The Master Mystery Aeroplane Accident?


Grim Game Image – Courtesy of Bio4Kids


Harry Houdini, whose business is to get out of things, got into trouble yesterday in a motion picture studio in Yonkers by clinging to a wall in a parachute descent indoors.  He broke his left wrist and suffered several bruises, but he doesn’t believe his injuries will prevent his appearance in “Everything” at the reopening of the Hippodrome on August 22. Mr. Houdini is appearing in a twenty reel motion picture serial soon to be released, in which he is supposed to put a flat wheel in the grim reaper’s best chariot.  He got out of an aeroplane in the studio, and something went wrong with the parachute he caught himself just in time.  As the camera was “grinding,” several hundred feet of film not in the scenario will add an extra chapter to the serial. [Page Eight New York Herald, Tuesday August 13, 1918]

Unlike the Grim Game Aeroplane accident, I don’t believe the several hundred feet of film ever made it on screen.

Aeroplane Accidents: Hamburg Germany

HH in Cockpit at Hamburg before first flying attempt

Houdini in the cockpit of his Voisin, at Hamburg before his first flying attempt. Image courtesy of Gywnn-Jones Collection

In 1909, while performing at theatres in Germany, Houdini purchased a French-built Voisin biplane.

Houdini then rented a building to serve as a hangar, and imported a French mechanic, M. Brassac, to teach him how to fly.  The German government even let him use a parade ground as an airfield on condition that he would instruct the regiment stationed there to fly.  He had many pictures taken with himself seated in the machine, the name HOUDINI painted proudly on the rudder, also photos with German army officers grouped around it.  After the war with Germany in 1917, Houdini destroyed these, saying “I taught those fellows to fly and they may have killed Americans”.

Early each morning Houdini would be at the hangar with Brassac, going over the plane.  Soon he was ready for his solo, but gusty winds kept him on the ground.  Finally after two weeks the wind died and he took off, rose a few feet and dived into the earth.

In his diary, he wrote: “I smashed the machine.  Broke propeller all to hell!”

Undeterred, Houdini arranged to have the plane repaired quickly so that the Voisin could accompany him on tour in Australia.

After two weeks for repairs, he managed a successful take-off and landing [November 26, 1909], staying in the air for a couple of minutes.

Life Insurance Policy of HH 1909

1909 Life Insurance Policy – Gywnn-Jones Collection

On November 29, 1909, in Hamburg, Houdini cautiously took out a 100,000 mark ($2500) life insurance policy with the Albingia Company of Hamburg prior to his tour in Australia and record breaking flight on March 18, 1910 at Diggers Rest. Displaying a fine sense of history, he wrote on the back of the policy: “This is the first insurance policy ever taken out re accident in an aeroplane. I had to pay 10 marks (about 25 cents) every time I made a flight.”

After making 18 flights in Australia, Houdini had the Voisin crated and shipped back to England.  He planned to fly the aeroplane to each of his performances during his next U.K. tour, as a publicity stunt. But Houdini never flew that aeroplane again.

In future weeks, we will examine some other Aeroplane accidents that Houdini was involved in.


  • Aviation January 1994, Houdini’s Historic Flight by Terry Gywnn-Jones
  • Air Classics April 1968, Hedgehopping with Houdini By Manny Weltman

Houdini’s promise to his Father!


The story goes as follows:

  • Before dying, the rabbi asked his promising young son to swear that he would take care of his mother.

Did Houdini’s father really make him swear to take care of Cecilia? Houdini said he did and lived accordingly.  In that light, I regard the story as true.

Last month on Mother’s Day, I asked you treat your mother like a Queen; so today please treat your father like a King.  Promise me.

Happy Father’s Day!

Ormer Locklear (Locke) connection to Houdini and The Grim Game

Ormer Locklear Flying Circus, 1919 Newspaper Ad

A newspaper advertisement for Ormer Locklear’s Flying Circus, 1919.

How does Houdini know Ormer Locklear and what was his connection to The Grim Game?

Houdini went to the Trav Daniel Sporting Goods Store during his week [January 1916] in Fort Worth.  He asked for a pair of Spaulding track shorts that he wanted to use as underwear.  James Locklear was in the store and recognized Houdini.  He told Houdini that he had enjoyed his act at the Majestic and had also seen Houdini free himself from the straight jacket at the Star-Telegram Building.  During the conversation, Locklear mentioned to Houdini that his brother Ormer did tricks while riding a motorcycle.  After meeting Ormer, Houdini suggested that Ormer drag Houdini handcuffed behind his motorcycle.  Houdini also stated that Ormer would receive publicity from the stunt as well as Houdini and that perhaps Ormer would become a daredevil one day; The event took place on Main Street, because it was the first paved street in Fort Worth.  Houdini wore thick overalls and a hood for the stunt.  His hands were tied behind his back and a rope was attached to Houdini from the motorcycle.  With a crowd looking on, Houdini was pulled slowly behind the motorcycle.  Before Ormer could get any speed, the event was over. Houdini freed himself.  {Paraphrased from Locklear Walks on Wings by Art Ronnie}

Ormer did become a daredevil and was the first to walk the wings of planes in flight. He became well known during the 1920’s and became a star in Hollywood.  Houdini used the idea of a transfer from one plane to another in his film, The Grim Game.  It was at this time, that a tragic accident involving Houdini’s double occurred, and Houdini took the credit for the filmed transfer.  Houdini later claimed that it was he that was the first to be photographed in a plane transfer, but he always gave credit to Locklear as the first to actually make the transfer.

[Houdini’s Texas Tours 1916 & 1923 by Ron Cartlidge]


Ormer Locklear poses for a publicity still for The Skywayman

Ormer Locklear poses for a publicity still for “The Skywayman”

Addendum: Houdini played a character with the last name of Locke in “The Master Mystery” and Ormer Locklear played a character with the last name of Locke in “The Skywayman”.  “The Skywayman” and “The Grim Game” both used Jenny airplanes with rope ladders on the bottom wing to perform their stunts.

Irvin Willat


Irvin Willat was born on November 18, 1890 in Stamford, Connecticut, USA. He was a director and writer, known for The Grim Game (1919), The False Faces (1919) and Down Home (1920). He was married to Billie Dove. He died on April 17, 1976 in Santa Monica, California, USA.

NYPL Image 21665 GG HH AF IW

Candid Grim Game photo of Harry Houdini, Ann Forrest and Irvin Willat (Courtesy of NYPL, Image 21665)


Irvin Willat was the only man who could do better tricks and more tricks than Houdini.

He knew a good action scene when he saw one, and was the one cranking away steadily from a third plane, that caught the entire collision and the start of what looked like a fatal crash as the two Canucks spun earthward with Houdini’s stunt double, Robert E Kennedy, flying at the end of the rope like the tail on a doomed kite. Willat saw to it that the movie script was rewritten to take in the collision, and The Grim Game was finished accordingly.

houdini_movieIn a telegram to Willat, Houdini wrote, with some degree of exaggeration, “Grim Game opened today Broadway Theatre. Scored sensational success.  Its [sic] the talk of New York.  I am appearing in person and in my speech yours is the only name I mention.  Am giving you the biggest boost you ever had but you earned it.”


  • Houdini’s High-Flying Hoax, by Art Ronnie, American Heritage April 1972
  • Irvin V. Willat, “Conversations with Irvin V. Willat,” interview by Robert S. Birchard, Film History 12, no. 1 (2000):38, paraphrasing a letter from Houdini.
  • Telegram from Houdini to Willat, August 26, 1919, Houdini biography file, Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, Beverly Hills, Calif.