That was the spring the master escape artist came to Boston. Everyone knew about Houdini—the man who slipped through chains as if they were ribbons, the man who spirited his way out of locked coffins, the man who burst from straightjackets the way other people glide through rooms. In April of 1908 Houdini was booked to begin a two week run of shows at Boston’s popular B.F. Keith Theatre on Washington St. Earlier in the month he had appeared in New York where he performed one of his most spectacular escapes to date. But of course, they were all the most daring, the most spectacular, the most dangerous feats worked up especially for you, dear audience.
The stunt in New York was sponsored by the Weed Chain Tire Company. Bragging that not even the tire maker’s thick, rubber could contain Houdini, the magician was first placed inside two enormous tires. Then stage hands bound his body with eight chains and twelve locks. They lead the great artist to a cabinet where they locked him in and waited to see if the “King of Handcuffs” would materialize or perish. Nineteen minutes later they had their answer when Houdini emerged unscathed and triumphant to the delight, excitement, and relief of all (including Houdini no doubt).
Boston, he thought, required something bigger, something showier; he needed something that would inspire awe and, of course, sell out his run at Keith’s. Houdini arrives in the commonwealth. He takes in the wide Charles River that travels through the city like a restless animal, stalking this way and that, and he suddenly knows what to do.
On the afternoon of April 30 he leaves his hotel and walks over to the Harvard Bridge that joins Cambridge and Boston. More than 10,000 Bostonians have turned out to witness what newspapers and chatter have called one of the magician’s “most spectacular escapes to date.” See? Don Draper take note.
Houdini walks to the top of the bridge where a policeman cuffs his hands behind his back and chains to a collar around his neck. Out on the frigid, wind-whipped waters of the Charles a towboat sways and blows a whistle. As the whistle sounds Houdini steps from the bridge and plunges 30 feet into the water. Later the newspapers would report that it took all of 40 seconds for Houdini to resurface from the frigid river, proudly brandishing the shackles that briefly held him. Cheers and shouts from the crowd echoed up and down the shores of the Charles.
That day more than one little boy raced home to knot his hands with rope and see how long it took him to pry himself loose. That day people dispatched themselves back into the city telling neighbors and friends of what they had seen, of Houdini’s incredible daring. Some will say they saw a flash of fear in his eyes and that they held their breaths for the great artist struggling to free himself from under the mean currents of the Charles. Others will claim he laughed as he fell from the bridge, poking fun at a God who refused to claim him during one of these performances. And still others would leave content to be left in wonder at the wonder.
Years, decades maybe, later, a lot of those same people might discover that there were all kinds of physical contortions, bodily machinations, sleights of hand, and specially crafted tools that Houdini used to successfully complete his stunts. They would read about the way Houdini trained his remarkable constitution to obey him and respond quickly and consistently to his commands. Did that make the magician any less magical? Did it tarnish the memory of the young woman who watched him slip from the Harvard Bridge that April day because it had all been an elaborate series of calculations or did it make her smile wider to know that someone would go to such lengths for the sake of giving people an experience unlike anything they know?
These days it feels as if the world is woefully stripped of the kind of awe a personality like Houdini conjured. We’re a little impaired on the belief for belief’s sake front. We move pretty quickly to take things apart bolt by bolt to expose the guts of the machine as something wholly unremarkable. Our curiosity could use some jumper cables.
What’s the risk in letting yourself be mystified? Something amazing happens when your imagination takes the reins and you step through the doorway to the unknown. Houdini’s greatest deed wasn’t untangling himself from manacles in any number of impossible scenarios, it was getting others to stand inside that space of impossibility with him, it was fueling a collective spirit of amazement that stays with you long after the performance ends.
That’s true magic, completely binding and totally inescapable.