Houdini's Jail Escapes

Although the Handcuff Act rocketed Houdini to fame, what triggered such success were his series of "jail breaks" which he accomplished in order to prove himself the "elusive American" that he claimed to be. He gained his reputation as a "prison breaker" when playing various towns in the United States. While in Europe, he visited Scotland Yard and escaped from a pair of regulation handcuffs placed on his wrists by the Superintendent himself. He escaped in such a swift, surprising manner, that the Superintendent was amazed. His files contain hundreds of letters from police chiefs attesting that the escapes were real.

In 1904, Houdini presented himself to the Chief Constable to arrange a private display during the week, however, the Commander unexpectedly asked him to try what he could do right then and there. He was marched off to the cell and stripped of his clothes, which were placed in an adjoining cell, which was then triple locked. His cell was thoroughly searched and the door triple locked. At Houdini's request, all the cells in the corridor were also locked and the iron gate at the foot of the steps was secured with a seven-lever lock. To the surprise of everyone present, Houdini joined them in the bottom corridor a mere five minutes after being locked in. In this short time, he had gotten out of the cell, opened another cell to retrieve his clothing, unfastened all of the remaining cells in the corridor and burst through the locked iron gate. For this act, he was presented with a certificate signed by the Chief Constable, as a witness to the amazing event.

Houdini performed similar escapes throughout the world. In Liverpool, he freed himself from three pairs of handcuffs, unlocked his cell door, and the doors of all the other cells in a local prison. In Washington, D.C., he escaped from Murderers' Row where he proceeded to open the doors of eight other cells and shuffle the prisoners around, so that each was found in a different cell. In Boston City Prison, Houdini managed to escape the handcuffs and his cell as well as scale the prison wall and reach a phone half a mile away, where he phoned the prison Superintendent, all in 20 minutes.

When possible, Houdini visited the jail cell to test the lock with his key. Once he had brief possession of the key, he could sometimes make a wax impression of it using a small box filled with wax that he kept in his palm. From this impression, a duplicate key could be made at a later time. Sometimes, he was handed a master key that fit all the cells on the block. Once a duplicate was made of this key, Houdini could open numerous cells in quick fashion.

There was, however, the job of hiding the key. One of Houdini's systems was to hide the key in his shaggy hair with a dab of adhesive wax. Another method was to fix the key under his instep using adhesive tape. Sometimes, Harry could gum the key beneath the prison bench or even under the lock itself, when pretending to examine it one last time. Houdini also had hollow-heeled slippers that swiveled open by pressing a hidden catch. The "hooked key" was another gadget used by Houdini, wherein he would simply hook the key to the back of someone's clothing with a faint brush on the back, and retrieve it after being examined.

Houdini always had a last resort. Once, he thrust his hands through the bars of the cell and shook hands to admit defeat in a sporting fashion. However, the man was a friend of his who was wearing a ring with spring clip. During the handshake, Houdini took the key from the clip and escaped. On another occasion, his wife rushed to the cell and gave Houdini a long farewell kiss. The key was in Mrs. Houdini's mouth at the start and wound up in her husband's at the finish.