Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

Harry Houdini escaped the belly of a sea monster in Boston 110 years ago?

Harry Houdini escaped the belly of a sea monster in Boston 110 years ago?

Everyone has heard the story of the time Harry Houdini famously jumped off the Harvard Bridge, bound by chains, and managed to wiggle free and resurface before he could drown in the Charles River.

The striking image of Houdini looking squarely into the camera as he prepares to take the bold plunge, surrounded by some 20,000 spectators, remains an anindelible classic.

But a few years later, the great magician put on arguably the most remarkable act of his career in Boston, resulting in essentially sweeping reversals.

Houdini stuffed himself in what people dubbed a giant sea monster while performing at opulent vaudeville venue in September 1911, had it chained shut, and then miraculously escaped despite reluctance from dozens of local celebrities to give it fright.

The Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park celebrated Houdinis bravery in a newsletter last week, marking the 110th anniversary of his exploit.

October is a month of magic and mischief. Both were found on Long Wharf in 1911, when a crowd gathered to accompany Harry Houdini to nearby [B.F. Keiths Theatre], the e-mail read. His latest achievement was to be an unusual one: 10 local businessmen challenged him to escape not just from the usual handcuffs and leg manacles, but to do so from inside the belly of a local sea monster!

According to the newspaper, istorians are still not sure what animal Houdini was in and that accounts have varied from a whale to sand turtle over the years. Could it have been a real creature from the deepest oceans?

Officials at Boston Harbor Islands were also left wondering: Was the sea monster caught swimming around the Boston Harbour Islands before its 15 minutes of fame?

We turned to the archives in order to uncover this century-old sea mystery. As it turns out, the sea monster in question was no Kraken from the deep, nor was it captured in local waters.

Houdinis upcoming challenge was mentioned in a short article on Sept. 25, 1911, published in The Boston Daily Globe under the title, Houdiini's Last Test: Tomorrow Afternoon He Will Endeavor To Get Out of The Giant Sea Monster.

According to the story, The monster, which weighs 1,500 pounds, will be brought to [Keiths Theatre] in a motor truck. This new challenge accepted by Mr. Houdini is the most original in his career, said a group of prominent businessmen.

(The Boston Post published a similar article op-ed ten days before the event, with revealing images of squat turtles, possibly leatherbacks.) Nonetheless, the newspaper succeeded in putting Houdini in the gigantic sea monster, stealing the hype. (See the article "To Lock Houudinis in Giant Sea Monster.)

Since Twitter wasnt around when that was the case, the action couldn t be seen in real time. So those who didnt show up to watch the show (and there were many, according to various press reports) had to wait until the following day to read all about it.

A Sept. 27 Globe article delivered the goods and detailed Houdinis escapade in great detail. In a quick news item on the front page of the newspaper, concerns about the alleged sea monster were quickly addressed.

Houdini escapes at Keiths from a monster-embarked turtle, in whose shell he had been chained, it said.

The teaser directed readers to page 13 of the paper, which featured a play-by-play of how Houdini was trapped inside the beast before he made his remarkable escape.

The turtle, which, according to experts, was about 500 years old, had wandered from the Caribbean sea to the Nova Scotia coast, where it was captured by fishermen. It was embalmed and displayed at Long Wharf.

According to the Globe, the turtle was moved from the wharf to Keiths Theatre using a large truck. When the curtains opened for the grandiose show, the turtle was relaxing gracefully in the middle of the stage.

Houdini was greeted by Lieutenant Governor Louis Frothingham and read the proposal aloud to the audience, who packed the theater so tightly that they filled the house and [were] seven deep at the back.

The challenge stated practic that John F. Masters, A.M. Moody, George H. Hill, J.A. Weegar, Stephen B. Wiley, and Charles A."

As Houdini finished reading the conditions of the challenge, one of those who challenged Houudinian leapt from his seat and asked to read a document he had drawn up.

The paperwork stated that because the turtle had been embalmed in arsenic, the challengers had no liability if Houdini did become sick or, worse, not come out. Houdini reaffirmed his position, saying he was willing to take a chance.

He left the stage to get changed, and when he returned, a pair of handcuffs and leg irons secured him in and aided him inside the turtle by his assistants. According to one report, he spritzed the inside of the turtle with a strong scent.

Despite its rumored size, the turtle was described by the Globe as a tight squeeze.

Once Houdini was inside, they shut the turtle down.

Eyelets had been made, and a heavy chain was threaded through and carried around to the hard-shelles back, in the center of which, despite Houdinis presence, the chains were locked, the Globe reported. Houdini could get air by pressing his lips against the chain, according to the challengers.

According to reports, a red cabinet was placed over Houdiniand the turtle. To create a dramatic effect, an orchestra began to play.

Houdini, now a celebrity, has emerged from what the Boston Herald called the sea freak. Fifteen nerve-wracking minutes later, the pair finally emerged.

He not only escaped from the inards of the What-is-it? sea monster, but he also removed a pair of handcuffs and ties en route, the Herald reported. He stood, grease-covered, pale, and perspirational, beside the turtle-like monster in which he had been locked.

The chains still held the slit [on the turtle] tightly closed...everything was as it was before, the Herald continued. Houdini, on the other hand, was on top. He smiled at the audience and pleaded for someone to open the windows due to the arsenic fumes.

According to the Globe, the crowd howled itself hoarse in approval.

Mrs. Houdini smiled happily, the Lt. Governor applauded... and the challenger shook hands and heads at the same time, read the article. Mr. Masters will have the monster stuffed and dumped at Long Wharf for the children to look at, he said.

So begins the tale of Houdinis great 1911 escape. However, one mystery remains: Where is the sea monster displayed today?

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe contributed to this article.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.

You may also like: