The city of Salem is synonymous with magic and witchcraft. We are a city that prides itself on our spooky Halloween spectacular, “Haunted Happenings,” and the entire month of October is a celebration of the eerie and unexplained. In April of 1906, long after the Witchcraft Trials of 1691/2, Salem played host to a man that revolutionized the world of magic in an entirely different way. A man named Erik Weisz, who became known as “Harry Houdini, The Handcuff King” visited our fair city to perform his daring escapes.
Having just finished an extremely successful run in Boston, where he had been for seven weeks, he promised a full 6 shows at the Salem Theatre, located at 259 1/2 Essex Street in 1906. The highlights of his show in Boston had been an escape from a seemingly impenetrable case made by the Seigel Company, a dramatic extrication from double confinement in the “Boston Tombs” (the City Jail), and the frightening, and peculiarly named, “Salem Witches Chair,” purportedly a Puritan torture device, but in reality a much more modern invention, having been built and patented in Oakland, Maine by Sanford J. Baker in 1896 for public humiliation of vagrants and hobos. There are two of these chairs currently on display in Maine, one in its home town of Oakland, one which was used in an escape by Houdini’s brother, Hardeen, in Bangor, Maine in 1912, with one missing from The Samoset Resort in Rockland where it used to be prominently displayed. Hardeen and Houdini are the only people to have ever escaped from these horrific devices. While the description of Houdini’s performances in Salem do not include the “Witches Chair,” it is not far-fetched to think that he may have brought it with him and his entourage.
Houdini would preface many of his ticketed engagements with a free show for the local populace, and Salem was no exception. Arrangements were made for Houdini to perform an escape at the police station, 15 Front Street. Houdini was taken with an entourage, including the mayor, Alderman Benson, to the cell room where he completely undressed and was examined by the committee. James Koen and Willard B. Porter of The Salem News described him as a “genial and unpretentious sort of chap, with an eye like an eagle and a marvelous muscular development.” He was shown several cells, and asked the committee which one they would like him locked into. They suggested the padded cell, and Houdini responded that it might take too long, and so he was brought instead to a cell at the center of the row. No less than three pairs of handcuffs were placed on his wrists, and two pairs of shackles on his ankles. He was then locked into another cell, and his clothing placed in yet another locked cell.
At 9:12 AM they left Houdini and assembled in the Janitor’s office, which was on the first floor and overlooked Front Street. At 9:25 they heard a voice calling to them from outside the window, and lo and behold, it was Houdini, a mere 13 minutes after they had left him. Houdini was fully dressed, and he was not alone, handcuffed to him was Robert McCoy, a prisoner in one of the other cells. Houdini had, in those 13 minutes, removed three sets of handcuffs, 2 leg shackles, unlocked his cell, unlocked the cell that contained his clothing, dressed himself, unlocked McCoy’s cell, left through two locked back doors, and run around the alley by the building to appear triumphantly on Front Street. “Marvelous” said the Salem News, “is the only word to describe the feat.” Needless to say, Houdini had no trouble selling tickets to his shows.
Houdini’s performances themselves were fairly typical of his tour at the time. He was one of several “Handcuff King” performers, yet he was beginning to become the frontrunner of the pack. As was his wont, he would issue challenges to locals and business owners to attempt to contain him. Almy, Bigelow & Washburn put out a large print ad in the Salem News that “Houdini has accepted a challenge from our shippers and packers to nail and rope him up in a packing case at Salem Theatre this evening” on April 17th. He was locked in a stout barrel with straps and padlocks, and this all placed inside the facsimile of a German prison cell. Mere moments later, he was out, and his assistant who had been in front of the crowd while Houdini had been entering the trap was discovered inside the very barrel Houdini had just left, all locks and straps intact. The Handcuff King performed escapes from multiple devices of entanglement, however, the highlight of the show from all accounts was a “surprise” disentanglement from a straight jacket, provided by local officers Duffee and Cassidy. Houdini threw himself upon the floor, dislocated his shoulders so that his hands were above his head, and having only a moment of difficulty with a leather strap that had been placed around his neck, was extricated in only a minute and 29 seconds, purportedly less than a third of the amount of time it had taken for him to be bound into it.
Houdini himself was not the sole attraction of this performance, though he was certainly the star. A troupe of Japanese jugglers, the dancing Althea sisters, Miss Anna’s singing and impersonations all went over quite well with the audience. The Zancigs, an unassuming pair, performed feats of telepathy, reading names on bank bills, time on watches, and dates on coins from a partner in the audience. A delightful note from the news article makes mention that Miss Lillian Althea sang during this act but, “it was not at all necessary.” From reports in the newspaper, the crowds were “large and fashionable” and it seems that each of these shows was sold out.
A peculiar piece came to our attention during the research into Houdini’s performances. A small article makes mention of Houdini’s visit to the “Peabody Academy of Science” a precursor to the now world famous “Peabody Essex Museum.” Whilst looking over a selection of handcuffs donated to the museum from the collection of C. Erskine and purportedly from the WIlkes Expedition (though the newspaper mistakenly refers to it as the “Walker” Expedition), he discovered that a pair supposedly used on the USS Vincennes during that expedition were in fact manufactured in the 1880s, not the 1838-1842 listed on the display. Houdini noted that the patend date on this particular piece had been eaten off with acid. He was so assured of his handcuff knowledge, that during his Tuesday evening show, he volunteered a donation of $1000 to any charity of the Mayor’s choice if he could be proven incorrect in his statement.
Mr. John Robinson, the curator of the museum discovered the piece in question without incident, and found that while they were labelled “Sailor’s Handcuffs,” there was nothing about them that said that they were specifically from the expedition, merely that they were another example of pieces used by sailors on shipboard, a very clever way of saying that while Houdini was not incorrect in his assessment of the piece, the museum did not have them mislabeled either. After some communication with the PEM, we have discovered that those same handcuffs are still in the possession of the museum, and while we have seen photos, a request for publication takes a few weeks, so we hope to include them in a follow up article. It is nice to know that they are still in the possession of the museum where Houdini took the time to view them in a lull between his rigorous performances.
Houdini passed away on Halloween, October 31st, of 1926, after what was possibly an intended attempt on his life. Houdini would challenge people to punch him in the stomach after flexing his impressive abdominal muscles. On October 22nd, a student named J. Gordon Whitehead questioned Houdini about this tradition, and without giving the magician time to prepare, hit him several times while he reclined on a sofa, which according to onlookers appeared to pain Houdini greatly. It was only a few days later that Houdini passed, the official cause of death being a ruptured appendix.
For ten years following Houdini’s death, his wife Bess held a seance to attempt to contact her beloved husband, as they had both held great hope for an existence “on the other side” but after those ten years with no luck, she declared that “ten years was a long enough to wait for any man” and the secret pass phrase that they alone had shared was given to his brother, Hardeen, and has since been passed on to family friends and confidants. Salem played host to a Houdini seance on October 30th, 1990 in the grand ballroom of the Hawthorne Hotel. Though they were unsuccessful in contacting Houdini, the event was the impetus for the beginning of the Hawthorne Halloween Ball, which began the following year and has become the preeminent Costume Ball in the country.
We talk about many spectres appearing in Salem over the years, but we have yet to hear a story of someone seeing the easily recognizable figure of Harry Houdini. Though we are less than a decade away from the hundredth anniversary of his death at the time of this writing, perhaps we will be able to host the official seance here once more, and have the chance for the repeat performance Salem was never gifted with during his mortal lifespan.