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The Handcuff King

Master magician Harry Houdini made a career of escaping bondage, quite literally – from handcuffs to straitjackets to locks to piano boxes, he managed to baffle cops and critics alike with his feats of wonder.

Stone walls and chains do not make a prison for Houdini. 1898. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC2-3784 (color film copy slide) LC-USZ62-53798 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: POS - MAG - .H68, no. 11 (C size) <P&P> [P&P] Houdini and Jennie, the elephant, performing at the Hippodrome, New York. 1918. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-USZ62-112421 DLC (b&w film copy neg.), LC-USZ62-66377 DLC (b&w film copy neg.)

As part of his routine, Houdini would work with the police of the cities he visited in order to orchestrate his own jailbreak. From Scotland Yard to a Moscow cell for those bound for Siberia, he would successfully escape his prisons.

In a January 7, 1906, article in The Washington Times, Houdini was very critical of his experience with an unnamed precinct in the District of Columbia. Even though Houdini escaped in 18 minutes, he said he was treated like a “common malefactor.”

“Wizard Toys With Police” read the headline of a September 23, 1907, article in the Los Angeles Herald. Defeating the “cleverest men on the force,” Houdini repeatedly escaped shackles, handcuffs and chains.

Fun with law enforcement wasn’t always the theme of Houdini’s stunts. The magician was known to have an elephant or two up his sleeve. A story in the January 6, 1908, issue of the New York Tribune previews an upcoming show in which Houdini will not only make an elephant disappear but also present his “Submersible Mystery,” in which he escapes imprisonment under water.

Houdini is just one of the featured Topics in Chronicling America. Presented are several newspaper articles on the pastime along with suggested search terms to use in the Chronicling America database.

Chronicling America provides free access to more than 3.4 million historic American newspaper pages. To find out what's new, sign up for Chronicling America’s RSS Feed or email update, which highlights interesting content on the site and notifies when new newspapers and topics are added.

Houdini (real name: Erich Weiss) is one of several “Amazing Americans” you can learn about in America’s Library. America’s Library is a colorful, interactive site that offers more than 4,000 stories based on materials from the Library of Congress.

There is also a special section on Houdini in the American Variety Stage collection in American Memory. There, you can see more than 170 photographs and related items of personal memorabilia that document his career.