Harry Houdini on Trial
In 1901, the Cologne, Germany newspaper, Rheinishe Zeitung (RZ), published a story titled (translated) “The Unmasking of Houdini,” in which a chief of police, Schutzmann Werner Graff, accused Houdini of attempting to bribe him into rigging an escape from the city’s jail, and of paying another man, Herr Lott, to help him with a phony performance.
Incensed (and facing an existential threat), Houdini hired “the best lawyer of Cologne, Herr Rechtsantwalt Dr. Schreiber” to prosecute a series of slander trials.
Held in Cologne, at the first trial, on February 26, 1902, Graff testified that Houdini had offered him 20 marks in exchange for Graff giving him both his “handcrafted lock” and a duplicate key. Graff also testified that Houdini had another man (named Lott) secretly provide him with a duplicate chain to display, after he would appear to have freed himself from the first chain, although really, according to Graff, he just sawed through it.
Of course Houdini denied the charges and claimed that Graff had, in fact, attempted to deceive Houdini by providing him with an inoperable or “dead” lock, and that, since Lott had warned him of Graff’s deception, Houdini offered Lott some compensation for that information.
Witnesses were presented for the defense and the plaintiff, although no clear conclusion could be drawn. To solve the matter definitively, the chairman of the case asked Houdini for a demonstration. Locks, as well as chains, were placed around him. Houdini first banged one lock against a metal plate he had fastened on his leg, which weakened the spring, enabling him to open the lock. Then Houdini and the judge went to a corner of the court (in an attempt for Houdini to keep some of his secrets), where Houdini showed the judge his method for freeing the chains. The judge and jury were convinced, and Houdini won.
Undeterred, Graff sought a second trial with a higher court, the Strafkammer, where the second proceeding was held on July 26, 1902, and at which some of the “highest officials of Cologne” testified for the defense. Here, a lock manufactured by master mechanic Kroch, claimed to be of such a construction that once locked “nothing would open it . . . even the key,” was used to chain Houdini. According to contemporary reports, he then:
walks into the room selected by the jury where he could work unhindered. In four minutes, with a quiet smile, reenters the court room, and hands the judges the prepared lock opened.
Houdini won the second trial, as well.
Graff remained unrepentant and pursued the matter with Germany’s highest court, the Oberlandesgericht, where the third trial was held on September 26, 1902. Houdini again prevailed. Graff was found guilty of “openly slandering” Houdini and was fined 30 marks. Houdini was awarded his expenses and an amount to compensate him for lost bookings (both also paid by Graff), as well as “An Honorary Apology” that was to be publicly advertised.
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- Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874 as Erik Weisz. The Weisz family emigrated to the U.S. in 1878, changed their last name to Weiss and Erik’s first name to Ehrich and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Ehrich’s father worked for a time as a rabbi. Young Ehrich, known also as Ehrie (eventually morphed into Harry), and his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin after his father lost his position at the Appleton synagogue. Harry left school after the third grade and ran away from home by age 12.
- He changed his name to Harry White; athletic and having made his way to New York, he successfully competed in swim meets, bicycle and foot races and boxing matches. He also became fascinated with magic, after having read The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, a French magician. Harry took up Houdin’s name (He added the “i” because a friend of his, Jack Hayman, told him adding the “i” at the end would make it mean “like Houdin” in French, which of course isn’t correct, but nevertheless resulted in “Houdini”) and a career in magic, which he and his brother performed at the 1893 Columbia Exposition. In 1894, Harry married his wife, Bess, and together they played medicine shows and circuses in the U.S. and Canada as “The Houdini’s”.
- Houdini’s break came when he met Martin Beck, an impresario who encouraged him to focus on his escape acts. To promote the travelling show, Houdini would stop by local police stations and get the officers to lock him up in various ways; his escapes were reported by local newspapers, which helped draw crowds to his act. Houdini even had the chiefs of police prepare certificates verifying his escapes, and some of these were included in his book The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist (originally published in 1900 but revised at least as late as 1922).
- Houdini became known as the Handcuff King and joined the ranks of American vaudeville’s greatest acts. Capitalizing on his popularity, he toured Europe and, the hiccup in Cologne notwithstanding, was very successful in France, Germany, England and the Netherlands. In the early 1900s, Houdini expanded his act to escaping from all manner of things, including packing crates, mail bags, the famous Murderers Row jail cell and even an iron maiden (Excellent!). Houdini introduced his famous Water Torture Cell in 1912.
- Never giving up on pure magic, Houdini also performed stunts such as Walking Through a Brick Wall, producing an eagle from a flag (he named the bird Abraham Lincoln) and even making an elephant disappear.
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