Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Houdini and the Boston Jail, Setting the Record Straight

I'll admit, I do my best to verify everything I put up here, but I have missed a couple of times.  It might be due to an outdated source that I'm using that got it wrong, or a newspaper that I didn't have access that might later alter the facts that I have. Alas, one of my earliest articles turns out to not be accurate and I'm not too happy about that. I had been given a tip that this was it, and couldn't find any information on other jails at the time, so I went with the tip. Later newspapers from the time confirmed that it was indeed NOT the Charles Street Jail that I had first listed, but rather the City Jail/Prison on Somerset Street.  I want to give credit where credit is due and that is to Bill Mullins who discovered the correct information and was kind enough to let me know! I am going to reprint the original article below but insert the proper information along with new photos. 

Houdini at the 'Boston Tombs'
Houdini escaped from the Boston Tombs in 1906. The photo above shows Houdini about to go over the wall of the Boston Tombs as the jail was called. The actual jail was the City Jail or City Prison located on Somerset Street in the Pemberton's Hill area. I discovered that it was common in that time to refer to a jail or prison as the Tombs. The most famous was the Manhattan Detention Complex in NYC known as The Tombs. 

The Escape
The date was March 19, 1906 and the Superintendent of Police William Pierce had agreed to lock up Houdini in their jail. He was first taken to cell number 77 on the ground floor where Houdini removed his clothes and was checked for keys and picks. Nothing was found and Houdini's clothes were then locked into this cell while he himself was taken to the second floor. He stepped into cell number 60 and was secured in handcuffs and leg irons. Then the Superintendent locked Houdini inside Cell #60 and he and the other police officials left Houdini and headed for the main office. They were confident that Houdini could not escape.

Sixteen minutes later Houdini was scaling the outer wall of the jail and running down the road towards Keith's Theatre. Houdini called William Pierce from the theater to let him know he had escaped! Shock set in. Superintendent Pierce asks Houdini to return so that the photographers can get a photo of him going over the wall (see photo at top of page). According to the Kalush Biography, the Superintendent told Houdini he expected him to show up in the jail office if he got out. He shook Houdini's hand and seemed happy with the results. Though Houdini's book "Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist" paints a different picture. Houdini claims that Pierce's only response was "I have nothing to say".
The route of escape from the City Prison in Boston

The Jail Today

The building that once housed the City Prison is today called the John Adams Courthouse. It was built in 1885 and originally known as The Suffolk County Courthouse. I do not know if any of the jail, or the cells remain in the building or not. Looking at this photo, I can't quite match up this image with the one on the top of the page, so I'm guessing the back of the building is where the jail was likely housed. Houdini's cell #77 was on the ground floor, though he was moved to an upstairs cell #60.

Now I'm wondering, if the 'staged' photo at the top of the page might just have been taken at the Charles Street Jail, as that buildings facade totally matches up to the building in that photo? I'll eventually find a view behind this building and see what the rear of the building look like. For now though, the record has been corrected, thanks to Bill Mullins!


  1. Thanks Dean. I've had to go back and correct posts of my own from time to time. But that's one of the great things about publishing online. You can go back and correct it. No mistake is frozen the way it is with print.

  2. If you get a chance to get out of the prison by one way then you will get stuck in the next one in the Suffolk County Jail as there security system has such amount of option to let you stop there.

  3. Did he ever escape from the Charles Street jail?