Friday, 21 February 2020

Houdini's Great Winnipeg Escape

© 2020, Christian Cassidy
February 17, 1923, Winnipeg Free Press

As far as publicity stunts go, Harry Houdini's escape from thirty feet above the sidewalk in front of the Winnipeg Free Press Building on Wednesday, February 21, 1923, was one of the most breathtaking the city has ever seen.

The Orpheum Theatre circuit began advertising on February 14th that the Hungarian-born escape artist would be coming to the city.  He was the headliner of a three night stint that included the likes of violinist and comedian Jack Benny, singer Frances Kennedy, and gymnast Ruth Harvard.

Three days after the ads appeared, the Free Press announced that it had secured Houdini for the publicity stunt at their building.

Feb. 22, 1923, Winnipeg Free Press

People were asked to gather on Carlton Street outside the building at noon and they came in droves. The Free Press estimated that between four and five thousand showed up.

Houdini was placed in the straight jacket by two city police officers and then hoisted by his feet with pulleys to 30 feet above the sidewalk. The Free Press reported that he then "shouted out to the crowd an intonation he was about to free himself, he began strenuously to work and in two minutes had liberated himself. The crowd, at the finish, heartily cheered the noted mystifyer."

Archives of Manitoba, L. B. Foote Collection

To attract even more attention to the feat, the paper ran an amateur photo contest with impressive cash prizes of $15, $10 and $5 for the three best images of the escape.

There were, of course, professionals in the crowd. L. B. Foote took the iconic photo of the event shown above. Also, the Allen Theatre Company had a newsreel crew present to film the event and showed it the following day at their theatre.

Sadly, it is not known what became of the photo entries or film footage.

On October 31, 1982, Winnipeg's own Dean Gunnarson, who was just 18 at the time, repeated the escape.


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