“The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure, will mean sudden death.” Harry Houdini
“I wanted to do things Houdini did, to be the bravest person in the room,” said Dorothy Dietrich. Handcuffed and tied to a chair with 100 feet of rope, even shut in a barrel, didn’t seem like enough. Dorothy began to end her act by being buckled into and escaping from a straitjacket. Her jackets, bought at auctions or mail ordered from the likes of Humane Restraint Company, have always been early models rather than the wide-necked ones magicians tend to use.
Instead of having an assistant restrain her, she asked policemen or volunteer audience members. Nor was her visual like the Master’s. “Houdini fell down, struggled with exaggeration, rolled round – it was rough and tumble, too ugly for a female. I stood up and executed it gracefully.” Again, not enough for agents/audiences.
“Police intervention prevented Harry Houdini from trying to escape from a straitjacket while suspended from a derrick over the Longacre Square subway excavation at noon yesterday. The exhibition was ordered stopped and reserves from the West Forty-Seventh Street station had to be called to disperse the crowd which had gathered in anticipation of the event. No arrests were made.” (March 29, 1916 New York Sun) In 1922, Houdini got out of a straitjacket hanging upside-down from Keith’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
Dorothy decided to do the escape suspended from a burning rope. With Lou Lancaster’s help, she practiced in a two-story drop at the Towne House, dangled from cranes, then went to a junkyard where sandbags or car parts in exactly her weight were used to time the burning rope’s release.
In 1980, Dorothy appeared on HBO’s World’s Greatest Escapes hosted by Tony Curtis who had played Houdini in the entertaining, but inaccurate 1953 movie. Her hair in pigtails, wearing a silver jumpsuit and heels, she hung 15 stories from an amusement park parachute ride. “That was really hairy. It was windy and cold.” The artist extricated herself in less than the 3 minutes 37 seconds it took the rope to split: The Excerpted Feat on YouTube.
It was not the only time she accomplished a feat no woman had attempted before. Mentored by magician/inventor Jack London, Dorothy was also only the second woman in history to do The Bullet Catch in which a marksman shoots a bullet – generally initialed by a volunteer – directly at a magician who somehow catches it. The first, in 1897, was Adelaide Hermann who inherited the trick from her deceased magician husband. To date, at least 20 performers have died attempting it.
When Magician Chung Ling Soo (William E. Robinson) was tragically killed while performing the catch in 1918 England, Houdini announced he’d add it to his act. Magician Harry Keller dissuaded him: “Now, my dear boy, this is advice from the heart, DON’T TRY THE D—N Bullet Catching…no matter how sure you may feel of its success. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will `job’ you. And we can’t afford to lose Houdini.” (From the website Wild About Harry March 2011, originally from the April 1937 issue of Genii Magazine.) By that Keller meant not only are there accidents, but also that the feat brings out mentally unbalanced “snipers.”
After two years of research, Pittsburgh’s Convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians was the first occasion on which Dorothy stood before a marksman who shot a .22 caliber bullet at her that was caught in a specially designed and coated cup she held in her mouth.
In this case, the shooter was a ranger and Vietnam Vet informed of his role only the day before. Dorothy and Dick took him to a rifle range where he hit 100 bull’s-eyes before being cleared for the show. She allowed an independent committee to buy and bring the bullets under guard. The Bullet Catch The performer did the Catch three more times, including one on the television show You Asked for It. She offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove a bullet had not left the gun.
Forced out of business by Donald Trump’s “buying up the neighborhood” and aware of the evolution of New York entertainment, the couple decided to move. Several copycat venues (since closed) had risen.
Later, Monday Night Magic founded by alumnus Michael Chaut in 1997 (now run by Peter Samelson,Todd Robbins, Frank Brents and Jamy Ian Swiss) continues to entertainingly present the art to this day. (Reopens September 20: Monday Night Magic.)
Dorothy and Dick settled on Scranton, Pennsylvania, once on the vaudeville circuit where Houdini performed. They spent time in a hotel to check it out, and bought real estate that included a closed synagogue and the rabbi’s house. After extensive renovation, The Houdini Museum opened. Dorothy had been buying things since she was a teenager and amassed a large collection. (Houdini’s legacy items went to The Library of Congress. David Copperfield also bought a great deal.) The Houdini Museum
Though closed during the pandemic, the museum had garnered excellent reviews on Trip Advisor. A typical visit starts with rare film footage of Houdini, followed by an interactive tour of the collection and a live, interactive magic show.
Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 at 1:26 p.m. from septic poisoning, the result of a ruptured appendix (unattended to) after taking a punch to the stomach. His wife Bess promised to hold annual séances to give him opportunity to contact her with a special code. She tried for 10 unsuccessful years, then passed the tradition on to Walter Gibson who held several of these at The Magic Towne House. Gibson, in turn, passed it to Dorothy. Last year she streamed a séance, likely to occur again in 2021.
“We put a bunch of Harry’s possessions on a table and try to reach him. This isn’t a gag. Have we ever reached him? No, but we came close once. On the 50th Anniversary of his death, a framed poster fell off the wall during our moment of silence.” (Dick to journalist Fred Feretti) Last year, there was an unexpected anomaly. The séance.
Dorothy also started The Houdini Commandos who for years tended his Machpelah, Queens gravesite. Besides a large statue of a grieving woman, the tomb featured a bust of Houdini that had been vandalized four times. The Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) owned a bust, but wouldn’t allow it out. After years of unsuccessfully lobbying, Dorothy took dozens of photographs of a Museum of the City of New York copy and replicated it.
Without telling anyone at the cemetery, her merry band showed up with a weed-wacker, garbage bags (people are forever leaving him things like plastic handcuffs), and the new bust. Eventually maintenance funding was assumed by the national chapter of S.A.M. “In his lifetime, Houdini paid for fixing dozens of magicians graves in disrepair. This was fitting payback.” (From a New York Times interview with David Dunlap October 2011.)
Houdini Bust; Dorothy and Dick at the grave site. (Photo by Houdini Museum Staff)
“We have fought long and hard to escape from medieval superstition. I, for one, do not wish to go back.” James Randi
Like Houdini and the great James Randi, Dorothy is adamantly against so-called mediums taking (often financial) advantage of vulnerable people wanting to get in touch with loved ones who have passed.
Kim Dennis, a medium with a Canadian TV show declared herself in contact with Houdini every day. She contacted his great nephew, Jeff Blood, inviting him to Canada. Jeff said he wouldn’t do anything without Dorothy’s involvement. “Scheduling didn’t work out for us to go up, so she came down. We met at the museum. Jeff, his wife Debbie, and his daughter wanted to talk to his mother which was also promised.”
“Dennis grasped my hands top and bottom to get a read on whether I was a doubter. I stayed warm and fuzzy to go with it. I said, ‘If you can contact him, holy cow, I have a lot of questions.’ S.A.M sent a representative from the Skeptic Committee who the medium asked to leave the room saying she was uncomfortable. As both Dick and she were videoing, he agreed.”
“I brought several things to the table. There was a manila envelope with three Houdini letters in it. On the front, I’d written when he wrote each, where it was sent, and to whom. If he came through, Houdini could tell me the contents…” Dennis brushed it aside. She received the “message” of Houdini’s mother’s name – “I’m receiving a C, the name Cecelia” and his having stomach pain both well known facts.
Dorothy was unfailingly polite and encouraging. “If you can do it, do you know how famous you’ll be?!” Dennis grew increasingly anxious. “I’ve never been treated like this!” In the end the pretender fled. There have apparently been others.
I ask what the woman who broke the glass ceiling of magic thinks of contemporary female magicians. (Yes, there are young women magicians.) “They’re great, but I’m offended when a woman goes for the sex angle. We’ve come so far, can’t we leave that behind?”
What about escape artists? “If you’re going to be a woman magician today, the first thing you apparently do is to go out and buy a straitjacket. Recently, a woman called me about doing The Bullet Catch. I asked why? ‘You wouldn’t be the first,’ I told her, `and you might die.’” Good advice.
Today Dorothy (with Dick) runs the museum, does her act, occasionally creates magic for industrials, and consults. She’s grateful for her life, (one that she herself created), and hopes to pass on both knowledge and the museum. “I never get tired of seeing the look of wonder on people’s faces. It’s the best gift in the world that I have the ability to share.”
NOTE: Dorothy and Dick invented “Houdini Opoly, an elaborate board game based on the master escapist’s life. It’s beautifully produced. A marvelous gift for anyone into magic, the game can be ordered from the museum.
“for those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.” Joseph Dunninger “
All unattributed quotes are Dorothy Dietrich.
Opening Photo of Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks by museum staff.