The Life of Harry Houdini

July 3rd, 2017

The room was deathly quiet. Tension clung to the hot, sticky air that swirled under chairs and over the audience; taking the breath from their throats as they stared at the black curtain on the stage. A crash, a smash and a scuffle came from behind it and eyes widened almost to breaking point in the audience. A second later, the curtain was ripped from its hooks and Houdini, hero of the show, stood triumphant and unconstrained; free of the iron shackles that had bound him from head to toe just minutes before.

From wikicommons

The audience roared, and frantic whispers spread like flames with murmurs of ethereal spirits and strengths of fairy tale proportions. Harry Houdini was an entertainer like no other. Houdini was “super-human” and could master the impossible. Houdini cast his magic spells over his fans; they were in awe as soon as the show began. However, little did this spellbound audience know that they had just witnessed Houdini’s last show.

For Houdini’s life was eerily cut short. He slipped behind his final curtain on the night of Halloween in 1926; killed by appendicitis aggravated by a blow to the stomach. As the world mourned for the biggest legend it had ever seen, his faithful fans began to wonder whether the date of his death could be more than a supernatural coincidence…..

In the years before his death, Houdini had taken a detour from the magic and feats of escape that he had become famous for. After the First World War the craze for Spiritualism, the act of communicating with the dead through a medium, was sweeping the world as mourners were desperate to reach loved ones lost during the war.

Houdini, being the master of illusion and trickery, was determined to reveal the secrets of the mediums and expose them as fraudsters taking advantage of those bewildered by grief. He made a particular enemy out of medium Mina Cradon, after he exposed her Spiritualist séances as nothing more than a series of hoaxes, acts and tricks set up by Mina and her team.

Could it be that Houdini had taken a step too far in his crusade? Had his Spiritualist adversaries executed the ultimate revenge with a little help from otherworldly collaborators? For the man who built his entire career on exploiting intrigue and the paranormal to die on the most mysterious date of the year was surely more than a cruel twist of fate.

Houdini, or Ehric Weiss as he was born, was a Hungarian immigrant from a very poor family, struggling to survive the mean streets of New York at the end of the nineteenth century. Anxious to change the fortunes of his family, Houdini joined the travelling circus. He made his debut at only nine years old as a trapeze artist called “Ehrich, Prince of the Air”.

After perfecting his magic act during his teenage years and naming himself after his hero, French magician Jean Eugene Houdin, Houdini toured the United States, performing with numerous magicians and card-trick acts. Desperate to stand apart from the others, Houdini began performing daring acts, involving escapes from cells and chains.

He performed at freak shows and dime museums, where he would challenge a member of the audience or police officials to handcuff him and chain him up. He always escaped from the shackles and ties, almost effortlessly, creating a stir. His fame began to spread.

Crowds of up to 100,000 people watched in awe as he regularly hung upside down from sky-scrapers and writhed to escape from a strait jacket; he threw himself into churning rivers after a spectator had handcuffed and chained him, only to pop up a few yards downstream gloriously holding aloft the empty handcuffs.

As his fame spread, so too did imitators, all eager to use Houdini’s hard earned fame for themselves. Houdini’s life became a constant battle to stay one step ahead as he invented more and more daring stunts that imposters could not hope to match.

His most daring, and famous, stunt was the Chinese Water Torture Cell. His feet locked together, he was lowered, upside down, into a large wooden and glass fronted box filled with water. Audiences were stunned, as Houdini escaped from the seemingly impossible situation. Exactly how Houdini performed this act is still a mystery today, which begs us to wonder whether Houdini called on depths more surreal and magical than ever before to perform his most heroic performance?

He electrified his audiences, not least because he never, ever revealed his secrets. His reputation became shrouded in mystery as his loyal fans attributed his acts to superhuman magic and witchcraft. Was this the reason that no other escapologist came close to achieving the success the Houdini did? Or was Houdini simply a master of marketing who was way ahead of his time?

Houdini was a master of self promotion and personal hype, creating celebrity status for himself long before the days of PR moguls and modern celebrity obsession. He understood the power of word of mouth; using it to his full advantage.

He created a unique position for himself, and continued to strive to remain at the top of his game. Supremely confident and afraid of nothing, Houdini had survived childhood poverty and hard times; it was surely this that gave him the motivation and drive he needed to achieve such enormous success.

Harry Houdini thrilled and electrified audiences throughout his twenty six year long career, and even today, over eighty years after his death, he is still the most famous magician and escapologist in the world. A cultural sensation of the kind that the world had never seen before, he was a world-wide phenomenon.

For ten years after his death, Houdini’s widow Bess, held a séance on the anniversary of his death in an attempt to summon his spirit. Houdini’s ghost never appeared, so Bess gave up, declaring that “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man”.

Even this wasn’t enough to quell the rumours of Houdini’s mystical and eerie qualities however, and to this day, over 80 years after his death, Houdini’s legacy lives on. A large group of Houdini devotees meet every Halloween and attempt to call Houdini’s spirit back to earth in a bizarre séance spectacle. So far, they have failed, but maybe this year, you fancy a Halloween Party with a Houdini twist? You may just witness an ethereal escape…..