Harry Houdini Shines

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Potter and Potter Auctions.

Harry Houdini found himself locked inside the same jail cell where the assassin of Pres. James A. Garfield was housed in 1881.  The narrow bulletproof oak door was buried deep inside a gigantic brick wall.  The lock was installed three feet away around the corner--out of reach.  Cell No. 2 on Murderers’ Row of the United States Jail was located in Washington, D. C. 

String me up as high as you can.  If I drop I want to be sure it’s going to be the finish.
— Harry Houdini

The escape artist was naked and alone in the cell except for eight prisoners housed nearby on Murderers’ Row.  Most of them awaited hanging. 

“Mr. Houdini, in about two minutes, managed to escape from the cell and then broke into the cell in which his clothing was locked up,” wrote the warden. 

Harry dressed and then walked into the warden’s office.  He told the warden he had let the other prisoners out on his way in.  Before the warden could sound the alarm Harry smiled and said he actually locked the prisoners back up again in different cells. 

Security was beefed up in the jail shortly after the event. 

For the next few years Harry added jailbreaks as a regular part of his act.  He used them as publicity stunts.  He couldn’t resist seeing his name in print.  A friend said Harry would murder his own grandmother for publicity.  

He shook off knotted ropes and clanging hand-cuffs.  He escaped from padlocked milk cans.  He dove off bridges, managed to liberate himself from straitjackets, and bought every magic prop he could to make himself famous.

It worked.  Harry proclaimed he could escape from anything.  And people believed him. 

If he had his way the name Houdini and magic would be intertwined forever.  Writer George Bernard Shaw ranked Harry right up there with Jesus and Sherlock Holmes as one of the three most famous figures in history. 

One of his greatest publicity stunts was the outdoor upside down straitjacket escape.  It was the only outdoor stunt he did where the escape was in full view of the audience.  Much of what he did onstage was hidden from view.     

Harry dangled 20 feet up from the local newspaper office in 1915 as thousands of Kansas City spectators watched.  He knew using the newspaper office for the stunt would guarantee him front-page coverage.  He also performed the stunt at noon to capture as many people as possible at lunch. 

“String me up as high as you can.  If I drop I want to be sure it’s going to be the finish,” he said within earshot of the reporters.  Then he cast off the straitjacket like he was taking off a glove.

The most popular magic memorabilia are items once owned by famous magicians, Houdini especially.  Everything from props and posters to autographed photos and letters and books command collector interest.

On Jan. 29, Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago featured a selection of magic related books covering various topics and magicians like Houdini in its Card Table Artifice & Legerdeman auction.  

Magic Books

100 Years of Magic Posters; Charles and Regina Reynolds; New York; 1976;  $360.

Magic Cauldron; F. William Keuthe; signed and inscribed by Keuthe; periodical includes all supplements; 1962-1977;   $600.

Greater Magic; J.N. Hilliard; from the publisher’s privately abridged edition of 50 copies; monumental book of over 1000 pages is almost entirely blank;  Minneapolis; 1938;  $720.

Howard Thurston’s Card Tricks; Howard Thurston; first edition; London; 1901;  $900.

Houdini Unlocked; Patrick Culliton; two volumes; number 30 from a limited edition of 250 copies; orange clothbound volumes stamped in black and gold; in publisher’s slipcase; Los Angeles; 1997;  $1,020.          



Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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