Sunday, October 18, 2015

5 Minutes of Oz History: Harry Houdini

Oz history and Houdini? Yes, famed illusionist, stunt performer and escapologist has a connection with Australia. Actually, several connections. 

Harry Houdini (1874-1926) had declined a tour of Australia in the past because such a tour would keep him away from his beloved mother for too long, the ocean voyage alone taking 12 weeks and Houdini being badly prone to sea sickness. 

His declaration to never travel to Australia had been made in an interview in 1904. Nonetheless in 1910 he made such a tour.

His first performance was in a theatre in Melbourne where he showed films of his daring escapes and carried out live escapes, including a substitution with his wife in a trunk whilst bound and from a strait jacket. Houdini’s use of the new medium of moving pictures as part of his act was innovative and included film of some of his escapes from restraints underwater.

He announced to the audience that he intended the next day to make such an escape from the waters of the Yarra River whilst bound, an impressive feat in that simply getting into the polluted waters of the Yarra and surviving would have been prodigious in itself.

The intended event caught the public imagination and large numbers of the public turned up at the Queens Bridge to watch, men in bowler hats rubbing shoulders with wharf labourers and women in long dresses. By 1.30pm there were 20,000 people in attendance, notwithstanding the heat wave conditions.

Houdini arrived in a neck to knee blue bathing suit and was chained, padlocked and handcuffed, with members of the public testing that the restraints were secure.

Houdini was 6 metres (20 feet) above the water which at low tide was 3 metres (10 feet) deep and he dived in, head first.

Under the muddy water he sought to escape the restraints, stating later that he was up to his armpits in mud.

Whilst the crowd waited anxiously, a man dressed in black approached one of Houdini’s assistants and asked " Excuse me, are you connected with the chap who has just gone down?" The assistant responded that he was, prompting the man in black to press a card into the assistant’s hand as he said "In case he shouldn’t come up." The assistant read the card later and found that it was for a local undertaker.

After a couple of anxious minutes, with police with corpse grappling irons in their hands ready to spring into action, Houdini broke the surface with chains and locks in hand. He swum to one of the police boats and acknowledged the crowd.

At the next venue, Sydney, Houdini announced an intended escape from the waters of Sydney Harbour, being the “Municipal Baths”. It is believed that these were the Domain Baths, an enclosed part of the harbour at Woolloomoolo, near where the Sydney Opera House is today. The baths had a grandstand seating up to 1,700 and had a 6 metre diving tower. The venue had been selected by Houdini because the man who liked to defy death in numerous ways admitted to a fear of sharks, the baths having shark netting. Unlike the Melbourne event, Sydneysiders were to be charged one shilling to attend, although in fairness it should be said that this may have been partly a crowd control measure. 

Chained and restrained, Houdini dived head first into the waters of Sydney Harbour, emerging freed after forty four seconds. The dive had, however, blackened both his eyes.

Houdini’s Australian tour was not only momentous for his escapes or that a world renowned performer visited the Antipodes.

In 1909, Houdini had became fascinated with aviation and had purchased a French Voisin biplane for $5000 and hired a full-time mechanic, Antonio Brassac. After crashing once, he made his first successful flight on November 26 in Hamburg, Germany. When he toured Australia the next year, 1910, he took his biplane and mechanic with him, declaring that he intended to be the first man to fly a plane in Australia.

On March 18, 1910, Houdini made three flights at Diggers Rest, Victoria, near Melbourne. 

It was reported at the time that this was the first aerial flight in Australia but this was incorrect. The first aeroplane flight in the Southern Hemisphere had been made December 9, 1909 by Colin Defries, a Londoner, at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney, in a Wilbur Wright aeroplane. The first powered flight in Australia took place at Bolivar in South Australia; the aircraft was a Bleriot monoplane with Fred Custance as the pilot. The flight took place on March 17, 1910. The next day when Houdini took to the air, the Herald newspaper reported Custance's flight, stating it had lasted 5 minutes 25 seconds at a height of between 12 and 15 feet.

Houdini’s flight was declared at the time, erroneously, to be the first powered flight in Australia. Today many sources still credit Houdini with the first Australian powered, controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft.

In 2010 Australia Post issued stamps commemorating Colin Defries, Houdini and John Robertson Duigan, crediting only Defries and Duigan with historical firsts. Duigan was an Australian pioneer aviator who built and flew the first Australian-made aircraft. Australia Post did acknowledge the part Houdini played but did not attribute any record to him.

After completing his Australia tour, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. He announced he would use it to fly from city to city during his next Music Hall tour, and even promised to leap from it handcuffed, but he never flew again.

The Voisin was essentially a powered boxkite of the kind that Lawrence Hargrave had used in his researches. Houdini recognised this and invited Hargrave to the planned first flight but Hargrave refused, replying with an out of character curtness that he had invented this type of aeroplane many years before.

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