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How Belfast provided backdrop for magician Harry Houdini's toughest escape attempt

Harry Houdini made several visits to Belfast during his career

HARRY Houdini's daring, spectacular escape acts and grand illusions made him a household name and one of the most famous magicians of all time.

But what is less known about Houdini, who died in 1926, are his numerous links to Belfast - a place where he admitted he faced one of his toughest ever challenges.

One particular trick saw the Austro-Hungarian-born American escape artist encased in a large chest made from timber used by Harland and Wolff and lowered into Donegall Quay.

But the stunt proved more difficult than Houdini had expected and he later confided it was one of the hardest he ever undertook.

The previously little known details about Houdini's connections to Belfast have been brought to the fore by Irish magician Paul Gleeson, who uses the stage name Rua.

He said he found out much about Houdini's trips to Ireland during a visit to the New York.

"Houdini spent a bit of time in Belfast doing shows in the Hippodrome in January 1909," he said.

"He used to do escape stunts called challenge escapes where he would ask people if they could build some kind of container around him from which he would escape.

"So during his visit to Belfast he challenged Harland and Wolff to do the same thing.

"They built a huge packing case around him, interestingly when they were building the Titanic at the time, and used wood from the Titanic to build this case.

"It was lowered under the water at Donegall Quay and he had to escape. He slipped out in a few minutes, leaving the chest in tact.

Houdini challenged Harland and Wolff, who were building the Titanic at the time, to build a huge packing case around him made of wood used on the ship. Picture by Hugh Russell

"I've spent a lot of time researching him and wanted to find out more so I went to the New York Conjuring Arts Research Centre where there is the greatest collections of magic and history books in the world.

"I found a few lines about that moment in his wife's memoirs, where he basically confided in her it was the toughest thing he ever had to do."

Other connections Houdini had to Belfast involved his campaign of "debunking psychics and spiritualists", including the Goligher family from the Limestone Road in north Belfast, who he believed were frauds.

"Houdini sent an emissary from Belfast to go and check them out," said Rua.

"William Jackson Crawford ended up researching them for six years and was convinced these guys were the real deal. But mysteriously he killed himself, they don't know why.

"So Houdini made a trip over with another guy from Trinity College, Edmund D'Albe, and within the first sitting or two they could figure out what the psychics were doing straight away.

"It threw an interesting question mark over that area of the Goligher circle in Belfast as to why this professor couldn't figure out these psychics yet a magician could figure them out straight away."

Rua also described how various theories exist about Houdini's death on Halloween in 1926.

"A lot of people think he died doing an underwater escape stunt but rumour has it, it was after he took a punch," he said.

"He used to do a trick on stage where he would take a punch to the stomach from any man and he wouldn't feel a thing, he wouldn't fall over.

"Before a show in Montreal, he was lying backstage on a recliner chair and three students were doing interviewing him.

"One of them, Jay Gordon Whitehead said 'Mr Houdini, is it true you can take a punch from any man' and Houdini said 'yes, let me get up to try and prepare myself'.

"He was pushing himself up off the chair, when this guy smashed him in the stomach three times with hard blows, injuring Houdini's appendix and he died from peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix.

"There's a huge question mark over Whitehead's life because he had strong ties to the spiritualist industry, add that to the fact Houdini was a huge enemy of the spiritualist industry.

"A theory about it was that Whitehead was sent to try to hurt Houdini, scare him or maybe murder him - it obviously went too far and ended up killing Houdini."

Irish magician Rua said he found out much about Houdini's past during a visit to the New York Conjuring Arts Research Centre

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