Wednesday, October 25, 2017
I have written about this man before. However, recently, I've uncovered some additional information which helps to give a better picture of who he was. The man's name was William Leonard Hicks and he was hand selected to be Houdini's protege. In fact, his billing was, "The Famous Houdini presents The Great Leonard".
Like his mentor, Houdini, Hicks also presented outdoor publicity drawing escapes. One of the most harrowing I've ever read took place in Minneapolis MN. It garnered a headline in the Star Tribune Newspaper that read, HANDCUFFED, JUMPS INTO ICY WATER. Indeed, despite snow flurries, The Great Leonard, wearing a bathing suit, and manacled with three pair of handcuffs jumped into the icy water of the Mississippi River at noon on Nov 11th, 1908. According to newspaper reports, he popped out of the water 20 seconds later free from the handcuffs. That was probably the longest 20 seconds of his life! The crowd of around 1000 people cheered when he burst forth out of the water.
A great article from the Pittsburgh Daily Post reveals a bit more about his performing material. His act includes handcuff escapes, the milk can, and even straitjacket escapes. So it really was the same material Houdini had done up until that point. The article mentions his connection to the hotel industry in Chicago and the fact his father owned the Saratoga Hotel, where young Leonard Hicks worked until going off to join the circus, or rather, going off to join Houdini. This article also proved an assumption I had, that Hicks first met Houdini when he lived in Richmond VA and Houdini had been performing there. So there was a previous relationship although it might have been small. It was when Houdini performed in Chicago that the two became reacquainted and Houdini eventually invited Hicks to be his protege. This second meeting was in 1906.
On September 22, 1908 The Great Leonard was in Wilkes-Barre PA appearing at the Luzerne Theatre. On Sept 21st, he went to the West Market Street Bridge, got himself handcuffed and jumped off the bridge into the waters below. The local paper, The Wilkes-Barre News, said, "The act is one of the best public stunts given in this city and was performed before the police could interfere".
His first public show in the east took place at the Brooklyn Empire Theatre in Feb 1909. Same material as listed above but with one interesting addition in the article. The paper reads, "This is his first year on the stage and he is making his trip around the Empire circuit more as a lark than anything else and because lock-picking and freeing himself from seemingly impossible barriers is his hobby."
Well, well. That previous sentence really explains a lot. His stage career lasted from 1908 to 1909. In September 1910, a long article in the Natchez Democrat is all about Mr Hicks purchasing the Grant Hotel in Chicago. And that is his return to the hospitality industry and the conclusion of his stage career.
We don't hear much about Hicks after he goes back to the hotel biz. Though in 1919, he appears in the news as he was elected president of the Hotel Greeters Association. Then in 1925 he wins a Chicago District Golf Association trophy, and again appears in the paper.
Shortly after Houdini's death, Hicks is again in the paper, this time stating that only 4 people knew Houdini's secrets: Theo Hardeen, James Collins, Jim Vickery and The Great Leonard (himself).
One of the last articles on Hicks that I could locate is from 1953 and appeared in the Vidette Messenger. Hicks was to be the headline speaker for the Rotary Club's Ladies Night where he would talk about his time with Houdini 45 years earlier and also discuss his rise within the hotel business.
To read more about his background, please check out my previous article from 2011 called Houdini's Forgotten Protege.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
His real name was Claude Alexander Conlin (1880-1954) and he was one of the premier mind readers of all time. He was called a crystal gazer by some, a con artist by others and he admitted to killing at least four men in his lifetime. He began his career in show business around 1902 by doing a magic act. Not just any magic act though. Part of his act was an escape act basically copied from Houdini. There were many performers ripping off Houdini at this time and work for no named escape artists was pretty thin.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
|Leonard Hicks on the far left. Hardeen in the upper right|
|Bijou Theatre Richmond VA|
When the boy was 12 years old, he and his family were living in Richmond Virginia. In April of 1900, Houdini performed for a week at the Bijou Theatre on East Broad Street in Richmond VA. Young Mr. Hicks was present during his week long engagement. Houdini opened on April 23rd to a packed house. His act consisted of his Challenge Handcuff routine and the Metamorphosis.
During the first part of his act, police officers brought regulation handcuffs to secure Houdini. He stepped behind his 'Ghost House', which was small curtained cabinet that he would kneel in to work some of his escapes in private. Houdini arose from the cabinet free of the cuffs.
Whenever Houdini came to town, he didn't just do a show at the theatre, he often continued with daily exhibitions. His second day in town he went to City Hall to give another demonstration of handcuff release. This time however, to prove he kept no concealed keys, he had his mouth covered with plaster and the tied up with cloth. He was also stripped of his clothes. Captain Angle and Chief Howard of the Richmond Police Department placed shackles on Houdini's wrists and his ankles. Houdini stepped behind a chair that had a piece of carpet thrown over it to partially hide Houdini from view. The audience of some 40 people could see Houdini moving around but his method of escape was kept from prying eyes. Two minutes later Houdini the Handcuff King was free from his bonds.
One of his favorite impromptu bits of magic that he would perform both on stage and offstage was his famous East Indian Needle Trick. Following his naked cuff escape he presented the Needle trick for all of the invited guests and gathering crowd. A doctor who was present in the audience came up to examine Houdini's mouth before and after the effect. He left them completely bewildered and he received a nice write up in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
|William Leonard Hicks|
Houdini was such a big hit in Richmond, that the management of the Bijou Theatre, arranged to have Houdini return in May 1900. They had to buy out his contract at a NY theatre just to get Houdini back in Richmond! He played a week and headlined a festival in Richmond.
Remember, Leonard Hicks was only 12 at the time. But he was not the only person inspired by Houdini. A Mr. Lee Reinheimer and Mr. Moses May were two individuals also taken in by Houdini. So much so that by June of 1900 they declared that they could duplicate the feats of Houdini and for several months following did just that. They presented handcuff escapes as well as the Metamorphosis. It's probably lucky for them that Houdini didn't return to Richmond as he probably would have gone after them or had his crew attend a show and go after the copyists.
Six years from this time, Houdini is now in Chicago. He is performing in the Windy City and he and Bess are having trouble with the hotel in which they are staying, so they switch to different hotel. When Hicks saw Houdini he was living on a dairy farm with his family. But now in 1906, he and his father were both working in the hotel business. Hicks was the hotel clerk that checked in Mr. and Mrs. Houdini. To use modern day slang, Mr. Hicks gave Houdini the 'hook up', meaning he got him a VERY nice room. Houdini showed his appreciation by inviting Hicks to see his show at the Majestic Theatre.
He changed his performing name to 'Harry Leonard and/The Great Leonard'. According to the Kalush Biography, Hicks even printed up business cards which declared he was the only one authorized to perform Mr. Houdini's act. I wonder if Hicks told Houdini about Reinheimer and Mays in Richmond?
The act he presented was the Challenge Handcuff Escape Act along with the Metamorphosis. When Houdini went to Europe in 1908, Hicks also started presenting the escape from the Galvanized Iron Can Filled with Water better known as the Milk Can Escape. (Just for the record, this is an example of ANOTHER Milk Can known to exist)
Later in life he moved to Florida and was the owner of the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West Florida. Below is a photograph signed by Mr. Hicks. As he became a success in the hotel business he used his real name William L. Hicks, but notice this photograph is signed Leonard Hicks. I wonder if the couple in the photograph might have seen him back in his escape days? Leonard Hicks is on the left in the white coat.
William Leonard Hicks died in Florida on April 2, 1966, the one time protege of the World's Greatest Escape Artist.
|photo by Auburn University Libraries|
*I don't know if Houdini GAVE the props to Hicks or if he sold them to him. But it is true Houdini trained Hicks at his home in NYC.
I have a feeling this is not the last word about Leonard Hicks. I'm going to continue hunting to see what other things I can dig up. If anyone has information on his career, please contact me at