Friday, March 25, 2011


Prestidigitation...legerdemain...magic. Who is the first person I think of when the subject of magicians and the world of magic comes up in conversation? Houdini. Even now there is a sense of mystery that surrounds his life. The magic of today in some respects transcends the 'tricks' of his time, but 'mystery' isn't much of a force anymore. Yes, I do find what many magicians do quite fascinating and amazing, but there are too many that are quick to divulge the mechanics of their trade. Many of them are well known, too. Then you have the masked magician who has done a series of television specials geared towards giving it all away. Killing the mystery. The fantasy. The wonder. Would Houdini approve? I think not.

The son of a Rabbi, Erik Weiss (Houdini) was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874 (starting around 1907, he would tell reporters that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874). The middle child of seven, he came to the U.S. with his mother in 1878. They lived in Appleton, which is why he picked it as his 'new' birthplace. He worked a number of jobs in his youth, his first public appearance being as a trapeze artist. He called himself, "Erich, the Prince of the Air". Heavily influenced by french magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, he became a professional magician. Houdin is obviously how he came up with his new name. One of his friends told him that adding an "i" to 'Houdin' would mean 'like Houdin' in French...which wasn't true. He claimed that his first name of 'Harry' was an homage to another magician he admired, American Harry Kellar.

He officially started a career in magic in 1891. In the beginning he didn't see much success, mostly performing card tricks in sideshows. He even doubled as "The Wild Man" in a circus. It wasn't long before he began experimenting with escape acts.

Coney Island was the stage for his first meeting with Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner. He was performing as part of "The Houdini Brothers" (Harry and his brother 'Dash'). Bess was also a performer there. Harry and Bess fell in love, and married. She would replace 'Dash' as Harry's performing partner under the act name "The Houdini's". They would appear on stage together for the rest of his career, Bess as his Stage Assistant.

In 1899, Houdini met manager Martin Beck who advised him to concentrate on his escape acts. Beck was impressed by Houdini's handcuff work. Harry quickly made a name for himself on the Vaudeville circuit. 1900 would take him on a European tour that started off cool, but after impressing cops at Scotland Yard with a handcuff escape that left them completely gobsmacked, he got a lengthy gig at the Alhambra Theater.

He became known far and wide as "the Handcuff King", escaping from prisons. cuffs, and shackles through out Europe and Russia. He returned to America a wealthy man.

I think Harry Houdini's feats of magic are known to most people. A few are:

"The Chinese Water Torture Cell" where his feet were secured to the top of a square glass tank filled with water, and he would be lowered into the water head first for his death defying escape. Houdini always referred to this one as the USD, or the "Upside Down".

"The Overboard Box Escape" where he was locked in cuffs and leg irons, and nailed into a wooden crate that was bound with rope and weighed down with 200 pounds of lead before being lowered into water. Onlookers would be awed by the fact that once Houdini had escaped, the crate would be intact with the handcuffs inside.

When I think of Houdini, I immediately picture the "Suspended Strait Jacket Escape". I know it to be one of his more popular escapes, so I'm sure I'm not alone. He would perform this one by being secured in a strait jacket, and being suspended by his ankles from a crane or tall building.

What was his secret? How did he manage to do all of these impressive escapes? I've heard two versions. One is that he would swallow the necessary key prior to his act and vomit the key up at the proper time (not my favorite version). The other is that Bess would always kiss him right before he began...when they kissed, she would pass him the key (definitely more romantic than throwing up).

'Houdini' by Kate Bush

I wait at the table,
And hold hands with weeping strangers,
Wait for you
To join the group.

The tambourine jingle-jangles.
The medium roams and rambles.
Not taken in,
I break the circle.

I want this man
To go away now.

With a kiss
I'd pass the key
And feel your tongue
Teasing and receiving.
With your spit
Still on my lip,
You hit the water.

Him and I in the room
To prove you are with us too.

He's using code that only you and I know.
This is no trick of his.
This is your magic.

I'd catch the cues,
Watching you,
Hoping you'd do something wrong.

Everybody thinks you'll never make it,
But every time,
You escape:

'Rosabel believe,
Not even eternity
Can hold Houdini!'

"Rosabel, believe!"

Through the glass
I'd watch you breathe.
("Not even eternity--")
Bound and drowned,
And paler than you've ever been.
("--will hold Houdini!")

With your life
The only thing in my mind--
We pull you from the water!


You ("Hou-di-ni...")
And I
And Rosabel believe.

Interestingly enough, the thing I find the most fascinating about Harry Houdini is not his magic, but the energies he put into debunking purported mediums and psychics after his mother passed away. He was part of a "Scientific American" group that said they would give any spiritualist who came forward and showed authentic psychic talents a monetary prize. The winnings were never collected. Houdini's greatest asset in revealing the fakeries was his magical training. Once he started making a name for himself as a dubunker, he would don a disguise and with a police officer and journalist in tow, would attend seances. He was able to unmask a number of notable psychics of the times. His success destroyed his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was a staunch believer in the spiritual world and mediums. Doyle actually believed Houdini to be a medium himself, which he thought explained how Houdini performed his escapes. He thought Houdini to have paranormal abilities.

Before Houdini's death, he and Bess agreed that if his spirit came back, he would say a secret code word that would tell her it was him. "Rosabelle believe" was pulled from a play Bess was in when they first met. For ten years after his death, Bess would hold seances on Halloween to see if she would hear those confirming words. She had no success, and after the tenth seance in 1936, she put out the candle she had kept continually burning beside Houdini's Picture. She would later say that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man". Magicians world wide still hold Halloween seances each year hoping to hear Houdini's words from beyond the grave.

The official diagnosis as to Houdini's death was peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Documented reports of an eye witness to an incident that was said to have been the catalyst for his death caused rise to speculation. Houdini had always bragged that he could take any blow above the waist without injury. A student, J. Gordon Whitehead, punched Houdini a number of times in the abdomen to test his claims. The following is one of the witness accounts:

"Houdini was reclining on his couch after his performance, having an art student sketch him. When Whitehead came in and asked if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach, Houdini replied groggily in the affirmative. In this instance, he was hit three times before Houdini could tighten up his stomach muscles to avoid serious injury. Whitehead reportedly continued hitting Houdini several more times and Houdini acted as though he were in some pain."

It was October 24, 1926. Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater for what was sadly to be his final performance. He had a fever of 104, and was suffering from acute appendicitis. He wasn't going to let it stop him and he took the stage anyway. He was said to have passed out during the performance, was revived, and went on to complete it. Once off stage they rushed him to the hospital. Harry Houdini died on October 26, 1926. He was only 52.

Houdini died 85 years ago, yet his place at the top of the Magician's list is solid. In my book, anyway. Yesterday was his posthumous Birthday...#137.

Truthfully, even if I knew the 'secrets' to all of Houdini's escapes, they are still quite miraculous. I really don't WANT to know how he repeatedly escaped death. Just because he always had an escape plan mapped out doesn't make them any less dangerous. In the world of magic, I choose to be among the unknowing. The ones who watch completely spellbound, wondering all the while 'how did they do that'. Call it...the kid in me.

Happy Birthday, Harry...

No comments:

Post a Comment