Chapter ten

by Jim Stewart

The main topic here = a project worth re-exploring



(Proposal for a book - 1977)

Early 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.

Police, 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.

Were people more gullible then? Were they less imaginative or technically competent than now? Was HOUDINI more of a conjurer and illusionist than an "Escapologist"?

"HOUDINI TODAY" will ask the question ... Could he get away with it today?
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.

COULD 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".

Please contact me at the phone number or address below.
MJS (London 1977)


London 1995
Dear Steve,
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.

Without 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.

Apart from that, I'm delighted to have heard from you ... etc. etc.



From 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.

Challengers 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!!

A 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.

Having 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) of it.

A telephone 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.

A guy 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.

A lorry 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!

A Packing 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 obvious.

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.

Three people I approached were quite interesting:

An Army 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.

The 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.

British 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!




Suggestions would be welcomed.
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