SFCentric History: When Houdini Escaped His Way Around San Francisco
San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a new column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.
Harry Houdini (born Erik Weisz), the Hungarian-born and American-raised master of illusion, cemented himself as the greatest magician of all time. Time and time again, he narrowly escaped death, whilst dangling in the air, or plunged in the depths of the water or earth. Did you know, though, that Houdini dazzled and amazed in San Francisco many a time? In this week’s SFCentric History, we take a look back at the times the illustrious illusionist made the impossible possible in the City by the Bay.
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Photo: San Francisco Call
June 1899 marked the first time Harry Houdini performed in San Francisco. The 25-year-old had just been discovered by Martin Beck, who added the struggling yet talented magician to the Orpheum Circuit. He arrived in the city on June 2 with his wife, and assistant, Beatrice “Bess” Houdini, and wasted no time in amazing others.
Houdini visited the city’s law enforcement to show off his skills. He easily escaped from handcuffs in front of “several hundred spotless policeman,” claimed the June 6, 1899 edition of the San Francisco Call. As part of his act at the Orpheum (on O’Farrell) he would challenge people in the audience to tie him up to a chair with a rope tied into as many complicated knots as conceivable. He always got free.
On June 25, Houdini appeared to outdo his Orpheum feats with his Needle Trick. “Put a handful of needles in your mouth, masticate them thoroughly, swallow them carefully,” the Call described the trick. “Then take a long piece of sewing thread, swallow it judiciously…catch the end of the thread…and, drawing it slowly forth, find all the needles unbroken and neatly threaded.” Once again, Houdini escaped danger with ease.
Houdini was continuing to cast his spell of awe on the city in July. The mystery man was seen sizing up San Francisco’s Receiving Hospital, heading over to what was then known as the “insane ward,” and putting in an odd order. “I am going to make a somewhat peculiar request,” the July 17, 1899 edition of the San Francisco Call notes him as saying. “I want to see the best straight-jacket you have in the place.” He was then laced up tightly in the contraption by a hospital employee, and placed in a room. It was his first straightjacket escape–he was out of the elaborate garment in about 10 minutes.
July 13 found Harry back in front of the law, this time at the police headquarters, to prove that he didn’t use a key to release himself from handcuffs. He stripped down naked to show he wasn’t hiding a key and was shackled with 10 pairs of handcuffs by the officers. He was out of all 10 pairs within two minutes. It was feats like this that crowned Houdini “The Handcuff King.”
To record this accomplishment, Harry Houdini went to the Bushnell Photo Company on Market Street to take photos.
Photo: WILD ABOUT HARRY
Photo: San Francisco Call
After a tour of Europe, Harry Houdini was back in San Francisco, in September 1907, with some new tricks up his sleeve. The Orpheum Theater, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, was also back, rebuilt, and now located on Ellis Street. Here, Houdini escaped from a box constructed by the Emporium store. He also found his way out of a tied and sealed paper bag, while handcuffed, without damaging the bag whatsoever. The year also saw the illusionist leaping, with over 75 pounds of ball and chain containing him (with his hands behind his back) “from the pier at the foot of Washington Street into the bay.” He released himself from beneath the water of Aquatic Park–in 57 seconds.
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle, via SF Silent Film Festival Blog
Photo: 1914 program, eBay
The Panama-Pacific Exposition was in full effect in November of 1915, and of course, Harry Houdini had to amaze the masses yet again. He was there to perform, but also prove, away from a “safe” stage, that his famous art was legit. At Aquatic Park, he was manacled, loaded into a wooden box, which was nailed shut and wrapped with ropes, and placed in the chilly water. According to the Chronicle, there was also 500 pounds of pig iron weighing down the box, but that didn’t deter the great Houdini from escaping from it half a minute later. The finishing touch was that he emerged from the water, swam to a nearby barge, and was taken onboard, to the delight of onlookers.
That’s not to say that his Orpheum show was dull in comparison. It was here that Houdini showed off his latest (and one of his best known) performance(s), a glass cell filled with water, which he was lowered into, headfirst, while his ankles were contained by stocks to the top. Submerged in water, and visible to his tense viewers, Houdini was then shrouded by a curtain, only increasing the fear of his audience. An assistant stood nearby holding an axe, ready to save Harry at a moment’s notice. Two minutes later, the magician emerged triumphant from certain death.
Photo: collection of Dr. Bruce Averbook, via WILD ABOUT HARRY
On March 19, 1923–three years before his death–at the age of 49 Harry Houdini found it fit to escape death one more time in front of over 30,000 people in San Francisco. Dangling upside down about 80 to 100 feet in the air, right next to the 7th floor of the Hearst Building, Houdini was contained by a straightjacket. He proceeded to wiggle his way out–mid-air–in under three minutes, and the San Francisco Examiner was there to capture it all:
“A systematic rhythmic convulsion was going on inside that straitjacket. A mighty wrenching of his back, a contortion of his bound arms, and he had the sleeves loose, but still strapped to each other at the wrist, with his hands inside. Again and again he swung himself until that strap was firmly caught over his upturned feet. And like a snake shedding his skin in the springtime, Houdini worked that straitjacket over his head [and] threw it to the street below while the crowd yelled itself hoarse.”
The next day, the Examiner emblazoned the following triumphant headline: “Wizard Throws Off Bonds With Lightening Speed Suspended From Side of Hearst Building.”
Houdini once again brought his show to the Orpheum, which by now was back in its original locale on O’Farrell Street. He also performed at the new Golden Gate Theatre, and included more crazy stunts away from the stage, such as the April 7 challenge from the Boy Scouts of America to escape their intricate knots–while surrounded by flames.
Photo: Harry Ransom Center, via WILD ABOUT HARRY
1923 was the last time Harry Houdini appeared in San Francisco. The illusionist would die three years later, in 1926, of peritonitis, from appendicitis. SF has always been a magical place, but we will always indebted to the greatest of all time for bringing his unique touch of magic to the city so many years ago.