Lock yourself to your TV and prepare to be amazed as modern-day magicians attempt to uncover the secrets behind Houdini’s spectacular feats
Houdini’s Last Secrets, Wednesday 6 February, 9pm, Discovery/HD (CH 250/251). Also available for 7 days in Catch Up > Channels > Discovery
Hungarian-born American Erik Weisz, better known by his stage name Harry Houdini, is one of the greatest illusionists of all time. Houdini’s Last Secrets revisits his daring stunts, which he pulled off with apparent ease, despite teetering on a knife edge between life and death. There’s never been a magician quite like him, although many have tried.
Houdini once said, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” For years, fellow magicians tried to get to the bottom of his death-defying acts, but on Halloween in 1926, Houdini took his secrets to the grave following a tragic accident.
But the show goes on in Houdini’s Last Secrets, with magicians and scientists joining forces in a bid to develop a greater understanding of the magic behind the man. But before you tune in, read on for a refresher on some of his most celebrated stunts, which you should definitely not try at home…
Escape from Murderers’ Row
In 1906, Harry the handcuff king pulled off a monumental jailbreak. Stripped of his clothes (so he couldn’t conceal any keys on his person) and handcuffed, he was locked away inside Murderers’ Row – the south wing of the Old DC Jail in Washington (the one-time home of Charles J Guiteau, a writer and lawyer found guilty of assassinating former US President James Garfield).
The challenge proved to be a breeze, with Houdini managing to free himself in two minutes. He retrieved his clothes from another locked cell and then spent the next 19 minutes unlocking eight other cells and moving the prisoners around.
Escape from a milk can
Houdini was around 5ft 5in tall. The metallic milk can (filled with water) used in this escape only came up to his waist. So it seemed baffling when he suggested squeezing into such a space, let alone escaping from it.
But lo and behold, he did fit, and he escaped. Also, before entering the can, he asked the audience to hold their breath for the duration he was trapped inside. According to legend, not one person could last the two minutes it took him to escape.
Chinese water torture cell
One of Houdini’s most famous feats involved him being suspended upside down in a glass tank filled with water, his feet shackled to the top of the tank’s lid. A curtain was drawn to cover the tank and a timer of two minutes was set. Of course, he escaped, but had he not, an official was on hand to destroy the tank with an axe!
His real masterstroke was naming the trick the “Houdini Upside Down”, enabling him to effectively copyright the trick. Various magicians attempted the milk can trick, but no one replicated the Houdini Upside Down. Other iterations of the trick featured Houdini enclosed in a coffin underwater, or secured in a straitjacket, within a casket, within a large tank of sand – rather him than us!
Suspended straitjacket escape
As you’ve probably established by now, Houdini had a knack for working his way out of a tight spot. And nowhere was this truer than in his most famous escapology act, which involved escaping from a straitjacket. Impressive enough in its own right, but Houdini upped the stakes by doing it while suspended upside down with his ankles bound.
Apparently, hanging upside down actually aided Houdini in his task, as he allegedly found it easier to move his arms over his head in this position – we’ll take his word for it.
East Indian needle trick
In different iterations of this act, Houdini swallowed between 50 and 100 needles, plus 20 yards of thread, aided only by a quick glug of water. His mouth and throat were then inspected before he removed the string with all of the needles attached – ouch! But how did he do it?
The vanishing elephant
While making birds and rabbits disappear was de rigueur at the time, in 1918 Houdini attempted to go much, much bigger. He presented the audience with a large cabinet that the elephant walked inside. The doors were closed, the curtains fell, and the cabinet was opened – and lacking an elephant.
So just how did he accomplish these seemingly miraculous feats? Well, that would ruin the mystery. Besides, you already know the answer – magic.
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