Houdini’s Final “Success”

Kevin Connolly Collection

Kevin Connolly Collection

Kevin Connolly Collection

This is the last piece that I have on Houdini and the convict ship “Success”. It just arrived in the mail today. It’s was from the Fred Pitella collection. Fred tells me that this was from one of Houdini’s scrapbooks. I know Fred and he knows his stuff. I’m sorry for the poor pictures, but the piece is very fragile as you can see. Please scroll down to read more about this Houdini challenge and the ship.

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8 Responses to “Houdini’s Final “Success””


  • Very nice.

    Isn’t it odd how obscure this escape is? It’s really spectacular, you’d think Houdini would have touted this in his pitch books, etc. Makes you wonder if there are still some spectacular escapes that we don’t know about.

  • It truly is. This was a well publicized escape. From what I know, it ran in the newspapers for a week as Houdini crossed the Atlantic to arrive in New York. Telegrams were published from the captain of the Success, Hammerstein and Houdini. This was not a one day event.

    The escape sounds terrific to me. Houdini is locked in a cell, below deck. He then escapes from the cell, jumps into the Hudson River and swims ashore. This was a significant escape that just maybe, the biographers missed. Hard to imagine that this challenge didn’t get more play by them or Houdini. The people who owned the “Success” never mentioned the escape in any of their pitch books for the ship either. There must have been at least 5 different editions of these books after the Houdini challenge and not one even mentions Houdini. The “Success” experts on the other post on this escape, never heard of it either. They, like us, are very focused on their subject. Yes, it’s hard to imagine this slipped by both camps.

  • Kevin,
    This is a nice find, made more so by the inclusion of correspondence between Smith and Houdini. Just a few comments. Dave Smith, mamager of the “Success” at that time, was one of the great showmen of his day. Not a “captain” at all, he left his small Indiana town at an early age and went out to strike it rich, at first not too successfully as a salesman but finally finding his mark as a showman with the “Success”. He was a notorious raconteur, card sharp, and womanizer. Some of the advertising stunts he pulled with the ship were quite inventive and, more often than not, successful. (Case in point, the challenge to Houdini.) The full page ad you have was typical of his style. He was a big believer in advertiser. He would travel in advance to the next city the ship was to appear and spend thousands of dollars on full page ads in all the newspapers, hyping the ship so that by the time she arrived, everyone wanted to see it. He did the same thing with his stunts. He was a genius at getting them advertised, but once they were over, that was it; he was on to the next thing. IMHO Smith was a pure genius at using press agents and getting publicity.
    Thanks for sharing – Rich

  • Rich – I wonder why Smith didn’t use the Houdini angle more in his booklets and other promtional material? He seems to missed out on that one.

    As for spending money for advertising, he should have talked to Houdini. Houdini spent very little to advertise. You really don’t have to spend that much when you’re escaping from a straight-jacket, upside down, from the local newspaper building. ;)

  • Kevin,
    It does not surprise me that Smith did not mention Houdini in his printed material. Those publications were for catalogueing the exhibits and history of the ship, not for advertising purposes. Regarding publicity strategies, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Houdini was a popular figure who garnered publicity based on his own celebrity. The Success was a traveling museum. although word of mouth certainly played a role, savy advertising was key to getting the public to take notice and “create buzz”. But Smith also obtained much free publicity through the clever use of press agents, the staging of “stunts”, and having a very cozy relationship with the press. Some of the things he did to create free publicity was to hold contests like who could remain the longest in Cell 13, holding special showings for the press and public officials, or donating a the proceeds from a given day to some local charity. During World War I he actually arranged with the US Marine Corps to set up a marine recruiting station on board!
    Rich

  • To not use something like “The convict ship Success, the only person to escape her hull was Houdini! Come see the cell Houdini escaped from that others could not.”. That sounds-like a decent one off the top of my head.

    Does anyone have any timbers from the burnt hull? What from the ship, besides the souvenirs, still exists?

  • Can’t disagree.
    I have a few pieces of teak from the ship as well as a set of leg irons. There are many other pieces out there in private hands and as well as in public collections. There are three that stand out: The Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Library and Museum in Fremond, Ohio; the Sandusky Maritime Museum in Sandusky, Ohio, and the Great Lakes Historical Society Museum in Vermilion, Ohio. The Williamstown Historical Museum in Williamstown, Victoria, Australia, also has some pieces.

  • The Rutherford Hayes museum/collection has a scrapbook with the Houdini/Success connection. I never saw it, but it is mentioned online.

    What do you think a nice Success window card is worth?

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