Detroiters seriously love Halloween, and for good reason. From the days of the Nain Rouge, we’ve had more than our share of hauntings and mysterious occurrences. And, while there’s plenty of great Detroit spookiness to go around, much of it is pretty tough to verify with any real historical accuracy. Instead, I’ve decided to dig deep into the archives of the Free Press and look into Harry Houdini’s Detroit connection. A dozen or more crazy stunts, a Halloween death, and seances galore should be enough to slake your thirst for the macabre. Plus, apple pie hijinks and cat fights between the author of Sherlock Holmes and an Indian-Chief-channeling medium!
Harry Houdini was born Eric (or Ehrich) Weiss in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish parents. When Eric was a wee lad of four, his family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. Little Eric was an apple pie fiend, and apparently his mom made a mean apple pie. His first successful stunt was to pick the lock on the pastry cabinet and gobble them up, at least according to an early interview. That same article details young Eric becoming infatuated with a traveling circus act and busting out five of his baby teeth attempting to recreate the show-stopping act: an acrobat who suspended himself from a long rope upside down by his teeth. The budding contortionist learned the hard way that circus stunts sometimes have hidden wires This was a lesson that he would investigate throughout his life.
Houdini–named after another early hero, the great French conjurer Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin–insisted that his performances were anything but magical: “In my own particular work I find there is so much that is marvelous and wonderful that can be accomplished by perfectly natural means that I have no need to find recourse to humbugging the public.”
As a later newspaper account tells it, after his father’s death, Houdini was desperate for some sign that his spirit carried on. So he pawned his father’s pocket watch in order to book a session with a medium. Young Houdini was very much not impressed. This and the fact that his dearly loved mother also never reported from the great beyond instilled a lifelong skepticism in Houdini. He would later spend much of his offstage time debunking the claims of supposed mediums and demonstrating the tricks used by such charlatans. In this, he and his good friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle disagreed–strongly. While Houdini offered a standing $10,000 reward to anyone able to prove scientifically that the supernatural existed (no one was ever able to), Doyle desperately wanted to believe in the existence of the spirit world. Eventually, the two split bitterly a few years before Houdini’s death. But Houdini’s flamboyant performances and his “uncanny personality” had him packing the halls of early 20th century American theaters.
Now, let’s talk about Houdini in Detroit. By 1905, Houdini was the talk of Europe and North America for his death-defying contortions. Among his exploits: escaping a US Postal Service mail bag while confined by a straightjacket and three sets of handcuffs (1908); being packed into various and sundry crates, nailed in and handcuffed (this was a popular one, performed regularly in Detroit and elsewhere); escaping a double-walled Detroit jail cell (1905); locked in a 75-gallon can of Detroit Creamery Company milk (1911); and being suspended face down from the top of the Fyfe building, again in a straightjacket (1922). The Fyfe is still around, in case you’re wondering: it’s at Woodward and Adams in Grand Circus Park and is now home to apartments.
Perhaps Houdini’s best-known Detroit stunt, though, is his infamous Belle Isle Bridge escape. On a chilly day in late November 1906, Houdini stripped down to his trousers in front of hundreds of enthralled fans on the old wooden bridge to Belle Isle. He was then fitted with a Detroit Police-issued set of handcuffs. At noon on the 27th, after having ostentatiously handing his last will and testament to an assistant to give his wife*, Houdini gave a loud “Good-Bye!” and leaped headfirst into the “icy” waters.
Right. Here’s where we run into the first of a few Houdini legend vs reality moments. Later fans would recount that Houdini was immediately submerged under a sheet of solid ice, and that he miraculously emerged ten minutes later after following the sound of his dear departed mother’s voice. Houdini’s stunt was certainly impressive. But, as newspaper reports of the day show, the view from the bridge “black with humanity” looked a bit different. First of all, there was no solid sheet of ice on the river that day. By late November, certainly it would’ve been cold, maybe even with the odd chuck of ice. But the “awe-inspired throng” witnessed Houdini, tied by the waist to a 150-foot rope attached to the bridge, plummet under the water.
A few seconds later, his head popped above the surface, followed shortly by first one hand then the other, after which Houdini swam to a nearby rowboat and hauled himself in. Impressive, most certainly. Maybe even more so since there was absolutely nothing miraculous or magical about it: he simply managed to dive 25 feet while in handcuffs into frigid waters, right himself, extricate himself from handcuffs, and casually swim to a waiting boat.
At LEAST as impressive, to my mind, is the fact that just a couple hours after this performance, Houdini then performed on stage again; this time, wriggling free of another set of handcuffs in another straightjacket from another locked box. That is some sheer physical conditioning, folks. The next day he repeated the straightjacket/handcuffs stunt at an unnamed Detroit hospital.
Now, apparently, despite Houdini’s consummate training and skill, there was the occasional gaffe. The same article that breathlessly touts the Belle Isle Bridge triumph also briefly notes that Houdini was eager to prove himself to the crowd on the bridge, as he’d had some difficulty in the previous Monday’s performance, suspecting that his handcuffs “had been tampered with.” And a droll account from 1908 notes that Houdini and his wife Bess (more on her in the next post) had to call down to their hotel’s front desk after being locked into their room by a couple of pranksters. Had he not been running late to a show at the Temple** theater, Houdini huffed, he would’ve had no difficulty jimmying the locks.
Let’s pause on that note, to continue in the next post. Next time we’ll explore Houdini’s brief foray into newspaper editing in Detroit, his adventures in psychic debunking (including a scantily-clad medium who shot smoke out of her…um…you know), his dramatic final days in the city, and the never-ending seances Detroiters just won’t stop holding.
Finally, two quick notes:
*Bess was often a stage partner of Harry. There will be much more on her in the next post, but I did find an eyewitness account from a former stage manager at the Temple of Bess sitting backstage at his death-defying performances, calmly knitting a scarf.
**Speaking of the Temple: this isn’t the Masonic. Instead, it’s B.F. Keith’s Temple Theater, on Monroe Street downtown. Houdini loved performing there. The building closed in 1928 and is no longer there. Here’s a pic of the interior: