Escape Secrets: Handcuff Escapes
When vaudeville impresario Martin Beck "discovered" a struggling Harry Houdini in 1899, it was Houdini's ability to escape from handcuffs which caught his attention. Although Houdini was hardly the first or only performer to do handcuff escapes, he would take the act to a new level over the next several years, and it was as the "Handcuff King" that he gained his first measure of fame.
There was no one "secret" to Houdini's ability to escape from handcuffs, but a combination of technical knowledge, physical skill, and trickery. It all started with what one locksmith who knew him called his "remarkable knowledge of locks and locking devices." Houdini collected and studied locks all of his life and claimed that he had "photographic eyes" that helped him remember how each type worked and could be opened.
Most of the time Houdini used a key hidden in or smuggled into the cabinet or jail cell, either on his person or by an assistant. Depending on how he was bound, Houdini would manipulate the keys with his hands -- sometimes using specially designed extension rods -- or with his teeth. But he also knew tricks for opening many of the simpler types of cuff without keys.
In "Handcuff Secrets," a book he published in 1910 to discourage the legion of imitators trying to ride his coattails, Houdini wrote that "you can open the majority of the old-time cuffs with a shoestring. By simply making a loop in the string, you can lasso the end of the screw in the lock and yank the bolt back, and so open the cuff in as clean a manner as if opened with the original key." And as he demonstrated in his own defense during the slander trial in Germany in 1902, some cuffs could be opened simply by banging them against a hard surface, which might include a lead plate fastened at the knee under his trousers.
Houdini also used tricks that didn't involve opening locks. If presented with a particularly difficult lock, he might insist it be placed higher on his forearm, then simply slip these cuffs over his wrists once the easier cuffs placed there had been removed. And he was not above using trick cuffs, designed to pass inspection but easily opened by means of a fake rivet.
But as he reminded us in "Handcuff Secrets," the unique magic of his escape act lay in its presentation: "You will notice that some of these tricks are very simple -- but remember it is not the trick that is to be considered, but the style and manner in which it is presented."
I offer $100,000 to any human being living that can escape from all the cuffs I carry, and from which I release myself.
I escape from the celebrated Bean Giant Cuff with them locked behind my back, a feat no one else has ever accomplished. My hands can be fastened back or front. It makes no difference how many pair of cuffs are locked on me (at the same time), and I will allow the keyholes to be stamped and sealed, and as I bring out all the cuffs interlocked, it proves conclusively that I do not slip my hands.
I have escaped out of more handcuffs, manacles, and leg shackles than any other human being living. As I carry a very rare, curious and costly collection of torture, antique and modern Handcuffs (of every style and make), I give a scientific and historic lecture on them; in fact, I have the only complete act of this description in existence.
Of the team Harry and Bessie Houdini
The Expert Handcuff Manipulator
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