Stumbling Toward Enlightenment

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Harry Houdini Day


from material provided in the biography Harry Houdini by Adam Woog (Lucent Books, 1995).

Houdini is the most famous magician in history. He was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary—and 4 years old when his family emigrated to America. His worldwide fame came from making amazing escapes. Early routines included getting out of straitjackets and handcuffs. He eventually performed an act where he was shackled with irons, placed in a box that was locked, roped, and weighted—and then submerged under water. Abracadabra!

Houdini the Man
Houdini was able to perform his difficult feats by remaining in excellent physical and mental condition. He pushed himself relentlessly. To develop his capacity for holding his breath, Houdini installed an oversize bathtub in his house so that he could practice regularly. Through extensive training, he was able use his left hand nearly as well as his right. While casually chatting with friends, he would perform card and coin tricks without looking at his hands, or tie and untie knots in pieces of rope with his feet. Determined to stay on top of the entertainment field, Houdini refined techniques he had already mastered and continually developed new and more daring escapes.

As his reputation grew, Houdini assumed a leadership role among other magicians. He served as president of the Society of American Magicians and founded the Magician’s Club in London. Houdini was generous with other magicians, but jealous of anyone who attempted to duplicate his escapes. He wrote books and magazine articles that revealed some of magic’s simpler tricks, but carefully guarded his own secrets. Though known to be friendly and warm, Houdini had a large ego, could be touchy and petty at times, and frequently displayed a volatile tempter to his assistants.

In 1909, just six years after the Wright brothers proved that human flight was possible, Houdini became fascinated with airplanes. He bought his own plane, and learned to drive a car solely in order to get to the airport faster. In 1910, he became the first to successfully fly a plane in Australia. After that flight, however, his interest ended and he never piloted a plane or drove a car again. Houdini was also a great collector, with extensive collections of locks, magic memorabilia, autographs, historical items and, especially, books. Houdini collected so many books that he hired a full-time librarian to care for them, and traveled with hundreds at a time.

The Last Days
In the fall of 1926, Houdini took a new show on the road. It was an elaborate, two and half hour performance, requiring Houdini to be on stage almost the entire time. The show featured magic, a section debunking spiritualism, and escapes from a coffin and a Chinese water torture, which had become one of Houdini’s most famous stunts. In the Chinese water torture escape, Houdini’s hands and feet were bound and he was lowered, upside down, into a glass tank filled with water, which was then securely closed. In mid-October, the tour took a bad turn in Providence, Rhode Island when Bess contracted a case of food poisoning. Despite the presence of a nurse, Houdini was deeply worried about his wife and stayed awake all night at her side. By the time they reached the next stop, Albany, New York, Houdini had gone three nights without sleep, his only rest coming from brief naps. Then, during the Albany show, the frame holding his leg in place for the Chinese water torture jerked, causing his ankle to break. Used to performing with smaller injuries, Houdini refused medical care and insisted on completing the show, but was awake all night from the pain. The tour nonetheless proceeded to the next stop in Montreal, Canada.

Ignoring a doctor’s advice to stay off his foot, Houdini stuck to his schedule, including a lecture at McGill University. While there, Houdini met an art student who presented him with a sketch he had made of the great escape artist. Houdini invited the student to visit him backstage before the afternoon performance of his show. The next day, the student and two friends were chatting with Houdini in his dressing room when one of the students, an amateur boxer, asked if it was true that Houdini could withstand any blow to his body above the waist, excluding his face. Houdini admitted that it was true and, despite his weakened state due to his injury and lack of sleep, gave the student permission to test him. Houdini began to rise from the couch where he was seated, but before he had time to tighten his abdomen muscles, the student punched him three times in the stomach. Houdini fell back on the couch, his face white. Although in pain, Houdini performed his show that afternoon. The pain was worse in the evening, but Houdini refused to consult a doctor.

The next day, October 24, despite chills and sweating, Houdini performed two more shows before the company moved on to Detroit, Michigan. Once there, Houdini finally saw a doctor, who urged that he immediately go to the hospital. Houdini refused and, despite a temperature of 102, went on to give his usual performance that night. Only after completing the show did Houdini finally agree to enter the hospital. When doctors operated, they found that his appendix had burst, causing peritonitis, a usually fatal disease in this age before the development of antibiotics. Another operation was later performed, but Houdini was given little hope of surviving. Bess, meanwhile, still suffering from food poisoning, was checked into the same hospital. Believing he was near death, Houdini reportedly shared a secret message with Bess to be used as proof that he was communicating with her from beyond the grave. She would know it was really him if she heard the words “Rosabelle, believe.” “Rosabelle” was the name of a song that Bess had sung at Coney Island in the period when she met Houdini.

Houdini’s brother Theo was at his side when Houdini spoke his last words: “I’m tired of fighting…I guess this thing is going to get me.” Harry Houdini died on the afternoon of Halloween, October 31, 1926.

Houdini’s funeral was held in New York City, where thousands of mourners lined the streets as the funeral procession passed. A representative of the Society of American Magicians broke a wand at the services, beginning a new tradition that has been used for Society members ever since. Houdini was buried at the Machpelah Cemetery in Long Island, New York, beside his parents. Beneath his head was placed a pillow containing his mother’s letters.

Houdini’s collection of over 5,000 books was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. His brother Theo received most of his magic equipment and memorabilia. Theo continued to work as a magician under the name Hardeen; he died in 1945. The bulk of Houdini’s estate went to Bess, who, after paying Houdini’s extensive debts, had enough to live comfortably. For many years Bess tried to contact Houdini through a séance on the anniversary of his death, but died in 1943 without succeeding.

Author: barenose

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