Sunday, July 2, 2023

Houdini's milk can escape in Melbourne

 On February 26th 1910, the Argus newspaper carried an advertisement for Houdini’s new act at the Opera House. The advertisement promised a ‘death defying mystery’. It was the first indication that Houdini planned to perform the celebrated milk can escape in Australia.

Houdini had been doing the milk can escape, since January 1908. By the time it was presented in Australia, it had been perfected by two years of patient practice. Houdini and his assistants knew exactly how to present the trick in the most effective and dramatic manner. The presentation was carefully planned to create an aura of risk.

At the Opera House that night, Houdini’s two uniformed attendants rolled the milk can onto the stage. An audience committee was invited to examine the can. It was then filled to the brim with twenty two pails of water.

Whilst it was being filled, Houdini exited the stage. He changed from his usual evening clothes and reentered the auditorium wearing his famous blue swimming costume. After the can was filled under the sharp eyes of the committee, Houdini addressed the audience. Looking down upon the seated crowd, he gave a short but pertinent speech. He informed them, in his slightly accented tones, that he was about to risk his life by attempting a very dangerous feat.

Houdini then gave a short demonstration of the perils involved. He asked the audience to hold their breaths as long as he did under water. He approached the milk can and stepped into it. He then curled himself into the can and sank under the water. The lid was not fastened. Houdini remained under water for a minute and a half in full view of the audience. Few of the witnesses could match this feat. This short demonstration of his powers heightened the sense of risk.

Then it was time for the main event. There was a dramatic drum roll. The audience watched, hushed, as Houdini dramatically reentered the milk can. The committee gathered around it and the lid was put in place. It was secured tightly with six spring loaded padlocks. Then the can, containing Houdini was wheeled behind a curtained cabinet.

An uniformed attendant, probably Franz Kukol, stood outside the curtain, holding a large axe in his hand. Houdini had explained that Franz was stationed in that position so that he could smash the can and rescue Houdini if anything went wrong. Franz’s grim presence highlighted the dangerous nature of the escape.

The band played and the audience waited. The man with the axe fingered it nervously. One minute passed, then two minutes, the audience began to fidget and panic. Franz moved towards the curtain, a worried frown on his face, he raised the axe and then suddenly, Houdini appeared. A huge sigh of relief escaped from the crowd. Houdini’ bowing with a broad grin on his face, looked ‘none the worse for his immersion.’

Melbourne magician Charles Waller, described the escape as ‘the best thing I saw him do here.’ Waller said that it was briefly done, but Houdini’s showmanship was such that it seemed ‘marvellous and sensational.’

The Age called the milk can escape, ‘sensational’ and the audience ‘loudly cheered’ the feat. It was a very mysterious and unusual act. Some people however were convinced that they knew how it was done.

On Wednesday March 9th 1910, a challenge to Houdini appeared in the Melbourne papers. It was titled ‘Houdini defied’. It read

Having witnessed your performance of the can mystery, we believe that

the main secret is your ability to see through water.

It was signed by the Willsmere Certified Milk Company of Bourke Street, Melbourne. The company challenged Houdini to escape the can when it was filled with milk.

The challengers were careful to take precautions. They insisted that employees of Willismere fill the can. In addition they asserted that Houdini attempted the escape at his own risk. . The milk vendors were confident that Houdini would ‘either have to drink the whole can full or be drowned.’

That night, Houdini prepared to take the challenge. He gave a speech to the audience. He told them that the feat he was attempting was very dangerous. He stationed Franz with a stop watch and axe near the can to emphasise that fact.

Willsmere provided the milk and their employees filled the can with it. Houdini stepped into he can and stayed under for a minute and a half without the lid. Then it was time for the challenge. The employees refilled the can. Houdini stepped in and under the liquid. The lid of the can was placed on top and it was locked with six padlocks. The whole apparatus was rolled behind a curtain and the audience waited.

In less than three minutes, Houdini was free. The can looked undisturbed and was still full of milk. The employees of Willsmere, who were positive that they had discovered the secret, were stunned. The audience applauded loudly. Houdini, just for fun, jumped into the can again. He came out smiling and dripping with milk. Later he admitted that it was a trick, and added with a grin, ‘but you don’t know how it’s done.’

The milk was poured away to reassure the public that it would not be reused

If the transparency of the liquid did not effect the escape, what was the secret? It was undoubtedly a dangerous escape. The person within the can was crouched low in almost a foetal position for the time that they were submerged. Not only was this uncomfortable, it also made it difficult to breathe. It was an escape that relied upon Houdini’s athletic prowess and his mechanical ingenuity.

Houdini had trained himself for the trick by staying under water in his bathtub at home. He had run long distances to strengthen his lungs and had practised swimming underwater for long periods. Houdini’s preparation for all his feats was impeccable. He trained his body so that he could perform feats that seemed impossible for an ordinary person.

The secret of the milk can escape was a combination of Houdini’s superb physical conditioning and the construction of the can. It had been made specifically for him and he eventually patented the design. The top of the can was doubled, and attached to the rest by two fake rivets. Houdini could hop inside the can when it was full, remove the rivets from the inside and lift the top of the can without disturbing the padlocks or contents. The whole contraption was constructed in such a way that the can could be examined and not reveal it’s secret. To the outsider it looked like an ordinary, solid, galvanised, iron milk can.

The success of the trick was in the presentation. Aspects of this presentation echoed the manner in which the dive was presented. It indicated a pattern of performance that had been perfected over several years.

Firstly, the advertising emphasised the death defying nature of the feat. It prepared the audience for a dramatic escape. The preview demonstration built on this dangerous perception. By the time Houdini entered the can for the second time, the audience was convinced of the danger involved. If they were not, the presence of the uniformed attendant, complete with axe, would reinforce the point. The presence of the man with the axe and his various antics with the instrument diverted attention away from the business behind the curtain. Finally the fact that Houdini could escape the can quickly and remain safely behind the curtain as the tension in the auditorium grew, added greatly to the drama. The performance showed a great knowledge of the psychology of crowds and an extraordinary ability to manipulate an audience.

Houdini’s milk can escape played to great success in Melbourne and was later repeated in Sydney. The feat was one of his most popular and ingenuous. It fully displayed the skills of Houdini, the master showman and mystifier

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