When chief constable witnessed a great escape

Harry Houdini inside the water can contraption. (image courtesy of Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov) from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

Between 1900 and 1920 Harry Houdini toured Great Britain, extensively visiting many of its major towns and cities.

While there, he escaped from jails, jumped from bridges into rivers while bound up in chains, performed amazing escapades, tricks and illusions, and delighted everyone who came to see him.

Harry Houdini stripped of his clothes and handcuffed and locked in a cell from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

Everywhere he performed, he issued challenges to local workers to either make a chest, box or other contraption from which he wouldn’t be able to escape.

Lancashire was no exception and, apart from simply appearing at the Blackpool Hippodrome during a six day stay in the resort, he generated further interest in his abilities by escaping from a cell in a local police station.

An article in the Blackpool Gazette of June 16 1905 recounts: “Houdini makes his first appearance in Blackpool this week; and, as in Russia, America, France, and other countries, he has here given proof of his skill. On Monday he was granted permission to try if he could escape from the South King Street police cells.

“He was stripped, and the precaution was taken by the interested officers to search his bushy hair, chance there might be concealed some wire or other instrument helpful in picking a lock.

Harry Houdini displaying the manacles and handcuffs which he has managed to escape from, from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

“Houdini’s clothes were placed in one cell and he was locked in another, the master key of the Chief Constable apparently making him doubly secure.

“The lock was found more difficult than many which the man of mystery has dealt with, but, to the surprise of all, he quickly walked out of his prison, got his clothes and, with the eyes of magistrates and officials upon him, he secretly unlocked the iron bar door in the corridor and walked into the police office. And all this was accomplished in seven minutes!

“Afterwards the following testimony was handed to Houdini: ‘Chief Constable’s Office Blackpool, 12th June, 1905. We, the undersigned, certify that we saw Mr Harry Houdini stripped naked, searched, locked up in a cell (which was searched) but in seven minutes Houdini had managed to escape from the cell; also opening the iron gate at the end of the cell corridor.

“There was no chance of any confederacy. (Signed) Jno. C. Derham, Chief Constable; Gilbert Blundell, JP, James Hayes, JP, John P. Dixon, JP’.”

An early photo of Bess and Harry Houdini on stage with the roped box used in the illusion, Metamorphosis. The crimson curtained area used during the trick can be seen in the background. Houdini called this his 'ghost house' from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

At Preston, Houdini performed his liberation from a straitjacket act as well as the milk churn escape.

A committee of 12 members of the audience strapped him up in the straitjacket. He escaped in a very short time.

Then he escaped from the milk churn in a minute and a half and appeared on stage smiling while dripping and panting after the exertion.

Also in Preston, Houdini was placed in a cell and the door shut behind him. No matter how hard he tried to unlock the door, nothing would work and he had to give up his escape. He then leaned against the door and discovered it had been unlocked all the time. This story has been told in several versions, many times, but it’s hard to prove if it ever happened.

Harry Houdini, pictured almost naked, releasing himself from a police cell from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

As more people up and down the country witnessed Houdini’s incredible feats, his following of admirers and even copycats grew.

Some just wanted to copy his tricks to impress their friends but others went even further and one man even began to claim he was Houdini. He was eventually found out and apprehended in Blackpool.

The story was carried in the Lancashire Evening Post of June 17, 1905 which reports, “George William Green, a young man, was charged at Blackpool, this morning, with trying to obtain money by false pretences.

“Joseph Walter Rome, stopping at the Adelphi 
Hotel, said that on Friday prisoner went to him in the hotel asking to shake hands. He asked for four shillings and said he would pay back 50s at night.

“He said that he was Houdini, the ‘handcuff king’ from the Hippodrome and produced a card bearing that name. Witness did not lend him the money. After seeing Houdini at the Hippodrome, witness obtained a warrant and had the prisoner arrested.”

Joseph Walter Rome was not the first person George had approached claiming he was Houdini and it was eventually found out that George had been getting £165 a week from his deception.

A studio portrait of Harry Houdini in chains and padlocks from The Great Houdini: His British Tours by Derek Tait

When questioned, George said ‘that he did not recollect anything of it because he had been ‘full of drink for days and days.’

Although having another person impersonate him might have led to some inconvenience, it also added to the hype and mystery that surrounded Houdini and that he did welcome.

He was not just the 
handcuff king but also the master of self-promotion, making sure that his antics outside the theatres drew in as many crowds as possible for his stage appearances.

Houdini was, and remains, the best-known escapologist of all time. At the height of his career, he was the highest paid entertainer in the world.

Sadly, many of his shows have been long since forgotten and towns and cities throughout the UK have no knowledge that he once appeared there.

This is something that author, Derek Tait, seeks to remedy in his new book.

The Great Houdini: His British Tours gives the most comprehensive account of his time within the UK and brings to life the excitement and thrills of many of his appearances.

It contains many photos and adverts from his shows, some of which have not been seen since they were originally published over 100 years ago, and offers an insight into the life of one of the world’s greatest entertainers.

• The Great Houdini: His British Tours is available from Pen & Sword Books priced £25.

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