Puzzle Inspired Story

Tribute to Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini, an American magician, mesmerized audiences by breaking free from handcuffs, shackles, straightjackets and jail cells. While touring in Europe from 1900 to 1904, he challenged the local police in each city to restrain him and lock him in their jail. Houdini escaped every time, baffling Scotland Yard in one case, and reshuffling other inmates between cells in another. One of his signature acts was to be put into a regulation straightjacket and suspended from a crane or a building. He would free himself in minutes with thousands watching on the ground. Yet another act would have him locked in handcuffs and leg irons and placed in a nailed wooden crate. The box would be roped and submerged into the Hudson River, giving the magician as much time for the escape as he could hold his breath. Houdini would resurface after about a minute.

In 1904 the magician made one of his most difficult escapes, largely due to the scrutiny surrounding the challenge he accepted in London. The British newspaper Daily Mail ordered special handcuffs which it claimed took five years to develop. The paper challenged Houdini to free himself from the handcuffs during a public show. More than 4,000 spectators witnessed the magician (hidden in a booth in order not to reveal his methods) struggle for 70 minutes with the device. When he emerged free, he became a sensation.

By definition, any successful investigation into how Houdini managed his escapes is bound to deprive them of their magic. To think otherwise would be to believe in miracles. Houdini repeatedly denied having any supernatural powers and devoted a substantial amount of time to debunk those who claimed they did.

Hence a closer look reveals the magician’s great skill in hiding small implements. For example, during body searches where he was stripped nude, Houdini would ask that his hair be checked first, with a pin hidden in his palm. Once his hair had been examined he would place the pin in his hair in a natural gesture of seemingly arranging it. His police station challenges often started with a natural examination of the cell and the restraining devices he was to free himself from. It is suspected that Houdini could memorize the precise shape of the keys (to make a replica later) or hide his tools in the cell for future use. He is known to have swallowed a small egg-shaped container with his tools which he could regurgitate at will. In the case of the Daily Mail challenge, circumstantial evidence suggests that the magician might have been in collusion with the paper.

What is clear is that his acts were often very risky and required a great deal of courage. In 1915, Houdini was handcuffed and buried without a casket in a 6-foot-deep pit during a show in Santa Ana, California. The magician panicked, realizing that he had underestimated the weight of the earth above him. He passed out at the end of the escape, managing to stick one hand above the ground. Houdini was rescued by his assistants.

“Picking” the lock in the puzzle presented here should be a much safer endeavor.


  • William Kalush, Larry Sloman, “The secret life of Houdini: the making of America's first superhero”, Atria Books, New York, 2006
  • Wikipedia’s Entry for Harry Houdini (retrieval date : 1333152000)


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