for a book - 1977)
this century HARRY HOUDINI, illusionist and Escape Artist, spent over
20 years challenging "anybody and everybody" to devise any
restraint situation from which he could not escape.
fire fighters, sailors, lumberjacks, box makers, boiler makers, Boy
Scouts, Insane Asylum attendants and Suffragettes came forward with
plans based on their personal skills. Every challenge he accepted
he beat ... according to the records. If he ever failed to meet a
challenge, evidence is hard to find.
people more gullible then? Were they less imaginative or technically
competent than now? Was HOUDINI more of a conjurer and illusionist
than an "Escapologist"?
TODAY" will ask the question ... Could he get away with it
It will review the techniques with which HOUDINI managed to side-step
difficult challenges but, more importantly, will ask what challenges
a "HOUDINI" might expect to meet today. With modern materials
and equipment and, perhaps, less gullibility ... who might come forward
with public challenges and risk failing as ALL those who challenged
HOUDINI seem to have failed.
YOU DEVISE A SERIOUS CHALLENGE for a present-day "HOUDINI"?
Using your special knowledge of a process or material, your access to
equipment or techniques, how might you challenge a determined "Escapologist"?
This question will be asked of many people in different walks of life
and, I intend to seriously review any suggestions. The aim will be to
evaluate each offered challenge and, if possible, explore it's efficiency.
If enough challenges are received, they will dictate the final form
and content of the proposed book "HOUDINI TODAY".
contact me at the phone number or address below.
MJS (London 1977)
Delighted and surprised to get a letter from you after all these years.
Yes, the "FETTERS" you remember from 1978 has not only kept
going but shifted it's territory drastically. My original enthusiasm
for HOUDINI struck chords in so many other people ... both it and I
took off in unexpected directions. My attraction to "Escapology"
and the Houdini legend gradually refocused ... and maybe is still changing
... but it has not taken over my life!
No, sadly, the HOUDINI TODAY book never got into print ... but researching
the challenges which came in from the magazine article gave me a lot
of fun opportunities during 1977/8. Perhaps that was my true motive
behind the Project in those days. I kept detailed notes of the various
challenges and experiments for several years, thinking that one day
I might pick up on the idea. Memory jogged by your letter, I will settle
down later today and write a brief review of a few of the challenges
I received and explored physically/technically. Main problem at the
time was that it was a hobby and my theatre career kept me extremely
busy. Also, the process of actually trying out the challenges meant
that a photographer should have been standing by to capture the details.
That never seemed practical so we lost some good opportunities ... and,
anyway, I was too busy enjoying accepting and evaluating each "Challenge"
which, let's face it, is what I've always enjoyed.
digging back into the cellar for the relevant note books the following
memories will be off the top of my head ... but I will enjoy rethinking
the Project ... and it might be a basis for further discussion.
from that, I'm delighted to have heard from you ... etc. etc.
NOTES FROM THE "Houdini Today" PROJECT FILE
late 1977 to mid 78 I guess I had about 20 tentative enquires or "offers"
as the result of circulating a leaflet outlining the Project (see
previous page) which I also mentioned in an article in Man's World
magazine and a now defunct popular magazine in Britain. In addition
I actively solicited suggestions from friends and friends of friends
with skills or who worked with potential challenge materials or equipment.
who approached me:
It's easy to see how Houdini was able to embarrass people
who challenged him into doing a less than efficient job. Many of my
willing challengers were easily thrown by the physical intimacy of the
tie or restraint they'd worked out in their minds. I usually invited
the challenger to bring a pal or mate and this usually added to the
embarrassment unless they were very determined or truculent. It was
then interesting to find out if they'd modify their intentions if I
made it look as if they were hurting or it was uncomfortable.
I really wanted
challenges that did work, rather than to beat the challenge, because
that was the point I wanted to make in the book ... that one of Houdini's
main skills was manipulating the Challengers. So, I soon developed a
technique for after having demonstrated why their original idea for
the challenge might fail ... helping them make it more effective and
be able to apply it more efficiently without being put off by any Escape
Artist's tricks. Also, this way I had more fun by getting the best of
both worlds ... escaping and failing to escape!!
THE BEST OF THESE CHALLENGES
pair of lively lads
who ran the local metalworking and welding yard took up the challenge.
Their original idea involved a couple of complicated braces and bars
and closing them with hot bolts ... but they settled for a more manageable
challenge using wire and a metal ladder.
Once they'd gotten used to me being uncooperative and "sneaky"
as they put it ... they learned that they had to be very determined
and very organised. After a little private practice they settled for
a Ladder Tie, using soft wire and pliers. To avoid complaints of cutting
skin or circulation I allowed them a couple of practice runs (I'm no
fool!). Eventually the "Challenge" they settled for involved:-
feet on the first rung, ankles wired to sides of ladder, then below
and above knees and at top of thighs ... all separately wired and made-off.
The waist and chest, then arms above head at elbows and wrists. Having
started from ankles and getting used to the process, they could take
one side each and keep pace with one another. Also, they discovered
that the soft wire needn't be tight so no excuses for having to let
me loose. Each individual wrapping point was: - round the ladder and
limb twice and then between ladder and limb in a wire Square knot configuration.
After a couple of practice runs their third try went like clockwork
and was totally escape proof.
succeeded with me they conned a young apprentice who worked in the yard
to try this "challenge" they had devised (He wasn't in on
any of the trial-and-error sessions). Having wired him to the ladder
they loaded him and the ladder onto a truck and drove him around the
neighbourhood for an afternoon. The intellectual and physical process
of working out the challenge was enjoyed by the two guys and they were
elated by their success. I wish I had photos (or better still, video)
installer also thought it would be easy to use wire for an ordinary
rope tie. Naturally it was a very un- giving material but he did leave
lose ends which, when I was left alone, could be reached first with
teeth and then fingers. Having demonstrated that escape was relatively
easy, together we devised a tie that wouldn't allow the same opportunities
for escape but it wasn't exactly a spectacular challenge. I asked him
to try with some industrial adhesive tape he also used in his work.
That, as I already knew from experience, could be very effective but
he wasn't a very inspired challenger.
who did rock climbing and camping first tried his abseilling harness
and rope as a basis for restraint. I'd already explored all of this,
but hoped for imaginative input from him. As an alternative he tried
his steel framed back pack with arms lashed down either side and tied
off around body. This had been used in the "Initiative Test"
situation and is simple but effective as a joke played on a happy rambler.
However, in a serious challenge situation, left alone I demonstrated
that escape was possible. He got more into the swing of things with
other mountaineer gear, and the session was fun, but nothing I hadn't
already tried before came out of it.
driver with access to mechanically tightened straps and tarps was
persuaded to try his practical experience of lashing down loads. Several
attempts at rolling me in tarpaulin were very hit and miss. Although
full body tarp wraps can be hard work to wriggle out of, I still haven't
devised a totally escape-proof system. It should be possible! Too unpredictable
for a serious public challenge ... but fun to work on!
Department employee thought wide packing tape would be easy, but
failed four times before he devised a routine and configuration which
really held. By keeping my body rigid during wrapping - soon as I started
the escape, by bending the body all weak points and flaws were soon
Several people who
approached me really just wanted me to tie them up and didn't have
any clear idea for a "challenge" as such ... and I was interested
in learning rather than teaching.
people I approached were quite interesting:
guy, active in the Territorials (National Reserve) had access to
his unit equipment and premises which were mainly used in the evenings
and weekends. As an Instructor he was familiar with webbing strappery
and assault course equipment . Obviously he was an old hand at horsing
around on army exercises with groups of younger lads, and had several
well tried ways of tying somebody to a tree, to a climbing net and over
a low "Balancing Bar" (like a tree trunk lying a foot above
the ground supported at both ends). He was well practiced and could
have offered several serious challenges but we never got round to documenting
them. The potential was there.
local Fire Station responded well to the leaflet. They have a range
of efficient equipment for hoisting and lowering, strapping and wrapping
including an efficient carrying/lowering stretcher similar to Mountain
Rescue. A couple of the men described different initiation tricks they
like to play on new recruits at different Fire Houses. Usual stuff,
including strapping them into a lowering harness for tower exercise,
rendering them helpless and hanging, usually hosing them down before
leaving them. An alternative was in physical exercise sessions, to show
them a first aid splinting technique with adhesive tape. Often they'd
just grab the "Initiate" after his first call out, strap his
hands to his knees with various hose straps (short webbing straps) and
leave him to struggle while everybody else goes off to the canteen.
If they're really being vindictive they grab one of their number in
the showers, tie them naked to a canteen table and leave them until
just before the kitchen women are due to arrive. All the usual macho
semi-sexual harassment. Of course that was all before women were permitted
to join the crews. Maybe they now join in the fun. I wonder if any of
it happens to the females - I wouldn't think so.
Lifeboat men are notorious for their rugged life style and in a
coastal town I did manage to get a couple of the local crew to show
me over the Boathouse. There they had a rescue sling, a sort of canvas
and bamboo cradle used for swinging an injured seaman from one ship
to another. I persuaded them to strap me into it. It had wrist, knee
and ankle straps plus head stabiliser straps ... but it was possible
to get out of it (it wasn't designed to keep people in by force). However,
after I'd disappointed them I suggested that whoever they usually transported
in these cradles would be wearing heavy seagoing oilskins and boots
or fully waterproof Immersion Suit. As an Escape Challenge exercise
I suggested that in full gear, strapped into the stretcher it would
be impossible to work free. They decided this was a wonderful idea (and
I wasn't going to disagree) so we all got togged up in their working
suits and then they strapped me into the stretcher and went back to
the pub, leaving me to stew. I guess I enjoyed that more than most of
the challenges. I was only disappointed they didn't wait and take me
out in the boat the next time they had a call out.
As you can see from
these notes I long ago discovered my particular attraction for Houdini
exploits was not for lock picking or magician's tricks ... but for the
struggling and trying to outwit somebody who knows his own equipment
and doesn't like to lose a challenge. I also learned that the most enjoyable
times for me were those spent unable to escape and waiting for other
people to decide when (and occasionally at what price) I should be freed.
Hope the preceding
comments haven't freaked you as a "Serious Collector" and
card-carrying member of the Brotherhood of Magicians. I still am an
avid collector of cuffs and Houdini memorabilia ... and I don't want
to debase the memory of HH. The legend he created is based on the fact
that he seems always to have Escaped!
OF "SO I LIKE TO GET TIED-UP ... SO WHAT!!?" TEXT
THE WEB SITE
PHOTOS SUITABLE FOR THIS SECTION WOULD BE WELCOMED
AN INTEREST HAS BEEN EXPRESSED IN
RE-EXPLORING THE GENERAL PROPOSITION OF 'HOUDINI TODAY'
would be welcomed.
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