Monday, February 01, 2016

Are you being duped?

People love being fooled! Illusionists like Harry Houdini was a star a century ago, and even today his successors such as David Copperfield, David Blaine, Steven Frayne, etc., fascinate millions. People know that they are being deceived by these entertainers, but they adore it!

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbour called Mr. Tolly, a retired electrician. He was originally a Londoner, who as a young man worked in the very theatre in London where Harry Houdini performed. Mr. Tolly took a keen interest in how Houdini constructed and prepared his props, with all their secret compartments and hidden escape devices. Then, years later, he entertained our village by doing his own escapes from locked boxes; escaping from handcuffs, etc., at the local miners’ galas. 

Harry ‘Handcuffs’ Houdini was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, who had originally come to fame for his escapes from police handcuffs. Actually the illusionist had studied locks all his life and had an encyclopedic knowledge of handcuffs. When challenged he looked at the cuffs and knew exactly what kind of key he needed to open them. His assistant then got the necessary key from Houdini’s huge collection and passed it to Houdini who hid it on his person, usually in his mouth. Having distracted the onlookers, he got the key out and opened the handcuffs – simple! As time went on he extended his repertoire to include chains; ropes slung from skyscrapers; straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk churn.

One of Houdini’s famous deceptions was ‘The Hanging Straitjacket Escape’. Houdini usually performed this out on the street in front of the venue where he was performing, suspended from a crane above the gathered crowd. He had previously been tightly strapped into a straitjacket in front of the crowd and also had his ankles bound. A crane lifted him up so that the audience could see what he did, re-enforcing the impression that there was no trick to the feat and he escaped by magic. Houdini himself revealed how he escaped from such straitjackets in his 1910 book called Handcuff Escapes. The secret was creating plenty of slack in the jacket as it was strapped on. As the jacket was brought around the back, Houdini moved his arms outwards to loosen material around his chest. Houdini then held on to this slackened material, and as the jacket was buckled at the back, Houdini took a huge breath to expand his chest. Once the jacket was in place, Houdini had plenty of wiggle room. He trained and trained at this trick until he became so proficient that he reduced his escape time from half an hour to three minutes. 

All his other tricks had similar explanations, even the one where he appeared to move through a solid brick wall. What he himself called ‘the best escape that I have ever invented’ was getting out of a padlocked milk churn filled with water. Of course the churn was tampered with on the inside, so that he could easily escape! Read more at

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