At the crossroads of Science and Mystery, the heart and the mind, the “old days” and the modern age – like vaudeville itself – we encounter the Great Houdini. Houdini represents a confluence of many of the most popular obsessions of his day: spiritualism, physical culture and the burgeoning field of law enforcement which was just then getting organized. Most of the time he was not a magician at all, but an escape artist. He had many geniuses: stage performer, author, film actor, book collector and muckraker. A workaholic, he never slept more than 5 hours a night. In addition, Houdini was one of the greatest publicists ever, up there with Barnum, Ziegfeld and Billy Rose. Will Rogers called him “the greatest showman of our time by far”. No other vaudevillian came close.
He was born Ehrich Weiss in Appleton, Wisconsin in 1874. He was one of seven children of a perpetually unemployed Hungarian Rabbi. It seems that Rabbi Weiss was too conservative for any American congregation – once hired/soon fired, and so the family was unspeakably poor. The search for a synagogue had them moving around a bit. The first hop was to Milwaukee, from which burg young Erich (already a daredevil) ran away at age 12. Hopping a freight train with the intention of moving to Galveston, he somehow wound up in Hannibal, Missouri, where he shined shoes and sold newspapers. In 1887, he and the family converged in New York City. On a lark he began practicing coin tricks and sleight of hand learned from his brother and a co-worker at the department store where he worked. A fitness freak, he began working out regularly at the Allerton Club. Here he would form the good habits he kept all the rest of his life, a regular regimen of daily exercise, and abstinence from smoking and drinking (some daredevil!).
At age 17, he read a book that changed his life – the memoirs of Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), who was considered at the time to be the father of modern magic. In short order he formed an act with co-worker Jacob Hyman named The Brothers Houdini. The name young Erich Weiss devised himself reveals his public relations genius, having symbolic resonance for both professional magicians and the public at large. First, the name “Harry Houdini” conjures up three of his illustrious predecessors: Robert-Houdin, of course; Harry Kellar, and a man named Pinetti (1750-ca.1800) from whom the tradition of adding an Italianate “I” to magician’s last names seems to have arrived. The public doesn’t give a damn about any of that of course. The name works for them because it combines an earthy, American-sounding first name (adapted perhaps from “Ehrie”, his Hungarian nickname) with a “mysterious, Eastern” sounding last name appropriate for a magician. Freighted with all that subconscious meaning, it’s probably the best stage name of all time.
But that doesn’t mean they got any bookings. Jacob quit out of boredom after four months, and was replaced by Houdini’s brother Theodore, known familiarly as “Dash”. The two managed to get bookings at parties and beergardens, pretty standard for beginning entertainers. They did all of the standard tricks, coin, card and handkerchief manipulation. Then they struck their first gold – early proof of Harry’s flair for showmanship. They did a stunt called “Metamorphosis”. In this illusion, Harry would tie Dash up, put him inside a bag, and then close him inside a trunk. A screen would be placed in front of the trunk. Then Harry would step behind the screen, and in a matter of seconds the screen would be removed revealing Dash standing next the trunk. He would then open first the trunk and then the bag inside, revealing Harry, tied up just as Dash had been. The Houdini brothers performed this trick together at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, where Harry first saw a Hindu swallow needles and immediately added it to his growing repertoire.
In 1894 they worked Miner’s Bowery Theatre, an incremental step up from the Bar Mitzvah Circuit. That year he met and married the love of his life, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahne – “Bess” — whom immediately replaced Dash in the act. Small and limber, Bess above all helped to turn Metamorphosis into a breathtaking spectacle, by getting the time of her change down to 3 seconds. The pair worked Dime Museums, medicine shows and burlesque at first, sometimes 10-15 shows a day. They spent 26 weeks with the Welsh Brothers Circus, where an old Japanese man taught Harry regurgitation. In 1897 they worked Doc Hill’s California Concert Co, where they got to know The Three Keatons. Harry did seances and performed “second sight”. Here he perfected many of his Davenportesque skills that would come in handy for his baffling escapes. , e.g., writing a message on a blackboard with his toes
1899 was the turning point. First Harry made the front page of the Chicago Journal for escaping from police restraints. Then Martin Beck caught his act in St Paul and signed him on the spot. Beck helped him shape his act a little bit, advising him to drop the conventional magic and concentrate on escapes. He worked the Keith and Orpheum circuits through 1900 billed as “the Undisputed King of Handcuffs, and the Monarch of Leg Shackles”. To publicize his engagements, Houdini began visiting the local police precincts in each town, summoning the press, and arranging to break out of the jail. He began to develop a special bond with the nation’s law enforcement officials. Policemen began to devise new challenges for him, inventing new handcuffs, sticking him in state-of-the-art jails. Testimonials and affadavits become part of his press kit. He boasted that he could break out of anything, and that seemed to be nearly the truth.
He was so confident because he truly did his homework, leaving no stone unturned in his drive to understand any possible mechanism that might entrap him. On his first trip to England, the first thing he did upon arrival was to visit every locksmith he could, in order to familiarize himself with every conceivable type of British lock. Despite good notices from America, Houdini had trouble getting booked in London at first. After escaping from a jail at Scotland Yard, he finally got a gig at the Alhambra. Next he pressed on to Germany, where did so well, he sent a letter to Dash advising to come make hay while the sun shone. For years Dash performed as Hardeen, one of Houdini’s principle competitors – the audience never realizing that he was Houdini’s brother!
The challenges began to get harder. In San Francisco, he was placed naked into a straight-jacket, with his ankles locked in restraining belts, and ten pairs of handcuffs on his arms. He got out. In Blackburn, Lancashire in 1902, a sadist brought onstage a pair of irons that had been tampered with. Houdini balked, but the audience insisted that he still escape from them. It took him two hours, but he made it. In 1904, at the Hippodrome in front of 4,000 people, he was presented with a special set of cuffs devised by a locksmith over a 5 year period. Designed to be “escape proof”, they were fortified with six locks and nine tumblers. Escape time: 1 hour, ten minutes. It’s hard to say how long these escapes REALLY took, for Houdini had discovered the principle that the act went over better the more time he took, and the more sweat ran off his back.
Houdini’s act seemed to awaken that part of the human brain which had last been most imaginative during the Inquisition. In Holland he tried to escape while tied to a revolving windmill, but the arm of the windmill broke under his weight. In England, he was advertised to escape tied to a cannon with a time fuse or he would “be blown to Kingdom Come!” The authorities put a stop to that one.
Business began to get involved as a way of promoting their products., an ingenious stroke on both Houdini’s and their parts. Such deals had Houdini escaping from donated packing crates, hampers, barrels, bank safes, a glass box, boiler, a rolltop desk, a canvas mailpouch.
In 1905, he began to take the danger up a notch. This is the first year he tried the trick of being restrained, crated, and dumped into rivers and bays off the back of boats. In 1906, he got audacious with the authorities. In a Washington, D.C. jail, he escaped from the cell where Garfield’s assassin had been kept, and then playfully rearranged all of the criminals. In Boston, he escaped not only from his cell, but from the entire prison, then ran to a theatre, from the stage of which he telephoned the warden and waiting newsmen.
That year, too he wrote his first book The Right Way to Do Wrong wherein he divulged many of the lockpicking secrets of criminals. In Detroit, he found that the jail really was escape proof — all of the cell doors were locked on a single bolt controlled at one end of corridor. To save face, he jumped off Berle Island Bridge through a hole cut in the ice and wearing handcuffs.
In 1908, Houdini made a break with many of the factors that sustained him. First, by now, he had so many imitators in the handcuff escape line that the trick was utterly worthless to him as an attraction. Accordingly, he gave up handcuffs, and wrote his second book Handcuff Secrets, which spoiled the field for everyone else. Then he wrote another book that broke with the past. Having discovered years earlier that Robert-Houdin was not all he claimed to be as the originator of modern magic, and by now having become famous with name that was taken in homage of a fraud, the only option to him was to pre-emptively prove to the public that he was aware of the facts of the matter. He did so in his third book, entitled The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, a volume which many now feel is too savage in it repudiation of the French magician. Houdini by this time had become to consider himself a sort of scholar, like his father. Throughout his life he collected books and manuscripts related to the performing arts. By the time he died, he possessed the largest library in the world on witchcraft and magic, and the 4th largest dramatic collection.
On top of all this literary activity, he also managed to introduce one of his most famous tricks, the so-called “water can”, a sort of oversized, air-tight milk can, in which he would submerge himself and then be shut in with the lid sealed. The act debuted in St. Louis. It typically took him three minutes to get out. Other stunts that year: In London, he dropped over the side of a tugboat weighted down with 22 lbs. of chains. He was back up in 42 seconds. In Berlin, 5 Chinese sailors challenged him to escape from a “sanguaw”, an ancient Chinese torture device that hung him upside down with his neck, ankles, arms and body, covered with straps and chains. He was out in 16 minutes.
In 1909, he became obsessed with aeronautics, becoming the first person to fly an airplane in Australia (1910). He publicized his 1912 run at Hammerstein’s with a new stunt. He had himself roped and straightjacked, hung upside down from the top of the Heidleberg Building 421 Broadway, 300 feet above street. From here on in whenever he toured, he’d do a version of this stunt from one of the tallest building in whatever town he was performing in.
He debuted his most famous trick, the Chinese Water Torture Tank, at Circus Busch in Germany in 1912. He did it again in the us at Hammersteins later that year.
As he reached middle age, he began to work in a mellower stage presentation, one third of which was a film of his underwater box escape. In 1918 at the Hippodrome, he made an elephant disappear. Also that year, he began to do movies, generally playing a secret agent or similar character that allowed him to show off his daredevil skills in cliffhangers. In 1920 he launched his own company, the Houdini Picture Company, which produced such classics as The Man From Beyond (wherein he played an unfrozen 100 year old man from the past) and Haldene of the Secret Service. These pictures lost money and the company folded which only proves that Houdini was ahead of his time, for both premises sound very much in tune with the modern sensibility.
Always obsessed with death, this tendency in Houdini intensified when his mother passed away in 1913. He began going to seances that year in a genuine attempt to get in touch with her. At every one he attended however he recognized the phony techniques he had used himself years earlier as part of the medicine show. His search for his mother gradually became a crusade to debunk fraudulent mediums. After several years away from England during the war, he returned during the 1919-20 season to find a country as preoccupied with death as he had always been. The U.K. had gone nutty for spiritualism. In this environment, he made friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who was also interested in the subject, although, it turns out, much more credulously. During his six months in England on this trip Houdini visited 100 mediums, and achieved little satisfaction in the way of spiritual reward. Soon thereafter Houdini was appointed to a committee by Scientific American magazine to judge spirit photos and physical manifestations. The committee brought him into contact with some of the most prominent practitioners of the day, all of whose tricks he was able to expose. In 1924, Houdini wrote a book 1924 called A Magician Among the Spirits exposing the technique of fraudulent spiritualists, and causing Doyle to definitively break with him. The medium bashing by now comprised a good part of his act. He went on 8 week lecture tour of colleges. He helped local police and prosecutes bust charlatans. His new stage show was in three parts: 1/3 magic, 1/3 escapes, and 1/3 medium exposure.
In 1926, he debuted the last new stunt of his life, the “Challenge of the Egyptian Mystic”. Tellingly, now that he was in his fifties, it was a trick that tested his ability to lie down and relax. He had himself locked in an airtight box and dropped to the bottom of a swimming pool, where he remained for an hour and a half, before ringing a little bell to be let back up. All that time he survived on the little bit of air inside the casket, by keeping still and regulating his breath, much like an Eastern mystic would do.
Houdini was a maniac. He made an entire career out of ignoring the most useful message the nervous system can send to the brain, which is “Ouch! This hurts! I’m getting out of here!”. For two and a half decades this little habit of his made him a rich and happy man. In October 1926 it finally caught up with him. A McGill University student decided to test Houdini’s off-pronounced boast that he could take any punch to the stomach. The unanticipated blow burst his appendix. He lived with the pain for three days before agreeing to go under the knife, by which time the poison had spread throughout his entire bloodstream. He performed his final “escape” on Halloween night.
Houdini was inducted into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame in 2008.
A clip from one of my favorite movies as a kid, 1953’s Houdini starring Tony Curtis.
To learn more about vaudeville and major stars like Houdini consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.