Houdini’s Amazing Appearances in Public Deliberation

face of a prisoner

In his highly successful, early twentieth-century acts, Harry Houdini presented his intense personal struggles for freedom and participated in public deliberation about confining criminals. Houdini described himself as a “Handcuff King and Jail Breaker” in a mass-market bookthat he authored in 1906.^ In public events staged at police stations, prisons, and vaudeville theaters, Houdini escaped from handcuffs, elbow irons, leg irons, thumbscrews, packing boxes, milk cans, paper bags, coffins, prisons, and various combinations of these and other constraints. The personal struggles that Houdini displayed in these acts could hardly be doubted. Personal struggles of various sorts, however, are quite common. What distinguished Houdini was his claim to public significance.

Houdini’s acts, while intentionally highly public, were not setup through the normal public process of administering justice. Houdini clearly didn’t have the real status of a criminal or prisoner. Houdini’s escapes often included sensational, harrowing elements in addition to common penal technology. For example, Houdini, handcuffed and chained, jumped from bridges. Another of his acts was to free himself from a straightjacket while suspended upside-down over a street. To maximize publicity, he was often suspended from the building of a major newspaper in the city in which he performed. Seeing such acts as publicly significant required appreciation for the penal implications.

Penal-system participation in Houdini’s performances was extensive. In the first week of January, 1906, Houdini was booked for daily matinee and evening performances at Chase’s “Polite Vaudeville” Theatre in Washington, D.C. Houdini’s Washington, D.C. performances began in the morning of January 1, 1906. Houdini undertook a challenge that Major Richard Sylvester, Chief of Washington Police and President of the Police Chief Association of America, reportedly organized. The location of the performance was the formidable Tenth Precinct police station:

The cells are the latest lock-proof kind. … The bars are of steel and so strongly set that they cannot be shaken. Each cell has a heavy barred door with a bar lock that is first set to lock three times. A lever throws another lock, and a Yale padlock completes the quintet of locks.

Houdini was stripped, searched, handcuffed, and placed in a cell. He got out in eighteen minutes. The Washington Post, acting like a straight man, reported that Major Sylvester declared, “That baffles me.”^

Police officials described Houdini’s police-station performances as exercises intended to advance the public interest in improving instruments of confinement. They conducted these exercises repeatedly without any apparent increase in knowledge. Thus, four days after the first baffling exercise, at noon on January 5, Police Commissioner Biddle, Major Sylvester, and other invited guests observed as Houdini was stripped and locked in a cell at the new Fifth Precinct police station. According to the Washington Post, police authorities were “thoroughly convinced…that there is nothing in the way of a cell that can hold him.” Houdini passed through six locked doors to get dressed and free in thirty-two minutes.^ Nobody observed how he did it. But at least spectators didn’t over-extend the usual boundaries of their lunch hour.

The next day Houdini performed even more spectacularly at a more prominent public prison. At the invitation of the Warden of the United States Jail in Washington, D.C, Houdini “tested” cell No. 2. That cell had held Charles J. Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield. According to a report the next day in the Washington Post:

{Houdini} was stripped to the skin and locked into No. 2 with Hamilton, the negro, who crouched in the far corner of the cell, presumably laboring under the belief that one of the arch-fiends was already there to get him ready for a red hot furnace. In two minutes Houdini was out of the cell, free, the lock holding him hardly longer than it took him to get into the place and get his bearings. Then, without the knowledge of the waiting officials who had retired from view, Houdini quickly ran to the cells of Chase, Whitney, Mercer, Ferguson, Donovan, Gaskins, Backus, and Howlett. To each occupant the unclad cell-breaker seemed like an apparition from some other world, and the astonishment he created when he commanded each to come out and follow him can be better imagined than described.^

The reporter probably did not interview each prisoner to record their impressions of Houdini as he came to set them (temporarily) free from their cells. The report evokes a racist stereotype of blacks as animal-like and believing in primitive superstitions (“the negro, who crouched in the far corner of the cell…”). The newspaper account also seems to parody an angel’s release of Peter in the Book of Acts.^ Houdini’s ability to draw forth such performances from newspapers and public officials is an under-appreciated aspect of his genius.

Houdini’s performances in Washington, DC, were not unusual. Houdini in 1906 stated:

As for the prison cell, I have never been locked in one I could not open. I have had the honor of making my escape from securely locked cells in jails, prisons, and police stations in almost every large city in the world, and under the most rigid conditions. The chiefs of police, the wardens, the jailers, the detectives, and citizens who have been present at these tests know that they are real and actual. … Since my return from abroad, October, 1905, I have escaped after being locked up in a nude state from cells in New York City, Brooklyn, Detroit, Rochester, Buffalo, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Providence, and City Tombs in Boston and Lowell. In all cases I submitted to a close search, being stark naked and heavily manacled into the cell, which was also thoroughly searched.^

These tests evidently were not carefully controlled and observed experiments. They evidently did not contribute to the development of useful knowledge. They seem to have been publicly significant only in providing publicity for Houdini.

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