We continue the reprinting of R. Alain Everts’ biographical article on William Hope Hodgson. This part speaks about a pivotal event in Hodgson’s life: his encounter with Harry Houdini. This would be an event that would scar both men for the rest of their lives.
by R. Alain Everts
The Early Years, Part 4
Hope continued with his school of Physical Culture throughout 1902 and 1903; but in 1902 something interesting and important occurred—Hodgson met Houdini. (And it is interesting to note that H. P. Lovecraft, who considered Hodgson an excellent writer, also met Houdini, but never knew the details of the following incident.) The following notices appeared in the Northern Daily Telegraph (24 and 25 October 1902 respectively).
Challenge to The “Handcuff King” At Blackburn
Hodgson v. Houdini
Interest in the visit of Houdini, the handcuff magician, to the Palace Theatre, Blackburn, this week is intensified by the acceptance of his challenge by Mr. W. H. Hodgson, of the School of Physical Culture, Blackburn. Letters have passed between the parties to the following effect:
The School of Physical Culture, Ainsworth Street, Blackburn
Mr. Harry Houdini
Being interested in your apparently anatomically impossible handcuff feat, I have decided to take up your challenge to-night (Friday) on the following conditions:
1st I bring and use my own irons (so look out).
2nd I iron you myself.
3rd If you are unable to free yourself, the £25 to be given to the Blackburn Infirmary.
Should you succeed, I shall be the first one to offer congratulations. If not, then the Infirmary will benefit.
W. Hope Hodgson
P.S.—Naturally, if your challenge is bona-fide, I shall expect the money to be deposited. W.H.H.
I, Harry Houdini, accept the above challenge, and will deposit the £25 at the “Telegraph” Office. Match to take place to-night (Friday).
The results of the challenge were as follows:
Handcuff King’s Big Task
An Exciting Performance At Blackburn
The Challenge And Its Results
At the Palace Theatre, Blackburn, last night, before a “house” packed from pit to gallery, Mr. W. H. Hodgson, principal of the Blackburn School of Physical Culture, took up the challenge issued by Houdini, the “Handcuff King” who engaged to forfeit £25 to the infirmary if he failed to free himself from any irons placed upon him. The challenge and its acceptance aroused intense interest. At the outset Houdini protested that the irons which Mr. Hodgson proposed to use had been tampered with, his challenge stipulating that they should be “regulation” irons. Mr. Hodgson replied that one of the conditions of the challenge entitled him to use his own irons, and at length Houdini consented to this. His wrists, arms and legs were then locked in a number of fetters and bars of various designs, and he retired to his curtained cabinet on the stage to commence the operation of escaping. At the expiration of half an hour Houdini asked that his hands should be freed for a moment, so that the circulation might be restored. Mr. Hodgson, however, would not consent to this, and although appeals were made to him by Houdini’s brother, he was obdurate, despite the fact that Dr. Bradley, who was called to the stage, stated that it was cruelty to go on with the performance. Mr. Hodgson several times essayed to speak, but the house would not give him a hearing. He was then heard to say, however, “If Houdini is beaten then let him give in.” When Houdini had been bound about three-quarters of an hour he announced to the audience, amidst loud cheering, that his hands were free and he would take a rest of ten minutes or a quarter of an hour to get the circulation back. He continued, and after a prolonged and evidently terrible struggle he freed himself entirely. Addressing the audience, he said he had performed fourteen years, and had never been so brutally treated. He alleged that some of the irons were plugged. Mr. Hodgson left the theatre before Houdini had freed himself, being ordered out by a police sergeant, who feared a disturbance. Seen after the performance, he denied that the irons used were plugged. He holds that he acted fairly in not with-drawing from the contest, which, he says, was not a love match. It was 12:15, this morning when the great crowd left the theatre.
The description by Milhouse Christopher in his biography of Houdini (entitled Houdini) of this episode is completely inaccurate, needless to say—Christopher practically accuses Hodgson of plugging the irons—omitting the fact that Hodgson denied doing so—which no doubt he did not do anyway. Knowing anatomy and the structure of muscle, Hodgson would hardly have had to resort to such tactics to stump Houdini. This was most likely the closest time that Houdini came to losing his career, and if one takes into account the length of time involved, perhaps Houdini was indeed licked this time.
Hodgson continued to run his school until late 1903 early 1904 when the family [went] to Borth for the summer, and Hope decided to remain the year round, exercising his new hobby—writing.
[The actual encounter had much more to it, of course, than what Everts quotes here. It was, in fact, a pivotal event in the lives of both men. Houdini carried physical scars from this challenge for the rest of his life and would never again allow himself to be placed so close to possible failure. For his part, losing the challenge eventually doomed Hodgson’s school to close, leaving him to turn to writing as a means of making money. Not, as Everts so blithely puts it, as a hobby. For a more detailed analysis of this extremely important collision of two monumental personalities, please see my article “Houdini v. Hodgson–The Blackburn Challenge” which appeared in WEIRD FICTION REVIEW available from Centipede Press. –Sam Gafford]