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Fit to be Tied

Slipping the Chains of Reality

By Brian L. Zimbler

Escape, the philosophers say, is a major theme of human existence. Man is constantly trying "to get away from it all, but somehow never makesit any farther than the Cape, the Jersey Shore or the corner bar. Life's grip is too tight; escape from the mundane constraints of reality requires creativity, daring or foolhardiness. Perhaps that is why there are escape artists.

The world's greatest escape artist, of course, was Harry Houdini. He died 51 years ago today--on Halloween in 1926. It was only fitting that the Mysteriarch, as he was known, chose All Hallows Eve to escape from this life: dying on this day was Houdini's last publicity stunt, and one of his best. Always exit with a flourish, as the show biz types say.

In fact, one might almost expect Houdini's specter to pop up somewhere on Halloween, among the trick or treaters. For certainly, Houdini was not a man who could easily be forgotten. No jail cell could hold him, no locks or chains could confine him. Houdini released himself thousands of times from every known physical restraint, often purposely putting his life in danger to dramatize the escapes. He was certainly no slouch: why escapes from a strait jacket standing upright when you can do it hanging by your ankles from a flagpole, 100 feet above a New York street, with thousands watching? Why get out of complicated shackles and leg irons on terra firma, when you can make it more difficult by first jumping off a bridge into a river below? Houdini did his utmost to excite and titillate the public: he did dozens of strait jacket escapes hanging upside down in the air, and scores of bridge jumps while manacled. (He even jumped off the Harvard Bridge in early May of 1908. Harvard students, in the midst of reading period, probably thought twice about following.)

Of course, escaping was Houdini's business. The publicity stunts and the spectacular escapes he performed were designed to keep his name before the public, and to keep the vaudeville audiences flocking to see him. And the tactics worked: Houdini set attendance records wherever he played, and attracted constant public attention. His name even became a word, coined by Funk and Wagnall's dictionary in 1920: "Houdinize: to release or extricate oneself from, as by wriggling out."

Milbourne Christopher, a recognized experton Houdini, points out that the key to the Escape King's success was challenge: "His reputation was always on the line." Locksmiths, jailers and packing-box makers all came to test his powers, convinced that they had a lock or a crate that could hold him. He defeated them all, but there was always the possibility that he might fail.

Hondini also had the popular image of a "little man against the odds." He seemed at first, more like a truckdriver than a vaudeville star: a short, muscular man with bushy hair, who spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Yet his feats were decidedly extraordinary.

He challenged, and humiliated established figures of authority. In Washington D.C., he broke out of the "escape-proof" cell that once held Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield. In London, he freed himself from a pair of "pick-proof" darbies, the handcuffs used by Scotland Yard. And then, during a European tour, he freed himself from the thumbscrews, elbow irons and chains of the Kaiser's Polizei, and escaped from one of the "carrettes" the Russian Tsar used to transport his prisoners to Siberia. Such feats were always met by the surprise, and frequent embarrassment, of the authorities.

But Houdini's success was based on more than defiance of the establishment; he seemd to defy fate itself. In 1916, for instance, Houdini narrowly escaped from a box buried six ft. underground. (Once free, he had to dig his way to the surface.) Another of his death-defying tricks was the Chinese Water Torture Cell: padlocked by the ankles in a glass-fronted water tank, Houdini hung upside down, but would make his escape within harrowing minutes. (He did not die doing this stunt, despite the efforts of Hollywood producers to make people think so.)

Such feats are the stuff of fantasy. Houdini did them daily, and men could believe in miracles; but when he died, a void appeared to be left behind. Who would now keep doing the impossible things in which Houdini had made us believe?

Lots of people. Escape artists have survived to the present day, all trying--probably in vain--to match the caliber of Houdini. One such artists is Ron Fable, a 35-year-old performer from Milwaukee, who works at fairs and public gatherings in the Midwest. Fable specializes in strait-jacket escapes, using a skin tight jacket that is particularly difficult to master. Like Houdini, he hangs from a crane or flagpole while making his escape.

Fable escapes from rope ties, chains and handcuffs, too. Typically, he invites members of the audience up on stage to put him into these restraints; then they sit back while he gets out of them, often in less time than it took them to tie him up.

One of Fable's most difficult escapes, though, is the "underwater box." Fable is handcuffed and then locked inside a heavy wood box, which is weighted down with 500 Ibs. of steel and tied shut with 50 feet of chain. A crane then lowers the box in to water, where he makes his escape. Once, in Atlantic City, the feat became even more dangerous than usual, when a wave flipped the box as it was being lowered, sending steel weights crashing around Fable and turning him upside down. "That was as much danger as I ever want to be in," he says.

But despite such near-disasters. Fable claims the life of an escape artist is usually not that dangerous. Most of the danger is eliminated by advance planning, he notes. In general, Fable says he enjoys the exciting life he leads, finding it a constant challenge. He cites the "feeling of accomplishment" he feels after completing an escape. Of course, there are a few practical problems chronic to the escape business: "It's a little hard getting insurance," he admits. But he doesn't appear to mind." "I intend to keep on doing this as long as I can," he says.

Twenty-eight-year old Norman Bigelow of Fitchburg, Mass, takes a different approach to the art of escaping. Bigelow specializes in death-defying stunts, with the emphasis on the "death." His big escapes are carefully arranged scenarios for near-suicide. He tackles the Water Torture Cell, for starters. Then there is the Fire Escape, where Bigelow is chained to a chair and must escape before a lit trail of gunpowder burns its way back to a 'bomb that will explode in his face. Not to mention the Board of Death, a contraption to which Bigelow is chained and bound with ropes. Connected to a three-minute timer, a door fitted with 8-in, steel knives will swing shut on Bigelow if he does not escape in time. He usually does, Bigelow also performs an escape sealed inside a heavy plastic bag with a poison snake.

Norman Bigelow is, by most people's standards, probably insane. Normal humans have enough trouble without being imprisoned in plastic bags with deadly snakes, or chained before piles of blazing gunpowder. But then, Norman Bigelow is not a normal human: he is a man totally dedicated to his art.

Carl Bertoliho, a Boston magic shop owner and a close friend of Bigelow's says the escapist "eats, sleeps and breathes escapes." Bigelow's house in rural Massachusetts is filled with strange paraphernalia such as caskets, chains, manacles and torture chests. He even has a pet tarantula, that he hopes to work into his act someday. Apparently his wife and two children do not mind.

Bigelow's career has not been without accidents. More than once, the Board of Death has perforated him, and various other mishaps have landed him in the hospital several times. But he insists on making his escapes more dangerous, and seems determined to continue in the profession. Bigelow bills himself as the "reincarnation of Houdini," and appears to believe it.

Not everyone is so flamboyant, though. Jim Sommers of Chicago is a decidedly conventional figure, at least in this unconventional art. Sommers is one of the few escape artists who admits that escaping is partly artifice, as well as ability: escapes, he explains, are really just magic tricks, with more danger and uncertainty than usual. In fact, Sommers is really a magician who occasionally does escape work. His most memorable feat to date was a 1961 underwater escape in Lake Geneva, Wis. The escape was supposed to be a typical underwater box feat, of the Ron Fable variety--but Sommers performed the feat in winter, and a sheet of 16-in. thick ice has formed on the lake. Undaunted, Sommers cut a hole in the ice and went ahead anyway. "I just ate Cream of Wheat beforehand, and took some extra precautions," he relates. The feat caught the eyes of several skin diving magazines, who noted that it was the first time anyone has swum under ice without scuba gear. (Historians now dispute the legend that Houdini pulled the same stunt in 1906. Sommers is obviously not eager to repeat the feat.)

Sommers, like Fable, claims that escape artistry is not really that dangerous. Everything is planned in advance, he explains: "Any man who jumps off a bridge handcuffed is crazy to do it with anything left to chance."

Sommers has done other dangerous escapes, but is retiring from the business now at the age of 43. "I'm getting a little too old for that strenuous work now," he says wistfully. But he does not regret all the time he has spent in a strait-jacket: "How else could I get paid for doing something exciting?" he asks.

Sommers believes people like to watch escapes because they empathize with the artist. "They want you to be liberated, and they are with you all the way, he says. "Of course, there are some people who want to see you get hurt," he adds. Sommers classifies such thrill-seekers with the type of people who "go to stock-car races and boxing-matches."

But there is an escape artist who puts Sommers--and most other artists in the field--to shame. While Sommers finds escapes too strenuous at age 43, Harold Denhard of Chicago is a sturdy 81 years old. He still performs escapes--including the strait-jacket--and specializes in getting out of lengths of chain and rope.

"No one knows I'm over 80--they think I'm 55," Denhard says with a touch of pride. He explains that "enjoying people, entertaining them" has kept him young. Denhard is certainly not a typical octagenarian: he can bench press 250 Ibs., for instance. He also maintains there is little danger in escape work for him: "This is easy for me: They tie me up, and in just a few seconds. I wriggle right out."

At the other end of the spectrum there are young escape artists. Sixteen-year-old Mark Nelson performs escapes in the St. Paul area, including the strait jacket and the Houdini water can. Nelson is obviously enthusiastic about adopting a life in the escape business. He should be. He has reportedly dropped out of high school to devote full time to escapes.

Outsiders find the escape artist's life difficult to understand. To some, they may appear a strange bunch, seeking the masochistic pleasure of being tied up with ropes and chains. In that vein, psychologist Bernard C. Meyer, author of Houdini A Mind in Chains, claims Houdini's behavior was the product of a "tortured and neurotic mind," preoccupied with images of its own death. And certainly, there would appear to be some truth to the idea that only a certain type of person will seek, among other pastimes, to have himself tied up and thrown into a river.

But conversely, there are those who argue that human beings have never been able to deal effectively with the reality of death. Man, they say, is just as neurotic in his every-day fear of death as the escape artists who invite it. But the escape artist is more daring, more brazen; he seems to face death nobly, even to embrace it openly. Surely there is something of human dignity in the art. At its most metaphoric level, an escape act is near-death, followed by miraculous salvation--the archetype of damnation and resurrection. Its practitioners agree; for Houdini, Bigelow and the rest, escaping from reality is the only way to live.

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