Houdiniís dive into the Yarra River, Feb 17th 1910

As demonstrated by the movies he had shown to his audience, Houdini had dived, shackled into rivers all around the world. He had informed his first night audience that he planned to perform a similar leap into the Yarra River. He added that this escape would depend on gaining permission from local authorities. That permission was quickly granted and on Wednesday, February 16th, the following advertisement appeared in the papers;

 

 

Daring Dive

Houdini , the world famous

escapologist will appear at

THE QUEENS BRIDGE

Tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon February 17

at 1.30pm prompt.

 

Houdini intended to dive into the Yarra, padlocked and chained and escape from the bonds. The advertisements made it clear that the combined weight of the chains and irons at 25 pounds (11.34 kg) would carry him to the bottom of the river, where he would have to free himself in order avoid drowning.

The central city of Melbourne is bordered to the south by the Yarra River. The river is a wide, shallow, dirty waterway which is crossed by several bridges. The bridges are located high above the river. The Queens Bridge, built in 1890, and located near the current site of Crown Towers, is one of the major bridges crossing the river.

The Yarra, would have been a polluted dirty mire in 1910. Nonetheless, Houdini, who had leapt into many a dirty waterway whilst shackled, wanted to add the Yarra to the list.

Melbourne at that time was suffering from a heat wave. Tuesday of that week had been hot, Wednesday was even warmer. On that day, the temperature had reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.33 degrees Celsius). Another hot day dawned that Thursday.

That day around 12.30pm, people started gathering around the Queens Bridge and surrounding area. The Age newspaper ,described them as Ďstevedores, carriers, men of all trades and callings..along with city clerks and office boys.í Pictures taken at the time, showed large crowds, mostly men, gathering around the bridge and lining both banks of the river. The more prosperous wore straw boater hats, dark coats, light shirts and ties. Others wore the uniform of the working man, peaked caps, with white shirts rolled to the elbows. There were men in bowler hats, young and old men with pipes hanging from their mouths. There were women too, with hats and veils shielding their faces from the sun. Many of the spectators sat in wooden row boats on the river, leaning on the oars waiting for Houdini to arrive. His appeal crossed class and gender boundaries and no where was this more evident than in the crowds which appeared to see him that day.

This eclectic group of people were soon squashed three deep along both sides of the river all the way to the Princess Bridge past the site of Flinders Street Station, a good ten minute walk away. There was pushing and shoving and several women and children fell. No serious injuries were reported however. There were almost twenty thousand people gathered when 1.30pm approached.

Houdini, the handcuff king and world famous escapologist, arrived shortly before that time. He was driven to the bridge from the theatre, probably by chauffeur , John Jordon. It was a short trip. The car would have dodged trams, horses, buggies the occasional car, and hordes of people scurrying towards the river. Houdini was accompanied by Frederick Aydon, manager of the New Opera house and his ĎGerman attendantí, probably Franz Kukol.

When he left the car, he was clad in a tight fitting blue bathing costume. It covered him from neck to knee. Houdini leapt up to the parapet of the bridge and held out his hands for the handcuffs. According to The Age ,he acted as if the proceedings were a huge joke and admitted it was a trick

Kukol passed a heavy chain around his neck and padlocked it underneath his chin. Another chain and padlock were draped around his neck, joined to the original. Regulation handcuffs were snapped to his wrists. The descriptions of the exact bonds differed, but gave the general impression that he was essentially chained from waist to neck. His arms were completely immobilised. Some of the bystanders were invited to test the locks and chains. They pronounced them secure.

Houdini, bound, so that he could not move the upper part of his body, stood high above the hatted crowd, to all sides he would have seen a mass of people. The spectators would have looked up at him in excitement. Many however would not have seen him at all. They were simply too far away. They had probably come down to the area for a chance to experience the atmosphere created by a large crowd.

Houdini was 20 feet (6.10 m) above the water which at low tide was 10 feet, 8 inches (3.25m) deep. Taking a deep breath he dived, straight, "taking a beautiful header, cutting the water clean."

The crowds craned their necks over the water, anxious to see the escape. They could see nothing. Houdini was covered by the muddy water which essentially acted as the curtain did in his act. It obscured the escape from prying eyes. Houdini later stated that he was up to his armpits in mud, which whilst good for obfuscation, complicated the escape.

Whilst the crowd waited for what seemed an eternity for Houdini to reappear, a strange incident occurred. A man dressed in black approached one of Houdiniís assistants.

" Excuse me" he said, " are you connected with the chap

who has just gone down?" " yes" replied the attendant.

The stranger in black pressed a card into the hand of Houdiniís

assistant. " In case he shouldnít come up." He said

The assistant later read the card and discovered that it bore the name of a local undertaker. It seemed everybody had recognised the death defying nature of the feat.

A man leaning over the parapet, with a stop watch in his hand, timed a couple of minutes, and still Houdini did not appear. The police in their row boats nervously fingered their corpse grappling irons " in anticipation of the coroners inquiry." They circled the river, anxiously watching for signs of the escapologist.

Another few seconds passed and then the wavy haired head of Houdini poked itís way through the water. He was holding the chains in one hand, triumphantly, and smiling.

He casually swam breast stroke to a waiting wooden police boat. The police in their white round helmets, and blue uniforms, pulled him over the side and into the boat. Houdini stood up within it, as they rowed him to shore. He dramatically pointed his finger towards the wharf looking like an explorer who had just discovered paradise and was planning a landing there. The crowd screamed and cheered at the showman and waved their hats in appreciation. Houdini finally stepped ashore probably acknowledged the cheers either by a bow or wave and was quickly taken back to the Opera House to prepare for that nights show.

He later said that he had very much enjoyed the occasion. He also admitted that it was all a trick He then proceeded to regale reporters with some anecdotes about other dives. He mentioned one in California where he had dropped 86 feet (26.21 metres) from his toes into the surf. The story had all the hallmarks of a Houdini tale, including exaggeration.

Like many famous events. The Queens Bridge dive became a source of many a tall tale. One story concerned Houdiniís fear of sharks. It suggested that Houdini had fears like any ordinary man. Several authors, mentioned that Houdini had expressed a fear of sharks before attempting the feat. The implication being that Houdini thought that there were sharks in the river, when there are not. There is no contemporary newspaper record which mentioned Houdiniís fear of sharks in relation to the Yarra dive. Houdiniís shark phobia, was mentioned, in regards to his later dive into Sydney Harbour. A fear that was somewhat justified. It is quite possible, that Houdiniís expressed fear in Sydney was confused with the Melbourne dive. What is known to history is that Houdini had a real fear of sharks.

Another story, stated that the dive had dislodged a corpse. According to this tale, the corpse rose to the surface with Houdini. The escapologist being a superstitious man froze with horror. It was necessary for the police to haul him into the waiting row boats, instead of letting him do his usual breast stroke to the wharf. There are no newspaper accounts of this incident, and photos taken and published at the time seem to show Houdini actively swimming and getting into the row boats under his own volition. The photos, being almost a hundred years old and reproductions, are of poor quality and the story could be true.

Finally, a man like Houdini created myths and legends which soon became history. In 1956, the Tivoli theatre, which was the successor to The New Opera House published a history. In that history it stated that Houdini was not only shackled, but was put into a sack, before diving into the Yarra. This was a typical piece of exaggeration worthy of the escapologist himself. Pictures and contemporary accounts show that Houdini was merely shackled that day. There was no mention of a sack in the newspaper reports, and no sign of a sack in the photographic record.

The dive was a demonstration of Houdiniís remarkable ability to advertise. It had all the features of a carefully organised marketing campaign and many features of a theatrical performance. It in fact echoed in format many of Houdiniís stage escapes.

The introduction of the lone figure standing chained above the crowd, echoed the appearance of the showman on stage. The dramatic and tense wait as he disappeared into the muddy waters, recalled Houdiniís disappearance behind the curtain during metamorphosis, and finally the relief of tension as the sole figure emerged safe and well, was similar to that felt after he had successfully completed a challenge. Houdiniís final dramatic stance on board the boat added to the sense of occasion and theatricality. The feat appealed to the sporting instincts of the throng, and was conducted with all the flair and showmanship which Houdini had honed through years of performance. The death defying nature of the feat was also emphasised.

The death defying aspect was one of the fundamental parts of Houdiniís marketing strategy. The focus was on a lone man defying the mystery of death and defeating it by his skill alone. The dive appealed to the sporting instincts of the public who were concerned with "will he survive?" Or " will he escape?" Rather than "how does he do it?"

Houdini of course used his own handcuffs for such dives and it could be assumed that they were constructed in such a manner as to make escape easier and safer. A fundamental aspect of the Houdini show was his preparation and the type of handcuffs used in these feats were prepared. So it was partly an illusion, a skillfully presented and marketed illusion.

An extraordinary aspect of this illusion was the number and type of people who wanted to see it. It was a very large gathering for the time and a mass demonstration of Houdiniís appeal. That appeal crossed all boundaries. The Age description of the people combined with the pictures taken that day, suggested a wide variety of workers, office employees and  wealthier people. It was a sharp demonstration of the popularity of the theatre amongst the Australian population.

 

-Leann Richards

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