Houdiniís challenges in Sydney 1910
Houdini accepted challenges to escape wherever he travelled. It was the challenges which established him as a unique star. They were athletic feats as opposed to illusions. They relied upon stamina and acrobatic skill for the most part.
Edward Maas in his History of the Tivoli souvenir, quoted a Houdini challenge story. It is possible that this was a story that Houdini himself told Maas at some stage during the Australian tour.
Houdini was challenged by a Birmingham locksmith who worked for two years on developing a handcuff that would confound him. He constructed it with six locks fixed one inside the other. Houdini attempted to escape these cuffs on stage in front of an audience. He struggled to release himself for a long time. At one stage he paused in his attempt and asked if the handcuffs might be removed so that he could remove his coat. The locksmith refused. Houdini managed to obtain a knife, and taking it in his teeth, he cut himself free from the coat. He then took three hours to free himself from the locks.
No Australian challenger was as stubborn or as impolite as the Birmingham locksmith. Yet no Australian challenge took Houdini three hours . The longest time was close to an hour.
At the conclusion of his Saturday April 2nd performance at the Sydney Tivoli, Houdini announced that he would begin taking challenges the following week. He added that he would not accept a challenge unless the challenger was named. In Sydney, at least three challenges met this criteria.
On Wednesday April 13th, the Sydney Morning Herald carried an advertisement for a challenge to Houdini. Three gentlemen of Sydney, Messrs, John Anderson, James Williamson and William Elphinstone, had issued it. Their challenge was on behalf of Messrs. E Thornton, contractors and builders of Castlereagh Street Sydney. The three men were self described as expert carpenters and joiners.
The challenge was simple. They offered to construct a large packing case of timber. Houdini was to be sealed inside it. The box was to be secured with three inch nails and then tied with rope. The gentlemen challenged Houdini to escape from the box without damaging it. In the advertisement they claimed 'that it will be impossible for him to escape.' A broadside was published with the details of the challenge and given out to passerby in the city.
There were certain conditions attached to the challenge. Whilst there was no objection to Houdini inspecting the box before the escape, the challengers demanded the right to inspect it immediately prior to the performance.
The box was placed in the vestibule of the Tivoli theatre and the public were invited to inspect it themselves. The escape was planned for the evening show of Friday April 15th 1910.
At the appointed time, Houdini came on stage. The packing case was brought from the front of the theatre and Houdini made a speech. He stated that owing to the time that may be taken in this escape, that he would cut the rest of the programme. Houdini added that this escape was not due to supernatural agency.
He read the challenge aloud. He then invited the carpenters and a committee of twenty audience members onto the stage. The challengers commenced to renail the box and several nails were put in askew. Houdini jumped into the box and the final nails were driven into the timber. Before he was finally sealed within, the box was tilted so that the audience could see that he was still there. The box was roped and a curtain placed around it. According to the Magic Mirror, the question the audience asked as it waited was ' Will he or will he not do it?'
It took eleven minutes for Houdini to escape. During that time the band played 'rather loudly.' Suddenly the curtain was bumped and the audience immediately focussed their attention on stage where Houdini stepped out in front them..
He was described as 'calm and unruffled', but coatless. The audience cheered and Houdini left the stage with a bow. The box was once again displayed at the front of the theatre and the audience looked upon it with perplexed expressions as they left for the night.
The newspapers of Sydney briefly recorded Houdini's success with the escape and stated that he was looking for further challenges. He did not have long to wait.
The next challenge was published in the Herald and the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday April 20th. The challenge came from a group of self described hospital and lunacy attendants. Messrs, Clarke, Gibson, and Woolwright had worked or were working at that time at various asylums and hospitals around Sydney. These included Callan Park, Gladesville and Kenmore hospitals for the insane, and Liverpool and Parramatta asylums.
The particulars of the challenge were quite detailed;
1st. They will bandage his hands to his sides
2nd. They will roll him in a number of large sheets in mummy fashion
3rd. They will fasten him down to an iron hospital bed with strong linen bandages
4th. They will pour from 10 to 15 buckets of water over his form, so as to cause all the materials and knots to shrink, holding him in a positively helpless condition
5th. The attempt to escape to take place in full view of the audience.
The last condition demonstrated a sense of scepticism from the lunacy attendants. Although in the preamble of the challenge the men stated that Houdini's escapes had been 'marvellous.'
Unlike the fairly detailed coverage of the challenges by the Melbourne press the Sydney papers were restrained in their reports. Houdini attempted this challenge on April 22nd. The only major paper which carried a report of this escape was the Town and Country Journal, not noted for it's Houdini coverage. The Magic Mirror, the journal of The Australian Society of Magicians also carried a report of the escape. Their interest was obviously professional . The mass distributed papers merely noted that Houdini had successfully escaped the challenge.
Houdini came to the stage for this challenge dressed in his famous blue swimming costume. One of the challengers objected to this garb so the escapologist duly exited the stage and changed into calico pants.
He was wrapped up in calico bandages by the challengers. They then lashed him to a hospital bed. Four buckets of water were poured over him, and for twenty minutes he struggled and strained with apparently no result. He called for a drink and renewed his efforts. He firstly got his feet out of the bottom bandage and his knees above the second one. He then freed his hands and used them to pull the sheets and sit up in the bed. He escaped the remaining bandages and rolled to the floor, still bound by sheets. At this stage, one of the challengers offered to help him. He refused the offer and finally rolled himself free of the sheets. It had taken him thirty five minutes to get free. According to The Magic Mirror, 'he appeared very tired' after the effort.
The magazine also offered this comment. ' The ASM, ( Australian Society of Magicians) was well represented both on the stage and in the audience.' Which left an intriguing possibility that the ASM may have been more involved in the escapes than has been recognised.
The third challenge was issued on the next Wednesday April 27th. It originated from Mr James McGrath saddler and harness maker of Rawson Place. Mr McGrath challenged Houdini to escape from a large sleeved canvas bag. He would use strong leather straps and belting to secure Houdini's arms. He added;
Instead of the bag going over
your head it will be made to fit
around your shoulders being held
into position by a broad leather strap
encircling your neck.
The bag was designed to cover Houdini from his neck to his feet. Mr McGrath asked for two days notice so that he could construct the restraint. He also added two conditions. The escape was to take place in full view of the audience and no assistance was to be given to Houdini.
'Houdini has accepted the challenge' screamed the advertisement in the Daily Telegraph.
The predicament forced upon Houdini sounded very uncomfortable and difficult. It seemed designed to combat Houdini's trick of dislocating his shoulders. It was issued after Houdini had given an interview where he revealed this secret. The advertising for this feat was headed, 'will he escape?'
Houdini attempted to escape this contraption during his last Friday evening performance in Australia, April 29th. The Daily Telegraph gave a brief description of the escape the next day. Houdini firstly freed his feet from the belting. He passed his arms beneath his feet and thus maneuvered them to the back of his body. He was then able to open the straps at the back and free himself from the restraint.
These were the only three challenges accepted by Houdini in Sydney and they were all carefully organised. They were attempted on the Friday evening performance over three successive weeks. In Melbourne there were many more challenges often of unpredictable and ludicrous content. Perhaps the fact that Houdini insisted on accepting only named challengers restricted the number presented to him in Sydney.
Houdini had time to prepare for the challenges and it was his preparation that ensured the successful escapes. The challenges were a way to freshen the act. They made it different every Friday night, as they were the only feat performed on stage. Their unpredictability would have attracted large crowds and may have brought people back to the act for a second or third time. They were also great publicity for the ultimate showman, and for the theatre.
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