minerva

Minerva Vano

Harry Houdini had many rivals and imitators, more than a few who shamelessly adopted variations on his name, not to mention his tricks. To simply read their monikers (preferably in the voice of a carnival barker) is to get a sense for the wondrous circus of attractions that existed in the vaudeville era − Boudini, Houdeen, Oudini, Hardini. The Cirnoc Brothers, Cunning the Jail Breaker, Brindamour, Professor Maharajah.

Among this veritable army of also-rans, one stands out: Minerva, “The Handcuff Queen.” Born Margaretha Gertz, she was an ambitious, attractive German woman who built a successful touring act in Europe in the 1890s. In the early 1900s, she moved to America with the first of her five husbands, a fellow vaudevillian named Edward Van Dorn, or Vano, whose act was soon eclipsed by that of his wife.

Minerva attracted Houdini’s attention, and great ire, when she started performing the Milk Can Escape trick which Houdini had developed years earlier and considered “the best escape I have ever invented.” Never the most difficult in Houdini’s arsenal, it became his signature act for many years on the strength of the showmanship he brought to it and the apparent risk of death. Advertisements bluntly stated: “Failure means a Drowning Death.”

houdini-milk-can

Harry Houdini posing for the Milk Can Escape trick

In the Milk Can Escape, the performer is handcuffed and immersed inside a waist-high container filled with water, the cap then sealed with padlocks. Some claim Minerva’s version of the trick captivated audiences as much by the final flourish − in which she would emerge from behind the stage curtain fully clothed, but with soaking garments clinging to her pleasing figure − as for the escape itself.

Houdini was a magnificent promoter of both his own act and the wider world of performing magicians. He was also famously protective of his public image and what he considered his “intellectual property,” and he held imitators in open disdain. Though no proof exists, anecdotal testimony holds that Houdini arranged to have lime put into Minerva’s water barrel during a performance in 1908, burning her skin and nearly blinding her.

Minerva divorced Edward Van Dorn in 1909 and married four more times before her death at age 78 in 1955. Her second husband, Guy Jarrett, was the main source of the account of Houdini’s devious assault.

Posted by Ray Agostinelli

Working and writing in Boulder, CO

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