Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Handcuff Kings

This past weekend I had the rare opportunity to visit the "museum" of magician John Bushey, known locally as the host of the KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited these past 21 years. I say museum because of the extensive nature of his collection as well as the almost reverential manner in which it is displayed.

Bushey was a geologist in college, fossils being one of his early interests. It's easy to see the connection between fossils and magic, and any interest in magic eventually leads to a fascination with the master magician/escape artist Harry Houdini. In his time the extent of Houdini's fame cannot be overstated, and his understanding of locks, handcuffs and other restraining devices was unsurpassed.

Amazing photo of Houdini wrapped in locks, chains and cuffs.
The documented stories of legendary Houdini escapes are legion. Dylan himself once said that if he could go back in time to see one event in history, he would like to have seen Houdini's escape from box and chains when he was dropped into New York's East River. Houdini baffled experts on both sides of the Atlantic, from the U.S. to Scotland Yard and all points east. At one time he escaped from a jail cell that housed Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield.

The Bushey collection of Houdini memorabilia is probably the largest in the world by any private collector. He has several shelves of printed material, much of it so rare that only two or three are known to be in existence today, specifically the very rare Houdini pitchbooks. You see, Houdini would print up pitchbooks for each event or performance, re-telling his story in various ways, highlighting and embellishing various features of his life. In addition to these rare books, Bushey also has all, or nearly all, existing biographies, including some in Russian and other languages. "Including the dustjackets," Bushey notes with pride.

Along with the books and posters, he has a whole room devoted to the handcuffs themselves. Palmer Leg Irons, Romer Leg Irons, Phelps Handcuffs, Romer Handcuffs, Maltby Hancuff with round keyhole, McColl Séance Handcuff, Forgatt Plug Handcuffs, Boer War type handcuffs, Caveney Bottleneck cuffs, Houdini Russian Manacle, 1869 Wisner Hoyt Handcuffs, Maltby Nipper, Bushey Hamburg 8, Palmer Neck Collar, Adams Handcuff Patented 1862, Rankin Handcuff, French Lettercuffs -- hundreds of cuffs of all kinds, each with a history. Some of these were so horrible they were outlawed, and when one contemplates their use one has a vivid picture of the extent of man's inhumanity to man.

The prize piece in his collection is one of Houdini's 'Handcuff King Breaker' handcuffs. It is an original Lily Iron that was altered so that the locking mechanism works differently and uses a different key than normal Lily Irons. Houdini would use the "breakers" to stump imitators and other escape artists.

In addition to handcuffs and leg irons, there is an unbelievable assortment of thumbcuffs as well. Bushey not only collects such things, he has also mastered the art of making them and has an in depth understanding of the nature of lock smithing, safe cracking and all the rest.


During his lifetime, Houdini was the handcuff king. John Bushey may very well be the handcuff king of our generation. He just doesn't make such a show of it.

Thank you, John.

2 comments:

John Cox said...

Breathtaking collection! Thank you for this.

My Inner Chick said...

I worked w/ John.

He is SO cool and interesting!

thanks for this post.