The Next Page: Harry Houdini and Pittsburgh -- the ties that bind
While the industrial world grew, the great escape artist captured the national imagination. Clay Morgan recounts Houdini's performances in Pittsburgh -- an ideal audience for his reality-defying feats
March 22, 2009 4:00 AM
Photo courtesy of Bruce Averbook
That's Houdini (in white circle), shackled in Pittsburgh steel, leaping into the Allegheny River from the original Seventh Street Bridge on March 13, 1908. Once again, he emerged. (The bridge, by the way, was torn down in 1924.)
By Clay Morgan
At the beginning of the 20th century, when possibilities seemed limitless, Harry Houdini achieved the impossible. A century ago this month, the legendary performer defied reality right here in Pittsburgh.
Tuesday is the 135th anniversary of the birth of America's first international superstar, an unlikely self-made celebrity so iconic in his lifetime that his name became a best-selling commodity around the world. Like a real-life superhero, Houdini hung from skyscrapers, escaped from prisons, and leapt -- bound and boxed -- into rivers around the world. Tens of thousands showed up for even a distant glimpse of the man.
The Steel City was no exception.
Industrial dominance drove the growth and identity that brought Pittsburgh to prominence and made it a major destination for famous vaudevillian performers. Houdini arrived in 1905, fresh off a five-year European tour that created his reputation as escape artist and "King of Handcuffs."
To get America's attention, he escaped from the Washington, D.C., jail cell that had detained Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield.
From Paris to St. Petersburg, London to Berlin, nothing on earth had held him. He claimed nothing ever could. Even Pittsburgh police failed, but so had Scotland Yard. Imposters tried to imitate the young star. None of them could.
Around 40,000 Pittsburghers were treated to the nail-biting exhibition one century ago on March 13, 1908. Houdini stripped to his swimsuit, surrendered to tight manacles fashioned from Pittsburgh steel, and leapt 40 feet from the original Seventh Street Bridge into the stinging Allegheny River waters. In a short while, his head bobbed up and vanished before he emerged for good, free and holding the conquered cuffs.
Houdini's first Pittsburgh plunge came almost a year earlier, on May 22, 1907. A rare photo from the time peers over the backs of spectators staring at the bridge in the direction of the North Shore. In the background, filthy factories pour billows of smoke into the lunchtime sky over the crowded waterfront. To the right, onlookers crowd the rails of the bridge. Over a dozen boats linger in the water. In the center of it all is Houdini in mid-jump -- dressed in a white bathing suit -- and falling, knees still up. In less than two minutes he rose from the murky stage.
The stunts took their toll. For months he'd pummeled his body until the unbearable pain of a ruptured kidney became too much to mask from his beloved mother, who caught up with her famous son in Pittsburgh in 1911. Although Houdini often took time to visit hospitals and perform for children over the years, he reluctantly entered Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital (opened 1847) that autumn as a patient.
In their knockout book "The Secret Life of Houdini," William Kalush and Larry Sloman describe how a Dr. Wholly treated Houdini at the hospital and ordered two to three months rest to avoid death within the next year. Continued stunts would be suicide, the good doctor said. Houdini laughed -- then finished out the remaining three nights of the engagement.
At the end of that year and for the next 15, Houdini sent pictures of himself performing the most strenuous escapes to Dr. Wholly to remind the Pittsburgh physician of his errant suicide diagnosis.
Upon his first trip to Pittsburgh in November 1905, The Jewish Criterion wrote: "He defies anyone to come on the stage of the Grand next week and bind him successfully."
The Grand Opera House (today it's the Warner Centre on Fifth Avenue) hosted Houdini during his first visits to Pittsburgh from 1905-08. Intense buzz in 1906 created so many sell-outs that Houdini stayed a third week so everyone around town could have a chance to experience the mind-jarring show. No one ever defeated him.
When Houdini adopted the tagline "failure means death," he transformed the meaning of public spectacle: a life and death show for entertainment.
During the next couple years, Houdini romped around the world learning ancient secrets and becoming the first person recognized to achieve sustained flight over Australia. He returned to the Pittsburgh Grand in 1913 and brought influences from afar, the East Indian Needle Trick and legendary Chinese Water Torture Chamber in which he would be placed head down with wrists and ankles clamped. Many mistakenly believe that this device of his own invention took his life years later. It did not.
Other misconceptions surround Houdini's mysterious legacy.
Only a year before international conflicts would erupt into World War I, a local paper called Houdini "The Sensational American." He must have appreciated the endorsement. He presented himself as a proud American, long insisting that he was born in Wisconsin -- but he in fact arrived in the New World at age 4, fresh off the boat from Budapest. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, brought the family to the growing town of Appleton, where he served as a rabbi.
Born Ehrich Weiss, the great escape artist was always proud of his Jewish heritage. He took the name Houdini early in his career not as an assimilation tool but as a stage name, inspired by the 19th-century French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
Houdni emphasized his patriotic leanings as immigrants, especially German-Americans, became the object of xenophobic paranoia. Houdini's All-American reputation was bolstered by aiding U.S. military and law enforcement in multiple ways
Even presidents appreciated the patriotic star. President Teddy Roosevelt met Harry and wife Bess -- celebrating 20 years of marriage -- on board the S.S. Imperator in 1914. The man who would adorn Rushmore fawned and asked the escape king to meet the grandkiddies. He did. At the time, Roosevelt was working on a speech for his Pittsburgh visit that June to drum up opposition to White House incumbent Woodrow Wilson.
President Woodrow Wilson and Houdini followed each other's careers.In December 1914, Houdini was called to the White House for a private audience with the president. As they parted, Wilson -- under heavy pressure regarding the war -- is reported to have said, "Sir, I envy you your ability of escaping out of tight places. Sometimes I wish I were able to do the same."
Houdini no doubt remembered the president on Nov. 7, 1916. On that night, Pittsburghers packed in the New Davis Theater to see Houdini headline as well as to receive rolling updates of election results. In the pre-radio days, theaters offered news and information in much the same way movie houses would later show newsreels before the feature. Wilson won re-election that night, despite Pennsylvania's whopping 38 electoral votes going to Republican loser Charles Evans Hughes.
That same week, the day before the election, Houdini performed one of the most amazing feats of his brilliant career here in town. As many as 20,000 people packed Wood and Liberty streets, filling every window and rooftop, to watch their hero be lifted upside-down, 50 feet into the air. In a straitjacket.Houdini always scheduled stunts for the lunch hour and squeezed every last ounce of publicity from local media. Folllowing custom, he visited the offices of a newspaper -- this case, The Pittsburg Sun, located at 612 Wood St. Then he emerged from that very building to begin the stunt.
The paper gave a dramatic account, providing a blow-by-blow look at the iconic escape. The Sun reported that, "Above him, like a gallows, a single beam projected from a window at the top story of the building, and a rope swung clear, coiling in sinister fashion at his feet." Houdini joked with the white-clad Mayview Hospital attendants charged with securing the long-sleeved device. "Treat me as you would the most dangerous of the criminal insane."
Across from what is today the Benedum, Houdini was lifted, swaying and spinning, then hung still for a moment. The account continues that "the handcuff king was seen to struggle, not frantically, but with a steady systematic swelling and contracting of muscles, and almost imperceptible lithe wrigglings of the torso. The struggle went on. One minute -- two -- then three."
Pittsburghers held their collective breath until the jacket, not the man, fell to the ground "in a crumpled heap."
At the conclusion of the war, technology continued to alter American leisure. Pittsburgh remained a dynamic city with a growing middle class and blue-collar citizenry increasingly earning disposable income. Motion pictures revolutionized theater-going and box offices began hauling in that cash. Never a follower, Houdini usually defined the cutting edge and shifted his focus to movies to maintain his title as top performer in the world.
By Christmas 1918, "The Master Mystery" began playing at the Olympic Theatre in town. The silent film was released in 13 parts with cliffhanger endings. Houdini played a Justice Department official who took on evil industrialists and a killer robot. Not big on plot but loaded with amazing escapes. In October 1919 (as Congress outlawed alcohol), "The Grim Game" opened in theaters such as the Grand, Strand and Belmar. Houdini played Harvey Hanford, wrongfully accused of murder and desperate to escape
Pittsburgh's strict "blue laws" also outlawed movies and performances on Sundays, so Houdini won by grabbing the headline show on Saturday evenings. In Pittsburgh he topped his buddies Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Tom Mix.
Eventually the movie career sputtered. The rest of Houdini's career consisted of exposing fraudulent psychics guilty of bilking grieving Americans for millions. Spiritualism grew in popularity after the war. Houdini himself wanted to believe he could communicate with the departed, especially his dear mother, whose death in 1913 was the most traumatic event of his life.
Over the final years of his life, Houdini dueled with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an avid supporter of spiritualism. The men took turns lecturing in Pittsburgh. Houdini spoke at the Carnegie Music Hall on Feb. 21, 1924. The following year, he brought a full medium-exposing show to the Davis Theater. Once again, Pittsburgh demand kept him in town an extra week.
Houdini nearly started a riot on his final trip here. Even The New York Times got wind of the chaos caused by the superstar on Sept. 18, 1925. After speaking at the Bellevue Methodist Episcopal Church (today Greenstone United Methodist Church), Houdini humiliated Rev. Alice Dooley -- pastor of the Pittsburgh Church of Divine Healing -- at the Alvin Theater. Dooley accepted Houdini's $10,000 challenge to produce phenomenon he could not duplicate. She failed. Her supporters weren't happy.
Houdini died a year later, on Halloween, from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. He had often allowed powerful men to strike his stomach to display his unique strength, but an overzealous college student caught the star off guard with three powerful punches. The infection's poison killed him a week later.
His 52-year-old body had been weakened by a lifetime of punishment for pleasure -- spectacular feats like the Seventh Street Bridge jump 18 years before.
Pittsburghers who witnessed that jump connected with Houdini. The restraints he placed upon himself symbolized their own. Though choked by smog, oppressed by mill heat, and trapped in crammed tenements, those spectators knew anything was possible. They knew they could escape. Houdini proved it.
, a writer living in Peters, teaches history at Community College of Allegheny County, Allegheny Campus. Contact him via his blog, "EduClaytion" (
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