The German Slander Trial (1902)
By the summer of 1901, Harry Houdini was on a roll. In 1899 he had vaulted from the obscurity of medicine shows and dime museums to success in big-time American vaudeville. The following year he had conquered Europe, where his escape act found large and enthusiastic audiences. But that summer in Germany, where he was already well-known as the "König der Handschellen," or "king of handcuffs, Houdini ran headlong into the formidable German police, and only narrowly averted a disaster. Accused of perpetrating fraud on the German public with his act, Houdini responded by suing his accusers. In the slander trial which followed, he staged one of the great escapes of his career.
The trial was not his first encounter with the police in Germany. In September of 1900, after successful bookings in England, Houdini had been preparing for his first German performance when he was summoned by the police. As biographer Ken Silverman has written, "this meant facing Big Brother." Even as other European countries were embracing democracy, Germany remained an authoritarian state. There was little that was beyond the purview of Emperor Wilhelm II’s police, including "censorship of entertainment, to silence onstage criticism of the empire’s institutions and ideology." A particular target at the time were "Spoof shows" -- acts that made bogus claims -- which seemed to include his escape act. As Houdini himself had seen, the state meant business: he had been a spectator at the trial of famed Spiritualist Anna Rothe, who was convicted of fraud and spent more than a year in prison.
Knowing that these were the stakes, Houdini made his way to Berlin, where he was stripped naked before a crowd of three hundred policemen. As Silverman describes it, "Houdini’s arms were tightly clamped behind his back with thumbscrews, finger locks, and five different hand and elbow irons. Mouth bandaged, he was allowed to work under a blanket. He unhooped himself in about six minutes and laid the test gear on a table, neatly." In typical fashion, Houdini turned his feat into the best advertisement money couldn’t buy. He trumpeted the Police President’s official endorsement, claiming it made him "the only artist in the history of Europe to whom the German police have given the Imperial certificates."
Perhaps it was this victory that led the "König der Handschellen" to respond boldly when a Cologne newspaper published an article the following year entitled "The Unmasking of Houdini." In it, Houdini was essentially accused of two crimes: attempting to bribe Cologne policeman Werner Graff into rigging an escape from that city’s jail, and paying a civilian police employee to help him with a phony public performance. Rather than letting it slide and hoping the matter would go away, an indignant Houdini hired a prominent German lawyer and sued both the newspaper and the policeman for slander.
When the trial finally began in Cologne in February 1902, it received wide coverage in the German press. Patrolman Graff testified that Houdini had offered him twenty marks, with more to come, for his handcrafted lock -- and a duplicate key -- for use in demonstration before the Cologne chief of police. Houdini denied this, saying that when he had asked to give a demonstration at the station, he had simply been turned down. Graff also claimed that Houdini had deceived an unsuspecting public in a later performance with the same lock, bribing a man named Lott to provide a duplicate chain for him to display after he had sawed the original one to escape. Again, Houdini strenuously denied the story, arguing that Graff had tried to deceive him by providing a "dead" or unopenable lock, and that he had only offered Lott "a little something" after the show for warning him about the deception.
After a parade of witnesses for both sides cleared up nothing, the chairman of the case asked Houdini to vindicate himself by opening the lock without the aid of tools, which Graff claimed he had used. Banging it against a metal plate fastened below his knee, Houdini weakened the spring and opened the lock. Then, performing in a corner where only the judge could watch him, Houdini slipped out of a set of locked chains. He won the case. Several months later, he also defeated Graff’s appeal, again by opening one of Graff’s prepared locks. This time, Graff had to pay a hefty fine, including Houdini’s expenses and money for lost bookings.
Although he won, in revealing some of his secrets Houdini had paid a substantial price. "Just imagine," he later wrote to a friend, "in order to save my honor I had to show how I did it." But the windfall of free publicity was probably well worth it. The banner headline on his own press release screamed, "OFFICIAL POLICE NEWS FROM GERMANY! HARRY HOUDINI THE AMERICAN HANDCUFF KING SUES THE COLOGNE POLICE FOR LIBEL AND WINS." As Houdini astutely observed in a letter to a friend, his legend had grown: "the people over here . . . fear the Police so much . . . and I am the first man that has ever dared them."