Harry Houdini

Discover how scam­ming spir­i­tu­al­ists could not es­cape the es­capol­o­gist

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Hang­ing up­side down with his an­kles locked in stocks, a crowd watched as Harry Houdini was low­ered into a tank of water. Once the stocks were fixed to the top of the tank, a cur­tain was drawn and the au­di­ence col­lec­tively held their breath won­der­ing how he would make it out alive. Min­utes later, a soaked and un­shack­led Houdini would emerge un­scathed from be­hind the cur­tain to huge sighs of re­lief and rap­tur­ous ap­plause. This was just an­other one of Harry Houdini’s spec­tac­u­lar es­capes, which proved much more dra­matic for the crowd than they did for the skilled es­capol­o­gist him­self.

Hav­ing worked for a lock­smith at a young age, Houdini had learnt how to pick any lock, and so, with the help of slight of hand, some rigged equip­ment and his gym­nas­tic abil­i­ties, he could free him­self from the trick­i­est of sit­u­a­tions with very lit­tle trou­ble.

One of seven chil­dren, Houdini was born in Bu­dapest, Aus­tria-hun­gary, in 1874. He de­vel­oped a fas­ci­na­tion with magic from a young age and per­formed in cir­cuses and vaude­ville shows through­out his teenage years, but it wasn’t un­til he met show­man Martin Beck at age 25 that his ca­reer reached new heights.

He be­gan tour­ing Amer­ica and Europe, and break­ing free from var­i­ous con­trap­tions be­came the main part of his act. To pro­mote his shows he would of­ten hang up­side down from cranes above the city streets, free­ing him­self from a straight­jacket as crowds of thou­sands gath­ered be­low. He achieved great fame with his dar­ing es­capes, but in his later life he be­came more in­ter­ested in shat­ter­ing il­lu­sions rather than creat­ing them.

Af­ter his beloved mother Ce­cilia died in 1913, Houdini was dev­as­tated and be­lieved that by vis­it­ing medi­ums he could make con­tact with her be­yond the grave. How­ever, know­ing the art of trick­ery him­self, he was an­gered to discover that ev­ery one of the so-called psy­chics he vis­ited was sim­ply a fraud dis­hon­estly ex­ploit­ing the be­reaved. He be­came a mem­ber of the Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can com­mit­tee and of­fered a cash prize to any­one who could demon­strate ac­tual su­per­nat­u­ral abil­i­ties. He at­tended many séances to de­bunk their meth­ods.

Thanks to his ef­forts no one was ever awarded the prize, but he con­tin­ued to be­lieve that it was pos­si­ble to speak with the dead. He reg­u­larly vis­ited medi­ums for the rest of his life hop­ing to find one that was hon­est, and he even told his wife Wil­helmina Beatrice Rah­ner (bet­ter known as Bess Houdini) that he would try to con­tact her af­ter he had passed away. Sadly that day came sooner than he thought, as he died of peri­toni­tis aged just 52.

For the fol­low­ing decade his wife dili­gently lis­tened out for his se­cret mes­sage on the an­niver­sary of his death, but with no suc­cess she even­tu­ally gave up, say­ing, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Houdini (left) with Mina Cran­don (cen­tre) and mem­bers of the Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can com­mit­tee

Houdini be­came known as The Hand­cuff King and of­ten chal­lenged po­lice to re­strain him

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