In 1900 a young mystifier took Europe by storm and perplexed Scotland Yard with his ability to escape from all marshal restraints. That man was none other than Ehrich Weiss, the master escape artist better known as Harry Houdini. Houdini actually owed a lot to the human marvels he shared the stage with when he was inexperienced conjurer at the famous Huber’s Museum. The Armless wonder Unthan, for example, showed young Houdini how to accomplish dexterous tasks using only toes and feet. It was a skill Houdini utilized many times during his career as an escape artist. One can argue that previous to 1900 Houdini was a moderate success in his adoptive homeland of America but his tour or Europe is what truly skyrocket his fame. With his phenomenal success it was not long before Houdini imitators and a multitude of escape artists appeared in performance venues everywhere.None of them were as good as Houdini, but ‘The Ice King’ Tom Jack was almost as unique.
Tom Jack was born as Karl Breu on January 10, 1884 in Dubiau (now Northern Bohemia of The Czech Republic). Karl Breu was born with severe albinism, a hypopigmentary congenital disorder characterized by a lack of melanin pigment in the eyes, skin and hair that only occurs in about 1 in 17,000 births. Karl’s albinism manifested as snow white skin, colorless hair and pink eyes.Karl’s ghostly appearance was a shock to his parents but they treated the pale Karl on par with his average hued sister Lori. By all accounts, the Breu household was a happy one. Unfortunately the family unit was broken when Karl’s parents unexpectedly died early in his childhood and as orphans he and his sister were separated and fostered by family members in distant locations. Karl ended up in Lenory, Sweden while his sister was taken to Vienna.
Despite his appearance, or perhaps because of it, Karl Breu developed into a very jovial and outgoing young man. He was known as something of an adventure seeking class clown amongst his peers and so it was no surprise that when a traveling circus arrived into town the teen aged Karl was among the first townies to purchase a ticket for the tent show. It was also little surprise that Karl stole the show by mocking and impersonating the ringmaster from the stands.
Following the show, Karl was approached by the director and offered a job. He was initially offered a position as a clown. However Karl surprised the director by showing an interest and affinity for illusion and manipulation. The director thought the brash boy wasn’t suited to the dedication magic required but he allowed the boy to study under the resident circus illusionist. To the surprise of many, perhaps even to Karl himself, through uncharacteristic diligence and practice Karl quickly became adept in performing simple magical arts. In the coming years his skills only improved.
It was around this time that Houdini became a sensation and Karl saw the young American as the embodiment of the adventure he sought. Determined to cheat marshal bonds and tempt death itself, Karl set about learning the astonishing intricacies of escapism. Karl Breu studied feverishly and focused on chain escapes. It is unknown whether his escapes were based on illusion and trickery or involved the physical contortions, lock and restraint manipulations Houdini genuinely utilized. Like his idol Houdini, Karl Breu adopted a pseudonym to perform under. He took the Americanized name of Tom Jack and soon would be known by the epithet Ice King due to his frosty appearance. His genetic gift was gimmick enough to stir interest and generate paying crowds.
It is known that Tom Jack became very good at what his did and carved a fair measure of fame during his lifetime for his escapes.He toured Europe, as Houdini had, and also nearly died during a performance in London when tossed from the Tower Bridge into the Thames and failed to escape from his restraints.
While not overly popular abroad, Tom Jack was quite famous close to home. He also accumulated much wealth during his heyday as following WWI he financed the building of a memorial to the fallen in his adoptive hometown. Also following WWI Tom Jack married a young girl, and fellow albino performer, Wally Paradise and together they had an average pigmented boy and girl.
Just before WWII Tom Jack retired and purchased a plot of land in Lenory with the intention of retiring there with his family.Their time there was brief however as following WWII, and despite serving the Allied forces as an interpreter, Tom Jack and his family were the victims of displacement. They settled in Beinstein, Germany and carried on for some time there.
Karl Breu, the albino escape artist known as Tom Jack ‘The Ice King’ passed away on October 17, 1953 at the age of 69. His wife had passed away some years before and it is unknown what became of his children.
image: Tom Jack modified promotional cabinet card circa 1910.