Monday, July 1, 2024

Guest Blog: Houdini's mysterious safe

Today, I'm happy to share a guest blog from our friend Johan Ahlberg in Sweden about Houdini and his safes. Take it away, Johan!

HOUDINI'S mysterious SAFE

By Johan Ahlberg 

Harry Houdini had a great mechanical interest in complicated locks and safes. On his tour in Germany, he saw several safes and strongboxes that not only had complicated locks but also secret mechanisms to even find the keyhole. Some safes had combination locks, where secret levers needed to be operated in a secret manner to open the lock.

Houdini claimed he was challenged by a judge to open a big safe, which was kept in the judge's chamber with a combination lock, when he sued the German police for slander in Cologne, Germany.

The French magician Robert-Houdin made a desk with secret compartments. For extra security, there was a complicated lock in which you had to put your finger in a hole and touch a secret lever to open the lock. If you did it in the wrong way, a razor-sharp knife with a strong spring was activated, and the finger was cut off immediately. It was so the thief could easily be identified.

On December 4th, 1908, at the Euston Palace in England, Houdini was challenged to escape from a monster safe.

The safe was brought on stage. Houdini was searched and locked inside. He escaped in just 14 minutes, leaving the safe still secure and locked.

The terror of being locked up inside an airtight safe must have thrilled the audience. Houdini had planned the escape in detail, and it was probably one of Houdini's easiest escapes. But anything could have gone wrong; it took Houdini's nerves of steel to pull it off. If Houdini had fainted inside the safe or the lock mechanism had interlocked, it could have ended in disaster, like it did for Genesta when he tried to copy Houdini's milk can escape.

James Randi escaped in a TV show from a safe that was shown to be empty and locked. Suddenly, the combination dial started to spin. The door flew open, and out jumped Randi. The safe was so incredibly small that it seemed to be impossible for a human being to be inside. David Copperfield was handcuffed and locked in a safe with a combination lock. A chain was wrapped around the safe and padlocked. The clock started ticking, the combination dial started to rotate, and suddenly, a blast, the building was blown up, and everything was buried. David emerged on a table outside unharmed, smiling mysteriously. The effect was stunning, but Houdini was the first escape artist to escape from a borrowed safe under test conditions.

Houdini told a story in which he visited his lawyer in New York he was left alone with the lawyer's safe. He managed to manipulate the combination lock and his lawyer was dumfounded. Houdini claimed he had a micro meter in a watch that could register the small movements of the tumblers. To manipulate a combination lock can take hours or days to open even for a expert locksmith.

There was a rumor about a safe or a vault in Houdini's house. I once asked Marie Blood, Houdini's niece and the last link to Houdini's home, if she ever saw or heard anything about a vault? She said no! She never went down in the cellar. After Houdinis death there was another story about a safe that Bess couldn’t open. A locksmith, Charles Courtney, was called in an after working for hours on the combination lock it wouldn’t open. When Courtney asked Bess how Houdini opened the safe she said he just waved his hand over the lock and it opened like magic. Courtney bought a strong magnet and the lock opened or so he claimed.

The problem with that story is that a magnet can’t operate a lever through the safe's thick steel plates. In the safe, there were several love letters from women written to Houdini and the silver Mirror handcuffs. However, it’s a fantastic story.

Houdini's safe that Courtney claimed he opened with a magnet. The safe has the text “HOUDINI” on top. The Mirror handcuffs were stored inside.

An article in the Swedish newspaper KvP in 1974 described how Houdini had left a locked safe with his attorney in New York that contained his secrets. The safe was to be opened on Houdini's 100th birthday. With the press present, the safe was opened, but it was empty! 

I bet Houdini was laughing in his heaven.

Thank you, Johan.

If you'd like to share your own Guest Blog here on WILD ABOUT HARRY, feel free to get in touch and let's talk about what you have in mind. I know there's a lot of untapped Houdini wisdom out there!



  1. Nice blog! It looks like Johan is holding the Hungarian Cuffs, or a duplicate pair? It's believed that the handcuff Courtney found in the safe is the Copperfield Mirror Cuff.

    1. My understanding is that Courtney found the Silver Presentation Mirror Cuff in the safe. But, yeah, DC owns that one as well.

    2. Before he dies in 1926, HH has all three cuffs in his possession: the DC Cuff, the silver replica, and the Tatler Cuff. I wonder if he kept all three together, and how did the silver replica/DC Cuff? wind up in that safe Courtney opened? And which of the three cuffs did Marie see in that glass showcase in 278 when she was a little girl? We'll never know, but it's fun to think about.

    3. What Marie Blood told me it was the Mirror handcuff now in Copperfields collection that was in the showcase in HH bedroom. Later it was sold to Henry Muller and was exhibited in the museum in Niagra Falls (somewhere I have photo of the showcase from NF)

  2. What a great blog and post. For more info/references on the mirror cuff found in the safe and the original uncropped photo of the safe with Courtney holding a button in the upper hinge of the door, check out this link:

    1. Amazing detective work and piecing the puzzle together Joe!