Famous escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini toured throughout the country during the early 1900s. Frequently billed as the Handcuff King, he was best known for escaping from manacles, handcuffs and straitjackets. Houdini brought his magic show to Cleveland many times between 1900 and 1925. Local papers covered each visit, dedicating more columns with each passing year, as Houdini’s fame grew. The Cleveland Plain Dealer explained Houdini’s appeal in 1900, stating “As a trickster, he is unique. His act of extricating himself from all manner of handcuffs and leg shackles, insane belts or strait jackets placed upon him, has never been duplicated.”
During many of his show runs, Houdini challenged the local policemen and sheriff’s deputies to find handcuffs he could not escape. Inevitably, he easily escaped, much to the officers’ amazement. Noted writer and magician Walter Gibson (aka Maxwell Grant, creator of The Shadow) explained that “Houdini’s knowledge of this subject was tremendous. He studied all types of handcuffs and was so experienced in opening them that he could accept any challenge that was offered.” Houdini gave pointers to fellow magicians on how to study and open a variety of handcuffs and shackles.
Houdini Challenges Law Enforcement in Cleveland
During his visits to Cleveland, Houdini undertook at least three public escape challenges involving local law enforcement officers. In March 1900, Houdini came to town with Keith’s vaudeville shows, which were staged at the Empire Theater. The Cleveland Plain Dealer explained that during his show “Houdini, styled the handcuff king, extricates himself from all shackles and performs wonderful feats with cards, the cabinet and other fields of the conjurer’s art.” At one performance at the Empire Theater, according to the Cleveland Daily World, “men from the police station and sheriff’s office were on the stage and put handcuffs on him in what they considered the securest manner, but he released himself a moment after stepping into his cabinet.”
During this same run, Houdini visited Cleveland Police Headquarters on Champlain Street, where he performed two escapes. First, he performed a more traditional handcuff escape. Then, after the officers thought he might be hiding keys or picks in his clothing, Houdini performed a second escape naked. According to a reporter from The Cleveland Record, he “stripped himself stark naked in the chief’s private office and then the chief double-locked leg-irons on his ankles and handcuffs on his wrists. Then taking an old rusty pair of shackles that had not been used for many years, he locked him hands to his feet, so that the magician was bent double.” It took the magician less than a minute to free himself, much to the amazement of the onlookers, who included Chief George Corner, Captain Edward Bradley, Captain Jacob Lohrer, Detective Alfred Walker, Detective James W. Doran, Police Secretary Charles Smith and private detective Jacob Mintz. “No one present could offer the slightest explanation for this seemingly impossible feat.”
Members of the Sheriff’s department participated in another of Houdini’s public escapes in March, 1915. Over 4,000 spectators watched as Deputy Sheriff Dwight Nutting and Deputy Sheriff Ed Hanratty strapped Houdini into a straitjacket, all while on top of a box car parked under the Superior Viaduct. “In sight of the crowd,” the Plain Dealer matter-of-factly stated, “he freed himself.”
Police Presence at Other Houdini Stunts
Cleveland Police no doubt witnessed two other types of stunts that Houdini performed in Cleveland – packing crates escapes and suspended straitjacket escapes.
In an effort to gain publicity for his theater performances, Houdini frequently staged public challenges with area businesses. Frequently, he challenged local department stores to build a box or crate from which he couldn’t escape. During his many visits to Cleveland, Houdini challenged several stores, including the May Company.
In 1905, Houdini challenged the packers and shippers at The May Company to “produce an ordinary packing case…into which they can nail and rope me up. Should they succeed in preventing my escape, it will be my first defeat.” Needless to say, Houdini was not defeated.
The May Company repeated their challenge three years later, this time proposing “to remove all your outer clothing, leaving you dressed only in one of our athletic suits. This will render it impossible for you to conceal chisels or jimmies with which to aid your escape.” Houdini escaped again. In 1917, he even escaped from a packing crate that had been dropped into Lake Erie from the 9th street pier.
Cleveland Police certainly helped managed the spectators watching two other public stunts of Houdini’s, when he performed straitjacket escapes while suspended from the outside of the John Hartness Brown building in December, 1916 and the Cleveland Press building in February, 1922. Houdini experts William Kalush and Larry Sloman explained that his “outdoor upside-down straitjacket escape was one of the greatest publicity stunts ever devised…It was the pinnacle of his stunts.”
The Plain Dealer explained that during the 1916 stunt at the John Hartness Brown building, Houdini will “release himself from a straight-jacket…leaving it to the Clevelanders to make the bonds as much stronger than usual as their skill and dexterity can make possible. Houdini will do this while suspended in the air from a tall building.”
Cleveland Police must have been well represented in the huge crowd gathered at the corner of East 9th and Rockwell Avenue on Feb 3, 1922. Thousands watched from below as “Houdini, handcuff king, escaped from a straitjacket as he dangled, head downward, from the tower of The Press Building” according to a Cleveland Press article the following day. “Houdini, strapped in the straitjacket and trussed by the ankles, was hoisted into the air. He twisted, wriggled, squirmed and swayed. Off came the straitjacket, over his head. Houdini’s struggles lasted just three minutes.”
Houdini and Cleveland Police take down fraudsters
Houdini worked with the police in a different manner during his visit to Cleveland in 1925. Towards the end of his career, Houdini frequently worked to expose the fraudulent practices of mediums and spiritualists who claimed to talk to the dead. Houdini, sickened by the devious means used by mediums to con money out of innocent people, declared that he was “waging war on the fraud mediums in this country.” This crusade took many forms. He gave lectures educating the public on the tricks used by mediums, promoted legislation against this type of fraud, and even trained cadets at the New York Police Academy in spotting séance deceptions. Houdini also tracked down, challenged and exposed fraudulent mediums in cities across the country.
In 1924, Houdini spoke at both the Cleveland Advertising Club and the Engineers’ Auditorium on “Fraudulent Spiritualistic Phenomena”. He also challenged local and national mediums, offering a $10,000 prize if they could prove they could really communicate with the dead. In March 1925, Houdini gave a number of lectures at the Palace Theater where he demonstrated, “by the employment of tricks known and practiced by magicians,” how “spiritualistic tricksters are able to defraud thousands of people.”
On March 10, 1925, Houdini went undercover (along with County Prosecutor Edward C. Stanton and a representative from the Cleveland Press newspaper) to attend a séance hosted by spiritualist George Renner. Renner’s act included floating trumpets, supposedly controlled by spirits. While the lights were turned down, before the trumpets floated, Houdini smeared them with lamp black (or soot). As soon as the trumpets began to rise, Houdini switched on his flashlight, revealing that Renner’s hands and face were smeared with the soot, thereby proving that Renner controlled the trumpets, not the spirits.
Houdini’s exposure of Renner made front page news, with the Cleveland Press giving a play by play of the night’s events. Houdini declared of Renner and his fellow mediums, “They have the dirtiest profession known to men. They rob you at the cemetery and outside of it. They prey upon your innermost griefs and sentiments.”
Cleveland patrolmen Arthur Roth and Charles McCoy arrested Renner, who was taken before Police Prosecutor Jacob Stacel. Renner was charged and soon convicted of obtaining money by false pretense. At the initial hearing, Stacel declared “you are taking money from your victims by preying upon their grief and misfortune. My ultimatum to you and the rest of the fake spirit mediums in this city is either go to jail or get out of town.”
After George Renner’s conviction (just two weeks later), Safety Director Edwin D. Barry stated that “so-called mediums who make a living pretending to communicate with spirits and tell fortunes have got to close up shop.” All told, Houdini and Cleveland Police helped to convict nearly forty fraudulent mediums in 1925.
The crusade of Harry Houdini and Cleveland’s law enforcement community no doubt would have continued for years to come, if not for the untimely death of the magician on October 31, 1926, just one week before his scheduled return to Cleveland. In its announcement of his death, the Plain Dealer stated that “Houdini was best known to Cleveland for his war a year and a half ago against fake mediums. He secured thirty-nine convictions, after wading in, hammer and tongs, against those who held that spirits could wave tin horns or move tables. His fight in Cleveland was only one skirmish of a great battle throughout the country wherever mediums could be found.”
Article by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum Executive Director Mazie Adams. Unless otherwise noted, images are from the collection of the Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum.