Houdini and the
Mirror Handcuff Challenge
In the spring of 1904 Houdini was in England playing the London Hippodrome. Each day he issued his standard challenge to the audience to bring forth their handcuffs to challenge him. One day in March a representative of the Daily Illustrated Mirror newspaper issued a special challenge to Houdini to escape from a special pair of handcuffs supposedly built by a blacksmith in Birmingham over a five year period. Houdini accepted the challenge and it was scheduled for St. Patrick's Day, March 17. The following account appeared in the Mirror.
March 18 1904 THE DAILY ILLLUSTRATED MIRROR Page 3. HOUDINI'S GREAT VICTORY How He Picked the "Mirror" Handcuffs in One Hour and Ten Minutes-Telegram of Thanks
Not a seat was vacant in the mighty Hippodrome yesterday afternoon when Harry Houdini, the "Handcuff King:' stepped into the arena, and received an ovation worthy of a monarch.
For days past all London has been aware that on Saturday night last a representative of the Mirror had stepped into the arena, in response to Houdini's challenge to anybody to come forward and successfully manacle him, and had there and then made a match with America's Mysteriarch for Thursday afternoon.
In his travels the journalist had encountered a Birmingham blacksmith who had spent five years of his life in devising a lock, which, he alleged, "no mortal man could pick." Promptly seeing he was in touch with a good thing, the press man had at once put an option upon the handcuff containing this lock, and brought it back to London with him
Applauded to the echo, the Mysteriarch then retired within the cabinet that contains so many of his secrets.
All correct chronometers chronicled 3.15.
In a long line in front of the stage stood the committee. Before them, in the center of the arena, stood the little cabinet Houdini loves to call his "ghost house." Restlessly pacing to and fro, the Mirror representative kept an anxious eye on it.
FALSE HOPE OVERTHROWN
Those who have never stood in the position of a challenger can scarcely realize the sense of responsibility felt by one who has openly thrown down the gauntlet to a man who is popular with the public.
The Mirror had placed its reliance on the work of a British mechanic, and if Houdini succeeded in escaping in the first few minutes it was felt that the proceedings would develop into a mere farce.
But time went by; 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes elapsed. Still the band played on. Then, at 22 minutes, Mr. Houdini put his head out of the "ghost house," and this was the signal for a great outburst of cheering.
For a few seconds the journalist considered. Then he replied: "I am indeed sorry to
disoblige you, Mr. Houdini, but I can- not unlock those cuffs unless you admit you are defeated."
The reason was obvious. Mr. Houdini had seen the cuffs locked, but he had never seen them unlocked. Consequently the press man thought there might be more in the request than appeared on the surface.
FROCK COAT SACRIFICED
"Ladies and Gentlemen-I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a Houdini evidently does not stick at trifles. He maneuvered until he got a penknife from his waistcoat pocket. This he opened with his teeth, and then, turning his coat in side out over his head, calmly proceeded to cut it to pieces.
The novelty of the proceeding delighted the audience, who yelled themselves frantic. The Mirror representative had rather a warm five minutes of it at this juncture. Many of the audience did not see the reason of his refusal, and expressed their disapproval of his action loudly.
Grimly, however, he looked on and watched Mr. Houdini once more reenter the cabinet. Time sped on, and presently somebody recorded the fact that the Mysteriarch had been manacled just one hour.
Ten minutes more of anxious waiting, and then a surprise was in store for everybody.
The band was just finishing a stirring march when, with a great shout of victory, Houdini bounded from the cabinet, holding the shining handcuffs in his hand-free!
A mighty roar of gladness went up. Men waved their hats, shook hands one with the other. Ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and the committee, rushing forward as one man, shouldered Houdini, and bore him in triumph round the arena.
But the strain had been too much for the "Handcuff King;' and he sobbed as though his heart would break.
With a mighty effort, however, he regained his composure, and received the congratulations of the Mirror in the true sportsman- like spirit he has shown throughout the contest.
The journalist intimated to the audience that a beautiful solid silver model of the handcuffs would be made, and asked Mr. Houdini's permission to present this to him at no distant date.
Mr. Houdini told the audience that he had been challenged many times before, but he had never experienced such gentlemanly treatment and fair play in any contest he had been called upon to enter.
Mr. Houdini's wife was present at the performance, but just before he cut the coat from him was so overcome that she had to leave the Hippodrome.
Mr. Houdini calls his charming wife his mascot. "Eleven years ago she brought me luck," says the Handcuff Marvel, "and it been with me ever since. I never had any before I married her." Mrs. Houdini is a fair, cultured, beautiful American lady, petite, fascinating, and clever.
A SPORTSMAN'S TELEGRAM
Late last night Mr. Houdini sent us the following telegram:
2 Carmelite Street, London, E.C.
"Allow me to thank you for the open and upright manner in which your representative treated me in today's contest. Must say that it was one of the hardest, but at the same time one of the fairest tests I ever had.
It was submitted to London's best locksmiths, who were unanimous in their admiration of it, asserting that in all their experience they had never before seen such wonderful mechanism.
As a result the editors of the Mirror determined to put the lock to the severest test possible by challenging Mr. Houdini to be manacled with the cuffs.
Like a true sportsman, Mr. Houdini accepted our challenge in the spirit in which it was given, although, on his own confession, he did not like the look of the lock.
Mr. Houdini's call was for three o'clock yesterday, but so intense was the excitement that the 4,000 spectators present could scarce- ly restrain their impatience whilst the six excellent turns which preceded him, cheered to the echo on other occasions, got through their "business."
Waiting quietly and unnoticed by the arena steps, the Mirror representative watched Mr. Houdini's entrance, and joined in giving his opponent-to-be in the lists one of the finest ovations mortal man has ever received.
"I am ready:' said Houdini, concluding his address to the audience, "to be manacled by the Mirror representative if he be present."
A hearty burst of applause greeted the journalist as he stepped into the arena and shook hands with the "Handcuff King."
Then, in the fewest possible words, the press man called for volunteers from the audience to act upon a committee to see fair play, and Mr. Houdini asked his friends also to step into the arena and watch his interests.
This done, the journalist placed the hand- cuffs on Mr. Houdini's wrists and snapped them. Then, with an effort, he turned the key six times, thus securing the bolt as firmly as possible.
The committee being satisfied as to the security of the handcuff, Mr. Houdini said: -
"Ladies and Gentlemen-I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you I am going to do my best."
"He is free! he is free!" shouted sever- al; and universal disappointment was felt when it was ascertained that he had only put his head outside the cabinet in order to get a good. look at the lock in strong electric light.
The band broke into a dreamy waltz as Houdini once more disappeared within the canopy. The disappointed spectators looked at their watches, murmured "What a shame!" gave Houdini an encouraging clap, and the journalist resumed his stride.
At 35 minutes Mr. Houdini again emerged. His collar was broken, water trick- led in great channels down his face, and he looked generally warm and uncomfortable.
"My knees hurt," he explained to the audience. "I am not done yet."
The house went frantic with delight at their favorite's resolve, and this suggested an idea to the Mirror representative.
He spoke rapidly to Mr. Parker, the Hippodrome manager, who was at the side of the stalls. That gentleman looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded his head and whis- pered something to an attendant.
A WELCOME CONCESSION
Presently the man appeared bearing a large cushion.
"The Mirror has no desire to submit Mr. Houdini to a torture test," said the representative; "and if Mr. Houdini will permit me, I shall have great pleasure in offering him the use of this cushion."
The "Handcuff King" was glad evidently of the rest for his knees, for he pulled it through into the "ghost house."
Ladies trembled with suppressed excite- ment, and, despite the weary wait, not a yawn was noticed throughout the vast audience. For 20 minutes more the band played on, and then Houdini was seen to emerge once more from the cabinet.
Almost a moan broke over the vast assemblage as this was noticed. He looked in pitiable plight from his exertions and much exhausted.
He looked about for a moment, and then advanced to where his challenger stood.
"Will you remove the handcuffs for a moment," he said, "in order that I may take my coat off."
What really happened? We will never know, but it seems highly likely that Houdini was under control of the entire affair. Some even say that he commissioned the handcuffs himself.
The Mirror handcuffs were said to have been constructed with a Brahma lock, a complicated mechanism containing many circular tumblers. There was of course only one orginal Mirror handcuff along with a silver replica shown in the photo below.
Beautiful copies of the Mirror handcuff have been made by master locksmith Ian McColl in Australia. An example is shown below: