The Great Houdini and his Awesome Leap for Life Yarra Dive

The Great Houdini and his Awesome Leap for Life Yarra Dive
Houdini, hands cuffed behind him, about to jump off Queen's Bridge into the Yarra River -- Being picked up by police boat after jump, holding handcuffs -- Large crowd on Queen's Bridge, banks of Yarra and in small boats, witnessing Houdini jump into the Yarra River.
Houdini Jumps from Queens Bridge into the Yarra River. Photoprint of images from the Australasian 19 February 1910, from the W. G. Alma conjuring collection via the State Library of Victoria

I came across this series of Houdini photos a little while back but didn’t have enough time to do much more than say OMG! Houdini was in Melbourne!! How did I not know that???

He arrived in Melbourne on Sunday 6 February 1910 for a series of shows at Mr Harry Rickards’s New Melbourne Opera House at 249 Bourke St (now the site of the Tivoli Arcade).

The Argus newspaper described him as “a short, sturdy man, with an exceptionally broad forehead and keen grey eyes… his dark hair, plentifully bespangled with grey”. He described himself as an “escapologist” and not a magician because they “are too common. If you shake the first tree you come to, a whole shipload of magicians will tumble out of it.” He said his first act was “bending backwards and picking up a pin with my eye… I used to let them knot me up in ropes, and I used to wriggle out”. He claimed to have been the first person to escape from handcuffs in 1889 and performed his first prison escape in 1890 after being arrested for performing on a Sunday [1].

He was here for a seven-week run before appearing in in Sydney on Easter Monday ( March 28). He did a whole bunch of stuff (including his famous milk-can escape), but for now, I’ll just tell you about his Yarra River dive.

The “leap for life” dive took place on 17 February 1910, at 1.30pm from Queens Bridge (at Market St). He dove 20′ (6.1 m) from the parapet of the bridge to the surface of the water, into about 10′ 8″ (3.25 m) of water wearing about 25 lb (11.34 kg) of chains and locks.

The crowd, in excess of 20,000, consisted of “Stevedores, carriers, men of all trades and callings, [who] swallowed a hasty “snack” and crowded down to the banks of the Yarra along with city clerks and office boys, who had added a surreptitious half hour to their luncheon interval [2]“. The crowd was so large that it extended as far as Princes Bridge (Flinders St), and was so large that many people fell, though there were no serious injuries.

Houdini arrived by car from his dressing room at the Opera House, along with his German attendant and Mr Rickards’s manager Mr Aydon. On schedule, and “clad in a bright blue bathing costume, [he] stood on the parapet of the bridge facing the shipping [3]“; and he “held out his wrists for the manacles as if the proceedings were a huge joke [4]“.

“First, his attendant passed a chain around his neck, and fastened it with a padlock just under his chin, so that it could not be pulled over his head. At the ends of the chain were handcuffs, apparently of the ordinary police type, and these were snapped around his arms. His wrists were next held behind his back with a padlock, and another chain ran to the one about the back of his neck, to which it was joined by a third padlock. Several of the bystanders tested the locks and pronounced them to be secure [5]“.

“Without more ado Houdini sprang into the river [6]“, and “took a beautiful header, cutting the water clean and with the least possible splash.  He was lost to sight after entering the murky water of the Yarra [7]” so no one could see how the trick was carried out

“A quarter of a minute passed, and a constable in the police boat… began to finger the grappling irons,” but “fifteen seconds later… Houdini turned up smiling and free, with the chains and handcuffs hanging over his arm… the policeman dropped the corpse recovering gear with a clank, and pulled the swimmer over the side [8]“.

“His feat was rewarded with great cheering [9]“, and following the dive, supporters in the crowd lifted him to their shoulders and carried him to his car. The crowd was so large that the car couldn’t move until a trooper forced a way through for it [10]. He said that he had “enjoyed himself very much, notwithstanding that he had to work in mud up to his armpits to free himself of his chains [11]“.

And if like me, you wondered after reading that prose whether Banjo Patterson contributed to the coverage at all, he had left The Age by then and was trying his luck as a pastoralist at Coodra Vale.

Pretty astonishing stuff, and I like to think I would have snuck out and added “a surreptitious half hour” to my lunch break as well! Would you?

[1] 1910. “Houdini“. The Argus, 7 February, p. 9.

[2] 1910. “A Novel Spectacle“. The Age, 18 February, p. 10.

[3] 1910 “Sensational Diving“. The Argus, 18 February, p. 4.

[4] see footnote 2.

[5] see footnote 3.

[6] see footnote 2.

[7] see footnote 3.

[8] see footnote 2.

[9] see footnote 3.

[10] 1910. “Greenroom Gossip“. Punch, 24 February, p. 34.

[11] see footnote 3.

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