Harry Houdini was once known as the Handcuff King for his ability to escape from any shackles that bound him. Merely removing the handcuffs was not enough. Houdini put himself in a variety of daring and dangerous situations while attempting to liberate himself. Anyone could train themselves and use the proper tools to escape from a set of handcuffs, the true key lay in the performers’ ability to convince the audience they were in danger should they fail. Houdini may have been known as the Handcuff King but it was his showmanship and stage presence that made him an international star.
Houdini took his handcuff secrets to the grave.
Shown is a set of Hiatt Model 104 Darby Handcuffs, the same type Houdini used throughout is career.
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. He arrived in America on July 3, 1878 with his parents and four brothers. The family changed their name to the German spelling of Weiss and Erik became Ehrich, his friends called him “Ehrie” or “Harry”. The family would live in Appleton, Wisconsin for several years before moving to New York City in 1887. It was in New York that Ehrich Weisz became Harry Houdini in both name and reputation.
Houdini began performing handcuff escapes in 1895. As Houdini said, it was not the act itself that garnered the attention, it was the spectacle. Houdini proclaimed to local police officers that he could escape from any handcuffs, chains, or shackles they placed him in. He performed his first escape on November 22, 1895 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The spectacle grabbed the attention of the local newspapers.
Houdini then claimed that he would escape from any handcuffs brought to one of his shows. This drew people to his shows in droves and his repeated success earned him his “Handcuff King” moniker. Houdini would continue performing illusions and become arguably the most famous magician ever. He was still performing when he died suddenly in 1926. Houdini took his handcuff secrets with him to the grave. One thing is certain. There was nothing special about the handcuffs themselves, what mattered was the arms on which they were placed.
This is a set of Hiatt Model 104 Darby Handcuffs. Houdini used the same type throughout his career. They are non-adjustable. The company produced different sizes to suit the needs of the officers. These particular cuffs are sized for alleged criminals with large hands and wrists. The Hiatt Company is an English Company that has produced handcuffs since the late 18th Century. This pair dates back to the late 19th Century. It is difficult to determine the exact date but a few key things can help to approximate their age. The first is the shape of the key. Hiatt keys that were a simple oval shape were produced after 1880. The second is the engravings on the cuffs themselves. The words “Hiatts Best”, “Warranted”, “Wrought” and “No 14” are etched into them. This means they were produced before 1920 as all Hiatt Handcuffs manufactured after 1920 are engraved with “British Made”. Their design is simple and effective and Darby Cuffs were preferred by most British Police Departments. Despite their popularity they have largely been replaced by modern adjustable handcuffs. Although these handcuffs were not used in any of Houdini’s shows they have been part of at least one performance, and I was able to escape from them with relative ease.
The Museum on Tower Hill is full of interesting and unique artifacts from the West Parry Sound District. We are now open Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. If you are unable to visit the Museum in person take a look at our Wayback Machine. It’s updated regularly with artifacts from our collection. www.wpsdmarchives.tumblr.com