1916 : Harry Houdini Wows Grand Rapids

November 20, 2021 all-day

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As a young performer struggling to make a name, Houdini visited Grand Rapids in 1897. His impressive, well-publicized handcuff escape at the police station brought large crowds to the evening theater show. A Grand Rapids newspaper reporter wrote that he was cuffed “until the blood stopped circulating and the veins stood out in knots on his arms.” He also did his “Metamorphosis” trick in which he locked his wife in a trunk, then traded places with her.

Between 1898 and 1926, Houdini performed at Smith’s Opera House and the Empress Theatre in Grand Rapids and at the Temple Theatre, Grand Theater and Garrick Theatre in Detroit. To get publicity for these shows, he performed special escapes. For example, on November 27, 1906, wearing two pairs of handcuffs, he jumped 25 feet from the Belle Isle Bridge into the icy cold Detroit River.

Harry Houdini staged one of his most dramatic escapes in Grand Rapids during a 1916 appearance at the Empress Theater. This is how the Grand Rapids Herald described it on November 20:

Houdini, Hanging by Feet High Above Ground, Wriggles Out of Straight Jacket

Several thousands of gasping Grand Rapids citizens watched Harry Houdini, the escape king, writhe free from a police strait-jacket and hand cuffs while suspended by his feet from the new Grand Rapids Savings Bank building yesterday.

Monroe and Ionia avenues were jammed for two blocks by an audience that watched nervously every move of the Empress star. With his feet securely bound, wrists handcuffed and his arms and abdomen cased in a strait-jacket Houdini was pulled from the pavement up to the fifth floor, and there held stationary, a cross arm on the rigging preventing tangling of the rope.

Writhing backwards and forwards, lifting his head and abdomen by sheer strength up to his feet, twisting and turning and all the time whirling about in the air, Houdini first removed the handcuffs from his wrists. Then he writhed without great effort from the straitjacket, and in one minute and fifty-five seconds after leaving the pavement the straitjacket dropped to the sidewalk, and his arms swung free.

A simultaneous cheer arose from the crowd as he was lowered back to the ground. It was one of the largest crowds that ever has gathered in the downtown section for any sort of an attraction, and as a
thriller, Houdini’s feat has never been excelled in this city.

Source: Excerpts from Escape With Houdini/ Magic in Michigan : Michigan Time Traveler Kid’s History, October 9, 2002.

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