Magazine article History Today

School for Scoundrels: Andrew Cook Describes How a Chance Encounter with Houdini Had a Profound Impact on the Methods of Britain's Leading First World War Spymaster

Magazine article History Today

School for Scoundrels: Andrew Cook Describes How a Chance Encounter with Houdini Had a Profound Impact on the Methods of Britain's Leading First World War Spymaster

Article excerpt

ON NOVEMBER 1ST, 1903, Superintendent William Melville, head of Scotland Yard's Special Branch, mysteriously resigned with immediate effect. No reason was given publicly for his sudden departure.

The following day, The Times reported: 'Superintendent Melville has resigned his position after thirty years service in the Metropolitan Police Force. The resignation will deprive Scotland Yard of the services of the most celebrated detective of the day'. Speculation was rife about Melville's sudden retirement. Had he made too many anarchist enemies and decided to disappear from view, or had he accepted a lucrative position outside the Force in private practice, as his predecessor John Littlechild had done ten years before? The Daily Express even hinted that Melville bad been headhunted by the Russian Secret Police, the Ochrana, to deal with the anarchist threat there.

It was not, however, until 1997 that MI5 confirmed that Melville had indeed been headhunted in 1903--but not by the Russians. In fact, the British Government bad offered him the position of 'Spy Master'. As 'M' he was given sole responsibility for the recruitment and coordination of foreign and domestic agents.

One of the best known of these was the 'Ace of Spies' and James Bond inspiration Sidney Reilly, who had initially been recruited by Melville as a Special Branch Informer in 1896. Not long after Reilly had become acquainted with Melville, another adventurer from overseas was to find himself in Melville's orbit. Eric Weiss, who ironically shared the same birth date as Sidney Reilly, arrived in London with his wife Beatrice in May 1900 and moved into theatrical lodgings at 10 Keppel Street in Bloomsbury.

Weiss, better known to posterity by his stage name, Harry Houdini the Handcuff King, had so far made little impact in the United States, his adopted home. He had therefore resolved instead to conquer America by first making a name for himself in Europe. Knowing that a good number of successful acts whose reputations had been made in London, Paris and Berlin had an exalted value in New York, he set about securing London bookings. According to Beatrice Houdini, alter some days of unsuccessful interviews, C. Dundas Slater, the manager of the Alhambra, gave him an audition on the June 13th. Apparently not wholly convinced of the young man's abilities, he offered him a contract on the condition that he must first, 'Escape from handcuffs at Scotland Yard'. Slater was apparently acquainted with Melville and arranged for himself and Houdini to visit the Yard the following day.

At the appointed hour, they were welcomed by Melville who immediately ridiculed the notion that anyone could escape from Scotland Yard handcuffs. Stage handcuffs were one thing, he tom them, but Scotland Yard's cuffs were the last word in scientific manacles. Houdini, unabashed, insisted on rising to the challenge, later that day he mid Beatrice that within seconds Melville had suddenly grabbed his arms, encircled them around a nearby pillar, produced a pair of cuffs from his coat and snapped them tightly around his wrists. 'I'm going to leave you here and come back for you in a couple of hours' Melville told him as he and Slater headed towards the door. To Melville's astonishment, Houdini replied, 'I'll go with you' as the opened cuffs fell to the floor.

Melville, although somewhat taken aback, held out his hand to Houdini in genuine astonishment, offering him his unreserved congratulations. …

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