“The two shackle-breaking artists stripped for the contest. Houdini wore tights under his clothing. Boudini did not.”
– New York Times, Sept. 21, 1905
Bess wrapped her bonnet tighter around her ears. The wind was cold that morning, coming from the east.
Harlem was quiet as Bess hurried west along the 112ndth Street, toward the 116th Street subway stop. She didn’t like traveling underground and she knew Ehrich didn’t like her spending 5 cents on the trip, but there was no other way for her to get to South Ferry in time.
She pulled her handbag tighter under her arm as she walked inside the control house. She looked around to make sure she was in the right place, then walked in and bought a ticket from a man inside an oak booth. She carefully lifted her skirt as she walked down the stairs, gripping the handle of her handbag, making sure she still had it with her.
The handbag was the sole reason for this trip. Or, rather, what was inside it.
The train came always immediately, a great relief to Bess. She walked briskly by the side of the train and got on the last car.
As the train clonked through the tunnels, Bess kept staring at the handbag on her lap. He was lucky to have her. And why, oh why did he have to accept every challenge that was put to him?
What did it matter if a Boudini claimed he could escape from handcuffs underwater, too? Was he supposed to defend his honour as the “Handcuff King” against anyone who so wanted? There would always be a Boudini, or a Coudini, or a Doudini trying to ride Ehrich’s coattails.
And why did they have to do their stunts so early in the morning? Bess yawned.
As soon as she got back to street level at South Ferry, she started to run towards the pier where the tug was. She hoped they hadn’t yet thrown themselves overboard and was so relieved when she heard her husband bellowing his usual sales pitch to the crowd that she stopped and walked the rest of the way, her eyes on her gorgeous husband.
He really was gorgeous, she thought. Not in the classic Rudyard Kipling kind of way, but just charismatic and magnetic, and powerful.
“And the first one TO LOO-OOOSE THESE HANDCUFFS,” he was now shouting, dangling a pair of metal cuffs in his hands, “will win FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS.”
A hush fell over the crowd, followed by loud cheers from the Houdini supporters.
Standing by the the side of the tug, slightly behind Ehrich, there was a slightly smaller man, who was waving his arms, apparently warming up.
Then Houdini took a step back and gestured for Boudini to step up. Bess walked closer and waved at her husband who leapt off the tug.
“I came as fast as I could,” Bess said and reached inside her handbag. She handed a cloth ball to her husband. “Good thing I saw those on the bedroom floor,” she added.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” said Houdini and stuffed the ball into his pocket. “Don’t what I would do without you,” he added.
“Is there a place you can get changed?”
“I’ll do it back on the tug.”
“Will you beat him?”
“Of course. Especially now, with these. My lucky charm,” he said and patted his pocket and returned to the tug, shaking hands with admirers, as he cut through the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea.
Bess stayed in the back. Even after all her years as her husband’s assistant, and even though she knew that Ehrich planned all his stunts to the tiniest detail, she didn’t want anyone looking at her when he was underwater.
Ten minutes later, Ehrich appeared from below deck, in a white shirt and black pants. The tugboat captain clasped the handcuffs on Houdini and Boudini, and two crewmen guided them to the side of the boat and gave them the signal to jump in, as the captain started the clock.
The suspense was so thick you could cut it with a knife, even though nobody could see anything. There was nothing to be seen. The two stars of the show – or the one true star if you asked Bess – were gone for about a minute.
Then Houdini’s head appeared.
“Is Boudini up yet?” he said, spat and wiped his brow with his hand, to show that he had already lost the handcuffs.
“No!” shouted the crowd.
A moment later, Boudini’s head appeared, but he wasn’t as cheerful. He went back down without a word.
Then: nothing for another minute.
Then: Houdini again.
“Is Boudini up yet?” he asked.
As soon as he heard the crowd roar “no”, he dove back in, and stuck his feet up so that everyone could see that the ankle bracelets were gone, too.
The last minute underwater was just Ehrich showing off, Bess thought.
Houdini swam to the tugboat and was helped up. Boudini was pulled onboard a minute later, still in chains.
“Anything you want to say to the people here?” the captain asked Boudini.
“I swallowed some water,” he said, “and I didn’t wear tights.”
“That’s right,” said Houdini, dropped his pants on the floor and put his foot on the rail so that everyone could see his tights. “Be like Houdini. Get your tights from Bloomingdales!” he shouted.
Bess smiled. With the wager money, and what Bloomingdale’s paid Harry for the shoutout, they could take a cab back to Harlem.