The man who defied shackles, chains, heights, padlocks, earth and water nearly suffocated to death when he was restrained in a coffin and buried six feet underground. Harry Houdini the supreme escapologist, survived to tour Australia in 1910. He arrived with his wife and an aeroplane as well an array of tricks that surpassed the word magic and confounded the audience at his many shows. Adding to the excitement and intrigue was Houdini’s announcement that he would take ‘escape challenges’ from the public as long as the details of the challenge and the names of those who devised the challenge were published a week prior to one of his shows.
Sydney siders were quick with ideas. One of the challenges was devised by a group of people who were employed at various hospitals and asylums around Sydney at the time, such as Callan Park, Gladesville and Kenmore hospitals for the insane, and Liverpool and Parramatta asylums. The challenge was published in the Herald and the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday April 20th 1910 and the instructions laid out for Houdini were detailed.
1st. They will bandage his hands to his sides
2nd. They will roll him in a number of large sheets in mummy fashion
3rd. They will fasten him down to an iron hospital bed with strong linen bandages
4th. They will pour from 10 to 15 buckets of water over his form, so as to cause all the materials and knots to shrink, holding him in a positively helpless condition
5th. The attempt to escape to take place in full view of the audience.
Of course, Houdini escaped in front of the live audience although it took thirty-five minutes culminating in his writhing on the floor when he fell from the bed and continued to fight his way free of the bandages binding him.
Nearly one month before these feats which were part magic and part sheer physicality – many suspected Houdini was double-jointed, Houdini flew for seven minutes and 37 seconds in a French Voisin biplane he’d purchased the year previously for $5000. For many years it was claimed this was the first controlled powered flight in Australia (March 18, 1910) which took place north of Melbourne at Diggers Rest, Victoria. Aviation historians eventually debunked this myth crediting Colin Defries with the first controlled flight which took place in Sydney December 1909.
Sixteen years later Houdini would succumb to mortality. The man who escaped water torture, burials and straitjackets died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, in Detroit, USA October 1926, aged 52.