Harry Houdini Southend escape to be re-enacted by council worker

Stuart Burrell
Image caption Stuart Burrell says he got into escapology because he was no good at card tricks

Ask amateur historian Stuart Burrell why he wants to follow in the footsteps of Harry Houdini and his answer is simple: he was no good at card tricks.

For years the married 35-year-old has been researching the history of the great escapologist and his one and only visit to Essex.

Records found in the county's archives show Houdini performed in Southend in 1911.

Mr Burrell, a council housing officer, now hopes to recreate the escapes performed in the town by Houdini.

His interest was sparked by a chance conversation with an expert on the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy who mentioned Houdini had once visited Southend.

"He said he had performed at the Alexandra Yacht Club - it was a slightly flippant aside that I picked up on.

'Contort yourself'

"I thought it was blarney at first," Mr Burrell said. "But I've been to the county archives and I've spoken to historians researching other areas and it turned out to be true."

During Houdini's visit to the seaside town, he performed privately at the yacht club and publicly at the Hippodrome.

The main act was the chair escape, in which Houdini was tied and strapped to a chair by members of the public.

"We know Houdini performed in Essex only once in his entire lifetime and it is something special to realise that it took place in my home town," said Mr Burrell.

"The escape may sound somewhat simple but the risks involved are very high. I know of one escape artist who dislocated his hip by falling off the chair.

"Another was concussed when the chair fell over backwards.

"He nearly suffocated as he swallowed his own tongue."


Mr Burrell, a member of the Southend Sorcerers Magic Group, said when he started out in magic he struggled with card and deception tricks.

"But I could work mechanical things such as locks. Escapalogy is a mixture of skills and practice and being able to contort yourself in such a way as to allow you to get out," he said.

Image caption Mr Burrell believes Houdini came up with his most famous water trick in Southend

Houdini's most famous escape was arguably the "Chinese Water Torture" trick.

The escape involved Houdini, bound in chains, lowered upside down into a glass water tank which would then be concealed from the audience, usually by a curtain.

Several tension-filled minutes would pass before the curtains would be drawn back to reveal an empty tank, and Houdini alive and well, if a little wet.

Houdini's records show that he first performed the Chinese Water Torture escape four weeks after he came up with the idea for it.

This, said Mr Burrell, would mean he came up with the idea while in Southend.

"I would love to find some evidence of him having thought up this trick here in Southend," he said. "A picture of him, perhaps, looking at an aquarium on the sea front for example. That would be amazing."

Mr Burrell will re-enact Houdini's Southend chair escape on 12 March at the Dixon Studio.