The iconic Houdini image is probably the most reproduced magic poster of all time. One can find numerous versions of it printed on paper, canvas, tin plates, trays, cups, mugs, etc. What most people do not know is that it is an extremely rare poster. We only know of TWO originals in existence: One was in the Christian Fechner Collection in France. This Fechner poster sold for USD $78,000 at auction in 2006, and according to rumor, it was sold to a collector in India. The other poster was part of the Nielsen Magic Poster Collection. Norm Nielsen acquired it from the late Jay Marshall in 1991, and it was part of our collection for twenty-four years until March of 2015, when it was privately sold to David Copperfield. The poster now resides in the Copperfield Museum.
This poster depicts the act that launched Houdini’s career and made him famous.
The first public performance of the handcuff escape was in November 1895, where he announced that before he was locked in the Substitution Trunk he would allow his hands to be secured with borrowed handcuffs from the audience. To advertise the show, he repeated the feat at a newspaper office and at a police station. Keep in mind that Houdini did not become an overnight sensation. For years he paid his dues, working at dime museums, medicine shows and circuses. He and his wife Bess, made only a modest living.
It was not until 1899, that Houdini’s career really took off as the King of Handcuffs. Martin Beck one of the most important theatrical managers of the time met Houdini and challenged him to escape from a few handcuffs. Houdini did just as requested, and through Beck’s initial management and assistance, he became one of the top vaudeville performers in the early 20th century.
Houdini signed a contract with Beck that placed him in leading Orpheum vaudeville houses in cities like Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, San Francisco, and in Keith’s houses in Boston and Providence. His salary kept increasing from $60 per week to $250. By the time he added a straitjacket escape to his repertoire, he was making $400 per week.
In 1900 Houdini headed for Europe and eventually parted company with Beck. When he arrived to England, he had no contract, except a scrapbook and a suit case. In order to get work, he convinced Mr. Slater (the manager of the Alhambra Theatre) to take him to Scotland Yard, where he managed to free himself from restraints almost instantly. Mr. Slater booked him on the spot and this marked the beginning of his success in Europe. He was quite a sensation in England, and he alternated his circuits of British music halls with tours on the continent, mostly in Germany. He played in cities like Cologne, Dresden, Frankfurt, Hannover and Leipzig. In Germany he was known as Ausbrecherkönig or Escape King. He later traveled to France and then Russia, where in spite of the anti-semitic sentiments he managed to find work.
He returned to the United States in 1906, and worked the Keith’s Vaudeville Circuit for three years, this time commanding a salary of $1000 per week. In order to keep his act interesting he started adding other daring stunts to his repertoire, like the Milk Can Escape. Later in 1912, he invented the Water Torture Cell as well.
He also invited people and companies to issue formal challenges where he was dared to escape from the most freakish looking contraptions. One popular challenge was being stuffed inside a US Postal mailbag, with the top folded over, and cinched by a leather strap and rotary lock. He managed to escape from this in twenty-one minutes. The Weed Tire Chain Grip Company challenged him to escape from their product – heavy automobile chains that were drawn around his entire body and which held him bound to two steel rimmed automobile wheels. Other bizarre offers were: screwed down coffins, long ladders to which he was shackled to the rungs, a glass box made of three-eighth inch panels bolted together, and even a boiler – a regulation hot water tank measuring five feet high by two feet in diameter.
Houdini trained himself to hold his breath in very cold water, and started making promotional stunts by jumping in shackles from various bridges into rivers. He jumped from a bridge in New Orleans into the Mississippi River, from the Belle Isle Bridge into the icy Detroit River, and from a wharf into San Francisco Bay. He was also visiting police stations, and after being stripped naked and examined from head to toe, he would be locked up with as many handcuffs and leg irons as the police cared to use and then placed in a cell. He promptly escaped from the restraints, and collected testimonials from the ranking officers.
The Houdini Eclipsing Sensation poster is an artist’s rendering of this famous performer. It was produced by the Russell-Morgan Lithograph Company in 1906, just as he was beginning his contract with the Keith Circuit in the United States. It features a strong thirty-two year old Harry Houdini in the center with his signature handcuffs and leg shackles. Although some of the handcuffs exhibit a certain artistic license, most of them can be identified as actual pieces used by Houdini.
Houdini was a master showman and one of the greatest self promoters of all time. This poster shows the entire world that nothing on earth could hold him back from his success.
References: Thank you to Dixie Dooley and the books by Kenneth Silverman and Patrick Culliton for their assistance in the research for this blog post. This material was previously published in the October 2011 issue of MUM Magazine.
(February 23, 2020)