Escape Secrets: Straitjacket Escapes
By his own account, Houdini first thought of introducing the straightjacket into his act while touring an insane asylum in Canada. Peering into a padded cell, he saw a "maniac" struggling against the device, "rolling about and straining each and every muscle in a vain attempt to . . . free himself from his canvas restraint." Houdini began experimenting the next day, and soon the straightjacket, with all its sadistic fascination, had entered into his repertoire.
Much like his handcuff and rope escapes, Houdini's basic straightjacket escape required both technical know-how and brute physical strength. But the major difference was that he usually performed it in plain sight, at once increasing the drama and convincing the audience that there was no "trick" involved. In his 1910 book "Handcuff Escapes," Houdini described how he did it:
The first step necessary to free yourself is to place the elbow, which has the continuous hand under the opposite elbow, on some solid foundation and by sheer strength exert sufficient force at this elbow so as to force it gradually up towards the head, and by further persistent straining you can eventually force the head under the lower arm, which results in bringing both of the encased arms in front of the body.
Once having freed your arms to such an extent as to get them in front of your body, you can now undo the buckles of the straps of the cuffs with your teeth, after which you open the buckles at the back with your hands, which are still encased in the cavas sleeves, and then you remove the straitjacket from your body.
The dry, technical nature of this description belies what the escape actually looked like. As old film clips show, Houdini looks like a madman writhing and jerking about; it looks painful and one gets tired just watching it. Doubtless this was part of the fascination.
Houdini often turned his straightjacket routine into a public spectacle by performing it upside down, suspended from one of the towering new skyscrapers which had begun to dominate city skylines. While requiring more strength to undo the buckles, this actually made it easier to get his arms over his head, the key to the escape.
With more difficult straightjackets, Houdini would perform shielded from view. If using a jacket he supplied, this enabled him to used specially designed devices built into the jacket; if the jacket was supplied by someone else, he was sure to have a concealed or hidden tool to cut the laces or help himself some other way.
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