History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Harry Houdini escape artist props to go under hammer

Handcuffs, leg irons and padlocks used by illusionist Harry Houdini are to be auctioned off next week.

Published: December 4, 2013 at 7:00 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Handcuffs, leg irons and padlocks used by illusionist Harry Houdini are to be auctioned off next week.


The props, utilised by the Hungarian-American escape artist in the 1900s, are expected to sell for around £8,000.

The handcuffs, made from hand-forged iron, were likely used in Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture act, or other underwater escapes. 

The handcuffs were modified by Houdini to ensure release. It is thought he heated them with the key in place, which destroyed the spring and enabled him to free himself.

The handcuffs are accompanied by a typed letter from magician Billy McComb, detailing how he acquired them.

McComb explains how he found them among a large hoard of rusty props purchased from the widow of Houdini’s brother, Theo Hardeen. Better known as ‘Dash’, Houdini’s brother was his stage partner before his wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice ‘Bess’ Rahner, replaced him in the 1890s.

The handcuffs and letter are together estimated to sell for £2,000–3,000.

Also included in the collection of items up for auction are a pair of Lilly Leg Irons, and a round barrel screw key padlock. Both were left by Houdini to his friend, and one of the world’s most talented mentalists, Joseph Dunninger. (Mentalism is a field of magic that involves feats of the mind – e.g. telepathy and mind reading.)

Previous owners include mentalist and escapologist Richard John Silmser, handcuff collector Joseph Tanner of Wheeler-Tanner, and John Fisher, gold star member of the Inner Magic Circle.

Included with the irons are signed letters by Silmser and Tanner, and a photocopy of an autograph letter signed by the widow of Dunninger, which provide identifying features and provenance.

The Lilly Leg Irons are expected to sell for £2,000–3,000, while the round barrel screw key padlock is estimated at £1,000–1,500.

Houdini’s personal copy of Hudson Tuttle’s Arcana of Spiritualism is also to be auctioned. The book, complete with pencil underlinings and markings, is expected to sell for £250-350.

Houdini performed his first water act in 1908, and showcased his Chinese Water Torture in 1912. Known at the beginning of his career as ‘Harry Handcuff Houdini’, he quickly became known for his sensational escape acts.

Michael Heseltine, who catalogued the Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions collection, told historyextra: “Visually, these rusty items at first don’t look of interest. But when you know the history of them everything comes to life, and you can just imagine Houdini using them.

“The handcuffs in particular are very special.

“Of all the great conjurers, Houdini is a magical name because of what he created – he did things no one had ever done before.”


The items are to be auctioned on Thursday 12 December.


Sponsored content