Houdini v Rochester’s police chief: guess who won?

Two Edwardian chaps sit in Rochester Castle Gardens, with the elegant splendour of Castle Hill as a backdrop.

They make an odd couple on a park bench. The bowler-hatted gent looks cheerful, as English as roast beef and rather like Sherlock Holmes’s companion, Dr Watson. The younger man looks European, rather haughty, pre-occupied, somewhat out of place. OK, so the youngster is Ehrich Weiss, or Weisz; the older is Alfred S. Arnold. Are you any wiser?

Arnold was chief constable of Rochester. Weiss was better known as Harry Houdini, the extraordinary magician and escapologist who is inspiration for that 21st-century illusionist, David Blaine.

This remarkable photograph, courtesy of Medway Council’s CityArk archive and dated February, 1911, tells its own tale. Houdini was on one of several visits to the towns — the Barnard’s music hall bill is from six years earlier — and among his many claims to fame was his ability to escape from handcuffs.

Houdini, the jail-breaker and handcuff king of the world, was offering £100 to anybody who could open and escape from the pair of regulation cuffs used in the performance. Who better to test that skill that the city’s police chief?

Weiss, the son of a rabbi, was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, in April, 1874. The family emigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin.

Weiss began his career under the stage name of Houdini in 1891 and became world’s first superstar magician and escapologist. His Medway appearance would have been a considerable coup.

Houdini died in 1926 from internal injuries after telling a young fan that he could withstand any punch to his stomach. The student immediately punched him — before Houdini had prepared himself. The blow split his appendix, and caused peritonitis. Several films have been made of Houdini’s life; the most famous probably the highly fictionalised 1953 version starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.

Houdini’s most celebrated stunts included:

  • Plunging from a bridge into San Francisco Bay with a 75lb ball and chain shackled to his ankles and handcuffs on his wrists
  • Escaping from a weighted packing case dropped overboard from a barge in New York’s East River
  • Escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from high buildings.
  • Making an elephant vanish on stage
  • Being bound and lowered upside down into a milk churn filled with water or milk or — when he visited Britain — beer

I don’t know if he escaped the Rochester constabulary’s handcuffs — but I rather suspect he did.


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