“Don’t insult me by calling me a magician, I’m an escape artist!”
– Harry Houdini
How very appropriate for Halloween that it should have been the day on which the world lost one of the most extraordinary escape artists, magicians, and debunkers of fake mediums of all time – the incredible Harry Houdini. For it was on this date in 1926 that this remarkable man left us. Born Erich Weiss in 1874 in Budapest Hungary, Houdini was the son of a rabbi who failed to get tenure, and an adoring mother, whom he adored in return. His family emigrated to the United States in 1878, and took up residence in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was called “Harry” by his friends and family, and later took the show name of “Houdini” from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a magician whom he greatly admired.
Houdini’s Early Career
Houdini was a man of many psychological anxieties and conflicts – these were reflected in his work which had elements of exhibitionism, entrapment, and a bizarre courting of death. First focusing on ordinary card tricks, Houdini started out by performing at dime museums and side shows. In 1893, he met Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner whom he married and with whom he shared a devoted love for the rest of his life. Indeed, she would serve as his onstage assistant throughout his career. He soon began experimenting with escape acts, and in 1899, he met Martin Beck who, upon seeing Houdini’s handcuff act was sufficently impressed that he told Houdini that he should concentrate on his escape tricks. Beck became Houdini’s manager and booked him on Vaudeville’s “Orpheum Circuit”. Soon Houdini was performing at the biggest shows in the country. His acts were amazing feats of escape skill. in 1906 or example, he went to the Boston Police Department,
took off all of his clothes, and demanded a full body search to make it clear that he wasn’t hiding any keys on his person. Then with his clothes in a locked cell on another tier, he was shackled, handcuffed and locked in another cell. His only condition was that he be left unobserved. In a mere sixteen minutes, he escaped his irons, recovered his clothes, climbed the prison wall, and drove in a waiting automobile to a theater from which he telephoned an astonished prison superintendent who thought that Houdini was still very much in his cell.
Houdini’s Death Defying Escapes
This use of the sensational idea of being stripped naked was just one of the ways in which this man used all of his skills to provoke and amaze audiences. Using his strong and atheletic physique to its full advantage, he worked his way out of canvas straight jackets, untying knots opening buckles with his teeth, and conserving his breath by never giving way to fear. His bold and audacious aeriel escapes were the stuff of legend. Having himself suspended from newspaper buildings many stories in the air he would be bound in a thick leather and canvas straight jacket. Then while unbelieving crowds of many thousands of spectators watched from the streets below he would violently twist and jerk himself around emerging free of his constraints in a few minutes with his arms outstretched in a victory salute to the cheering crowd to whom he would toss the jacket. A mainstay of his act was introduced in 1912 – his “Chinese Water Torture Cell”. The cell was a metal lined
mahogany cabinet, six feet high, and three feet square at its base. The front of the cell was an inch thick plate glass window. He would appear only in a bathing suit, have himself hung upside down and locked inside with his ankles shackled and the cell filled with water. With anxious assistants standing by with axes ready to break the locks in case of an accident, he would be lowered in and a curtain drawn. One, two sometimes three minutes would pass before Houdini would then thrust the curtain aside and stride forward, dripping wet, but quite alive with the empty cell behind him locked as securely as it had been at the start.
Houdini’s Life as a Spiritualist and a Spiritualist De-bunker
It was with his mother’s death in 1913 that he became interested in spiritualism. He was deeply saddened, some would say shattered by the loss of this woman who had been his number one fan and supporter along with his wife throughout his career. He was fascinated by the possibility of immortality that spiritualism seemed to offer, and he craved some proof of it. He spent the rest of his life seeking some spiritual contact with his dear, departed mother. But he was relentless in his drive to disprove and uncover the many fake mediums and spiritualists with which the world abounded. He would wear disguises and attend seances and catch the mediums red-handed, exposing them to public ridicule. His training as a magician afforded him considerable expertise in the art of illusion, and he used this to debunk seances wherein tables would seem to rise, and ghostly voices seem to sound. This lead him to a very public falling out with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the author of the “Sherlock Homes” mysteries and an ardent believer in spiritualism.
Houdini’s Death in 1926
Houdini was very proud of his athletic build, and was ready to take on nearly any challenge that was presented to him. This, unfortunately lead to his untimely death on today’s date in 1926. While on tour with his show in the city of Montreal, some students challenged him to prove his strong build by taking a forceful punch in his abdomen. Houdini was of course more than willing and able to withstand such a blow. However, the student landed the punch before Houdini was quite ready, and he had not been able to flex his abdominal muscles to readiness. This caused him to suffer a ruptured appendix. He was obviously hurt, but Houdini, ever the showman refused to admit to any illness, and insisted on continuing his show tour. He died of peretonitis in a Detroit hospital. Houdini had previously made plans with his beloved wife that if he died, he would deliver some sign to her if his spirit was successfully raised in a seance. For ten years, on Halloween, she would dutifully hold seances on hoping that she could raise his spirit. It never happened, and the sign never came. In 1936, saying ten years was long enough to wait for any man she held one last try, and then gave up. She went to join him, dying in 1943.
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“Past Imperfect” – Gen. Ed., Mark C. Carnes “Houdini” – John F. Kasson, pp. 212 – 215. Henry Holt Inc., New York, 1995.