Hundreds of people would gather to watch the master illusionist achieve what seemed to be impossible — like getting out of handcuffs and shackles, then working his way out of a wooden box that had been dropped into a river.
And every time, he nailed it — so to speak.
See photos from a few of his adventures below, and then get the behind-the-scenes details on how the escape really worked.
Harry Houdini, Vaudeville man, does underwater box escape “stunt” in East River (1912)
Escapes from sunken box
NEW YORK — Such a big crowd collected to see Harry Houdini, the “handcuff king,” nailed in a box and thrown into the East River that the police interfered and drove the vaudeville performer away in a boat.
He kept the box on the boat, however, and yesterday morning, shortly after the appointed hour, was shackled, chained, trussed and nailed in the box, which was thrown overboard off Governor’s Island.
Harry Houdini came up in less than two and one-half minutes, two hundred and fifty feet away from where he had been thrown in, and was hauled aboard. It was not until he was back on the boat deck that the box floated to the surface.
He appeared at Hammerstein’s at the afternoon and night performances.
Three doctors — Frank Abbott of Jamaica, George Gregory and J A Winter — have challenged Houdini to what he says will be the hardest task he has ever undertaken.
The physicians said their curiosity had been aroused and wanted Houdini to submit to the following terms:
We will send an extra heavy operating table with broad straps, and strap you down in as helpless a position and condition as possible.
Crossing your arms over your chest and strapping your hands to the side of the table, your neck will be held down with a broad, heavy neck strap to eliminate the danger of strangulation. Your thighs, knees and feet will be held down by heavy straps along the sides and at the extreme end of the table.
The doctors said they wanted to study the methods by which he gets loose, and made a condition that he would do the “stunt” in full view of the audience. Houdini accepted.
Houdini Stepping into the crate before he performed the underwater box escape
Here’s Harry Houdini, stepping into a crate just about to be lowered into New York Harbor as part of an escape stunt. Spectators stand along the side of a barge to watch.
Harry Houdini: Going down, down
The crate with Houdini inside is being lowered into New York Harbor
Houdini: Handcuffed and manacled in box, he frees himself underwater
Harry Houdini, that agile young showman who for ten years has amazed the public and police of the principal cities of the world by the ease with which he escapes from handcuffs, manacles and prison cells, performed a submarine trick off Governor’s Island that puts Monte Cristo’s famous bag trick to shame.
His wrists firmly clasped with two pairs of regulation police handcuffs and his ankles bound together by a pair of ugly-looking leg irons, the “escape artist” allowed himself to be nailed up in what appeared on closest inspection to be an ordinary, substantial packing box. In the box, he was then tossed into the bay.
In a few seconds less than a minute, Houdini bobbed up to the surface, free of all his manacles.
How Houdini did his famous underwater box escape trick
From Modern Mechanics and Inventions magazine – December 1929
In recounting… some of his narrow escapes, Houdini once told of an experience with his trunk trick.
At that time he was permitting committees to handcuff him, place him in a trunk, rope it securely and toss him into a river or lake, while thousands, including reporters and news photographers looked on.
The escape was made in the same manner of the familiar stage trick in which the magician is locked inside a trunk and within a few seconds after it is slipped behind a screen, changes places with a lady assistant with the aid of a sliding panel.
Immediately after Houdini got into the trunk for his stunt, he went to work on his handcuffs and other shackles, and was free of them by the time the roping had been done.
On one occasion, the trunk sank rapidly and stuck on a muddy bottom, panel side down. It was only by the most desperate efforts that Houdini was able to force the panel through the sticky mud and escape drowning.
“That gave me a lesson,” he said. “Thereafter I made it a point to have the panel part way open before the bottom was reached. Sometimes I would be out and have the panel shifted back in place without reaching the bottom.”
Of course, one of the essential points in this performance was to have an assistant who saw to it that all the roping done would not make it impossible to move the panel.
How Houdini’s underwater box escape made the media take him seriously – a look back from 1930
Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) June 15, 1930
In the spring of 1912, Houdini was preparing even more difficult feats, of which he saved the principal one for New York during a long engagement at Hammerstein’s Roof in July and August 1912.
In New York, Houdini could always fill a theatre, but the newspapers still refused to accept him as wholeheartedly as did those of other American cities and most European cities.
When he announced early in July that he would try to escape from a packing box, weighted and tossed into the harbor from an East River pier, the papers noted his defy warily. However, they sent reporters to cover the story.
They found Houdini with a stout-looking packing box weighted with two hundred pounds of lead, and also an assortment of regulation handcuffs and leg irons, in which the performer invited the newspapermen to fasten his wrists and legs before he was nailed into the case.
They also discovered a squad of policemen, who informed Houdini that no one was permitted to commit suicide from a pier, and he must gather up his box and his cuffs and clear out.
Houdini then hailed a tug and, inviting the newspaper and cameramen aboard, steamed out into the harbor, much to the disappointment of the general public assembled along the waterfront. One persistent newsboy dived off the pier and struck out after the tug. He was hauled aboard and permitted to stay.
The skeptical reporters presently found themselves taking the affair seriously. They were enlisted to put the irons on Houdini. Then he insisted that they superintend the nailing of the box.
After the cover was hammered down, a steel band was fastened about the box for good measure. Then it was roped and allowed to slide down a chute into the waters of the bay, where it floated almost wholly submerged at the end of one hundred feet of line.
At the end of fifty-seven seconds, there was a splash beside the box, and Houdini bobbed into view. He swam to the tug, and the box was hauled in after him.
It was intact. The cover was then pried off, and there at the bottom lay the handcuffs and leg-irons. Their locks had been sprung open and they were in good working order. That was news, even in New York, and thereafter the press of the metropolis took Houdini seriously.