Harry Houdini (1874-1926), undoubtedly the greatest showman of his age and probably of all time, was an awe-inspiring escape artist and the undisputed master of his craft.
He was the first “superstar” to manipulate the media to gain broad mass acceptance, and his fame was such that George Bernard Shaw quipped that Jesus, Sherlock Holmes, and Houdini were the three most famous people in world history. Even almost a century after his death, his name is synonymous with magic, and he remains a renowned cultural icon.
Houdini was particularly important to American Jews, for whom he came to embody the idea that a Jew could achieve success in an anti-Semitic world. For Jews who had a long history of fear and vulnerability, Houdini was the ultimate contemporary symbol of strength, and the renowned escape artist became the paradigm of the Jewish immigrant’s belief that he could escape the metaphorical shackles of Jewish history.
Even after achieving great success, Houdini maintained his ties to Judaism and his loyalty to his Jewish family, saying: “I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and I never will be.” He recited Kaddish for his mother every day for the entire year after her death; dutifully marked his father’s yahrzeit throughout his world travels; and made a point to repurchase the family Bible that his father had sold when the family was struggling financially. He apparently studied it as evidenced by the notes he wrote in the margin of the sefer.
During WWI, Houdini founded and presided over the “Rabbi’s Sons Theatrical Association” (1918), a group consisting of sons of rabbis and Jewish scholars (Al Jolson served as its vice president and Irving Berlin as second vice president) that raised funds for Hebrew associations helping military families.
He was also a great American patriot who supported a variety of American causes, including the American Red Cross, and was also a major supporter of Zionist institutions. Throughout his life, Houdini performed great acts of charity, but insisted upon anonymity because “the Jewish way is to give charity quietly.”
Although it is the subject of some dispute, some of Houdini’s friends said that he carried his tefillin with him while on tour, regularly putting them on in the morning, and that he carried mezuzot with him, which he nailed to the doorpost of his hotel room during his travels.
Nonetheless, he became the first person in his family to intermarry, which caused a rift with his family that never healed completely, although his parents eventually came to terms with his marriage. He was greatly devoted to his Catholic wife, Bess, but Houdini insisted that he be buried in a Jewish cemetery near his parents despite knowing his wife could not be buried near him.
Houdini was shocked by his first exposures to anti-Semitism during his performances in Germany. He wrote, “[T]here is a secret feeling among Europeans against Jews. It surprised me greatly to think that such things exist in this country. It is awful what I hear from people who are Jew haters.” When he performed in Russia soon after the notorious Kishinev Pogrom (1903), when Jews were not permitted to remain in Moscow overnight, he muted any reference to his Judaism, but he was deeply affected by what had happened, and what was happening, to his fellow Jews there, and he wrote critically about Russian anti-Semitism.
* * * * *
Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz (later “Weiss”) in Budapest, where his father, Rabbi Samuel Weisz, Ph.D., L.L.D., was a great scholar. Seeking a haven from rampant anti-Semitism, Samuel immigrated to America in 1876, where he quickly discovered that the streets were not paved with gold. After a two-year struggle, he managed to barely save enough to bring his family to the U.S., including four-year-old Ehrich.
The Appleton, Wisconsin Zion Reform Jewish Congregation retained Samuel as its first rabbi, but it paid him a pittance and, four years later, he was dismissed because his immigrant English was weak and the congregation wanted a modern rabbinical leader.
Soon after losing his position in Appleton, unable to secure another rabbinical position, and virtually indigent, Samuel moved the entire family first to Milwaukee, where he also failed to support his family. To ease the financial strain on the family, Ehrich left home at age 12 to seek his fortune. He lived at a YMCA in New York City and, while still very young, supported himself doing elementary magic tricks as “Erik he Great.”
After Samuel moved to New York City, where he found a job working in a necktie factory, he was joined in that work by Ehrich. Soon after, Ehrich read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, which was officiated by the Orthodox Rabbi Bernard Drachman, who reported that Ehrich’s progress in Hebrew was “extremely weak” but that the boy had “a profound reverence for the Jewish faith.”
Shortly after his father died of tongue cancer in 1892, Ehrich, now Eric, got a job as a magician at Coney Island performing common card tricks, billing himself as “The King of Cards.” He was unsuccessful until he met and befriended Martin Beck, a fellow Jewish immigrant who advised Eric that he would never succeed as a card magician but could achieve great fame as “The King of Handcuffs.”
After Beck got him a job on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit as an escape artist, Eric adopted the stage name “Houdini” in honor of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern conjuring” whom he revered at the time. Houdini quickly gained celebrity for incorporating an audience challenge into his act: He offered to pay $100 (not an inconsequential sum at that time) to anyone who could lock him into a set of handcuffs from which he could not escape. No one ever earned the prize; he became known as “Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini,” and by the turn of the 20th century, his fame took him on a five-year tour of Europe.
During his career, the great Houdini only failed to escape a pair of cuffs once – when he was presented with a rigged set stuffed with buckshot, rendering the locking mechanism inoperative, even with the key. Houdini had to be cut out of them and, thereafter, all challengers had to demonstrate that the cuffs could be opened before he would permit them to be put on him. His reputation remained untarnished, however, as the media and the public deemed buckshot-filled cuffs to be a hoax and an exercise in dishonesty.
Houdini became one of the first early masters of self-promotion, planning carefully to ensure that his feats would be witnessed by the public – and by the mass media. His fame and reputation were sealed with incredible stunts, including breaking out of various city jails including cells in Siberia and Scotland Yard; taking less than three minutes to escape from a water-filled milk can; freeing himself from a straitjacket while shackled at the ankles and dangling upside-down in midair; escaping from a crate thrown into New York’s East River into which he had been locked and manacled; making an elephant disappear (1918); and escaping from a water-torture chamber in the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell trick (1913).
Houdini also performed the famous “bullet catch” trick – which has killed at least 12 magicians – in which a bullet would be fired at his head and he would catch it with his bare hand in mid-air. When the czar watched the trick, he was so impressed that he asked Houdini to repeat it – with the czar himself firing the weapon – and Houdini again caught the bullet.
As an interesting historical note, after the czar’s death, his family asked Houdini to serve as its spiritual advisor. When he declined the offer (on the grounds that he wanted nothing to do with Russian anti-Semitism), the position went to – wait for it – the infamous Rasputin.
In one of his most famous tricks, which turned out to be his final stunt, Houdini performed his “underwater coffin trick” on August 5, 1926 in the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in New York. With his hands cuffed in front and chained to his shackled ankles, his arms chained around his neck, and his torso bent over, he was squeezed into a 700-pound metal coffin that was lowered into the pool. Much to the astonishment of the journalists in attendance, Houdini emerged from the coffin some 91 minutes later.
Exhibited here is a remarkable August 28, 1926 correspondence written and signed by Houdini to Edwin A. Dearn in which he describes where he obtained the coffin for the underwater coffin trick:
A friend of mine Mr. John P. Spatz of the Boyertown Casket Company is going to Shanghai on business and have given him a letter of introduction to you. I know you will be interested to hear that he is the man to whom I am indebted for the use of the caskets while training for the under water coffin experiment. They have treated me very nicely in all of this and know you will be glad to meet him.
Interestingly, several authorities have insisted that Houdini used a 700-hundred-pound sealed tank, not a coffin, for this trick, but this letter, on its face, conclusively proves them incorrect.
Houdini corresponded regularly with Dearn (1892-1980), an amateur magician, during the 1920s. Dearn was also a popular ventriloquist who lived in England before spending 25 years as a regular performer in theaters in the Shanghai district of China, and he entertained many world-famous magicians in his home there.
He was also a passionate collector of magic memorabilia and books, including some 2,000 magic works and apparatus. Dearn was held captive for two years when Mao Zedong took over China in the early 1950s, but he ultimately escaped to Sydney, Australia.
Among other distinctions, Houdini became the first man to fly an airplane in Australia. He starred in silent films, founded his own film production company, and amassed an enormous theater archive, which he donated to Harvard.
After the death of his mother in 1913, Houdini became preoccupied with conquering death. Toward that end, he conferred with noted spiritualists, the result of which was what became a lifelong crusade against charlatans trafficking in the despair of the bereaved with fake séances and bogus raisings of the dead, including testifying before Congress against spiritualists and mediums in 1926.
“Spiritualism” to Houdini was little more than amateur magic clothed in the supernatural, and his close friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended when the creator of Sherlock Holmes refused to renounce spiritualism. He alienated Doyle further after Mrs. Doyle conducted a séance during which she claimed to have received directions from Houdini’s deceased mother and drew a cross and transcribed a detailed message from her.
Houdini later publicly humiliated the Doyles by noting that the late Mrs. Weisz, a rabbi’s wife and a practicing Jewess her entire life, would not be drawing a cross nor would she be speaking English instead of her usual German.
Houdini offered a standing $10,000 reward for any “supernatural” manifestations that he could not duplicate (there were, not surprisingly, no takers), and he wrote several books about spiritualist fraud. Many of the charlatans whom he exposed launched anti-Semitic diatribes against him, calling him “Judas” and arguing that since his Judaism made him un-American, no one should pay any attention to him.
Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix, sustained when he took punches to the stomach from an audience member. Significant mythologies developed regarding his death during a performance – on Halloween – and there are still some who argue that the man who regularly escaped death during his lifetime would somehow manage to escape it after his “death.”
Houdini vowed that, if at all possible, he would contact Bess from beyond the grave. However, to disprove any allegation by pseudo-mystics or the like that they had communicated with him after his death, he gave her a secret code known only to them (and to close friend and confident, mentalist Joe Dunninger), in the absence of which any alleged medium, channeler, or spiritualist could be shown to be a fraud.
Bess held a séance on the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death, and Harry’s bother, Hardeen, conducted séances thereafter, but Harry never did communicate with them – or with anyone else.