Harry Houdini Master of Magic
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Potter and Potter Auctions.
Spectators gasped as magician Harry Houdini was raised by his ankles into the air in a buckled straitjacket. He dangled like a side of beef from the corner of a tall building. To the crowd’s astonishment he wriggled his way out of the straitjacket in minutes.
Nailed and roped inside a wooden packing crate and tossed into the chilly waters of New York Harbor, viewers stared at their stopwatches as Harry freed himself and splashed to the surface in minutes.
Handcuff King. Escape artist. There didn’t seem to be any coffin, leg iron or prison cell Harry Houdini couldn’t escape. He was America’s first superhero in the early-20th century.
Buried alive, drowning—Harry played out our worst nightmares and managed to escape each and every time.
He courted death they way some people court potential spouses. But death never seemed too far away for Houdini. He liked to visit cemeteries all around the world. He was especially drawn to the graves of magicians and paid to have their tombstones restored when they were in poor condition.
The one thing Harry couldn’t escape in February, 1902 was an accusation of bribery and fraud brought against him by a police officer and local newspaper in Cologne, Germany. Harry could have ignored the accusations. He heard them before.
This time he stood his ground and hired a German lawyer. He sued both parties for slander. He was accused of trying to bribe a Cologne policeman into rigging an escape from the city’s jail with a hidden, duplicate, lock and key. He was also accused of paying a civilian police employee to help him with a phony public performance.
Never happened that way, Harry said.
After a procession of witnesses testified for both sides the judge asked Harry to prove his innocence once and for all by opening the lock in question without any tools. Doing so would prove his innocence but force him to break a cardinal rule in magic: never reveal your secrets.
Honoring the judge’s request Harry moved to a corner of the courtroom where only the judge could see him and quickly slipped out of a set of locked chains without any assistance.
He won the case.
"Just imagine," he later wrote to a friend, "in order to save my honor I had to show how I did it." The publicity didn’t hurt Harry either.
Several months later the policeman appealed. Harry won again. The cop was fined, had to pay court costs and place an advertisement in the Cologne newspapers proclaiming his punishment. He also had to apologize to Houdini for insulting him. The newspaper was fined for printing the story and had to run a retraction.
Always the publicity hound, Harry commissioned a poster which he distributed to capitalize on the positive verdict. The poster pictures Houdini in a dramatic courtroom scene.
“I made them look like a lot of dirty men,” he said.
On March 26, Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago featured a selection of magic posters in its Rare Posters auction. Included in the sale was the color lithograph poster described above. It sold for $30,000.
Broadside Panel; Houdini, A Peculiar Challenge; Wilson’s New Walk Colour Printing Works; circa 1915; 10 inches by 30 inches; $2,280.
Color Lithograph; Thurston Presents Dante Europe’s Magician; Otis Litho; half-sheet; circa 1922; 20 inches by 27 inches; $5,280.
Color Lithograph; Keller; Strobridge Litho Co., one-sheet; circa 1897; 29 ½ inches by 39 ½ inches; $7,200.
Color Lithograph; Beauty Thurston’s Arabian Steed; Otis Litho Co., one-sheet; circa 1924; 26 ¾ inches by 40 ½ inches; $7,200.
Color Lithograph; Thurston Presents Theo Bamberg Europe’s Great Shadowist; Strobridge Litho Co., half-sheet; circa 1908; 20 inches by 30 ½ inches; $20,400.