This article is going to be the longest in this series by a considerable distance because it is about the magician with the biggest reputation by far amongst the public: The one and only, Harry Houdini.

Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time. His name is synonymous with escapology – the routines that made him famous. He was born in 1874 ((real name Ehrich Weiss) in Budapest to Jewish parents who emigrated to the United States when he was four. He began performing magic tricks and escapes from handcuffs and locked trunks in vaudeville shows in the 1890s. Because of his roots in magic in the early days, he called himself ‘The King of Cards before specialising completely in escapology and dropping that tag line. Weiss adopted the name ‘Harry Houdini’ in honour of the 19th century French magician Jean Eugène RobertHoudin who is widely (and rightly) credited as the father of modern conjuring.*

Harry Houdini’s escape acts were a sensation and soon caught the attention of the media which Houdini quickly learnt how to harness to catapult him to fame and fortune. Houdini undoubtedly had a genius for publicity as well as escapology. His daredevil acts together with his savvy knack for self-promotion were an irresistible draw to the media which helped attract the thousands who flocked to see him. His acts included escaping from a straitjacket (whilst shackled in chains) suspended up in skyscrapers, being buried alive, underwater escapes and many more. The underwater escape was a trademark escape from the inside of a sealed milk can filled with water (again shackled, requiring the ability to hold his breath for a considerable length of time). In 1913 Houdini developed this act further when he introduced his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell mainly because of the many imitators who were performing his milk can escape (at least one of whom he successfully took to court! (Houdini was quite a litigious individual who took several magicians and others to court in his lifetime.) Houdini would also go to police stations and challenge them to be able to keep him locked up – he always managed to escape – even though always being stripped naked/virtually naked. Houdini’s acts were certainly (mostly) dangerous: On one occasion the buried alive performance almost cost Houdini his life. On escaping he collapsed unconscious. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was “very dangerous” and that “the weight of the earth is killing”. This buried alive escape and others that Houdini performed have certainly claimed the lives of other magicians, a topic I have covered in another article.

Houdini

As previously stated, Houdini’s roots were in magic and he remained a magician all his life (some of his magician skills assisted in his escapology incidentally). One of Houdini’s most notable non-escape stage illusions was performed at the New York Hippodrome, when he vanished a full-grown elephant from the stage. In the final years of his life (1925/26), Houdini launched his own full-evening show, which he billed as “Three Shows in One: ‘Magic’, ‘Escapes’, and ‘Fraud Mediums Exposed’ – of the latter, we shall say more in a moment.

Lesser known aspects by the public of Houdini’s career are his forays into movies (both acting and producing), aviation, and in debunking and exposing fake mediums who claimed to be able to commune with the dead. Regarding the latter as Teller (of Penn and Teller fame – a noted scholar-historian of magic) points out, escape acts derive from spiritualist history: “In seances, mediums were typically restrained in some way. At least tied and sometimes chained or handcuffed…[The spiritualist] would escape to do their manifestations <to fool the audience> and then {find themselves} locked up again.”  To facilitate this deception, they would often have the lights turned out, escape their restraints and make the necessary banging, knocking noises, activating secret lights and other switches etc  that were required to dupe their grieving – and paying – clients.

Teller continues, “Houdini was the outstanding exponent of the idea that magicians are uniquely qualified to detect fraud and uniquely qualified to be sceptics.” An interesting side note on magicians being “qualified to detect fraud”, is that it is well-known that top casinos have often hired magicians to help them detect players who may be cheating by the use of sleight of hand, palming, switches and other cunning ruses that a professional magician would not find it hard to figure out.

Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as “Margery”. Houdini offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None was ever able to do so, and the prize was never collected. As Houdini’s fame as a “ghostbuster” grew, he chronicled this in his (co-authored) book, A Magician Among the Spirits. These activities cost Houdini his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm and perhaps surprising believer in spiritualism, refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés. Doyle even came to believe that Houdini was secretly a powerful spiritualist medium himself! He took to believing that Houdini had performed many of his acts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other mediums that he was “debunking”, presumably because he saw them (in Conan Doyle’s mind) as competitors or inferior imitators.

The above disagreement led to the two men becoming very publicly hostile to each other. Houdini even took Conan Doyle to court for slander. It is remarkable to think that the man who created Sherlock Holmes – the character with the razor-sharp, logical and scientific mind believed in spiritualism whilst the magician was the fierce opponent of it. Houdini’s exposing of fake mediums has inspired other magicians to follow suit, including The Amazing Randi (also famous for exposing Uri Gellar’s ‘psychic’ spoon bending), Dorothy DietrichPenn & TellerDick Brookz and, here in Britain, Paul Zenon.

There are other lesser known facets to Houdini’s life worth mentioning: He served as President of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.) from 1917 until his death in 1926. The Society expanded under the leadership of Houdini. He formed a clear objective to create a unified, national network of professional and amateur magicians. Wherever he travelled for his stage shows in the U.S. Houdini attended the local magic club, made speeches, and usually threw a banquet for the members at his own expense – and often paid for their membership in order to expand and galvanise the organization. He said, ” Magicians Clubs as a rule, are small: they are weak … but if we were amalgamated into one big body the society would be stronger, and it would mean making the small clubs powerful and worthwhile. Members would find a welcome wherever they happened to be…”

In the above ambition, Houdini also added that such a membership would create “a city-to-city hotline to track exposers and other undesirables.” To this day all Magic Clubs have strict rules against exposure of magic secrets. Members take an oath on membership to protect secrets and always face expulsion if found out doing so. This however, is not a blanket rule – books on the art have always been allowed under certain conditions. Houdini himself wrote and co-wrote several books.

Even in London, Houdini persuaded magicians to join S.A.M. This was the biggest movement ever in the history of magic. In places where no clubs existed, he gathered up individual magicians, introduced them to each other, and urged them into the fold. Soon magicians’ clubs in US cities that Houdini had not even visited requested to join. Houdini thereby created the richest and longest-surviving organization of magicians in the world. It has 5,000 paying members and almost 300 assemblies worldwide.

In 1906, Houdini created his own publication, the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, but it was short-lived – only two volumes were released until August 1908. Magic historian Jim Steinmeyer has noted that “Houdini couldn’t resist using the journal for his own crusades, attacking his rivals, praising his own appearances, and subtly rewriting history to favour his view of magic.”

During his career, Houdini explained some of his tricks in books written for the magic brotherhood. In Handcuff Secrets (1909), he revealed how many locks and handcuffs could be opened with properly applied force, others with shoestrings. Other times, he explained that he carried concealed lockpicks or keys. He further explained that when tied down in ropes or straitjackets, he gained wiggle room by enlarging his shoulders and chest, moving his arms slightly away from his body. However he did it, Houdini did so with great skill, courage – and supreme showmanship.

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis after a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926, aged 52. This was reputedly brought on by a dressing room incident when a young man repeatedly struck Houdini’s abdomen: The accounts of witnesses said that Houdini was asked by the young man “whether it was true that punches in the stomach did not hurt him”. When Houdini answered that it was indeed the case the young man delivered several hard blows to the abdomen without any warning so that Houdini was unable to brace or prepare himself. Houdini was in tremendous pain and when he finally saw a doctor, he was found to have a fever of 39 °C. Acute appendicitis was immediately diagnosed, and Houdini was advised to have surgery the same day. He ignored the advice and decided to go on with his next show after which his temperature rose to 40 °C. Afterwards, Houdini was hospitalized at Detroit’s Grace Hospital where he was to sadly die.

It is unclear whether the dressing room incident caused Houdini’s eventual death, as the relationship between blunt trauma and appendicitis (which led to the peritonitis) is uncertain. However, after taking statements from the witnesses, Houdini’s insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity. It is worth pointing out that one famous film version (with Tony Curtis) erroneously gives the impression that it was a failed escape from the Chinese Water Torture routine that brought about Houdini’s demise. This was not the case but that aside the movie is not at all a bad rendition of Houdini’s life! (On another side note, Tony Curtis was a very keen amateur magician himself – and like Houdini, the son of Jewish immigrants.)

To end this article on Houdini it is worth noting that despite his activism against fake spiritualists, Houdini and his wife Bess agreed that whoever survived the other they would try to communicate after death if it were possible with the message “Rosabelle believe”, a secret code which they agreed to use. Bess held yearly séances on Halloween (the date on which Houdini died) for ten years after Houdini’s death. After the last unsuccessful séance, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. Bess was to later say that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

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