“The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.” – Harry Houdini
Dear Houdini fanatics,
You’ll find some crazy stuff on this list (by the end you’ll pity Houdini wannabes and mimickers)…however I feel obligated to say the ranking is completely subjective. Just my opinion…feel free to leave yours in the comment section below. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Well, what are you waiting for?
Let’s get started.
Number 15 Pick: Bridge Jumps with Handcuffs
As you will begin to see with many of the tricks that will make our list, Houdini would primarily design a routine not necessarily for it to appear “magical,” but rather for its ability to draw a crowd and thus put bodies in theatre seats at his stage show later that evening.
Houdini would stage “bridge jumps” as publicity stunts for his shows. On some occasions, Houdini would be handcuffed and then jump off a bridge in front of a large number of spectators into a river below, and then quickly surface to show how quickly he could escape from handcuffs.
It didn’t matter if the river below was even icy, Houdini would still perform his bridge jumps to astonish the crowds.
Number 14 Pick: Walking through a Brick Wall
In his stage show, Houdini would first put a large carpet down onto the stage floor to prevent access to any kind of trapdoor. Then, bricklayers would assemble a large brick wall perpendicular to the audience.
Jealous. Me too.
Houdini would demonstrate that the wall was solid and would then place a small changing screen on each side of the wall. Stepping behind one of the screens, Houdini would then emerge from behind the screen on the opposite side of the wall.
In full view of the audience the entire time, there was apparently no way that Houdini could have gone over the wall, under the wall, or around the wall, so audiences were convinced that he somehow must have walked through the wall.
Number 13 Pick: Grand Magic Revue
I’m slightly cheating here…this wasn’t a single audacious escape or epic trick.
It was a collection of tricks in which Houdini performed tricks like GoodBye Winter, Money For Nothing, and even the Egg Bag, where he made magic a central focus. He did card magic too, with playbills proclaiming him as “The Greatest Sleight of Hand Performer the World Has Ever Seen.”
Houdini billed this as a unique and special event and adopted a new moniker: “The Supreme Ruler of Mystery,” and while he considered it “the best show he had ever presented” theatre managers and the public seemed to prefer Houdini the death-defying escape artist, and after a handful of performances. Ceased doing it.
But if Houdini said it was “best”, then it deserves a place on the list.
Number 12 Pick: East Indian Needle
If you’re one of the unlucky folks like me who can’t even swallow a half cut pill, then this trick will make you cringe.
Houdini could swallow 100 needles and 20 yards of thread with nothing more than a drink of water. After showing his empty mouth to the audience, he reached inside his mouth and pulled out every single needle, fully threaded together and often spanning the length of the stage.
I dare you to watch…
Number 11 Pick: Sealed in a…Fill in the Blank…Escape
Just as he would have local bricklayers build the wall onstage for the number nine spot on our list, Houdini would also invite local tradesmen and craftsmen to make something unique for him to escape from during his show whenever he would visit a city.
Houdini would then proceed to feature an escape from a locally made barrel, mail bag, metal boiler ect.
One time a giant paper envelope.
Weird I know.
To celebrate the workers of each specific locale he was performing at the brilliant marketer’s, “challenge escapes” helped drum up publicity for his show and also helped to ensure that the house was packed each night with locals.
I love the sound of this one.
Leaves room for creativity, that’s for sure.
Number 10 Pick: The Mirror Handcuff Challenge
The true story of a man from the mirror, a Birmingham blacksmith, and the handcuff king…
A mirror reporter and a Birmingham blacksmith gave legendary escape artist, “One of the hardest tests” he ever had.
(Not to dampen the spirit, but he’s infamous for saying that for most acts.)
Mirror Cuffs was a Harry Houdini challenge escape first performed in 1904. The London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make.
And although “no ropes and chains can keep Houdini from his freedom…”
This one came pretty darn close too.
Recently I wrote a blog on this escape. If you want to find out what exactly happened in the escape just The Mirror Handcuff vs The HandCuff King”
Number 9 Pick: Buried Alive
The first time Houdini performed a buried alive stunt it very nearly killed him. Buried six feet under without a casket, Houdini struggled to dig his way to the surface and panicked when overcome by exhaustion. He cried for help and had to be pulled unconscious from the grave by his assistants.
While one terrifying near death experience would be more than enough for most to quit the game, Houdini went on to perform two other variations of the buried alive trick. One required him to be sealed inside a coffin while submerged underwater for one and a half hours. Another had him strapped in a straitjacket, sealed in a casket and buried in a large tank filled with sand.
Third time’s a charm.
If you want to dig into Houdini’s buried alive stunt (stolen, indeed). Then click the link below…
Number 8 Pick: Milk Can Escape
Houdini’s first great onstage water escape was The Milk Can. A Houdini original act, the milk can is one of the magician’s best-known magic tricks. Handcuffed and sealed inside an oversized milk can filled with water, failure to escape meant drowning.
He would then escape while concealed inside a curtain cabinet. As part of the effect, Houdini invited members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can.
Later performances featured the milk can locked inside a chained or padlocked wooden chest, because apparently Houdini prefers tricks with a greater risk of death.
This one’s a classic, and is still performed to this day. Although I doubt some of the younger people in the audience even know what the milk can is. Perhaps an old fashioned washing tub?
Number 7 Pick: Escape From Murders Row (Jail Escapes)
Another of the well-thought out publicity generating routines, this would involve Houdini being locked inside a jail cell in a city he was visiting with his show. Houdini would oftentimes be stripped *nearly naked and thoroughly checked to ensure he was carrying no hidden keys or lock picks, and then locked in a local jail cell amidst the excitement from the local media.
*I know, right? Scandalous.
In 1906, Houdini escaped from Murderer’s Row, the south wing of Washington, D.C.’s Old Jail.
The guards stripped Houdini of all his clothes and handcuffed Houdini before locking him inside a cell. While it only took him two minutes to escape, he used the last nineteen minutes of his act to open eight other locked cells, switch the prisoners around and lock them inside again.
Sounds like Houdini…
Wanna know more
Number 6 Pick: Suspended Straitjacket Escape
Houdini would be placed into a canvas and leather regulation straitjacket and his feet would be bound.
A crane would then hoist the magician upside down high up above the ground below. Thousands would gather in the streets to watch Houdini flail around erratically and violently as he dangled above.
After a while, Houdini would free himself from the straitjacket and be lowered back to the ground to the deafening cheers of the crowd.
This one feat helped establish the very identity of Houdini as a performer and make him a legend.
Number 5 Pick: Elephant Vanish
Of the few tricks to make our list that is not an escape, this was, without a doubt, the largest-scale illusion Houdini ever attempted.
In 1918, Houdini mounted his greatest show ever at the enormous New York Hippodrome.
The highlight of the act was a 10,000-pound elephant named Jennie, who, even though the arena was brightly lit, seemingly vanished into thin air when Houdini fired a pistol.
The illusion is discussed in great detail in Jim Steinmeyer’s excellent 2003 book, Hiding the Elephant.
The book is a must-read for anyone interested in Houdini or magic history.
Number 4 Pick: Overboard Box Escape (Box Escape)
The routine was basically this:
Within 57 seconds, Houdini would escape from a packing crate weighed down by two hundred pounds of lead in New York’s East River.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a classic Houdini trick without handcuffs, leg-irons and a crate with its lid nailed shut. When the crate was pulled out of the water, observers found it to be completely intact with Houdini’s discarded manacles inside.
I recently wrote a blog that gives you all the information you need to know to truly appreciate the danger, guts and lunacy of this mad act (and a few other similar ones).
Number 3 Pick: Metamorphosis
This is the illusion that started it all for Houdini. The number three spot on our list belongs to probably the most beautiful of all of the escapes Houdini performed.
Metamorphosis is an illusion from early in Houdini’s career and he used to perform it with his wife, Bess.
In the illusion, Houdini is bound before being put into a small crate that was then locked shut.
Bess would then stand atop the crate and pull a curtain up to cover her from the view of the audience, when she dropped the curtain though, Bess was no longer there and instead it was Houdini.
The crate was then unlocked, and Bess was found to be bound inside.
The entire transformation took only seconds. Still to this day, when performed by skilled artists, this is one of the most magical experiences one could ever witness on stage.
Number 2 Pick: Belly of a Sea Monster Escape
In 1911, while Houdini was performing in Boston, ten prominent businessmen challenged him to escape from the belly of a whale. The rules were that Houdini had to be shackled in handcuffs and leg-irons supplied by local police and then sewn up inside the whale’s belly.
As Houdini is not one to refuse an exciting or dangerous challenge, he agreed.
With Houdini manacled inside, the carcass of a beached whale was tightly laced and completely wrapped in chains.
Fifteen minutes later, Houdini emerged smiling, and audiences had no idea that he nearly suffocated on arsenic fumes.
This spot deserves second place on my list simply because it’s always been the escape I’ve been most fascinated by.
Flat out strange. Check.
Extremely epic. Check.
High risk of death. Check.
Number 1 Pick: Chinese Water Torture Cell
“Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a Cell filled with water, your hands and feet unable to move, and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment. I believe it is the climax of all my studies and labours. Never will I be able to construct anything that will be more dangerous or difficult for me to do.” – Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell escape stunt is ridiculously dangerous and extremely frightening for those crazy enough to attempt it…
It is undoubtedly his greatest performance, his greatest escape, and his greatest trick. That’s why it’s number
Long stories short:
The Chinese Water Torture Cell is a combination of his suspended straitjacket and milk can escape stunts, this was his most famous and daring trick yet.
Locked in stocks by the feet, Houdini was lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. If he couldn’t escape within two minutes, an assistant stood by with an axe ready to break the glass.
Short stories long:
I recently wrote a blog, where you’ll recieve all the information you need to know in order to truly appreciate Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, (and even learn how he survived it, show after show!)
Well, we’ve come to the end of the blog.
Thank you for reading Harry Houdini’s 15 most audacious escapes.
Hope you enjoyed it.
P.S. If you want to learn more about Harry Houdini then go take this internet portal. Once you arrive you’ll find yourself at a website called Wild About Harry. He’ll keep you busy. Have fun.