Scenes of uproar when the legendary escapologist nearly met his match

HANGING upside down on a rope from a balcony 40ft up on Blackburn's old Palace Cinema and strapped in a straitjacket, railway engine driver Frank Cooper (pictured in action) was out of the restraint at express speed.

It took the 14-stone railman just half a minute to free himself, even though it was more than 21 years since he last performed the feat - at the big-top circus at Manchester's Belle Vue.

It was the same when PC Albert Rodgers from the borough force slapped a pair of regulation police handcuffs on him.

Amateur escapologist Frank had begun his hobby as a boy when, in his home town, Huddersfield, he saw a man trussed to a lamppost, boasting that no-one could tie him up for long. Frank obviously learned the ropes much better - for the man who was his inspiration could not break free!

When he performed before his stunts before gawpers on the Boulevard outside the Palace that day in 1954, it was to publicise the movie that was being shown at the now-vanished cinema the following week - the Hollywood biopic starring Tony Curtis as the most famous escapologist of them all, Harry Houdini.

But the cinema's management really missed a trick when they engaged Frank to boost the film, "Houdini," with his amazing feats - for no mention was made of the fact that the Palace was the actual spot where nearly 52 years earlier Houdini underwent a challenge that he himself described as the most brutal test of his career.

Back then, the huge and cavernous 2,500-seat Palace was the town's top variety theatre, but of all the unusual acts performed on its stage in its pre-cinema era none was more sensational than that when the American magician known as the Handcuff King almost met his match at the hands of Blackburn mighty-atom strongman William Hope Hodgson that October night in 1902. Hodgson was a quite a character. Aged 24 and the son of a clergyman, Houdini's 5ft 4in challenger had joined his family at their home in Park Road, Revidge, in 1899, eight years after running away to sea as a 13-year-old to become a cabin boy. While in the Merchant Marine, he took up weightlifting and body-building to help defend himself from bullying crewmen and on arrival in Blackburn opened his School of Physical Culture in a gymnasium he set up next door to the Theatre Royal in Ainsworth Street, with members of the town's police among his pupils. He was later to earn literary acclaim as a writer of science fiction, but was killed in the First World War at the age of 40 when he was blown to bits by a German shell at Ypres in 1918. Houdini, then aged 28, was making his first appearance in Lancashire and on arrival at Blackburn, to promote his week-long run at the Palace, offered the then-considerable reward of £25 if he failed to escape from regulation restraints as used by the police of Europe and America. Hodgson responded with his own challenge - that of placing Houdini in irons that he would bring along and put on him himself and for the money to be given to Blackburn Infirmary if the stage star could not escape from them. Defending his reputation as the man no chains or locks could hold, Houdini accepted. And this newspaper's forerunner, the Northern Daily Telegraph, was given the task of holding the challenge money.

The magician ended up being trussed up like a turkey on stage shortly after 10 pm at the close of the final performance on the Friday night. Hodgson bound him with six pairs of heavy irons that were complete with chains and padlocks, fixing his arms firmly to his side and then clapping two pairs of handcuffs on him. Then, making Houdini kneel, he clamped two pairs of leg irons on him.

Houdini was later to protest that the irons were not regulation ones and that the locks had been plugged and wrapped with twine. But when he set about trying to escape while covered by a canopy placed over him in the middle of the stage, he was at the start of a one-and-a-half-hour struggle that ended up with him free, but with his arms red and swollen and chunks of flesh missing from them - and claiming the next day that the doctor who examined him had told him that if his ordeal had lasted only a few minutes more, his arms might have been left paralysed. It was a test that certainly excited the old-time theatregoers. The town's Daily Star newspaper told how "the crowd which came together to witness it crammed the theatre literally (sic) from floor to ceiling."

"Trussed Till Midnight" was the headline in another and the Blackburn Times reported "disgraceful scenes" as the orchestra played musical selections to accompany Houdini's exertions and the police had to ask Hodgson to leave the theatre because they feared a disturbance.

At last, the escapologist emerged to deafening cheers at midnight - his sleeves in tatters and his arms and wrists streaked with blood. He had beaten the test, but controversy followed with claims that he had been slipped some sort of tool by his brother, Theo, as he gave him a drink during his struggles.

Hodgson, too, did not escape controversy. The following week he wrote to the Blackburn Times to answer Houdini's charge of brutality. "So long as Mr Houdini kept still, he was in no danger of suffering; it was his own struggles which caused him any degree of painful inconvenience," he said.

So Houdini literally wriggled out of the £25 challenge.

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