Houdini’s Suspended Straitjacket Escape at Police Field Day Games

By Tom Interval

There’s no enviable day to die, but if you’re a magician, and you have to cash in your chips, anyway, it might as well be on Halloween. That’s exactly what Harry Houdini did 91 years ago today: October 31, 1926, 1:26 p.m., age 52.

Of course, it wasn’t intentional. And of all the things that could have killed a daredevil like him—drowning, suffocation, strangulation, plummeting—it was peritonitis that ultimately did him in. I suspect that today at least some Houdini and history bloggers will expound on the myths, realities, and ironies of the pioneering showman’s demise, so I won’t offer you more of that.

Instead, here’s a scarce photo of the man, upside down as he often was (hence the danger of plummeting), and a little background info to follow. It was published in The New York Times on August 29, 1920, with the caption, “HARRY HOUDINI, HANDCUFF KING, Freeing Himself from a Straight-jacket While Suspended in the Air at the Police Field Day Games at the Gravesend Race Track.”

Harry Houdini performing the suspended straitjacket escape at the Police Field Day Games in Brooklyn, New York, on August 29, 1920 (Photo: Tom Interval, The New York Times, August 29, 1920)

Harry Houdini performing the suspended straitjacket escape at the Police Field Day Games in Brooklyn, New York, on August 29, 1920 (The New York Times, August 29, 1920)

Hosted by the New York Police Department, the Police Field Day Games was an annual fundraising event held in the summer or early autumn on two consecutive Saturdays or Sundays at the Gravesend Race Track in Brooklyn, New York, among other locations, including Sheepshead Bay Race Track, also in Brooklyn.

The exhibition gave the public a chance to see New York’s finest demonstrate their athletic ability as police competed in everything from horse-riding challenges to hurdle races amid the pomp and circumstance of band music, singing, and humorous contests that “caused such laughter that the big grandstand fairly rocked,” according to The National Police Journal, October 1921, p. 30.

Houdini performed his suspended straitjacket escape at the Games on at least four days in 1920 and 1921 (and probably more in previous or succeeding years): the Sundays of August 22 and 29, 1920, and the Saturdays of September 10 and 17, 1921.

The press photo above was taken the same day it was published: August 29, 1920. A week earlier, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote about Houdini’s performance on August 22 under the headline, “Houdini Outwits Police”: “The remarkable Mr. Houdini had a squad of policemen strap him into a straitjacket after which his feet were tied to a block and pulley arrangement and he was hauled, head down, to the top of a scaffold 30 feet from the ground. Hanging thus, he worked himself out of his bonds, to the wonder of everyone.”

While it’s not clear how many people watched Houdini on any given day, according to the Journal article I cited above, the two days of 1921 Games events attracted nearly 300,000 people and raised an estimated $400,000.

“Perhaps the outstanding feature of the excellent program was the appearance of Houdini, whose feats are known the world over,” wrote Journal author Capt. Peter Schwartz of Houdini’s September 17, 1921, performance. “The great French [sic] performer, who has wriggled himself out of more tight places than half a dozen jail-breakers, was securely strapped in a regulation straight-jacket. He was then suspended in the air by his ankles, and in less time than it takes to tell it not only freed himself from the jacket but was safely standing on the ground.”

Partial crowd at the 1921 Police Field Day Games (The National Police Journal, October 1921)

Partial crowd at the 1921 Police Field Day Games (The National Police Journal, October 1921)

Almost three years later, on June 6, 1924, New York police commissioner Richard E. Enright, who would later hire Houdini to lecture at the New York Police Academy on the methods of fraudulent Spiritualist mediums, spoke fondly of the master escapologist at the 20th annual banquet of the Society of American Magicians, held at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Here’s an excerpt from the stenographic record of Enright’s speech published in The Sphinx, August 15, 1924, p. 181:

Richard E. Enright, police commissioner of New York from 1918 to 1925

Richard E. Enright, police commissioner of New York from 1918 to 1925

I want to say about [Houdini]—of his wonderful generosity and fine way of exemplifying it. He has a pretty hard job, and it’s pretty hard on him to steal this gentleman away from his vacation—away from the few leisure months that he has, and ask him to perform for some charitable purpose. But we have called upon him and he has come down to the great field day tournament, whether they be in July or August or in early September, which is the latest that we hold these games. Houdini comes down and performs for us and he is one of the best and most spectacular and finest exhibitions that we have. And this wonderful charity that he supports so brilliantly with what he does makes up a fund which is used for the widows and orphans of policemen who are killed in the discharge of their duty, and so Houdini is a magician for these widows and orphans. He helps in his wonderful way to bring magical things to them—things that they could not have if it weren’t for the support of men like Houdini—and I tell you that is the great magic of the world.

To see Houdini in action at one of the Field Day events, check out the video John Cox, of Wild About Harry, posted a few years ago, courtesy of John Oliver: Never-before-shown film of Houdini. In the mean time, happy Halloween and Houdini Remembrance Day to all.

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Posted in Anniversaries, Death, Escapes, Halloween, Straitjacket | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Houdini Jack-o’-Lantern 2017

By Tom Interval

Last year I skipped my annual ritual of carving a Houdini jack-o’-lantern, but on this day—the eve of Halloween and of Houdini’s 91st death anniversary—I’m pleased to share a few photos of the one I made this year. (View jack-o’-lanterns from previous years.)

Houdini jack-o'-lantern

 

And a little closer:

Houdini jack-o'-lantern

 

And a little farther:

Houdini jack-o'-lantern

 

And here are a few pictures for those who are interested in the process of carving our man’s magical face into a pumpkin.

1. I created simplified, high-contrast artwork from the famous Strobridge litho, dubbed by magic collectors as “Houdini for President.” The white parts of the high-contrast image represent the sections cut out of the pumpkin, so I had to be sure all the black parts were interconnected so the finished jack-o’-lantern was stable (i.e., so pieces of the face—especially the eyes and mouth—didn’t fall off).

Houdini jack-o'-lantern template

2. I imported the artwork into Word, lightened it, and printed it as a light-gray template.

Houdini jack-o'-lantern template

3. After hollowing out the pumpkin, I trimmed the template, taped it onto the pumpkin, and traced the lines with pokes of a safety pin to transfer the design.

Houdini jack-o'-lantern template with pinpricks

4. If you look closely, you can see the pinpricks.

Houdini jack-o'-lantern pinpricks in pumpkin

5. With small pumpkin-carving tools, I sawed away for quite a while, being particularly careful around the more delicate areas, such as the eyes, ears, and mouth.

The finished jack-o’-lantern could have turned out a bit better, but I’m happy with it overall since Houdini’s likeness came out fairly well.

Houdini jack-o'-lantern

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

 

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In Memory of Henry Muller

By Tom Interval

Henry Muller in 1992 (Photo: Doug Johnson)

Henry Muller in 1992 (Photo: Doug Johnson)

Henry Muller, cofounder of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, a public museum and tourist attraction operated in Niagara Falls, Canada, from 1968 to 1995, died on Feb. 28 in Hamilton, Ontario. He was 86 years old.

Here’s Henry’s official obituary, reproduced from YourLifeMoments:

MULLER, Henry – Born July 12, 1930 in Hlohovec, Czechoslovakia, died at 1:45 pm on Tuesday, February 28, 2017 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Bella (Zucker) Muller, by his four children, Jerry (Sharon), Alice (Ben Zion), David (Joyce) and Michael (Adrienne), by his grandchildren, Elisha (Laura), Sara (Alan), Joseph (Keren), Tali (Jesse), Liat, Matan, Jacob (Aviva), Rachel, Rebecca, Isaac and Abraham, and by his great-grandchildren Nadia, Julia, Maya, Hannah, Daniel, Benjamin and Lily. Mr. Muller was the founder of Muller’s Meats, Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, Cavalier Motel and the Niagara Industrial Mall, a respected businessman and entrepreneur and a lover of Niagara Falls, Canada. Funeral Thursday, March 2 at 1:00 pm at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario followed by interment at Lundy’s Lane Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Muller, with Dr. Harold A. Stein, opened the Hall of Fame in May 1968 at 5019 Centre Street. The attraction housed many significant items from Houdini’s personal collection, including some of his childhood props, posters, a multitude of handcuffs and leg irons, a wooden packing crate he used for underwater escapes, and the famed Water Torture Cell.

Four years after opening, the Hall of Fame moved a half block southeast to 4983 Clifton Hill, into the old Victoria Park Railway Station, where it remained until it burned down 23 years later, on April 30, 1995.

While some of the collection, including the Water Torture Cell, was destroyed in the fire, a lot of the paraphernalia survived and exists in many private collections.

Heartfelt condolences to Henry’s wife, Bella, and the rest of the family.

A Note from Henry’s daughter, Alice (Muller) Rubinfeld:

Alice wants to inform readers of this blog that her family found in Henry’s closet “a number of items of Houdiniana that we were not aware still existed.” I emailed her for more information, which I’ll include in a separate blog post along with Alice’s contact information.

 

Posted in Collections, Henry Muller, Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, Joseph Dunninger, Physical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Memory of Houdini on the 90th Anniversary of His Death

By Tom Interval

It’s been 90 years since Harry Houdini (1874–1926) died on Halloween, yet his name lives on—a testament to the genius behind his showmanship, originality, technical abilities, and knack for attaining publicity. Unhappy anniversary, Harry.

In Memory of Harry Houdini

 

 

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Dynamite Houdini Punch-Out

By Tom Interval

houdini_illustrationI recently dug up a 1980 Dynamite article about Harry Houdini that includes a full-color punch-out of the master mystifier escaping from chains. To read more and to see an animated version of the punch-out, check out the full article—Dynamite Houdini Punch-Out—on the Interval Magic blog.

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Houdini Then and Now

By Tom Interval

We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams.
– Über-Morlock, The Time Machine (2002)

It’s about time. Literally and figuratively.

You see, this week I found a time machine of sorts, and I’m finally starting to use it. I write “finally” because it’s been around for almost six years.

You might have heard of it. It’s called Historypin, an online archive containing historical photos and videos people “pin” to corresponding locations on Google Maps.

But it’s not just about geographically pinpointing historical events and experiences. It’s a virtual cornucopia of then and now.

Users can superimpose old pics and vids onto Google Street View, allowing them to visually compare past and present locations using a slider bar to fade the old image in and out.

As someone who has already done historical location comparisons, I was excited about the prospect of creating Houdini-related pins on Street View. As of this writing, I have only five Historypin posts but plan to contribute many more as time allows.

Here’s one example most Houdini buffs will remember. It’s a well-known photo of our shackle-shedding hero with an unidentified gentleman in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1908. After doing some research, I’ve concluded the photograph was taken at the northeast corner of N. Pennsylvania St. and E. Wabash St., between the Grand Opera House (to become B.F. Keith’s) and the Denison Hotel. Houdini, who is standing on Wabash in the photo, would perform at Keith’s a couple years later. I’ve animated the picture so you can compare “then” vs. “now.”

hh_anim_ind

Thanks to Flickr user Evan Finch, I verified the location after I found the following postcard, which features wonderful painted art from 1908 showing the same intersection and the left side of the very same Pluto Spring sign board (bottom-center, just above and to the right of the car).

postcard

Another source that helped me pinpoint the location was an Indianapolis Sanborn Map from 1915—seven years after the Pluto Spring photo was taken. On the map, you’ll notice “Piano S. all fls.” within the pink rectangle on the left. It refers to the same piano shop that’s in the photo directly across the street from Houdini. It’s Pearson’s Piano House, located at the time at 134–136 N. Pennsylvania St.

map_02

Here’s a photo of Pearson’s, at the same Pennsylvania St. location in November 1928, courtesy of W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

piano

If anyone has more information about the Indianapolis Houdini photo, I’d love to hear from you. In the mean time, please jump into the virtual time machine and visit my Historypin Houdini collection for more examples of the past literally merging with the future.

 

 

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Happy 142nd, Harry

By Tom Interval

Harry Houdini, born March 24, 1874

Harry Houdini, born March 24, 1874

Newborn Erik Weisz (Americanized Ehrich Weiss), who would later generate fame, fortune, and folklore as Harry Houdini, escaped his mother’s womb in Budapest on this day in 1874.

For those who don’t know much about the man, calling Houdini a magician would be like calling Elvis Presley a singer.

Liberating himself from the bonds of bland, Houdini sculpted his own image as a performer of the impossible, redefining a profession now known as escapology.

His pitch: He could escape any contraption made of any material devised by even the most ingenious of inventors. This appealed to many people of his day—millions of immigrants like him, seeking to escape a mundane existence, fighting as underdogs to survive in a competitive world.

Aside from his boundless technical knowledge and ability to manipulate any lock, shackle, or rope, his true brilliance centered on manipulating the minds of his audiences with classic showmanship and innate charisma.

He almost died during each performance. At least, that’s what he wanted people to think. And they did. This, combined with his knack for getting front-page publicity in almost every city he visited, led to his superstar icon status and, ultimately, to his immortality. That’s why we’re still talking about him to this day.

Harry Houdini—self-liberator, illusionist, showman, author, actor, inventor, publicist, aviator, athlete, stuntman, scholar, magic historian, and fraud fighter—would have been 142 today.

Happy birthday, Harry!

– – –

Read more about Houdini:

Adults: Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, by Kenneth Silverman
http://www.amazon.com/Houdini-American-Self-Liberator-Eclipsing-Sensation/dp/0060169788

Children: Harry Houdini: The Legend of the World’s Greatest Escape Artist
http://www.amazon.com/Harry-Houdini-Legend-Worlds-Greatest/dp/1419700146/

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