Original Creators: Escape Artist Harry Houdini
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator,” an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Harry Houdini.
In light of the impending hurricane, we’ve decided to feature a creator who specialized in something which may be on all of our minds today: escape. Harry Houdini, who pioneered and in many ways legitimized the escape act, making way for the many escape artists that would follow (including David Blaine), performed hundreds of acts throughout the early 20th century that shocked and enthralled thousands of people. His performances varied from mind-altering illusions to life threatening stunts. Here are a few Houdini acts that we find particularly intriguing:
The Jail Escape
Houdini in Chains (1899)
Prompted by his early handcuff escapes, Houdini challenged numerous police chiefs to the task of locking him in a cell that he couldn’t break out of. His first jailbreak was in 1904, where, in five minutes, he broke through a triple locked door, broke into a separate cell where his clothes were, and then broke out of the cell block all together, defying an iron gate with a seven-lever lock. After this stunt, he went on to break out of dozens of prisons around the world, baffling police chiefs who then publicly attested to his success. It is believed that Houdini visited prisons before the time of the stunt, then used a wax filled box hid in his hand to make impressions of different keys, which he later used to make duplicates. But even that is pretty impressive.
The Upside Down
Chinese Water Torture Cell (1912)
Also known as the the Chinese Water Torture Cell, this is maybe Houdini’s most famous trick. In it, Houdini, dangling head first from a plank of wood, is dropped upside down into a tank of water. Underwater, he somehow manages to free himself from the shackles locking his feet to the board and escape, all before he passes out from lack of oxygen. He created this trick due to other emerging escape artsist imitating the trick’s predecessor, the Milk Can Escape, in which Houdini escapes, handcuffed, from a tank of water. When others began copying him, Houdini decided to up the stakes by creating a more dangerous trick that others were less likely to attempt.
The Straitjacket Escape
Houdini Escapes from a Straitjacket (ca. 1910s)
As soon as Houdini started shaming police chiefs by escaping from their handcuffs and prisons, certain officers proposed that he try to escape from a straitjacket. Of course, Houdini accepted the challenge. And of course, Houdini escaped. Houdini had an uncanny ability to expand his chest to extreme proportions. For his straitjacket escapes, Houdini employed this skill by expanding his chest before officers put the straitjacket on him and deflating his chest once the jacket was secured. This allowed him just enough space inside of the jacket to loosen his arms, pull them over his head and untie their restraints with his teeth. From there he was able to remove his arms, step on the jacket’s sleeves, and pull himself out of the jacket all together.
I wonder how Houdini would escape from an elevator stuck between two floors of a skyscraper…