Houdini: The Great (Westport) Escape

You’ve probably never seen a movie of Harry Houdini.

You’ve also probably never seen a movie of Longshore, back in the day when it was Frederick E. Lewis’ private estate.

But now — thanks to Facebook — you can see both.

At once.

On the “Westport, Connecticut: Old Photos from the Westport of Our Youth” page, Colabella  — the young Representative Town Meeting member who was not even alive when the Longshore bathhouses were torn down — posted what is said to be the only surviving film of Houdini doing his “overboard box escape.”

The information comes from John Cox’s “Wild About Harry” blog. It covers all things Houdini.

For nearly a century, the date and location of the film — edited by the magician/ stunt performer’s brother Hardeen — has been a mystery.

Now — thanks to a letter at David Copperfield’s International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts — the back story is known.

The escape took pace on June 30, 1917, during a Red Cross And Allied War charities drive at Lewis’s home.

The film shows Houdini being lowered into Long Island Sound, at what is now Longshore.

It purports to show his escape too (though according to a YouTube commenter, that footage was spliced in from Houdini’s film “The Master Mystery”).

But there is no mystery about the gala affair in Westport.

Bridgeport Times story previewed it 3 days earlier:

Nearly every woman of prominence in the shore colony is busily engaged in the arrangements, which will continue throughout the week. Workmen and architects are transforming the Lewis estate into a veritable fairly land; tents are being put in place for the society circus, side shows, concessions and charity booths, while the boat house will be utilized as a petite theatre … and for moving pictures.

Frederick Lewis’ palatial home. Parts of it are recognizable today, as the Inn at Longshore. (Photo/courtesy of Alden Bryan)

There would be elephants, stage stars — and “one of the really sensational engagements … the wizard Houdini.”

He was expected to “make a new experiment which is filled with excitement and daring. The fearless magician will perform what he calls the ‘submarine submerged box mystery.'”

He would be:

shackeled hand and foot, placed in a packing case which is securely nailed and sealed by a committee and after the box is weighted a huge crane which is being placed on the landing pier of Mr. Lewis’ boathouse will carry the box out over the water and drop it into the Sound.

Houdini wagers that he will appear on the surface two minutes after the case has been submerged. This will be Houdini’s first appearance in the state of Connecticut and his last public appearance in America for some time.

As the film shows, that’s exactly what happened. The “wizard” was shackled, nailed in a packing case, dumped in the water … and then he re-appeared.

How he did it was one mystery.

Where he did it was another one.

Now — thanks, the Facebook post says, to “David Copperfield and the Westport Museum for History & Culture” — that mystery has finally been solved.

(Click here, then scroll down to see the Facebook post.)

(It’s no mystery that “06880” relies on readers’ support. Please click here to contribute to your hyper-local blog. Thank you!)

4 responses to “Houdini: The Great (Westport) Escape

  1. An interesting footnote, perhaps, is that our town’s First Selectman from 1981-5 was, according to him, a grand nephew of Houdinini. I never verified that tid bit, but he proudly mentioned it to me, as part of his heritage.

  2. I think Mr. Katz might be correct about our former First Selectman. As I recall back in July of ’85 he pulled a “Houdini” and disappeared when it became evident that Hall and Oates were not showing up. He split and left Barbara Roth to make the announcement that there would be no H and O performance.

    • Good memory, Dave.
      He, thoughtlessly, I think, came to visit my wife and me on Cape Cod rather than face the music…in a town owned car…and got lots of bad press from that get away….maybe he deserved it

  3. Thanks Dan! It’s so exciting to finally locate this historic Houdini film as being Westport.

Leave a Reply