I was intrigued by a recent post that John Cox at Wild About Harry did about Houdini being trapped under the ice. John discovered a telling of this story in Houdini’s own words where the location was Pittsburgh and it wasn’t a handcuffed bridge jump, but an overboard box escape. It made me wonder.
- Did Houdini ever perform an overboard box escape in Pittsburgh?
Well, as evidenced by the photo above, we know that Houdini (in white circle), shackled in Pittsburgh steel, leaped into the Allegheny River from the original Seventh Street Bridge and emerged free of the handcuffs. But this was not an overboard box escape. BTW, the bridge was torn down in 1924.
I searched the internet (i.e., blogs, articles, ads) and my Houdini books for other references to Houdini in Pittsburgh and this is what I came up with.
From the internet:
It is very hard to discern which facts of Houdini’s life (and death) are factual because there are so many myths about him (many of which were perpetuated by him). For example, Houdini claimed the he jumped into a hole carved out of ice on the Detroit River, freed himself of handcuffs, and went back up for air only to discover that the current had moved him away from the hole. He survived by breathing in air trapped between the ice and water and, at the last minute, the spirit of his dead mother guided him to the hole.
It is a great story but it never happened. The Detroit Free Press published a story refuting Houdini’s claim, noting that the Detroit River was not freezing on November 27, the day Houdini jumped. So Houdini changed his story, and then he changed it again, and again. Detroit became Pittsburgh, November became December, and so on. [October 31st 2013 History/Herstory blog]
On March 13,  before his jump off the Seventh Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, Houdini told a reporter from The Pittsburgh Leader that the day before the leap he sent a cable to Hardeen, who was doing similar act then in Europe, and the charges came to exactly $13. That same day Houdini’s mail consisted of 13 letters. He switched rooms at his hotel and the new room, was no. 26, divisible by 13. The letters contained 13 new challenges, the license plate of the auto that drove him to the bridge totaled up to 13, and the cinematographer who was filming the jump had exactly 1,300 feet of film in his camera.
“I feel nervous today,” Houdini said. “There is a goneness in my innards that isn’t pleasant.” He ate an apple to settle himself down, then dove. It was exactly 1:13.
“In a minute and half from the time, I struck the water I had freed myself and was ready to rise to the surface,” Houdini told the press. “Small boats were cruising about looking for me, and, as luck would have it, I came rushing up at great speed just underneath one of these crafts. So rapid was my ascent that in rising I hit my head a fearful blow…and sank back into the water again stunned and bleeding. When I struck that boat I thought of the thirteens of the day and concluded that it was up to me to battle for my life. Just when it seemed that all was over with me, I rose to the surface and willing hands dragged me to safety. It isn’t any fun taking your life in your hands. Really, I’m in earnest. If a fellow wasn’t married it would be a different thing, though even a single man oughtn’t to be hankering for chances to risk his life”
From an article by Clay Morgan titled, “Harry Houdini and Pittsburgh – the ties that bind”:
Around 40,000 Pittsburghers were treated to the nail-biting exhibition one century ago on March 13, 1908. Houdini stripped to his swimsuit, surrendered to tight manacles fashioned from Pittsburgh steel and leapt 40 feet from the original Seventh Street Bridge into the stinging Allegheny River waters. In a short while, his head bobbed up and vanished before he emerged for good, free and holding the conquered cuffs.
Houdini’s first Pittsburgh plunge came almost a year earlier, on May 22, 1907. A rare photo [seen above] from the time peers over the backs of spectators staring at the bridge in direction of the North Shore. In the background, filthy factories pour billows of smoke into the lunchtime sky over the crowed waterfront. To the right, onlookers crowd the rails of the bridge. Over a dozen boats linger in the water. In the center of it all is Houdini in mid-jump – dressed in a white bathing suit and falling, knees still up. In less than two minutes he rose from the murky stage.
However, his first trip to Pittsburgh was in November 1905, The Jewish Criterion wrote: “He defies anyone to come on the stage of the Grand next week and bind him successfully.”
The Grand Opera House hosted Houdini during his first visits to Pittsburgh from 1905-08. Intense buzz in 1906 created so many sell-outs that Houdini stayed a third week so everyone around town could have a chance to experience the mind-jarring show.
He returned to the Pittsburgh Grand in 1913 [most likely 1915] and brought influences from afar, the East Indian Needle Trick and the legendary Chinese Water Torture Chamber.
On Nov 6, 1916, Houdini escaped from a Straitjacket while hanging from the Pittsburgh Sun Building 50 feet in the air.
On Nov 7, 1916, Pittsburghers packed in the New Davis Theatre to see Houdini headline.
In October 1919 (as Congress outlawed alcohol), “The Grim Game” opened in theatres such as the Grand, Strand and Belmar. Houdini played Harvey Hanford, wrongfully accused of murder and desperate to escape.
Pittsburgh’s strict “blue laws” also outlawed movies and performances on Sundays, so Houdini won by grabbing the headline show on Saturday evenings. In Pittsburgh, he topped his buddies Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Tom Mix.
Over the final years of his life, Houdini dueled with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Authur Conan Doyle, an avid supporter of spiritualism. The men took turns lecturing in Pittsburgh. Houdini spoke at the Carnegie Hall on Feb. 21, 1924. The following year he brought a full medium exposing show to the Davis Theater. Once again, Pittsburgh demand kept him in town an extra week.
Houdini’s final Pittsburgh show was at the Alvin Theatre in September of 1925.
Nov 1905: No reference to Houdini being at the Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
Sep 24-29 1906: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
May 20-25 1907: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
May 27 – Jun 1 1907: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
Mar 9-14 1908: Grand Theatre, Detroit, MI [Note: Mar 13, 1908 jumps from bridge in Pittsburgh, PA]
Mar 16-21 1908: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
Nov 13-18 1911: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
Mar 8-13 1915: Grand Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA [Morgan article mentions 1913 as opposed to 1915]
Nov 6-11 1916: Davis Theatre, Pittsburgh PA
Mar 6-11 1922: Davis Theatre, Pittsburgh PA [No mention in Morgan article]
Feb 21 1924 (only): Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, PA
Feb 23-28 1925: Davis Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
Sep 14-19 1925: Shubert Alvin Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA
From newspaper or magazine references:
- I was unable to find any newspaper or magazine references of any overboard box escape in Pittsburgh.
Although, Houdini appeared in Pittsburgh many times during his career, it appears that he only hit the water twice (1907 and 1908), and both times they were bridge jumps not overboard box escapes.
I am hoping that somebody can prove me wrong and produce evidence that he really did do an overboard box escape during one of his visits to Pittsburgh.