Everyone has heard the story about the time escape artist Harry Houdini famously jumped off the Harvard Bridge, fully bound by chains, and managed to wiggle free and resurface before he could drown in the Charles River.
The arresting image of Houdini looking squarely into the camera as he prepares to take the daring plunge, surrounded by some 20,000 spectators, remains an indelible classic.
But a few years after that stunt, the great magician pulled off a lesser-talked-about feat in Boston, one so audacious — and flat-out strange — it was considered the most novel attempt of his career to that point.
In September 1911, Houdini stuffed himself inside of what people dubbed a “giant sea monster” while on stage at a local vaudeville theater, had it chained shut, and then miraculously escaped — a challenge he accepted after a group of area bigwigs dared him to give it a shot.
The Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park observed the 110th anniversary of Houdini’s daring exploit in a newsletter last week.
“October is a month for magic and mischief. Both could be found on Long Wharf in 1911, when a crowd gathered to accompany the magician Harry Houdini to nearby [B.F. Keith’s Theatre],” the e-mail read. “His latest feat was to be an unusual one: 10 local businessmen challenged him to escape not just from the typical handcuffs and leg manacles, but to do so from inside the belly of a local sea monster!”
The newsletter said “historians are still not sure what type of animal Houdini was put inside” and that accounts have varied from a whale to a sea turtle over the years. Could it have truly been a creature from the deepest seas?
Park officials were also left wondering this: Was the sea monster “caught swimming around the Boston Harbor Islands before its 15 minutes of fame?”
Eager to get to the bottom of this century-old sea mystery, we turned to the archives. As it turns out, the sea monster in question was no Kraken from the deep at all, nor was it captured in local waters.
On Sept. 25, 1911, The Boston Daily Globe mentioned Houdini’s upcoming challenge in a short write-up under the headline, “Houdini’s Latest Test: Tomorrow Afternoon He Will Endeavor To Get Out of The Giant Sea Monster.”
“The monster, which weighs 1,500 pounds, will be brought to [Keith’s Theatre] in a motor truck,” the story read. “This new challenge accepted by Mr. Houdini is the most original in his career,” one that was put forth by a group of prominent businessmen.
(The Boston Post also ran an article a day before the event, with a picture that clearly showed a large turtle, possibly a leatherback. But the newspaper played into the hype just the same, with the headline “To Lock Houdini in Giant Sea Monster.”)
Since Twitter wasn’t around back then, the action couldn’t be captured in real time. So those who didn’t pack the theater for the show (and there were many, according to various press accounts) had to wait until the next day to read all about it.
A Sept. 27 Globe article delivered the goods and chronicled Houdini’s escapade in great detail. In a small news item on the front page of the paper, questions about the alleged “sea monster” were quickly addressed.
“Houdini escapes at Keith’s from monster embalmed turtle, within whose shell he had been chained,” it read.
The teaser directed readers to page 13 of the paper, which provided a play-by-play of how Houdini was locked inside the beast before he made his remarkable escape.
But first, a bit more about this alleged sea monster: “The great turtle, which, according to experts, was some 500 years old, had wandered from the Caribbean sea to the Nova Scotia coast, where fishermen captured it. It was embalmed and put on exhibition at Long Wharf.”
According to the Globe’s account, the turtle was moved from the wharf to Keith’s Theatre using a large truck. When the curtains went up for the grandiose show, the turtle was “reclining gracefully in the center of the stage.”
After he was greeted by Lieutenant Governor Louis Frothingham, Houdini read the proposed challenge aloud to spectators, who packed the theater so tightly that they “filled the house and [were] seven deep at the back.”
The challenge “stated practically that John F. Masters, A.M. Moody, George H. Hill, J.A. Weegar, Stephen B. Wiley, and Charles A. Philips dared [Houdini] to be chained into the turtle and escape.”
As Houdini finished reading the terms of the dare, one of the men who posed the challenge jumped up from his seat, the report said, and asked to read a legal document he had drawn up.
The paperwork said that because the turtle had been embalmed in arsenic, the group of challengers accepted no responsibility if Houdini were to get sick — or perhaps worse, not come out. Houdini agreed, saying “he was willing to take a chance.”
He left the stage to get changed, and when he returned, he was strapped into handcuffs and leg irons and helped inside the turtle by his assistants. He spritzed the inside of the turtle with a strong perfume, one report said.
Despite its rumored size, the turtle was described by the Globe as “a tight squeeze.”
Once Houdini was inside, they closed the turtle up.
“Eyelets had been made, and a heavy chain was threaded through and carried around to the hard-shelled back, in the center of which, a good yard from Houdini’s hands, the chains were locked,” the Globe reported. “The challengers decided to leave the monster bottom-up, so that Houdini could get a little air by pressing his lips against the chain.”
According to reports, a red cabinet was placed over Houdini and the turtle. An orchestra began to play for dramatic effect.
Fifteen nerve-racking minutes later, Houdini finally emerged from what the Boston Herald dubbed the “sea freak.”
“He not only escaped from the in’ards of the ‘What-is-it?’ sea monster, but incidentally removed a pair of handcuffs and a pair of leg-irons en route,” the Herald wrote. “He stood, grease-covered, pallid, and perspiring beside the turtle-like monster in which he had been chained.”
The chains “still held the slit [on the turtle] tightly closed ...everything was as it was before,” the Herald continued. Houdini, though, was on the outside. He smiled at the audience and begged for someone to open the windows due to the fumes from the arsenic.
The crowd “howled itself hoarse” in approval, the Globe reported.
“Mrs. Houdini smiled happily, the Lt. Governor applauded ... and the challengers all shook hands and heads at the same time,” the article read. “Mr. Masters will have the monster stuffed and put down at Long Wharf for children to look at.”
So goes the tale of Houdini’s great 1911 escape. But one mystery remains: Where is that sea monster display today?
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.