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O'TOOLE: Conjuring up the great escapes of The Great Houdini

• Oct 2, 2018 at 3:00 PM

“No prison can hold me; no hand or leg irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” — Harry Houdini

Houdini was first and foremost an entertainer. He began his career in vaudeville performing card tricks. A manager encouraged him to focus on his escape stunts.

While touring with the vaudeville group in Europe, he showed off his handcuff escape routine to police at Scotland Yard. They were so amazed, Houdini was in great demand all over Europe. In each city, he asked the police to shackle him and lock him in jail. They strip-searched him first. He escaped every time.

Houdini gave up handcuff escapes in early 1908. There were too many imitators. In books written for magicians, he wrote that many handcuffs easily opened with force properly applied, or with concealed lockpicks or keys. So much for that mystery.

One of The Great Houdini’s most famous stunts is the straitjacket escape in New York City. He was strapped into a straitjacket, then suspended by the ankles from a crane being used to build the subway. It took him two minutes and 37 seconds to free himself. Thousands of people crowded the street to watch.

Film of Houdini’s feat exists in the Library of Congress. He performed the straitjacket escape many times, drawing enormous crowds that stopped traffic.

In another famous stunt, Houdini was handcuffed and closed in an oversized milk can filled with water. He performed this act for four years, sometimes chaining or padlocking the milk can inside a wooden chest.

According to Wikipedia, on July 7, 1912, “Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with 200 pounds of lead.” Then the crate was lowered into New York’s East River. He escaped in 57 seconds. When the crate was raised, it was intact, the handcuffs and leg irons inside. This escape, too, was performed numerous times.

I’ve had nightmares about being buried alive. Houdini was buried alive in 6 feet of California dirt, and on purpose. He was not inside a casket — it was just him and the worms under 6 feet of earth. Digging his way out fatigued him, and by the time his hand reached daylight, he passed out and his assistants had to pull him from the ground.

He attempted a second live burial, this time in a casket submerged in a pool. He sought to break Rehman Bey’s record of one hour. He succeeded, by 30 minutes.

Eerily, Houdini was planning another “buried alive” act at the time of his death. He would be sealed in a brass coffin, then buried in a tank full of sand. It turned out that the casket he had designed for the act was the one used to transport his body from the Detroit hospital where he died to New York.

The Great Houdini’s hallmark escape act was what he called “The Upside Down” or “USD.” It was also known as the Chinese Water Torture Cell.

For this death-defying act, Houdini locked his feet in stocks. Then he was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The tank was glass and steel. It was locked. Audiences could see into the tank. He had to hold his breath for more than three minutes.

He first performed this escape in a play. That way, he was able to copyright it so he could sue anyone who imitated it. And he did. He first performed the USD in 1913 and continued performing it until his death.

How did Houdini die? It’s complicated. It’s true that a college student punched him several times in the abdomen. That night, he experienced stomach cramps. He didn’t immediately go to a doctor. It was only when he became too ill to perform that a doctor arrived and it was discovered that Houdini was running a fever of 104.

He was hospitalized in Detroit for acute appendicitis on Oct. 22, 1926. In surgery, it was discovered that his appendix had burst and that he was afflicted with peritonitis. Antibiotics didn’t exist, so recovery was unlikely. He was in the hospital nearly 10 days before he finally died of his illness. The Great Houdini’s last words are reportedly, “I’m tired of fighting.”

Did his appendix burst as a result of several punches to his abdomen? Many modern doctors say that is rare. Some say it is more likely he was already suffering from appendicitis when he was punched, and would’ve recognized his stomach pains as a serious medical condition if not for the punches.

The one thing Houdini could not escape was death. He died at the age of 52 on Oct. 31, 1926 — Halloween.

Houdini spent many years debunking psychics. He attended séances and exposed them as fake. He didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits. But he and his wife had made a pact that whoever died first would try to communicate a secret code to the other: Rosabelle Believe. For 10 years, Houdini’s widow held a séance on Halloween. Then she gave up.

Magicians around the country hold séances for Harry Houdini every Halloween. Maybe this is the Halloween The Great Houdini’s ghost will finally speak.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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