Thursday, August 17, 2023

Sangaw surprise

In November 1908, four Chinese men challenged Houdini to escape from a "Sangnau" (alternately spelled Sanguaw or Sangaw) at the Oxford Music Hall in London. The device was characterized as an ancient Chinese torture device and was a one-off escape. Or was it?

This challenge is covered in most Houdini biographies. Houdini went back and forth with the challengers, refusing certain aspects of the restraint, such as having his feet nailed to the floor. He also insisted on having two doctors present during the test. Houdini made his escape but vowed he'd never take on the dreaded Sangaw again.

However, magic history buff Whitt Smith recently sent me a detailed account of a special S.A.M. "Houdini Night" at the Palace Theatre from The Sphinx (January 1922) that reveals the sangaw was not a one-off escape after all. And more! The key excerpt is below: 

     Houdini then went on to say that while traveling through China in 1908, the natives challenged him to escape (privately and under their own conditions) from a Chinese sangaw--a wooden contraption similar in form to a horizontal bar on uprights, but being furnished also with a lower crosspiece. Houdini accepted their challenge, and had secretly introduced a movie man and his camera that the outcome of the challenge might be seen by the outside world. And so, on The S.A.M's. "Houdini Night," there was flashed upon the screen Houdini's escape from the sangaw of the Orient. In the picture the Chinese are seen binding Houdini securely and in the most businesses-like manner. First, securing each wrist to the central portions of the uprights, then securely binding the feet to the floor-piece, and lastly running a loop under the front part of the neck, thence around the head in such a manner that the head may not the lowered; then remainder of the rope is then securely fastened to the central part of the upper most cross-piece. At the conclusion of the picture, Houdini repeats his escape in real life before the audience, using a genuine Chinese sangaw and extracting himself with lightning-like rapidity from bonds identical to those used by the Orientals. 

Not only is it exciting to learn Houdini did the sangaw at this event, but it's even more exciting to discover there was film of the escape! The idea that it was shot secretly in China in 1908 is pure hokum. It was almost certainly something Houdini staged himself. But how I'd love to see this! No matter how many descriptions I've read of the sangaw, I still don't understand exactly how this contraption worked. Alas, this film might be long lost.

Want more? You can read the full Sphinx article, which includes a terrific description of Houdini's Water Torture Cell, as well as the 1908 newspaper accounts of the original sangaw escape as a "Scholar" member of my Patreon by clicking below.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure the sangaw escape at that SAM banquet was a modified easier version of the real thing. HH got out of that one with "lightning-like rapidity." That film is probably gone for good or in somebody's storage closet waiting to be discovered. Somebody must have taken it from 278 after HH died.