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Harry Houdini: Escapologist and Locksmith

06/02/2018 Escape artist handcuffs.

Harry Houdini’s name is synonymous with the discipline that he more or less invented: escapology. Lockpicking is a skilled discipline. Escaping from straightjackets and handcuffs and padlocked chains is another level. Houdini routinely performed these tricks whilst suspended upside down from a crane or immersed in water. When he was nine, Houdini was apprenticed to a locksmith - the skills he learned at that age would serve him well in his later career, but his greatest challenge was set by the Daily Mirror in a tour of England in 1904.

His Greatest Challenge

Harry Houdini was a showman. At the height of his fame, his escapes would draw crowds in the tens of thousands. On a tour of Britain, he was set a challenge that he would later refer to as the greatest that he ever faced. The Daily Mirror challenged him to escape from a pair of handcuffs that had been designed by a Birmingham locksmith called Nathaniel Hart.

The Handcuffs

The handcuffs were billed as unpickable. Houdini claimed he could escape from any handcuffs that were routinely used by police, but he usually refused challenges to escape from bespoke handcuffs designed by hobbyists and experts. 4000 paying spectators crowded into the Hippodrome theatre to watch Houdini attempt to escape from Hart’s handcuffs. 

The Mechanism

The cuffs had 21 levers and featured an old style Bramah lock inside a tube like a gun barrel that was itself locked away within a lock. Houdini was not allowed to examine the cuffs beforehand. Halfway through the challenge, he requested that the cuffs be removed so he could take off his jacket. This request was denied as it was felt there would be too much information to be gained by seeing the cuffs unlocked. Ever the showman, Houdini contorted his jacket over his head and cut the offending item of clothing free by using a penknife clenched in his teeth.   

The Escape

Apart from this spectacle, Houdini spent most of the time on stage concealed behind a screen attempting to pick the cuffs’ lock. Unsurprisingly, the audience began to get a bit restless. However, after an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged brandishing the unlocked cuffs. Speculation has continued to this day as to whether the escape was genuine or whether Houdini set the whole thing up. 

Picking locks isn’t usually done under such stressful conditions. At PT Lock & Safe, we say that we will pick any lock. Obviously, we wouldn’t attempt it hanging upside down let alone whilst being waterboarded. But we will always attempt to pick a lock first and only drill out a lock if it needs to be replaced anyway.

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