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Houdini and Victorian Lock Sport.

Posted by Chris Dangerfield on

Hello people

In many blogs, articles, and interviews over the years I have credited Harry Houdini as a major influence as to why I got involved in lock picking. His memory, I mean, because like, he’d dead – you know that right? Harry Houdini was a world famous escapologist performing at the turn of the last century and who died in 1926. I was interested in conjuring, card tricks and the like, and the little illustrated book I had about ‘Magic’ featured a couple of pages and photos about Houdini, which I must have read 1000 times. I loved everything about him, the weird, blurry photos in shackles and chains, the way he became a world famous celebrity, simply by escaping from whatever they threw at him!

He wasn’t the only influence for sure. Needing access to my parents old style ‘dial’ telephone was essential to a young me as I would entertain myself for hours on end making prank phone calls, ordering pizzas, mobile hairdressers, skips, and all sorts of other services for houses across the road from ours. Once my parents got wise to excessive telephone use, they decided to lock the phone. A cunning little device which prevented the dial from moving, and thus the phone from being used.

A great face for radio.

Eager to prove some kind of Houdini-like ability as well as get access to the phone, I set about ‘picking’ the lock with various implements: A crochet hook I found lying about. Some kind of steel scribe, and then finally, the little gunk-scraper that comes tucked into a set of toenail clippers. It fitted, I gave it a wiggle and a jiggle and wow! JUST. WOW. It opened. My first lock picked. Aged 7. We all know how good it feels to pick a lock. But as a young child with an interest in Harry Houdini, I was now definitely set on a trajectory which has brought me here today, both professionally and passionately involved in lock picking. I guess I can thank my parents too – for buying the phone lock, but Houdini gets the prize for introducing me to locks and security, and the idea of cheating them.

The type of lock that threatened all my fun, but ended up jump-starting my career in lock picking.

I gave my high school oral examination about Harry Houdini. I didn’t revise or study as such since by the time I was 15 I’d read pretty much everything ever written about the man and could easily recite it upon request. I smashed the exam too, helped in no small part by the kid before me doing his presentation on Suzuki works motorcycle engines, and almost killing the entire class out of boredom whilst doing so.

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 21st 1874 and ended up in Wisconsin, USA a few years later. Although there was nothing remarkable about this Austro-Hungarian, Jewish immigrant family, Harry would, in the next decades become of the most famous men on the planet. He would attract crowds of thousands, suspended upside down from a crane, wriggling free from a straightjacket. He would be thrown into rivers, bound, chained, cuffed, and boxed – under the water for inexplicable amounts of time – the crowds often concerned for his life – only to splash to the surface much to the relief and joy of the adoring public.

In a world without cinema, television, or the Internet. Vaudeville performances and public stunts were the acts of the day, the celebrities of the time and everywhere he went, Houdini would get the crowds. However, while the idea of a man escaping from locks and shackles might seem a little odd, competitive lock picking had been around for nearly 100 years before Houdini. The fascination with security and its possible transcendence had already caught the public interest.

For all the pomp and splendor of The Great Exhibition of 1851, journalists said it was the competitive lock picking that got the most interest from the public.

People seem to think the phenomena of ‘Lock Sport’, competitive picking etc, is a new thing. But in Britain, at The Great Exhibition of 1951 lock picking competitions had very much captured the imagination of the public, with rival locksmiths attempting to pick the newest locks of the era and therefore provide excellent advertising for the company for who they worked or owned. Perhaps the most famous of all these early competitive pickers was Alfred Charles Hobbs who came to the UK representing the American lock manufacturer Day & Newell. Hobbs soon rose to fame across the globe by successfully picking two previously unpicked locks that were previously touted as impenetrable. These locks were the Chubb ‘Detector Lock’ patented in 1818, and the Bramah ‘Challenge Lock’, patented in 1785 and which had been displayed proudly in the window of their Piccadilly shop for decades, next to a poster offering 200 guineas to anyone who could successfully pick it. When Hobbs arrived at The Great Exhibition and picked them both it was an international event, with one newspaper asserting that no feature of the Exhibition had attracted as much public and media interest and the ‘celebrated lock contest’.

With the public already interested in lock picking, and the idea of travelling performers well established in the emerging culture, Houdini bringing together the two was a master stroke, and not surprising that he became such a success. It’s fair to say, outside politics, religion, and royalty he was probably the most famous person in the world.

And yet, Houdini was almost certainly not a lock picker.  Let me explain. He started his career as a run of the mill, 10 to the dozen, hack magician. But very early on it was clear he was a great showman. Early posters of his career describe Houdini as ‘The King of Cards’ and yet it was only later after rebranding himself as ‘The Handcuff King’ that he really started his ascent to celebrity status.

Houdini - world's greatest showman, world's worst dresser.

Houdini would request members of the audience bring their own handcuffs – as long as they were standard issue, regulation cuffs– so they knew he wasn’t cheating with a duff set of shackles. The show really caught on, and when he toured this in Europe he got involved with new newspaper of the time The Daily Mirror. A reporter from The Mirror arrived at one of Houdini’s show with a set of cuffs. A set of custom cuffs that had taken 5 years to design, and that no mere mortal could ever escape from. Houdini accepted the challenge, and agreed to meet the following week in the same place. The cuffs were put onto Houdini’s wrists and he climbed into his little velvet bag, which he used to perform his tricks. After nearly an hour Houdini still hadn’t managed to remove the picks. He climbed out of his little velvet tent and asked the journalist to remove the cuffs so he could take off his coat. The journalist from The Mirror refused, saying Houdini would be learning how the mechanism worked, and was cheating. Houdini took a penknife from his pocket, put it in his mouth and used it to cut his coat free, holding the blade between his teeth – much to the appreciation of the 5000 strong crowd, who reportedly went crazy at this show of skill and defiance.

After a few more minutes, Houdini came out with the cuffs off. He was shaking, he was crying, he was sweating. Almost on the point of fainting, Houdini was lifted up above the heads of the crowd and passed round while caps and hats were launched into the air. It was a scene of much commotion. Houdini had done it again and the crowd were loving it.

Full page article in The Mirror. Hmm, it's almost as if they were in cahoots with Houdini. Picture in the top right show the special handcuffs that supposedly took 5 years to design.

So why do I say Houdini wasn’t a lock picker, then give you an example of a lock picking feat? Over the years selling lock picks I have dealt with many escapologists. People who have contacted me for various bits of information, an interest in lock picking, and questions about locks. The main thing they’re interested in is gaff locks. Fake locks, props. Locks that look like locks but are not. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this, especially since you’re all lock pickers. However good you are, would you be locked up with 20 padlocks and thrown to the bottom of a river? Would you be hung upside down in water, your feet shackled to wooden stocks, your hands cuffed behind your back, waiting for your wife or assistant to slip you a pick to escape? No, of course not, no one would. Houdini was a showman, not a lock picker; picking locks is not the right skill for escapology. Only a madman would risk it, a dead madman at that.

Houdini was like the Derren Brown of his day. The stories of picks being passed to him through kisses etc, were deliberate leaks. They fed the public such lines not to expose how the tricks were performed, but to give the audience the impression they were far tougher than they were. There were many such ‘myths’. It was widely known that Houdini had trained his body like an athlete. Again, almost certainly a lie. There were stories about how he could control his muscles, tighten his bones in almost Yoga-like trances, so when the ropes, chains, cuffs, etc were attached, Houdini could later relax his muscles, loosen his bones, causing the ropes and chains to slip off easily. All of these ‘tricks’ and more helped build up the legend of this super-human escape artist, using almost super-powers to achieve these stunts. Breathing techniques allowed him to hold his breath for incredible periods of time. This is what allowed him to be tied and bound, thrown in a postal sack and dumped in the deep and unforgiving Hudson River in New York. Houdini was gone for 5…6….7…finally 10 minutes. The MC declaring no one can hold their breath that long under water. The crowd were terrified. Had Houdini died? Was his body slowly falling to the dark and gloomy depths of the Hudson? And then - amazingly, Houdini broke through the surface of the water, the crowd going mad. And yet there were no such breathing techniques at work here. Houdini was out of those prop padlocks and cuffs before the bag hit the surface of the water. He simply swan under water out of sight, under the jetty and waited there for 5..6..7 minutes, probably had a cigarette, before going back under water, swimming round to the performance area and appearing, successful, elated, exhausted, AMAZING!

Derren Brown - another magician who pretends to tell people how his tricks are done, to distract they're done.

The Mirror Handcuff challenge was without doubt a set-up. Plenty of evidence has come to light since which proves these cuffs were made for Houdini, and for him to escape from. His publicist was also the publicist of the then struggling Mirror newspaper, and for them to have taken 5 years to design, to challenge anyone to escape from – no one was escaping from handcuffs 5 years before Houdini, he invented it!

Derren brown has done much the same. At the beginning of his shows he’ll say something like “At no point in this show do I use stooges or actors, I use a combination of psychology, misdirection, suggestion’, etc etc. Whereas in truth he tends to use the self-same often very old magic tricks everyone else uses, he’s just repackaged them under this ‘myth’ of ‘psychology, hypnosis, suggestion’ etc. Anyone who’s wanted to learn Derren’s tricks will have been most disappointed with his books and DVD’s because they never tell you, because the illusion with Derren is his explanation. Do you remember the one with the advertising executives? He asked them to design an advert for Pet Cemetery or something. Once they created their poster, Derren showed them his prediction, which was almost identical. The audience were then treated to a video of the advertising executives journey to work, where Derren has surrounded them with the images he wanted them to use in the drawing, a huge bear crossing the road, for a good hour they were bombarded, against them knowing with all the suggestive images that ended up in the final image they created. And yet that isn’t how this was done. Not a chance. This was a standard mentalist prediction, which uses a far easier and simpler process.

And yet somehow this is still all connected, of competitive lock picking, or escaping from bags. Of Derren brown telling you how he does his tricks AS part of the illusion. And of me, wanting to prank call, and picking the lock on my parent’s phone. Houdini for me, stands at the crossroads of all these things. It reminds me of when, years ago I bumped a dimple lock from a well-known dimple lock manufacturer. This was still in the early days on The Internet and the bumping explosion of the early 2000s. A representative of the company who produced the lock said on an interview that I’d tampered with the internal mechanisms of the lock to make it appear that I had bumped it, but in truth I had not. In response I explained it was far easier to bump the lock that learn how to tamper with the internal mechanism to give it the illusion I’d bumped it. And although I never heard back, it made me think of gaff locks, props, escapology, illusions, lock picking, Houdini, the lot, and how nearly 40 years later I’m still fascinated by all of it.

Best wishes

Chris Dangerfield

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