the 1953 biopic Houdini starring Tony Curtis dramatized the incident (beautifully) and cemented it in the minds of the public. In the movie the location remained the Detroit river, but the day was changed to Halloween(!). Also, as in Houdini's telling, it's an overboard box escape.

Houdini (1953)

The first doubt was cast on the story by William Lindsay Gresham in his 1959 biography Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls. Ironically, Gresham had been one of the recent propagators of the myth, publishing an account with fresh embellishments in SAGA magazine the previous year. But Gresham credited Robert Lund with tracking down the original newspaper accounts of the Belle Isle stunt and calls out the inconstancies, namely that the Detroit river was not frozen. He writes:

The river was not frozen over, Houdini had a rope tied around him all the time, he got out of two pairs of cuffs and was picked up by a boat! As for escaping from under the ice—as Tom Sawyer would say, "He just let on he done it."

The story largely disappears from Houdini books after that.

However, Hollywood doesn't let the truth get in the way of a good story, and the full under the ice drama was resurrected in the 2014 Houdini miniseries biopic starring Adrian Brody, this time relocating it to the Eads bridge in St. Louis. But by this point no one was fooled.

It's fun to see how this all appears to have started in Houdini's mind back in 1912 as a way to add some color to an interview. He understood what reporters wanted!

Below are some more posts related to Houdini's adventure under the ice.

Clipping source:


  1. If this did occur like Houdini said, then certainly there would have a headline of it somewhere. John, did you check to see if there is such a headline?

    1. Hey, I LIVE on! :) I've never found any news story that suggests this really happened. But I have found clippings that show when are where the myth began, which is what I'm sharing here. My big surprise was this 1912 clipping. Until I found this, I would have said the myth originated in his 1918 American Magazine piece.

  2. The disposal media appears to be where Houdini myths sprang up.

    1. Yeah, I'm really starting to understand how Houdini used media and when and where he would offer up exaggerations. Telling a reporter how you jumped off a bridge handcuffed isn't enough. But throw in a corpse or an ice sheet and that gives them a story to print. Houdini might have blurred the lines of reality, but there are lines. I blame later biographers for bringing these myths into the record.

    2. BTW, did I just invent the expression "disposable media"? Because it's perfect!

    3. Looks like you came up with that one. It's a great expression! The disposable media is where we got the lock picking into Mama's pie cabinet in the kitchen, and the apprenticeship to a locksmith as a boy.

    4. You got it! And remember my post about Hardeen telling the same locksmith story about himself? He also had his own version of the under ice drama.

  3. i remember the Kendall(?) biography gave an entire chapter to the ice story. It was thrilling! Is the story about dislodging the corpse true?

    1. Oh, that's right, it is in Kendall. Is that the last book in which it appears? Surprisingly it's not in Williams and Epstein. Corpse story not true.