Monday, November 13, 2006

Harry Houdini's 1911 Sea Monster - a Lovecraft Influence?

One always wonders about what Lovecraft may have absorbed to create Dagon. We are sure that Irving Cobb's FishHead and at least one vivid dream came together to create Dagon. Still, what made him think of the Philistine FishGod? *

In any event, here is the text from the new Houdini book. **

The procession started on the Long Wharf of Boston Harbor and continued through the winding streets to Keiths Theatre. Crowds of people followed the bizarre parade, others just stood on the sidewalk and watched in awe as Houdini's next great challenge was publicly displayed. "It" was a giant 1,600 pound sea monster that had been fished out of the ocean, a "what is it" that locals had identified as a cross between a whale and an octopus. Ten prominent Boston businessmen had challenged Houdini to be fettered with handcuffs and leg irons and escape from the hollowed-out "belly of the beast.'

The scene onstage on September 26, 1911 was unbelievable. It took a dozen stagehands to carry out the "turtle-tortoise-fish or whatever it is," and turn it on its back on the center of the stage. Its abdomen had been sliced open, affixed with metal eyelets, which held a long thread of steel chain. Before the escape was attempted, Houdini was forced to sign a document that would release the owners of this monster from any liability should Houdini fail the test.

Then the steel chain was slackened, and Houdini crawled into the carcass, pausing to spray some strong perfume where his head would lie. He gave a signal, and handcuffs and leg irons were fastened to him. Then the committee went to work. Smiling through their labor, they tightened the chain, passed it around the creature's back, and secured it with locks. The cabinet was then placed around the beast and the orchestra struck up.

After fifteen minutes, the screens of the cabinet were thrown open, and there was Houdini, "grease-covered, pallid and perspiring," holding the handcuffs and leg irons aloft in triumph. On examination, the beast was as securely locked as it had been before. Houdini was not unscathed. His first words were to the stagehands, requesting them to open the windows and give him some air. Houdini had underestimated the toxicity of the arsenic solution that the taxidermist had used to preserve the sea monster, and, locked inside, he had been adversely affected by the fumes.

From: The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, William Kalush and Larry Sloman, Atria Books, NY, 2006, p. 267


* It really was not a Fish God, but 19th century etymology mistook dagon as a metaphor or semitic root word of fish and god.

** The Fortean Group with T. Peter Park and Loren Coleman, among other notables, are researching this anecdote for fuller references in newspapers or other literature. Stay Tuned!

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Wow! I got the book from the library but haven't had a chance to crack it open yet. Now I can't wait!!!

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