Harry Houdini’s forgotten Edinburgh escapades

Harry Houdini on Waverley Bridge in Edinburgh.''Pic courtesy of  Paul Zenon
Harry Houdini on Waverley Bridge in Edinburgh.''Pic courtesy of Paul Zenon
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AS a self-confessed Houdini geek, the original glass negative of this picture of him peering over the gate which still stands at the top of the slope down to Waverley station is one of my favourite acquisitions.

While in Edinburgh last August I received an email notification that it was up for sale in an auction in Chicago - just as I was walking past the very spot where the photograph was taken, almost a century before.

As I was already working on my Fringe show for this year - Linking Rings, about Houdini’s right-hand man Jim Collins - I decided that I had to have it. As often seems to happen with anything relating to our Harry, there were more surprises to come.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Houdini for as long as I can recall. As a boy I remember seeing the movie of that name, starring Tony Curtis as ‘the justly famous self-liberator’ (the term ‘escapologist’ wasn’t used to any extent until much later), and I had his biography on pretty much permanent loan from my local library.

He was a real-life superhero straight out of the comic books, and he combined that with my other childhood passion – magic.

From the turn of the 19th century until his death on Halloween 1926, outside of royalty and heads of state, Houdini was probably the most famous person in the world.

He was certainly the highest paid entertainer and remains the only pre-Hollywood star whose name is still in daily usage worldwide.

Becoming famous in the UK before he did in America and touring extensively here over two decades, he made around 100 performances in Scotland, about half of those taking place in Edinburgh, firstly at the Gaiety Theatre in Leith in 1904 and the rest at the Empire Theatre (now the Festival Theatre), where he last appeared in 1920.

The Handcuff King was a master of self-promotion and almost single-handedly invented the concept of the publicity stunt.

Before radio and TV, shows were publicised almost exclusively via newspaper coverage and word of mouth. His spectacular daredevil escapes ensured those and included diving from bridges while restrained with chains and handcuffs, being lowered into rivers while secured inside a nailed-shut packing case, and releasing himself from a straitjacket while dangling upside-down from city landmarks; the latter regularly drawing 10,000 or more onlookers.

The Master Mystifier also capitalised on the publicity generated by encouraging locals to create custom escapes for him to attempt.

While appearing at the Empire Theatre in April 1913 he was challenged by the Edinburgh City Police Department via a custom-made leather and canvas ‘Insane Restraint Bag’ of their own design - needless to say, he succeeded.

A less typical but nonetheless newsworthy story was reported in 1920 by Edinburgh native Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; although a long-term friend of Houdini, they later publicly fell out over their irreconcilable differences over the subject of Spiritualism.

Harry had noticed that, even in the middle of a bitter Edinburgh winter, many of the local children were going barefoot. He advertised that if they turned up at the theatre at a given time, he and his assistants would fit them with 300 pairs of shoes that he would provide.

“When they ran out, Houdini’s chief assistant Jim Collins (the subject of my Linking Rings show this year) promptly led the remaining youngsters to a local cobbler’s shop. Conan Doyle reported the figure to be 500 pairs; like Houdini, he wasn’t one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

But back to that grainy black and white image. The only initial clue as to the origins of my newly acquired photograph was the accompanying auctioneer’s note which said simply ‘1915?’. This was evidently incorrect, though, as Harry didn’t travel outside America during the war years.

It’s not typical of a Houdini portrait in that he’s not looking at the camera and not in performance costume, so my assumption was that it may have been a still taken from one of the handful of silent films which Houdini produced under the auspices of his own motion picture company, towards the end of his career.

They were all produced after 1918 and so the location immediately pinpointed 1920 – the year of Houdini’s sole post-war European tour.

The only film containing scenes shot outside America after that point was his final one: Haldane of the Secret Service and, sure enough, the clothing featured in this shot is an exact match.

Sadly though, although there are scenes filmed in New York, Glasgow, Hull, London and Paris, Edinburgh doesn’t feature; after further research, it appears that Harry staged a fight scene atop the Scott Monument but it ended up hitting the cutting room floor.

Haldane of the Secret Service isn’t generally regarded as one of Houdini’s better films, however it does have the distinction of being a prototype for the Bond movies; a story of the romantic lead, an heroic government agent, battling the dark side, in glamorous locations (and Hull!).

Additionally, the character name Haldane is significant; when first arriving in Britain Houdini made friends with William Melville, Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard, after escaping from handcuffs there.

His associate, Edinburgh’s own Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War, proposed the creation of the original Secret Service with Melville as its head; it later went on to become MI5 and it’s generally believed that the character ‘M’ in the Bond movies was based on him.

What we see in this snapshot, then, is history’s greatest magician in his prime, in the week that he donated the shoes to the poor of the city, a couple of months before he met Sherlock Holmes’ creator for the first time, about to have a punch-up at the top of the Scott Monument in a film sequence which would never be seen.

The character he is portaying, though, will go on to become the basis for the most famous role of the city’s most celebrated actor, who at this point is still a decade away from being born.

A picture does indeed paint a thousand words. Welcome back to Edinburgh, Harry.

Paul Zenon appears in his self-penned show Linking Rings at Le Monde Hotel, George Street, 7-31 August (except Saturdays) at 3pm, www.lmfringe.com