The Great Magician’s Escape
In 1906, the District of Columbia played host to “Handcuff King,” Harry Houdini. The great magician and his wife were visiting Washington, DC for Houdini’s performances at the Chase Theater when Metropolitan Police Chief Major Richard Sylvester invited the escape artist to test the Metropolitan Police’s metal.
Sylvester, a leader in American policing, was eager to show off his newest station house built in 1901. The Tenth Precinct’s Lieutenant explained that the station house boasted, “…cells of the most modern and approved pattern. The doors of these cells are steel-barred and have the most intricate combination locks.”
Houdini arrived on January 1, 1906 to the Tenth Precinct to examine the jail cell and locks before the escape. Once he was ready, Houdini was searched, stripped, and placed in cell 3 while his clothes were placed in cell 6. Then, the police officers changed the game. Houdini remembered, “I heard [the police lieutenant] whisper to one of his men to bring him the locks for another cell.” With his pride and reputation on the line, Houdini went on with the trick knowing the stakes had been substantially raised. Houdini later said, “I took a long chance there.”
Despite the added difficulty, Houdini completed the amazing escape from the special “invincible” Secret Service handcuffs, two padlocks, and two cell door locks, presenting himself to Police Chief Major Sylvester fully dressed in a mere twenty-six minutes. Chief Major Sylvester later wrote in a letter of testimony, “Mr. Houdini impressed his audience as a gentleman and an artist who does not profess to do the impossible.” Houdini repeated his escape at the Fifth Precinct and the District Jailhouse before departing the Nation’s Capital.
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