How the great Harry Houdini escaped death in Aberdeen

Thousands gathered to watch the handcuffed illusionist throw himself into the North Sea.

Houdini at the grave of John Anderson. <strong>Getty</strong>
Houdini at the grave of John Anderson. Getty

By Ben Philip

Harry Houdini is known to many as the godfather of escapology, but is perhaps less known for his connection to the north-east of Scotland.

110 years ago, the residents of Aberdeen watched in horror as the death-defying entertainer performed one of his most daring stunts.

In 1909 during a run of shows in the Granite City, the Hungarian-born American – chained and handcuffed – threw himself into the icy North Sea which was in the grip of a ferocious storm.

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It was feared the city was about to become synonymous with claiming the life of the great Houdini.

Thousands of people gathered along the north and south breakwaters at the mouth of Aberdeen Harbour to catch a glimpse of the famous trickster, according to local historian Fiona-Jane Brown.

Dr Brown, said: “Houdini had been in Aberdeen performing at the old Palace Theatre and like many of the places he visited on his UK tour, he had thrown out the challenge that he was going to jump off a city bridge and escape before he drowned.

“But of course our council said ‘absolutely not’, so he managed to get the service of a local tug boat captain to take him out to the mouth of the harbour where he was going to drive.

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“Within a minute he had escaped – holding his handcuffs up in triumph.”

A local newspaper described the scene: “Suspense was manifest among all for a time for the odds seemed great against the diver. After about 18 seconds he reappeared…and was pulled to the side of the tug…amid loud cheers of the spectators on the pier.”

During his visit, Houdini visited the grave of John Henry Anderson, also known as ‘The Great Wizard of the North’ at St Nicholas Kirk Yard.

John Anderson was ‘The Great Wizard of the North’. Getty

Born in Aberdeenshire, Anderson was one of Scotland’s top illusionists and one of Houdini’s heroes.

He performed all over the world and is credited with bringing magic into theatres and creating one of the most famous tricks in the world – the rabbit and hat trick.

Houdini paid for the upkeep of his gravesite which had fallen into disrepair.

“He’s still a massive influence”, says local magician Dave Goulding from the Aberdeen Magical Society.

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He said: “We still do Houdini tricks today. His publicity stunts and methods are timeless and wonderful and he’s still thought of as the godfather of escapology.

“He was the first and some would say still the best.

“He dedicated his life to doing this and there were lots of magicians around, but he found a niche that was a bit different and went for it.

“His stunt in Aberdeen was a massive spectacle. He got thousands of people watching, even in 1909 before social media and we’re still talking about it 110 years later.”

The fascination with Harry Houdini remains all these years later.

Historians hope that by continuing to shine a light on Scotland’s mystic and magical past, it will ensure these stories remain alive for generations to come.


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