Saturday, August 30, 2014

Houdini's Life Changing Event In St. Paul That You Haven't Heard

7th St. St. Paul-The Palm Garden is down this street.

According to the history books, in March of 1899, Harry Houdini was playing at a beer hall in St. Paul Minnesota called The Palm Garden*. We know that at some point prior to March 14th, Martin Beck arrived at the beer hall with a group of other theatre owners. Beck witnessed Houdini's act of escaping handcuffs, but thought they must be faked. So Beck challenged Houdini to escape from some handcuffs that he would bring. The following night Beck brings with him three pairs of handcuffs and Houdini escapes from all three. That's the story we are all familiar with. It's the same story in Kenneth Silverman's bio on Houdini, and basically similar story to the Kalush Bio. In the William Kalush biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, he adds a story that took place before the Beck meeting which really had nothing to do with performing.

On March 14th, Houdini gets a telegram from Martin Beck in Chicago. The telegram says, "You can open Omaha, March 26th, at $60, will see act, probably make proposition for all next season." Houdini records in his journal "This wire changed my whole life's journey."

That's what we know to be the historical record of the day Houdini's life changed forever. However, there is something else, and I do not know if it happened before Beck's arrival or after. It could have even been the thing that lured Beck to the Palm Garden, that is IF it happened before. If it happened after the Beck encounter, then Houdini was making the most of this encounter by pulling out all the stops.

The St. Paul Globe Newspaper, March 7th, 1899 edition. This records an event that happened one week before Houdini got the telegram from Martin Beck. So somewhere in between is when likely when they met. Here is the story....

Houdini was performing at the Palm Garden, and part of his act was the challenge handcuff routine, where anyone can bring cuffs and he will escape from them. A member of the audience suggests he let the police try. So between acts, Houdini and the Manager of the Palm Garden head to the Central Police Station in St. Paul and ask Chief Schweitzer if they would challenge Houdini with a pair of their police cuffs. The Chief comes out with an unusual pair. According to the newspaper the Chief is quoted as saying "I'll fix him, I've got a pair that would defy Mephistopheles himself." They put the cuffs on Houdini and then add a more up to date pair of cuffs on him as well. Then Houdini is taken to another room to attempt his escape in private.

Two minutes later, Houdini came back into the room with the cuffs not only removed, but locked together. The locking together is a subtle way of showing that he didn't simply 'slip' the cuffs of his wrists, but rather had to open them in order to put lock them together. The feat made the newspaper.

To add to this, I checked the complete newspaper for a day or so before and after and the Palm Garden never ran any ads for Houdini's appearance. So this blurb on March 7th is the only recorded historical record of his St. Paul visit. As I mentioned before, if it happened before the Beck meeting, it could have been what drew Beck to the Palm Garden. If it happened after, then it was Houdini doing what he did best, getting publicity. And it's the last article that would be written on him before he went off under Martin Beck's direction.

*The Palm Garden was a type of indoor beer garden that became very popular in the 1890s. I don't know how many there were, but it appears that many major cities had one. Some of them offered entertainment, usually orchestras or smaller bands. 


  1. This is excellent. Yes, I think this could very be the thing that brought Beck to the Palm Garden. Great work.

  2. Excellent find! Following your guidance to the 07 March 1899 edition of the St. Paul Globe, I poked around and found the article after the fold on page 5. Here's a complete transcription:
    A Man Manacled and Handcuffed Slips Them in a Hurry

    There was another escape at the central police station last evening, and Chief Schweitzer and Capt. Rouleau are very much puzzled over the manner in which the feat was effected.
    The get-away was made by a man handcuffed and shackled, with the shackles and handcuffs securely connected with a second pair of handcuffs. It required exactly two minutes for the prisoner to rid himself of the encumbrances, with the keys safely stowed away in the seclusion of Chief Schweitzer's vest. The victim of the shackles and handcuffs was Prof. Houdini, the magician now playing at the Palm Garden, and his feat was accomplished in the presence of all the officers around the central station, several newspaper men, and Manager Weinholzer, of the Palm Garden.
    Houdini, as part of his "turn," offers to rid himself of any kind of handcuffs that any one [sic] wants to bring up, and last night, in the middle of the show, some one [sic] suggested that it might be a good plan to give the police a chance to test the security of their cuffs. Between acts Houdini and Manager Weinholzer raced over to the central station and made their strange request. Chief Schweizter laughed.
    "I'll fix him," he said. "I've got a pair that would defy Mephistopheles himself."
    Everybody adjourned to the chief's private office, and the cuffs in which the chief placed his reliance were produced. Capt. Rouleau put them on. Then Houdini was shackled, and finally, to make everything safe, another pair of the latest up-to-date cuffs were brought out and adjusted to connect the wrist cuffs and the shackles.
    The prisoner was assisted out into the outer office and the door was closed. Capt. Rouleau chuckled.
    "Guess the show will have to go on with one of the parts cut out," he observed.
    The chief took out his watch.
    "If I were a betting man--" he began, when the door opened and Houdini walked in with the shackled and handcuffs securely locked together. And there were no keys in sight, either.
    It had required exactly two minutes to accomplish the feat.

    In the same newspaper, on page 2 after the fold, I also spotted this review:


    A Bill This Week That Has Some Unusual Features

    The bill for the week at the Palm Garden is an especially strong one. There is a good contortionist, plenty of first-class song and dance artists, a one-act comedy, "The Rehearsal," for a curtain raiser, and Miss Hunt, "the queen of the Roman rings." But the bright, particular star of the performance is Prof. Houdini, who, assisted by his wife, performs the most difficult feats of legerdemain and sleight of hand. Some are really remarkable.
    Prof. Houdini is tied, manacled and securely sealed up in a sack to the satisfaction of a committee. Then the bag, with its contents, is placed in a massive trunk and pushed in a cabinet. Three seconds later the cabinet is overturned and Mrs. Houdini is found in the place of her husband, with the seals and knots apparently intact.


  3. First off let me start out by saying, I am a big fan of your work and have thoroughly enjoyed the 30 days of Houdini.
    There are multiple claims on the web that Houdini’s “big break” came when he met agent Martin Beck in Woodstock, Illinois. However, you, Silverman, Kalush and other sources puts this meeting in St. Paul, Minn. I got to believe the experts got it correct.
    Keep up the great work!

  4. Great work, Dean! Based on this article, and what I know about Houdini, he was already morphing into a handcuff escape artist around the time of Beck's appearance. Beck seems to be the nudge that encouraged Houdini to explore that avenue.