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.”
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.”
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:
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.