Houdini, Harry

Harry HoudiniHarry Houdini who was born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Weiss; on March 24, 1874 and died on October 31, 1926. He was a Hungarian-born American magician and escapologist, stunt performer, actor and film producer noted for his sensational escape acts. He was also a Skeptic who set out to expose frauds purporting to be supernatural phenomena.

Chinese Water Torture Cell

In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini’s feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called “Houdini Upside Down”. This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as “The Chinese Water Torture Cell” or “The Water Torture Cell”, Houdini always referred to it as “the Upside Down” or “USD”. The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926.

Suspended Straitjacket Escape

One of Houdini’s most popular publicity stunts was to have himself strapped into a regulation straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. Houdini would then make his escape in full view of the assembled crowd. In many cases, Houdini would draw thousands of onlookers who would choke the street and bring city traffic to a halt. Houdini would sometimes ensure press coverage by performing the escape from the office building of a local newspaper. In New York City, Houdini performed the suspended straitjacket escape from a crane being used to build the New York subway. After flinging his body in the air, he escaped from the straitjacket. Starting from when he was hoisted up in the air by the crane, to when the straitjacket was completely off, it took him two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. There is film footage of Houdini performing the escape in The Library of Congress. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 – Dec 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield’s Empire Theatre.

Buried Alive stunt

Houdini performed at least three variations on a “Buried Alive” stunt/escape during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was “very dangerous” and that “the weight of the earth is killing.”

Houdini’s second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered Bey on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York’s Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.

Houdini’s final Buried Alive was an elaborate stage escape that was to feature in his full evening show. The stunt would see Houdini escape after being strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While there are posters advertising the escape (playing off the Bey challenge they boasted “Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!”), it is unclear whether Houdini ever performed Buried Alive on stage. The stunt was to be the feature escape of his 1927 season, but Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The bronze casket Houdini created for Buried Alive was used to transport Houdini’s body from Detroit back to New York following his death on Halloween.

Debunking Spiritualists

In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking Self-Proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by later-day conjurers. Houdini’s training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a “ghostbuster” grew, Houdini took to attending séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as “Margery”.

Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits. These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini’s exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist Medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities and was using these abilities to block those of other Mediums that he was ‘debunking‘ (see Conan Doyle’s The Edge of The Unknown, published in 1931). This disagreement led to the two men becoming public antagonists and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.

Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message “Rosabelle believe”, a secret code which they agreed to use. This was a phrase from a play in which Bess performed, at the time the couple first met. Bess held yearly seances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death, but Houdini’s spirit never appeared. Bess, grieving and in need of some attention, did stage a false contact which she later recanted. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

The tradition of holding a séance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world. The Official Houdini Séance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yearly Houdini Séances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excalibur (nightclub) nightclub by “necromancer” Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians; and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York’s famous Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the tradition. Before he died, Walter passed on the tradition to Dorothy Dietrich.

In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book about debunking superstition, which was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write an article about astrology, for which he paid $75. The article does not survive. Lovecraft’s detailed synopsis for Cancer does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy. Houdini’s untimely death derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project.

Artifacts

Houdini’s brother, Theodore Hardeen, who returned to performing after Houdini’s death, inherited his brother’s effects and props. Houdini’s will stipulated that all the effects should be “burned and destroyed” upon Hardeen’s death. Hardeen sold much of the collection to magician and Houdini enthusiast Sidney Hollis Radner during the 1940s, including the Water Torture Cell. Radner allowed choice pieces of the collection to be displayed at The Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario. In 1995, a fire destroyed the museum. While the Water Torture Cell was reported to have been destroyed, its metal frame remained, and the cell was restored by illusion builder John Gaughan. Many of the props contained in the museum such as the Mirror Handcuffs, Houdini’s original packing crate, a Milk Can, and a straitjacket, survived the fire and were auctioned off in 1999 and 2008.

Radner archived the bulk of his collection at the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, but pulled it in 2003 and auctioned it off in Las Vegas on October 30, 2004.

Houdini was a “formidable collector,” He bequeathed his holdings on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress, which became the basis for a collection in cyberspace.

Death

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident at the Princess Theater in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini’s death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini’s abdomen.

The eyewitnesses, students named Jacques Price and Sam Smilovitz (sometimes called Jack Price and Sam Smiley), proffered accounts of the incident that generally corroborated one another. The following is Price’s description of events: 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.

Houdini reportedly stated that if he had had time to prepare himself properly, he would have been in a better position to take the blows. He had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior and yet refused medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma. Although in serious pain, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention.

When Houdini arrived at the Garrick Theater in Detroit, Michigan on October 24, 1926, for what would be his last performance, he had a fever of 104 °F (40 °C). Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, Houdini took the stage. He was reported to have passed out during the show, but was revived and continued. Afterwards, he was hospitalized at Detroit’s Grace Hospital.

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, aged 52. In his final weeks, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover.

After taking statements from Price and Smilovitz, Houdini’s insurance company concluded that the death was due to the dressing-room incident and paid double indemnity (insurance).

Houdini’s funeral was held on November 4, 1926, in New York, with more than 2,000 mourners in attendance. He was interred in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his gravesite. A statuary bust was added to the excedra in 1927, believed to be the only graven image in a Jewish cemetery anywhere. In 1975 it was knocked over and destroyed. Temporary ones were placed there until in 2011 when a group who came to be called The Houdini Commandos from The Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA placed a permanent bust with the permission of Houdini’s family and the the cemetery. To this day the Society holds a broken wand ceremony at the grave site in November. Houdini’s widow, Bess Houdini, died on February 11, 1943, aged 67, in Needles, California. She had expressed a wish to be buried next to him but instead was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York, as her Catholic family refused to allow her to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Proposed Exhumation

On March 22, 2007, Houdini’s great-nephew (the grandson of his brother Theo), George Hardeen, announced that the courts would be asked to allow exhumation of Houdini’s body. The purpose was to investigate the possibility of Houdini being murdered by Spiritualists, as suggested in the biography The Secret Life of Houdini.

In a statement given to the Houdini Museum in Scranton, the family of Bess Houdini opposed the application and suggested it was a publicity ploy for the book. The Washington Post stated that the press conference was not orchestrated by the family of Houdini. Instead, the Post reported, it was orchestrated by authors Kalush and Sloman, who hired the PR firm Dan Klores Communications to assist them, allegedly because of terribly sagging book sales. In 2008 it was revealed the parties involved never filed legal papers to perform an exhumation.