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!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bushrangers and the Success

The ship Success continues to elicit a tremendous amount of interest around the world, as evidenced by the number of different websites that have shown interest in her story. One particularly fine website discusses the Success and her connection to a well known Australian outlaw. This site, called glenrowan1880, is owned and operated by Dave White. As many of you no doubt know, Ned was a famous Australian "bushranger" - a particular brand outlaw who roamed the hinterlands of Australia during the mid to late 19th century. A number of the more colorful among them attained the status of folk hero, their stories memorialized in poems, books, and on film. The names of a few of them become associated with the Success during her tenure as a penal hulk in the colony of Victoria and later as an exhibition ship. According to Wikipedia, these bushrangers were roughly analogous to British "highwaymen" and American "Old West outlaws," and their crimes often included robbing small-town banks or coach services. And some of them ended up incarcerated on board the various penal hulks, including the Success.

The bushranger perhaps most closely associated with the Success is Henry Johnson, alias Harry Power.
Power, an expert horseman and bush survivalist, is credited with tutoring the most celebrated bushranger in Australian, Ned Kelly. He served time on board the Success and was involved in one of the deadlier incidents involving the famous hulk, but his connection to the vessel does not end there. I will talk about Power and his close affiliation with the Success in more detail in a future blog, but for now let's return to the Ned Kelly story.

Sharon's excellent website provides a fascinating study of Ned and his kind. Part of what makes her site fun for me is the way she departs from the main path to explore aspects of the Kelly legend not usually discussed by Ned's biographers, such as the Success. Interestingly enough, Ned's connection with the Success (except for his association with Power) did not begin until the ship was put on exhibition in 1890 after being auctioned off to private interests. Part of her transformation into a show ship involved fitting her out as a waxworks. Lifelike representations of former Success convicts were accompanied by depictions the Kelly Gang and of the murder of John Price. What made the inclusion of the former of interest was that no member of Ned's gang had ever been incarcerated on the ship, which, by time Ned was out roaming the outlaw trail, was no longer being used to house prisoners. And as Hollingsworth correctly points out, the Exhibition Catalogue was quick to mention that the Kelly Gang figures were on display merely as examples of "modern Australian outlaws."

However, another Kelly related exhibit on display by the Success showmen created a bit more controversy. The Kelly Armour purported to be protective armor actually worn by Ned at the time of his arrest. However, this suit of armor is widely regarded as being a fake. Indeed, faked Kelly armor was not uncommon. Here is a photo of the armor on display on the Success:

I have attempted to determine where this armor came from, with little success. I have been even less successful in determining where it ended up. It was one of the many relics that disappeared from the ship during her fateful stay in Sandusky, Ohio (1943-45) when she was left unprotected. Thieves and vandals roamed at will over the sunken vessel, removing anything not bolted down. No doubt many of these items are sitting packed away in boxes, hiding in garages and basements, their "owners" too embarrassed to display them.

There are two other bushrangers who served time on board the hulk Success who are worthy of mention. They are Frank McCallum, alias Captain Melville, and Owen Suffolk. I will discuss each of these fascinating figures in future blog postings.