Anthropology and History

Houdini's Greatest Escapes Captured on Camera

Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist the world has ever known. We look at some of his best stunts and go behind the scenes to see how they worked.

posted on 02/14/2011
Michele Collet
Scribol Staff

Harry Houdini, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, in chainsPhoto: McManus-Young Collection

Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist the world has ever known. The possibility of death was always there, with audiences sitting on the edge of their seats to see if he could manage to free himself from the situations he put himself in. Many of the escapes were captured on camera. We have included some of the best here, and will even tell you how he managed to make his escape in some of the stunts.

The Milk Can Escape
Milk Crate StuntPhoto: McManus-Young Collection LOC

Probably Houdini’s most famous stunt – and one that he called “the best escape that I have ever invented” – was the Milk Can escape. It kept audiences breathless – literally at first because Houdini would start his act by suggesting that the audience see how long they could hold their breath for. Then he would fold himself into a milk can which had six padlocks on its lid. Within less than two minutes, he reappeared from behind the “ghost house” which enclosed the can during the trick, dripping with the still intact padlocks.

Houdini cratePhoto: Carl Dietz

How did he do it? Walter Gibbons wrote a book after Houdini’s death and explained: “The simple method of escape depends on the fact that the collar of the tapering portion is not riveted to the top of the large cylindrical portion of the can. The rivets are there, but they are shams. Inside the milk can, the performer can separate the two portions at the joint. This is very practical, and despite its simplicity, it cannot be detected… But from within the can, the performer is in an ideal position to work. With ordinary effort he can break the neck away from the cylinder and thus escape. The stronger the performer, the easier the escape.”

Water Torture Cell
Houdini performing Water Torture CellPhoto: Zencato (LOC)

This stunt, called the Water Cell Torture, was developed by Houdini in response to the large number imitating his famous Milk Can escape trick. He was first suspended above a large glass fronted cell filled with water, with his feet locked in stocks. Once he had been lowered into the water, the stocks were bolted to the top of the cell. Houdini had numerous tricks for getting out of locks and handcuffs, as we will see later.

Houdini Rope Escapes

Houdini knew everything there was to know about how to tie knots and about rope, but he still needed pure physical ability to get out of the predicaments. He used strength, strategy and in the worst of cases a little trickery. One of his strategies was to wear slip-on shoes. In a piece he wrote for the Ladies Home Journal in 1918, he drew some sketches and described them, pointing out that the three sailors who tied him up in the sketch totally ignored the type of shoes he had on. He would also flex and hold his arms out a little to gain slack.

He wrote: “If the committee… begin to make more knots than suits you, it will be well to swell the muscles, expand the chest, slightly hunch the shoulders, and hold the arm a little away from the sides. After a little practice you will find that such artifices will enable you to balk the most knowing ones. You should always wear a coat when submitting to this tie, as that will be found to be an added help in obtaining slack.” At the end of his comments he does say a sharp knife should be secreted for the toughest of times and that no one will miss a small amount of rope from one end.

Handcuff Escapes
Houdini in "jailPhoto: “Famous Players – Lasky Corporation.”, US

Houdini was known as the “Handcuff King” at the beginning of his fame. His ability in this area started with a photographic memory of all sorts of different locks. He claimed he could remember how each one worked. Some will be disappointed to know that a lot of the time he used a smuggled key, but take heart – he really did have some extra abilities that were not key related! For one, simple locks could be undone with a shoe string.

Houdini wrote: “You can open the majority of the old-time cuffs with a shoestring. By simply making a loop in the string, you can lasso the end of the screw in the lock and yank the bolt back, and so open the cuff in as clean a manner as if opened with the original key.”

Straightjacket Escapes

This was a trick performed in plain sight. Houdini got the idea when he toured an insane asylum (as they were called at the time) and saw a man writhing trying to escape one. Regarding the ropes, one of the most important points was for him to have was some slack at the beginning, so he used his muscles and bulk and squared his shoulders to achieve it. There is an excellent piece written by him for the Ladies Home Journal, as well as sketches showing the body positions, here.

To increase the drama, he would often do this trick hung upside down from a skyscraper, but this also actually made it a little easier for him to get his arms out in front of him.

Houdini the Movie Star
Houdini swims river in scene from The man from beyondPhoto: McManus-Young Collection

Houdini appeared in some silent films and did some stunts, even though in one movie it was actually a body double hanging from a biplane. His movie ventures never garnered much success and he finally gave them up in 1923, profitless.

Harry Houdini ScrapbookPhoto: Boston Public LIbrary

Houdini was one of the first real illusionists as well as the greatest escape artist of all time. He died on October 31, 1926 from a burst appendix that he hadn’t had seen to. Nevertheless, he still appeared the night before – even though he collapsed in pain but in fact also got up and continued! The world lost a wonderful performer, but luckily many of his acts and much of his memorabilia is still available in museums and elsewhere for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

 

 

Michele Collet
Scribol Staff