The roots of handcuff escapes go back to cabinet séances in the mid 1800’s. The medium hands were bound, usually with rope, to “insure” that they were not producing the spirit phenomena. The Davenport Brothers were the most famous exponent of this type of performance. Various types of restrains, including handcuffs, were used. This then evolved to performers claiming they could escape, some under spirit guidance, from any pair of handcuffs. Rewards were even offered if the performer failed to escape. So began the concept of the handcuff challenge.
There are probably many magicians who did similar escapes, including Professor Harry Cooke and George Everett.
Professor Cooke, “the exposer of spiritualism”, performed in Charlotte, NC on October 22 and 23, 1877. His act consisted of the usual pseudo spirit effects (mind reading, thought transfer, spirit manifestations, etc.) and included an escape from a pair of borrowed cuffs. The review of his show stated:
” … A surprisingly clever trick was the ease which this wonderful performer released himself from the iron grip of a pair of hand-cuffs furnished by deputy sheriff Griffith …”
For a show in Cairo, IL Professor Cooke advertised:
“The Great Handcuff Test
I hereby challenge Marshal Gossman or any other officer of the law to bring to my séance any handcuffs from which I cannot escape”
Another challenge escape was made by George Everett when he played Charlotte, NC on January 11, 1877. He was advertised as “The most remarkable materializing test medium in the world for the illustration of spiritualism by physical manifestations”. His show consisted of the usual spirit cabinet and slate writing effects. However, he also advertised:
(click to see full advertisement)
The review in the next day’s Charlotte Observer stated:
“…Among the most noteworthy feats was that of freeing one hand from handcuffs, which were furnished and put on by men in the audience and transferring them to his ankle…. In short here were some very clever tricks but purely spiritual manifestations were scarce.”
The secret of challenge handcuff escapes did not really enter the world of magic at large until 1895. This was when the brilliant inventor, mechanic and magician B. B. Keys was reported escaping from various handcuffs provided to him by the Captain of the local Boston police station. The Boston magic dealer W. D. Le Roy then offered Keyes’ routine to the magic fraternity. Houdini was one of the first purchasers. George Brindamour, long term Houdini challenger, also bought the routine at about the same time.
Martin Beck first realized the potential of a handcuff escape act as a successful vaudeville attraction after seeing Houdini perform at a Dime Museum in 1899. Houdini’s act consisted of general magic and challenge handcuff escapes. Beck quickly signed Houdini for a tour the Orpheum Circuit, had him drop most of the magic and the rest is history. The challenge handcuff act was born.
Houdini had the personality, stage presence, and knowledge to successfully perform an escape based act. However, it was though Beck’s astute show business sense that the challenge handcuff act was invented and brought to the vaudeville stage.
(Note: an earlier version of this article was published on the website Magical Past-Times)
Charlotte Observer, January 11 and 12, 1877, Charlotte, NC
Cairo Bulletin, April 29, 1877, Cairo, IL,
Charlotte Observer, October 20 and 23, 1877Charlotte, NC
Kenneth Silverman, Houdini!!!, Harper Collins Publishers, 1996
Letter from W. D. Le Roy to Houdini February 5, 1901, Harry Ransom Center collection, Austin, TX
Mahatma, May 1895, New York
William Kalush and Larry Sloman, The Secret Life of Houdini, Atria Books, 2006
Hope you enjoyed and and good hunting