She escaped everything except Houdini’s shadow
His female rival is lost to history, so instead I offer you the real-life gaol escape of some cheerful Irish ladies
I have always loved the word “escape”. I was once locked down in study week before my law exams when a friend sent me a handwritten note. “Let’s escape,” it read. Oh, how my heart soared. He picked me up in a battered old VW Beetle, and for that glorious night (and others), we escaped and I was alive. Of course, it meant I didn’t write my final law exams that year, so I am not a lawyer now. So I suppose it was a double escape.
Everyone knows about Houdini. He was a mediocre illusionist and magician when he discovered a fundamental truth: not everyone can escape, so we love to watch others do it (and a small part of us is always watching for them to fail). Houdini reinvented himself as an escapologist. “No prison can hold Houdini!” shouted his posters, and people flocked to watch him jump manacled from bridges, or break free from sealed milk cans filled with water, or twist inside a straitjacket while dangling over Times Square. He was loved by workers and labourers and immigrants who felt trapped in circumstances beyond their making, pinned by a big machine from beneath which they could never wriggle. Houdini gave them hope, or showed them what it looked like.
So everyone knows about Houdini, but I wish we could know more about one of his rivals, the female escapologist Minerva. We don’t even know her real name. It might have been Margaretha van Dorn, but it could also have been Minna Riedel or Marge Snelling. We know she sometimes worked with the Amazing Vano, the Handcuff Expert. We know she performed many handcuffed bridge jumps and Buried Alive routines and claimed to have escaped from 173 different prisons, and was paid the princely sum of $75 for a week of performing escapes at Merryland Park in Cumberland, Maryland in 1908. ..