Friday, February 25, 2011

Houdini vs. the Success

When the ship Success arrived in the U.S. for a long-running tour of exhibition as the "Convict Ship Success," she had the good fortune to be under the management of Dave Smith.

By the time Smith first laid eyes on the old ship at Douglas, Isle of Man, in the summer of 1911, the 32-year-old Hoosier was already a veteran salesman, card sharp, and raconteur. And he had some definite ideas about how to advertise and promote the ship when she entered U.S. waters a year later. His was a multi-pronged approach: run large display ads in all the local newspapers before the ship reached port, invite the press and prominent public officials to exclusive showings of the vessel before opening her to public view, and stage publicity stunts.

An early example of the latter was staged in 1913, not long after the Success arrived in the U.S. The old craft arrived in New York City on April 25th, docking at West 79th Street and Riverside Drive in the North River. While the Success was thrilling crowds in the Big Apple, Harry Houdini, who had become world famous as an escape artist and illusionist, was returning to New York from Bucharest aboard the steamer Kronprinz Wilhelm to open at Willliam Hammerstein’s popular Rooftop Theater for a second season of performances there. Sensing an opportunity, Hammerstein’s press agent suggested to Smith that he challenge Houdini to escape from one of the cells below deck. Smith wrote to Hammerstein, "If you allow me to manacle him [Houdini], lock him into one of the cells, I am ready to wager he will not escape." When Hammerstein suggested he and Houdini they communicate directly, Smith sent a cable to the famous escape artist extending the challenge. Like Smith every bit the showman, Houdini wired back, “Accept challenge any time mutually agreed upon to undergo test. Want no favors, but demand fair play.”

The stunt was scheduled for Wednesday, June 4, at 1:30 pm. With a large crowd watching from the dock, Houdini was placed in irons and locked in a cell on the lower deck, where he was further secured to a ringbolt attached to the hull. Within the space of an hour, Houdini released himself, dove through an upper porthole and swam to shore. The crowd roared – the stunt was a success.

Smith was famous for using press agents to help cook up creative - and sometimes outlandish - publicity stunts. One of his most famous was the "discovery" of a so-called Burmese "pigeon blood ruby" deep down in the hold of the ship when it was docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1923. Smith garnered enormous press as a result of the stunt, even after a journalist exposed the charade.

More tame publicity stunts involved various challenges in which the public was enticed to compete for money; for example, by getting married in Cell 13 on Friday the 13th. Over the years the Success served as the setting for more than a few nuptuals!


  1. Rich,

    Way to go! I just posted about you on my blog.

    Where did you find the information on the challenge? That's a great find!

    Good Luck with your new endeavor.


  2. Thanks for the comments!
    Kevin, I relied primarily on Kellock's 'Houdini: His Life-Story' and Christopher's 'Houdini: The Untold Story,' as well as contemporary newspaper accounts.

  3. Rich,

    Interesting reading, looks like fun research.


  4. Way cool! I think you should write about Success' promoter as well, equally interesting!

  5. Most definitely. He will be the subject of a future post, for sure.