Impromptu Handcuff Act

Last night I was having dinner with a friend who is a police officer and we were discussing Houdini and his handcuff act.  I casually mentioned that when I was a kid, I
use to get out of handcuffs.  That was my first mistake.  He took out a pair of S&W’s and said, do you think you could get out of these.  I told him that Houdini would always need to verify that the Handcuffs were in good working order, before he would accept a challenge.  He showed me how they worked, including the double lock. I then tried the lock. I told him that it has been a long time and that I probably couldn’t get out if they were double locked.   That was my second mistake; before you know it, the cuffs were on my wrists but at least he didn’t double lock them on me.  I retired to my Houdini Ghost House (aka the bathroom).  To my surprise, I was able to slip one of the cuffs; I tried the second one, but no can do.  With one hand free, I was able to pick the
other cuff via a method I used when I was a kid.  I returned to the dinner table and handed the cuffs to my friend.

You can imagine the look on his face; he then proceeded to slap the cuffs on me again, but this time he put them on tighter and double locked them.  Now I was in trouble, I retired to the Houdini Ghost House again.  I tried to pick them again, and the pick got jammed in the cuffs; I was afraid it was
going to break off and I would be buying him a new set of handcuffs; luckily I was able to use my teeth and get the pick out, but I couldn’t get the cuffs open because they were double locked.   I then switched to a method that always worked for Houdini; See Houdini’s Strange Power over Locks. With the cuffs free from my wrists, I returned them still double locked to my amazed friend.

I am now retiring my handcuff act.

Old Man Jefferson Connection

The following correspondence from Houdini to Quincy Kilby intrigued me when I read it in Houdini, The Key on page 96:

Hollywood, California June 9, 1919

Dear Q.K.

Thomas Jefferson and myself frequently converse about you, and it was through an accident that I found out young Joe Jefferson was a friend of mine.

I thought that young Joe was an old man, but it appears that he was younger than I.

Worked with him in vaudeville, that is he was on the same bill, and very pleasant, and very pleasant weeks we had

So Mr. Thomas J. and I have lots to talk about…

It intrigued for a number of reasons:

First off the date of the correspondence is during the time that he lived in Hollywood and was filming the Grim Game.

Srapbook compiled by Quincy Kilby
Img: flickr/boston_public_library

Second, who was Q.K.? Quincy Kilby, was a personal friend of Houdini, who compiled a Houdini scrapbook which is in the Boston Public Library.  He also wrote a history of the Boston theatre, and another book on actor/assassin John Wilkes Booth.  He spent 20 years accumulating the items in his Houdini scrapbook.  These include letters, newspaper clippings, and a very exciting scene and prop list.  Houdini knew about Kilby’s project.  He sent his friend items marked “for your Houdini scraps book.”

Joseph Jefferson III as Rip Van Winkle

Third, who was young Joe Jefferson?  Let’s look at who his father was first. Joseph Jefferson III (1829-1905) was the 4th generation of a theatrical family that was established by Thomas Jefferson (1728 -1807), an English actor who managed several theatres.  Thomas’s son Joseph Jefferson I (1774-1832) came to America in 1795 on tour and remained to manage the John Street and Park Theatres in New York and the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.  He played a comic actor.  Joseph Jefferson II (1804-1842) was an actor as well.  All three Jefferson’s were noted for playing old men.  Joseph Jefferson III was born 20 February, 1829 at Philadelphia United States of America, son of Joseph Jefferson, actor, and his wife Cornelia Frances Thomas Burke.  He began is stage career at 4, and, after his father died in 1842, relied on acting for a living. At 21 he married Margaret Clements Lockyer. On February 18, 1861 his wife died, leaving four children.  On December 20, 1867, he married Sarah Warren the niece of the actor William Warren. Fame came with his creation of the role of Rip Van Winkle. He died in 1905.

Young Joe

Joseph Warren Jefferson IV was a child of the second wife.  He was born July 6, 1869.  He was a member of his father’s company.  So at the time of the Grim Game, Joe Jefferson IV would have been 50 years old and Houdini 45 years old, making young Joe Jefferson five years older not younger than Houdini. Joseph Jefferson IV (1869 – 1919) performed at Macauley’s Theatre three times in Rip Van Winkle.

And last but not least, what was the connection with Thomas J and young Joe? Thomas Jefferson played Old Man Cameron in the Grim Game.  Like young Joe Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson was one of Joseph Jefferson III sons. He acted in his dads company in several roles opposite his father.  He became an actor in D.W. Griffith’s stock company appearing with Houdini in The Grim Game.

The Plot Thickens

The following detailed plot synopsis appeared in the December 6, 1919 issue of The Moving Picture World:

Harvey Hanford, the part played by Houdini in The Grim Game, is a special writer on The Call, who is noted for his nerve and daring in gathering news.  He has an eccentric millionaire uncle who lives with his ward, Mary, and will not let Harvey come near him.  The old man knows that his nephew and his ward are in love with each other, and is opposed to the match.  He is also aware that he is surrounded by three men, any one of whom would profit by his death.  The first is his lawyer, Richard Raver, who has misappropriated some the Cameron funds.  The second is Dr. Tyson, his physician, who expects to marry Mary, heiress to the Cameron millions, when their owner dies.  Clifton Allison, owner and publisher of The Call, is heavily in debt to Cameron, and the old man has threatened several times to drive him to the wall. 

A plan is hit upon by Harvey to work up a big sensation for the paper by getting the old man away secretly and then making it look as if he (Harvey) had murdered his uncle.  After he has been convicted of the crime, Dudley Cameron will be brought back and circumstantial evidence will be given a heavy blow.  The three men agree to this, but each one is determined that the old millionaire shall never return home alive.

The scheme is set in motion and Harvey is arrested for the murder of his uncle.  Then commences a series of Houdini escapes, the last one being a genuine thrill and the most dangerous of the Handcuff King’s career.

While trying to change in midair from one flying machine to another, the two airplanes crash into each other.  This, of course, is an accident, but the camera caught it and also the dive to earth of the machines which followed.  None of the actors in the accident were seriously hurt, and The Grim Game is able to show on the screen an “escape” that is a thriller of thrillers.  The story is brought to a highly satisfactory close, and Harvey and Mary are united.

Double Take Links

On June 8th, 2012, I posted a blog titled, Double Take, which looked at a pair of magazine ads advertising The Grim Game that look the same but are are different.

On January 7th, 2012, I posted a blog titled, L302-55 versus L302-60, which showed two famous images of Houdini standing shackled in a Jail Cell with cuffs and ball & chains that are similar but slightly different images.

Kevin Connolly Collection

Today, I am posting links to two incredible double-take blogs, that our friend Kevin Connolly posted in February of 2011that show identical Houdini images being used for different movies:

I hope you enjoy these double takes as much as I did?

Houdini’s “Strange Power Over Locks”

Above all, the performer must give the impression that he possesses some mysterious power over locks.” [Burling Hull, the Challenge Handcuff Act]

According to Patrick Cullington [Houdini the Key], Burling Hull added this text to the written instructions that went with Houdini’s Defiance Handcuff act when he republished them under his own name. Hull didn’t steal that idea from Houdini’s writings, he stole it from Houdini’s act.

Houdini’s “strange power over locks” was demonstrated in every performance of his handcuff act and it was definately demonstrated in his movies as evidenced by The Grim Game movie stills depicted in this blog. 

Everything about Houdini’s expression indicates that he is exercising a “power”. [Patrick Cullington, Houdini the Key]


And is saved by an Awning?

According to Ruth Brandon and Milbourne Christopher, Houdini frees himself from a strait-jacket, falls into an awning, rolls into the street under the wheels of a moving truck, grasps its underside and rides away:

  • He was captured after a fight and, as one might expect, taken up to the roof of the building, strapped into a strait-jacket and suspended head down over the street below.  (He freed himself, fell into an awning, rolled into the street under the wheels of a moving truck, grasped its underside and rode away). [Ruth Brandon, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, page 207]
  • Captured after a fight, Houdini was taken to a rooftop, strapped in a straitjacket and suspended head down over the side.  He released himself, fell into an awning, then dropped to the ground.  Then he rolled under the wheels of a moving truck, grasped the underside and rode away beneath it. [Milbourne Christopher, Houdini The Untold Story, page 163]


According to the Paramount Script, Houdini frees himself from a strait-jacket, swings like a pendulum at the end of the rope, catapults his body through a small window; and then scales a wall and disappears over the other side.

According to the Paramount Script, Houdini leaps down into an alley-way and makes a dive under a fast moving truck after he escapes from a jail cell, not after he escapes from the strait-jacket as Ruth Brandon and Milbourne Christopher suggest.


So which sequence is correct?

  • (A) Strait-Jacket,  Awning, Truck
  • (B) Strait-Jacket, Window, Wall
  • (C) Jail, Truck
  • (D) B and C
  • (E) None of the above

I believe the answer can be found in the following:

This insert appears to be in chronological order and follows the Paramount Script with the exception, that there is was no scene that mentions an awning in the Paramount Script.

So based on all of the circumstantial evidence, I believe the following:

  • Answer A is incorrect because it includes the Truck and not the Wall
  • Answer B is incorrect because it includes the Window and not the Awning
  • Answer C is correct because it follows Paramount script and chronological insert
  • Answer D is incorrect because B is incorrect
  • Answer E is incorrect because C is correct

That is, I believe that the Awning scene (lobby card L302-75) did happen as part of the strait-jacket escape and appears in the movie.  However, I believe the truck scene happened as part of the jail escape not the strait-jacket escape.

Hopefully, one day I will know for sure.  What do you think?