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Escape Secrets: Milk Can Escapes

Handcuffs Ropes Straitjacket Milk Can Houdini called the Milk Can "the best escape that I have ever invented." What made it great was not its difficulty -- it was perhaps the simplest of all his escapes -- but his dramatic presentation. Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman describes the whole routine:

    In performance Houdini poked and pounded the can to demonstrate its solidity. When he walked offstage a moment, stagehands filled it to overflowing with twenty or so pails of water. Returning in a bathing suit, he first invited the audience to experience what long submersion might be like. He asked them to time themselves while holding their breath. Then he squeezed himself into the can, the displaced water splashing onto the stage. Long before a minute elapsed, most spectators gave up, gasping. Houdini, however, stepped out of the can, smiling, to perform the actual test.

    Kukol [his assistant] appeared onstage with an ax. Houdini explained that if something went wrong, Franz would after a certain time smash the milk can open. Now handcuffed, he again folded himself inside. This time the steel cover was slammed on, the hasps latched, the cover padlocked. The ghost house was pulled forward to surround the can. The audience waited nervously, watches in hand, Kukol standing ready to hack. After little more than two minutes Houdini walked from the cabinet, dripping, puffing, blowing, breathless. The ghost house was withdrawn, revealing the milk can with its six padlocks still closed and in place.
Just a few years after Houdini died, a man named Walter Gibson published the book "Houdini's Escapes and Magic," which explains how many of Houdini's routines worked. Claiming in the preface that "had Houdini lived he would have written this book," Bernard M.L. Ernst explains that the book is based largely on his friend Houdini's own notes and drawings, which he had been collecting for just such a book. Here's how Gibson describes Houdini's famous Milk Can Escape:

It is understood, of course, that the milk can will bear a close examination. Its simple construction and the fact that it is made entirely of metal make it appear very secure and free from trickery. The simple method of escape depends on the fact that the collar of the tapering portion is not riveted to the top of the large cylindrical portion of the can. The rivets are there, but they are shams. Inside the milk can, the performer can separate the two portions at the joint. This is very practical, and despite its simplicity, it cannot be detected.

The secret is safe because the collar fits tightly to the cylinder. It cannot be pulled from its position; no one can obtain a good hold on it. The sides of the collar are slippery (they may even be slightly greased), and there is no possibility of any one's budging it.

But from within the can, the performer is in an ideal position to work. With ordinary effort he can break the neck away from the cylinder and thus escape. The stronger the performer, the easier the escape. By removing the loose section and sliding it out of the way, all difficulties are overcome; and after the escape it is necessary merely to replace the loose portion and make sure that it is firmly in position so that it will again stand inspection.

While the Milk Can may sound easy, and certainly was simpler than most of his other escapes, folding oneself into such a tiny space while under water required nerves and stamina few possessed. But above all, as advertisements for the act attest -- "FAILURE MEANS A DROWNING DEATH" -- the Milk Can demonstrates Houdini as master showman.

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