Sunday, April 26, 2020

Harry Houdini in Santa Ana?

Harry Houdini in 1907 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Did history's most famous magician, Harry Houdini, nearly lose his life in a stunt in Orange County? Although such an incident doesn't appear in local newspapers or lore, Houdini himself said it happened. But was it just a  case of "never letting the truth get in the way of a good story?"

In a 1925 article in Collier’s magazine (Vol. 75, #16, April 18, 1925, p 20), entitled, "When Magic Didn’t Work,” Houdini wrote about four instances where luck rather than skill kept him from dying in the performance of a stunt. One of these tales took place in Santa Ana.

“Out in Los Angeles eight years ago I made a bet that I could be manacled and buried alive six feet below the surface and get back to the land of the living without aid," wrote Houdini. "The only condition I made was that the burial should be graded, first going under one foot of soil, then two, and so on. A party of us left Los Angeles at dawn and motored over the road to Santa Ana. I knew something of the geology of those parts, and I knew that surface vegetation was nothing but beard bristle on sandy soil."

One wonders how Houdini could have known much about Santa Ana's geology. In any case, the description of sandy soil sounds more to me like something along the Garden Grove side of the Santa Ana River. Of course, there was plenty of unincorporated territory all around the region that could have been called Santa Ana back then. 

"I was duly manacled in the graded graves," Houdini continued, "making my way out (hand and ankle free) from the shallower graves, but finding a little difficulty with the four-foot and five-foot plantings.

“Somebody urged me not to try the six-foot grave, but, as i(s) always the way of a mystifier who makes any pretense of wisdom, I had devoted more time to practice than my friend imagined. They remanacled me and the extra foot of soil was dug up. I was buried and soil dumped down on me expeditiously, as stipulated.

“The shallower interments had accustomed me to the darkness and deafness of  burial, yet the knowledge that I was six feet under sod -- the legal requirement for corpses -- gave me the first thrill of horror I had ever experienced in my career as a journeyman daredevil.

“The momentary scare -- the irretrievable mistake of all daredevils -- nearly cost me my life, for it caused me to waste a fraction of breath when every fraction was needed to pull through. I kept the sand loose about my body so that I could work dexterously. I did. But as I clawed and kneed the earth, my strength began to fail. Then I made another mistake. I yelled. Or at least, I attempted to, and the last remnants of my self-possession left me. Then instinct  stepped in to the rescue. With my last reserve I fought through, more sand than air entering my nostrils. The sunlight came like a blinding blessing and my friends about the grave said that, chalky pale and wildeyed as I was, I presented the perfect imitation of a dead man rising. 

“The next time I’m buried," Houdini concluded, "I will not be alive, if I can help it.”

Did this actually happen in Santa Ana? Did Houdini ever even visit Santa Ana?
Houdini escaping a different coffin at a later date. (Library of Congress)
Houdini expert and historian John Cox, who has compiled a week-by-week chronology of Houdini’s life, told me, “I have nothing concrete. On Dec. 13, 1915 a newspaper reported that Houdini ‘will take a run down to San Diego today.’ That's the only reference to him heading south of L.A. at that time. I also have a clipping dated April 15, 1919 referencing him doing a Buried Alive stunt, but this is five days before he arrives in L.A.”

Writes Cox, “...In his diary [Houdini] just says [the Buried Alive stunt] was ‘near Hollywood.’ And, infuriatingly, we have the diary entry but no one seems to know what diary it comes from! … Yes, the lack of any newspaper account anywhere is frustrating. But not surprising as it appears to have been private test and not a publicity stunt. And it didn't go well, so nothing to brag about. But if it wasn't for the diary entry, I would be inclined to believe HH made it up for the 1925 Collier's piece, as he had made up several other ‘close call’ stories.

“The press wanted stories of close calls and when things went wrong," said Cox. "But the truth was Houdini really didn't have many close calls. He was far too prepared and professional. So he would whip up an exciting story. Him being trapped under the ice is his real masterpiece.” 

So was the story entirely fabricated?

A couple weeks after our initial conversation, Cox managed to dig up more clues. Most significantly, he discovered a short but potentially relevant article in the May 16, 1919 edition of the Los Angeles Times. This, combined with his extensive knowledge of Houdini's life and habits, indicates to Cox that the near-disastrous burial actually did take place -- but probably in Santa Monica rather than Santa Ana. He lays out his evidence and "aha moments" in a post on his excellent blog: Wild About Harry. (Go read it.)

In a separate post on Facebook, Cox said he suspects Houdini just mixed up the names of the two cities when writing the story six years after the fact: "Leave it to a New Yorker to confuse Santa Ana and Santa Monica." 

When disappointment was expressed at the likelihood that Santa Ana was out of the picture, Cox responded, "Well, it's not 100%. And you know how things go with Houdini history, it could turn back your way!"

That Harry's still full of surprises.

Special thanks to Julie Perlin Lee, Executive Director of the Catalina Island Museum, who brought this story to my attention, and to John Cox for being so patient with all my questions and doing so much great research.