Sunday, October 24, 2021


Houdini escapes from the belly of a sea monster!  I was a teenager when I first read this sensational tale in Milbourne Christopher’s Houdini: The Untold Story (1969). The book described an event that took place in 1911 after a ‘sea monster,’ sometimes described as a ‘cross between an octopus and a whale,’ was found on the beach near Boston. Local businessmen challenged Houdini to escape from inside the carcass and he accepted. I read several accounts of the stunt, all were vague and none of them gave details of the mysterious creature that had washed up on the shore. This was very annoying because, in addition to magic, I was also thoroughly absorbed by cryptozoological mysteries, and avidly read books on the Loch Ness monster, the Abominable Snowman and dinosaurs that roamed the jungles of the Congo. What the hell was that sea monster?

When Milbourne Christopher referred to the sea monster, he used quotation marks. I confess I didn’t take any notice of them at the time or even realise their significance, an oversight that many chroniclers of Houdini’s exploits have also made. The story is briefly but tantalisingly referenced in many books. Occasionally quotes are used but often they are not. Harold Kellock, in the biography authorised by Houdini’s wife, describes the creature as ‘a sort of crossbreed of whale and octopus.’ He also has the escape taking place offshore with Houdini being lowered into the water  and inside the ‘dark, meaty dungeon.’

Particularly perplexing for me was that none of the Houdini books had a photograph of the ’sea monster’ or, as you might expect, one of the great escapologist standing triumphantly beside it. For a kid obsessed by monsters, that was very irritating. Then along came the Internet.

Houdini's sea monster haunted me for decades but all became clearer in 2011 when Campaign Outsider published a photo of the creature online.

The photo came from The Boston Post (Sept 25th, 1911). Why this photo did not appear against any of the published accounts in magic books is an interesting question. But, following the lead given by Campaign Outsider, and delving into the digital archives of Boston newspapers, here is what I’ve been able to put together about Houdini and the Sea Monster.

On Sunday, August 13th the sea monster was brought into Boston Harbour by the steamer S. S. Prince Arthur. The Prince Arthur made daily trips between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Boston, a distance of some 300 miles. And the creature, openly identified as a giant turtle by the Boston press, who covered just about every aspect of the story, had been harpooned in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, by Captain George DuBois. The Captain said the seven-foot turtle put up quite a fight and that it was a struggle to get it into his small, powered dory boat. The intention seems to have been to take the turtle to Boston where it could be cut up and sold for meat to restaurants, to make turtle soup. Turtle soup was a popular dish at the time. The then President of the United States, William Taft, was said to have hired his chef because of his skill at making this favourite dish.

This turtle did not become soup, a more ignominious fate awaited the poor beast. Instead, it was exhibited as a ‘Sea Monster’ at the Boston pier known as Long Wharf. The creature was now reported as weighing 1,000lbs, and resembled a cross between a seal and a turtle. Some of the press seemed keen to tell their readers that this was more than a turtle. ‘Persons interested in strange forms of life will doubtless make a point of seeing it. To school children it will prove especially interesting.’

It wasn’t long before those interested in zoology became curious about the ‘sea monster.’ Professor Henshaw and his team at the Agassiz Natural History Museum at Harvard College identified the creature as a 500lb a turtle, spargias coriacea, a species that originated in the ‘Southern Waters, near the Caribbean Sea’ and was said to rarely come north. It’s from the family of leatherback turtles.

The professors had the turtle embalmed, possibly for the museum, but somehow it remained on exhibit at  Long Wharf. While the capture of a large turtle might have been rare it was not unprecedented. In July 1906, the Boston Post reported the landing of a ‘monster keel-back turtle in the Georges fishing grounds near Cape Cod. It took fourteen men to pull this nearly eight-foot turtle into the boat after it had been harpooned. Even while wounded its powerful flippers and snapping beak meant it was still dangerous. Rather than try to finish the creature off they let it die on deck. 

The year before Houdini’s escape, 1910, the Boston Sunday Post featured a story about a ‘Giant Turtle’ captured 65 miles off Highland Light, Cape Cod, that was said to weigh over 1,100lbs and was taken to Gloucester for exhibition. Quite a few giant turtles, like the one above, ended up on exhibition. One crew were paid $250 for their dead turtle, the idea being that some prospective Barnum would put it on display. Despite this, newspapers were still fond of portraying their capture as a battle between fishermen and sea monsters. It made a better story than saying they’d harpooned a turtle that was lost having wandered too far north.

One month after the Long Wharf sea monster went on exhibition, the 36-year-old Houdini arrived in Boston to play B. F. Keith’s Theatre. As was his custom, to drum up business for the show, Houdini announced that he would accept challenges from the local townsfolk ‘to furnish any sort of a box, can, package or bag specially constructed with a view to holding him captive, from which he will escape.’ The only stipulation was that he be given 24 hours notice so that the challenge could be advertised in the newspapers.

John F. Masters issued such a challenge on the 25th September. He dared Houdini to escape from inside Long Wharf’s famous sea monster, which was now reported as, ‘weighing more than 1,500lbs, and estimated to be about 500 years old.’ John F. Masters managed the business of the Dominion Atlantic Railway Steamship Company at Long Wharf, the owners of the Prince Arthur, the ship that brought the turtle to Boston and had arranged for its exhibition. More significantly, Masters also worked in tourism and you’ll find his name in many of Nova Scotia’s tourist ads and brochures. The challenge clearly had promotional advantages for Masters, the steamship company and the local area. 

Masters called in other local businessmen to support him, and all got a name check in The Boston Post article announcing the challenge. And this is where we get our only glimpse of the ‘Freak Sea Monster,’ a photograph that clearly shows it is a turtle. A big turtle for sure but not a cross between a whale and an octopus or any other chimeric creature you might imagine when seeing the words ‘Sea Monster.’ The teenage me would have been very disappointed.

Houdini responded to Masters’ challenge. ‘This is the most original challenge I have ever accepted. If you bring your sea monster to the stage of B. F. Keith’s Theatre on Tuesday evening, Sept. 26. 1911. I will submit to the conditions you name.’ One of those conditions was that he have enough ventilation while inside the carcass. ‘As the inside of a fish or turtle is not the most desirable place to be for any length of time.’ 

The challenge actually took place on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26th September. Crowds of people followed the sea monster, ‘an exceedingly evil looking brute,’ as it was paraded through the streets and the one mile distance from Long Wharf to B. F. Keith’s Theatre on Mason Street.

The turtle was on stage when Houdini read out the details of the challenge to a packed theatre. As Houdini was finishing, John F. Masters ‘sprang to his feet’ and asked permission to read a legal document he had drawn up for Houdini to sign before undertaking the stunt. The document stated that as the turtle had been embalmed using arsenic Houdini took all responsibility and relieved the challengers and their heirs for evermore. Houdini took this unforeseen demand in his stride and bravely signed his life away.

This eleventh hour revelation is a small stroke of genius. And I think we can be confident that it was dreamt up by Houdini not Masters. Houdini went off stage to change his clothes and returned wearing ‘blue jumpers, and armed with three handkerchiefs and two bottles of strong perfume.’ He sprayed the perfume inside the turtle. A gang of sea skippers then proceeded to chain and manacle Houdini, the details of which were reported.

‘Houdini was bound hand and foot with handcuffs and leg irons and was then placed inside the big monster. The belly of the monster was then laced tightly with strong chain. The eyelets through which the chain was passed being three inches apart. After being laced in, the chains were locked by numerous locks and then strapped around the monster were more chains which in turn were locked.’

Houdini’s assistants Franz Kukol and Jim Collins were there to place Houdini inside the turtle. ‘It was a tight squeeze.’ Already gasping for breath, Houdini asked them to hurry. Bess Houdini watched from the wings. The turtle was left belly up, ‘so that Houdini could get a little air by pressing his lips against the chains.’ A red curtained cabinet was placed around Houdini and the turtle, and the orchestra began to play.

15 minutes later, Houdini came bounding from inside the cabinet, his hair mussed, and his face drenched in sweat.  The packed audience cheered and the challenging committee congratulated him. Still apparently suffering from his suffocating ordeal, Houdini called for the windows and doors of the theatre to be opened so that fresh air could be let in. Whenever this escape is mentioned, so too is Houdini’s struggle for breath having been almost overcome by the embalming fumes. 

Newspapers reported that Houdini’s escape was much quicker than the three days Jonah spent inside a whale. Before the event was over, Houdini announced that another challenge would be met the next day. Two locals had invited Houdini to escape from a restraint used to incapacitate the insane. This time the escape would be ‘in full view of the audience.’ And so, with the promise of another captivating challenge, Houdini kept his public enthralled.

Two days after Houdini’s escape, the turtle was back at its regular job: ’Sea Monster which challenged Houdini now on exhibition at Long Wharf. Admission 10 cents.’

Houdini and the Sea Monster gives us a detailed insight into how Houdini constructed a challenge, and how not only the press of the day but historians of later years reported it.  Even before Houdini arrived on the scene the turtle was referred to as a sea monster. Houdini and the journalists were often in the same business, selling stories and entertainment. Though I do detect a little more scepticism from The Boston Herald than The Boston Post. Historians while dedicated to uncovering the reality of the past are also susceptible to a little myth making. Better to not look too deeply into the mystery of the sea monster if you want to tell a good story. Oddly, Houdini himself doesn't seem to have made much of his escape from the sea monster. It does not appear to be an event he boasted about. The stunt served its purpose, and was only one of several challenges performed during his engagement in Boston, but perhaps it was something he didn't want anyone digging into. We can only speculate. 

However, the sea monster is a splendid example of a Houdini challenge that is unique to the location. Houdini surrounds the challenge of the unknown with his tried and tested work with handcuffs, chains and locks.  He counters uncertainty be creating a firm base from which to operate. The novel challenge also provides unique staging opportunities. The parade of the sea monster to the venue. The last-minute signing of a document absolving the challengers of responsibility. The possibility of being poisoned and the final call to throw open the doors and windows to let in fresh air.  This is a professional at the top of his game and who knows exactly how to extract the maximum from any performance. He did all this for one show. For Houdini, every stunt brought new opportunities.

Houdini’s greatest talent was his showmanship. The best of his challenges tell the story of a hero who struggles, almost fails and then succeeds, sometimes at great cost. We can find this pattern in some of Houdini’s best-known escapes, like the Daily Mirror Handcuff Challenge where he almost fails, dramatically cuts himself free of his coat and then escapes only to bear the scars for the rest of his life. At least that is how the event has been retold. The sea monster has all those elements and more. It’s a story where myth meets legend, Monster vs Houdini. A battle between man and beast embroidered by the public's imagination. Houdini created stories and played them out on stage. Stories that pitted the human spirit against whatever could be thrown against it. Stories that survive even today, keeping his memory alive and transforming a life into legend.


Giant turtles still find their way north. Just this month one washed up at Cape Cod. Luckily it was pushed back into the waters before any Barnum could lay hands on it. You can read about it here.

If you are interested in Houdini, then do visit Wild About Harry, the incredible blog from John Cox. John has posted a couple of times about this story including some pages from an unproduced movie script about Houdini in which the sea monster makes an appearance.

The photographs of Houdini in this article are credited to the State Library Victoria in Australia, specifically the Will Alma collection. This is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in magic and its history. And you will find it here.

If you are interested in the history of magic, you might want to check out a book I worked on with David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman and Homer Liwag. It's called David Copperfield's History of Magic and is available from 26th October just about anywhere they sell books, including Amazon. David Copperfield has an astonishing collection of Houdini equipment at his museum in Las Vegas and if you ever have the opportunity to visit, grasp that opportunity with both hands. It is simply breathtaking.