Houdini: Art & Magic at New York’s Jewish Museum was pretty much panned in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal review:
[T]he exhibition, whose dramatic presentation at times upstages Houdini’s magical effects, falls somewhat flat. The artistry of one of the greatest showmen of all time (perhaps the first modern performance artist) cannot be conveyed by stage props, silent film clips and ephemera—things not particularly interesting as objets d’art, but because of the aura of the extraordinary man they represent.
But then there’s this from the Journal piece:
Houdini could walk a tightrope, untie knots with his toes, scale skyscrapers, dislocate his shoulders, and hold his breath for over three minutes. He was an inventor, businessman, scientist, philanthropist, magazine publisher, newspaper columnist and author of books.
He escaped nude from jails and prisons all over the world, as well as from buried coffins, lit cannons, boilers, safes and, on a Boston stage, the belly of a 1,600-pound sea monster.
The hardworking staff was, of course, intrigued. So we plugged “Houdini Boston sea monster” into the Googletron, and here’s what we found:
1) An excerpt from The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero:
The procession started on the Long Wharf of Boston Harbor and continued through the winding streets to Keiths Theatre. Crowds of people followed the bizarre parade, others just stood on the sidewalk and watched in awe as Houdini’s next great challenge was publicly displayed. “It” was a giant 1,600 pound sea monster that had been fished out of the ocean, a “what is it” that locals had identified as a cross between a whale and an octopus. Ten prominent Boston businessmen had challenged Houdini to be fettered with handcuffs and leg irons and escape from the hollowed-out “belly of the beast.’
The scene onstage on September 26, 1911 was unbelievable. It took a dozen stagehands to carry out the “turtle-tortoise-fish or whatever it is,” and turn it on its back on the center of the stage. Its abdomen had been sliced open, affixed with metal eyelets, which held a long thread of steel chain. Before the escape was attempted, Houdini was forced to sign a document that would release the owners of this monster from any liability should Houdini fail the test.
Then the steel chain was slackened, and Houdini crawled into the carcass, pausing to spray some strong perfume where his head would lie. He gave a signal, and handcuffs and leg irons were fastened to him. Then the committee went to work. Smiling through their labor, they tightened the chain, passed it around the creature’s back, and secured it with locks. The cabinet was then placed around the beast and the orchestra struck up.
After fifteen minutes, the screens of the cabinet were thrown open, and there was Houdini, “grease-covered, pallid and perspiring,” holding the handcuffs and leg irons aloft in triumph. On examination, the beast was as securely locked as it had been before. Houdini was not unscathed. His first words were to the stagehands, requesting them to open the windows and give him some air. Houdini had underestimated the toxicity of the arsenic solution that the taxidermist had used to preserve the sea monster, and, locked inside, he had been adversely affected by the fumes.
2) A September, 1911 newspaper article, complete with photograph:
The hardtraveling staff is going to the Big Town this weekend and will report firsthand on the exhibit.
In the meantime:
How cool was that?
Amazing and gross at the same time! Houdini once also escaped from the depths of the Charles River, into which he’d been tossed off the Harvard Bridge – in chains.
Gag me with a spoon…
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