Most people display their best china in a dining room cabinet. George Goebel keeps his handcuff collection there.
Goebel, a master magician and illusionist who doubles as the owner of a downtown theatrical costuming business, began collecting restraining devices about 40 years ago. His unusual hobby began as an offshoot of his life-long interest in the great Harry Houdini (1874-1926), who was once billed as "the world's handcuff king and prison breaker."
"Some people view handcuffs as a military device or piece of police equipment. I see them as props in entertainment," he said the other evening at his Woodbrook home on Bellona Avenue.
He and his wife used Sunday afternoons in the early 1950s to drive around the state in search of Bean Giants, Burdicks, Berliners, Bottlenecks, Palmer Irons and Towers -- the patented names for handcuffs. Along the way, they picked up slave shackles, iron neck collars, waist irons and a ball-and-chain along with many ancient locks. Old locksmith shops were often repositories of Victorian crime-and-punishment equipment.
"People today think that any old handcuff is going to be worth money. That's not so. Some of the old patents are still being made in England.The value depends on the rarity and scarcity of a set of cuffs," he said.
One of his most recent acquisitions is an iron prison door with the inscription "John Van Dorn Cleveland Iron Works" on the lock. This century-old door was once the Rolls Royce of prison safety devices. Picking its lock was one of Houdini's specialties.
"The history of handcuffs is the history of technology," said Goebel, who is still looking for any cuffs not represented in his amazing collection.
Some of his earliest locking devices came from Japan, where he was stationed with the Army Security Agency from 1952-55. He became a minor celebrity in the city of Kyoto, where he picked jail locks and escaped from the newest handcuffs the police had.
"The trick with handcuff escaping is to get to the type of cuff first and learn how it works. Handcuffs usually work off the same master key," he said.
In Japan, he astounded an exhibition hall full of police by throwing off a pair of newly patented Japanese cuffs. His secret? Although the cuffs were new to the Japanese market, he had been shown a pair a few weeks earlier at a prison. He used his wits and made an impression of their key using a bar of soap.
"I guessed right that the police chief would bring out that same style of cuff for the show. I was right. I had made up a little pick which worked," he recalled.
Goebel, 61, has devoted his entire life to magic and illusions.
The man with the manacles grew up in the Evergreen neighborhood in North Baltimore to the east of Roland Park. At age 10, he was given his first A.C. Gilbert Mysto Magic Set on a Christmas morning. He attended the old Schenley Road public school, Roland Park Public School and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where his magic acts in the annual student show, the Poly Follies, are well recalled by his 1940s classmates.
By that time, he had grown to love entertaining friends and guests with his feats of legerdemain and illusion.
During his Poly years he also visited A.T. Jones & Sons, Baltimore's oldest theatrical costumers, then as today located on Howard Street. By September 1950 he had a job with that firm. In 1972 he purchased it outright and works six days a week building (a term used in the costuming profession) dozens of peasant girls' skirts, guardsmen's tunics and queen's robes for operas from Baltimore to Seattle. He also builds the Baltimore Oriole bird and other costumes used for entertainment or television commercials.
Goebel once led a large magic troupe that gave public performances. He was known as a magical classicist who continued to give big, colorful illusion shows after other magicians had stopped doing that style of performing.
"I weighed 25 pounds less then and today I can't pull things out of my cape the way I could," he said.
Even though he has stopping touring with tons of equipment, he clings to a philosophy of entertainment:
"Don't be just a technician who fools your audience. Entertain them. People should leave the theater happy and filled with joy, not just fooled. They need to leave satisfied, with a smile on their faces," he said.