Harry Houdini Learns To Fly
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions.
Magician Harry Houdini told a London reporter he offered $5,000 for the use of one of the early Wright Brothers’ planes. His plan was to fly handcuffed over London and then parachute from the aircraft, escape from the manacles on his way down, and then safely land in Piccadilly Circus.
Harry changed his mind when he realized there was no safe way to parachute from the plane. His fascination with the newfangled aviation business was becoming an obsession. He could envision all kinds of ways to include the airplane in outdoor stunts. And he was dead serious about becoming the 25th man on earth to conquer the clouds in a powered craft.
“The aeroplanes floated about the sky like albatross soaring above some floating food,” is how he described it.
As much as a daredevil Harry was, he was timid about flying. Especially at first. He settled on what he considered to be the safest craft, a Voisin biplane. It was the latest thing in aviation technology. A similar machine had actually stayed in the air for an hour and 20 minutes.
In the beginning Harry just sat behind the wheel of the plane while it was still in the shed. There were no flying schools at that time in history and only about two dozen aviators in the entire world. He hired a French mechanic to teach him how to use the controls which were fairly simple and then he learned to fly the plane.
Push the steering wheel forward and the plane goes up. Pull the wheel back and the plane goes down. The rudder was controlled by a foot pedal and to the side of the steering wheel was the choke which controlled the engine.
It was November in Germany and the weather was freezing. With the wind, snow and cold flying was impossible most days.
But on Nov. 26, 1909 the magician made his first successful flight over Hufaren parade grounds near Hamburg, Germany. He didn’t stay in the air long, just long enough for photographers to capture and immortalize the showman’s historic event. The flight was witnessed by less than 50 people. But that didn’t stop Harry.
He dispatched pictures of his flight surrounded by German soldiers, and pictures of him in his biplane to newspapers and magazines around the world.
Just to be on the safe side, Harry took out a $25,000 life insurance policy three days later with the Albingia Company of Hamburg. On the back of his policy he wrote, “This is the first insurance ever taken out re (regarding an) accident in an aeroplane. I had to pay 10 marks (about 25 cents) every time I made a flight.”
The escape artist had pulled off the ultimate escape to the sky.
On Aug. 17, Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago featured a silver print photo in boudoir card format of Harry’s mid-flight experience near Hamburg. The tail and wing of the plane bear Houdini’s name. He also signed the photo. It sold in the auction for $3,300.
Here are current values for other magic lots sold in the auction.
Houdini Promotional Brochure; “The Grim Game,” four-page three-color brochure used to promote Houdini as the star attraction in movie; New York, 1919; $270.
Book; first deluxe edition; “Sensational Tales of Mystery Men,” features tipped-in real photo postcards of Houdini, Chung Ling Soo and Horace Goldin; London 1929; $300.
Trick; Crystal casket; glass-paneled, nickel-plated box holding handkerchiefs which appear and disappear on command; circa 1910; 3 ½ inches by 3 ½ inches; $390.
Book; “The Encyclopedia of Stage Illusions,” limited edition of 500 copies; Oakland, 1980; $570.