In early 1910, famous magician Harry Houdini was in Melbourne Australia performing one of his magical shows. On the 7th of February 1910, Houdini wowed audiences at Melbourne's Opera Theatre (which is now demolished) with his mystical feats where he also hinted at a death-defying stunt he had planned for Melbournians the following week.
HOUDINI AT THE OPERA HOUSE.
Harry Houdini, the "original gaol breaker," who claims to know more about the in and outs, particularly the "outs," of handcuffs, straight jackets and other police furniture than the most wily Bill Sykes on the right or the wrong side of
Pentridge, or any similar institution, showed a crowded audience at the Opera House last night how the trick was done. Near-sighted person certainly had cause to complain that the quickness of the perormer's hands, or rather his whole body, deceived their eyes, for his movements as he slithered about the stage in the close embrace or a regulation straight jacket were more akin to those of an electrified eel than a human, being. Two stalwart constables and a committee saw to it that the jacket was tied tight enough to prevent anything more bulky than a sigh escaping
from the business side of it, and then left Houdini in the limelight to work out his own salvation, not forgetting his muscular person. For the next minute or so the audience caught fleeting glimpses of it wriggling bundle of white shirt and dress clothes as it bounced and kicked itself about the stage. Outside a moving picture film the thing seemed hardly possible, but in a minute and a quarter the white shirt rather knocked about, but a good one still" straightened into shupe, and the audience found itself gazing at a gasping Houdini with a discarded police pacifier lying in a disorderly heap at his side. In addition to casualty putting on another man's coat without taking the trouble to untie his wrists, this decidedly original performer had himself scaled up in a sack and packed away neatly in a wooden trunk which was then locked and roped. Needless to mention, he turned up smiling asecond later— with his assistant bagged instead. After Houdini had turned himself inside out quite a score of times,
the audience, Oliver Twist like, wanted "more." He promised, with the permission of the local authorities, to tumble manacled into the Yarra one of these, days and to remain in the mud below till he gets rid of his steel fastening. As a curtain raiser to the turn, cinematograph representations were given of Houdini's leaps from the Markel-street-bridge, Philadelphia, U.S.A.., and the Paris morgue While his wrists were handcuffed.
Being the showman that he is, it wasn't enough for the 1400 people in attendance for his show to know about his plans, he wanted all of Melbourne to come and watch. Announcements were made across Newspapers teasing:
A bold display is to be made by Houdini (the "Handcuff King," now appearing at the Opera House) tomorrow. He has arranged to dive into the river from the parapet of Queens Bridge manacled. He will have two pairs of handcuffs on his wrists secured behind his back elbow Irons and a chain around his heck. The total weight is said to be 26lb. He under takes to free himself from the encumbrances' before he rises to tho surface.
On the warm Summer's day (during a typical Summer's heatwave with consecutive 38-degree celsuis days), crowds gathered to watch Houdini take a plunge. The Herald Sun reported that up to 20,000 people came to see Houdini's stunt with some in their own boats to get the best vantage point.
In typical Houdini style, he asked several members of the public to inspect the shackles before declaring:
He then jumped into the water where the crowd anxiously awaited him to rise out of the murky water. After a couple of long minutes, he emerged with the crowd shouting 'Houdini' while he swam to a nearby boat awaiting him.
The Queens Bridge remains in Melbourne to this day, and I always get a little nostalgic walking along the footpath knowing Houdini once took the same steps.
Image Source: Melbourne Photo Daily
The Yarra River has always been known for being disgustingly dirty and back in those days full of disease, so it makes the jump all the more daring. Perhaps that was the motivation Houdini needed to free himself quickly, I know I wouldn't want to be in that water a second longer than I needed to! An urban legend seemed to have developed in the years that followed. Houdini was said to have found himself next to a dead body in the depths of the river which became dislodged from the dive. The body was said to have floated to the top with the crowd looking on in horror believing it was Houdini himself. There doesn't seem to be anyone who has been able to find any newspaper articles on this which seems a bit strange, however, Houdini himself was said to have told this story many times. It is reported he discussed it in an interview in the Boston Post in 1918 stating "As long as I live I will not forget that incident. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me."
Of course, this was not the last time Houdini made history in Melbourne. Read about Houdini's history-making flight over Digger's Rest in Victoria marking the first controlled, powered flight in an aircraft for the first time ever in Australia.
State Library of Victoria Photo Archive
Herald Sun: The great Harry Houdini’s Yarra River escape and first plane flight in Australia
HAT: History of Australian Theatre
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