Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini

Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini

3.6 8
by Sid Fleischman

Who was this man who could walk through brick walls and, with a snap of his fingers, vanish elephants? In these pages you will meet the astonishing Houdini—magician, ghost chaser, daredevil, pioneer aviator, and king of escape artists. No jail cell or straitjacket could hold him! He shucked off handcuffs as easily as gloves.

In this fresh, witty

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Who was this man who could walk through brick walls and, with a snap of his fingers, vanish elephants? In these pages you will meet the astonishing Houdini—magician, ghost chaser, daredevil, pioneer aviator, and king of escape artists. No jail cell or straitjacket could hold him! He shucked off handcuffs as easily as gloves.

In this fresh, witty biography of the most famous bamboozler since Merlin, Sid Fleischman, a former professional magician, enriches his warm homage with insider information and unmaskings. Did Houdini really pick the jailhouse lock to let a fellow circus performer escape? Were his secrets really buried with him? Was he a bum magician, as some rivals claimed? How did he manage to be born in two cities, in two countries, on two continents at the same instant?

Here are the stories of how a knockabout kid named Ehrich Weiss, the son of an impoverished rabbi, presto-changoed himself into the legendary Harry Houdini. Here, too, are rare photographs never before seen by the general reader!


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fleischman's (The Whipping Boy) colorful, anecdotal biography of Harry Houdini (1874-1926) offers an accessible portrait of this master of magic and escape. The author sets an affectionate and humorous tone, beginning with his subject's most famous feats, and then declaring, "As a devout magician, I am able to reveal only that I may not reveal Houdini's secrets." Fleischman neatly sorts out facts, speculation and legend as he traces the performer's career, from his early stints in vaudeville, with a circus and traveling medicine show and even, along with his wife and on-stage sidekick, Bess, "a part-time career as ghost wranglers and mind-reading fakers." A savvy self-promoter, Houdini made headlines through such successful challenges as breaking out of a Chicago jail cell, yet, Fleischman wryly notes, his "sudden fame was written in vanishing ink." After securing a solid reputation in Europe, the "monarch of manacles" became a stage sensation and financial success in this country as well, with some of his more famous feats, such as escaping from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down from a building. A "teenage conjuror" and former vaudevillian himself, Fleischman brings an insider's sensibility to Houdini's story (after Houdini's death, he came to know Bess, who "became a sort of den mother to us young enthusiasts"). One gets the sense that the author delved into his subject for his own enjoyment, and brings readers along for an entertaining ride. Copious photographs help flesh out Houdini's robust, larger-than-life personality and underscore the range and audacity of his exploits. Ages 9-up. (Aug.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Who better than Sid Fleischman, a former professional teenage magician, to write this lively and revealing Houdini biography? The book breathes new life into a well traveled, but endlessly fascinating subject. As a young magician Fleischman knew Bess Houdini personally and was privy to some unique insights into Houdini's life. The book follows the usual chronology beginning with Houdini's humble beginnings in Appleton, Wisconsin. It then follows him through his early struggles and failures, his marriage to Bess (his good luck charm), and his rise to fame as the greatest magician of them all. Fleischman does not minimize the magician's overarching ego and penchant for self-aggrandizement, but emphasizes his remarkable showmanship and incredible determination. Details of Houdini's campaign to debunk the spiritualism of his day are particularly fascinating. Full of Fleischman's wry humor, the book is an exceptionally accessible biography. 2006, Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Ages 10 to 14.
—Quinby Frank
"Many kids today may not recall the governor of their states, but the name Houdini rings a loud seance bell." Fleischman, himself a magician who met Bess Houdini, gives readers an admiring but honest portrayal of the former Ehrich Weiss. No trade secrets are revealed although more than once it is stated that most magicians of his era could duplicate his tricks, and many of today's magicians have surpassed them. It was Houdini's fearlessness and showmanship that set him far above the crowd. His passion was to be not only the best but also always the one with top billing. He could never resist a challenge and did not mind embroidering the facts when it was to his advantage. Houdini is portrayed as a man who possessed great courage, stamina, and energy along with a lifelong devotion to his mother and wife. He was often a mentor but only to magicians who posed no threat to him. Fleischman does an admirable job of depicting Houdini as a mercurial man who never settled, always questing for a new trick and a thrilling headline, throwing himself into sidelines such as flying and acting, and just as quickly abandoning them when he lost interest. The writing is fine, fluid, and engaging. Sadly most of the black-and-white photographs are grainy and unfocused. It is a beneficial book for reports or recreational reading, and the annotated bibliography is a useful plus. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2P M J S (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2006, HarperCollins, 160p.; Photos. Biblio., Ages 11 to 18.
—Pam Carlson
F. Todd Goodson
Harry Houdini is, perhaps, America's most enigmatic hero, and Sid Fleischman brings his considerable storytelling skills to bear in this attempt to capture his illusive subject. In Escape, Fleischman traces the journey of Ehrich Weiss, who, from the Jewish ghetto of Budapest, became the Great Harry Houdini, from Appleton, Wisconsin. Houdini was as much a social phenomenon as a performer. The details of his life say as much about the American culture in the first two decades of the 20th century as they do about the man (in no small part because, as Fleischman documents again and again, the details of his life are shrouded in mystery and outright deception). That Houdini remains a source of fascination says a great deal about our need to witness the impossible, all the while knowing it isn't real. Escape provides today's adolescents a glimpse at the life of the man hanging suspended in the water-filled torture cell. The book is an essential addition to secondary school libraries, and it would be an excellent text for interdisciplinary or social studies units.
KLIATT - Paula Rohrlick
Fleischman, the author of the Newbery Award winner The Whipping Boy and other books for young readers, is a magician himself, and he even knew Houdini's widow, so he's the perfect author for this entertaining biography of the famous escape artist. Illustrated with fascinating b/w period photos, the narrative traces the rise of young Ehrich Weiss, son of a rabbi, from obscurity to worldwide renown under the name Harry Houdini. With great relish, Fleischman relates how this "cocky," egotistical magician and showman extraordinaire took on all kinds of challenges—escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, ropes and trunks, swallowing needles, making an elephant disappear, and even being buried alive—and along the way exposed fake spiritualists. The author does his best to sort out the truth from the legends that surrounded the man, in lively prose that moves along briskly. An exemplary biography for YAs. (An ALA Best Book for YAs and a Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Book). Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick
School Library Journal
Gr 4-8-Fleischman looks at Houdini's life through his own eyes, as a fellow magician. Guarding the secrets, yet entertaining readers, he tells the "rags-to-rags" story of a poor Jewish boy named Ehrich Weiss, who longed to be like his idol, French magician Robert-Houdin. Not satisfied to perform the usual magicians' fare, he began perfecting tricks involving illusion, particularly escaping from restraints such as trunks, handcuffs, and straightjackets. While performing in small medicine shows and vaudeville theater, Ehrich, now Harry Houdini, met his wife and stage partner, Bess. Houdini learned stunt flying and how to make elephants disappear but gained the most attention from his public stunts, such as defying Scotland Yard to keep him locked up, or wrapping himself in chains and jumping into a river. Years later, he was about to perform his "Chinese Water Torture" trick when his appendix ruptured and he died in a local hospital. Fleischman's tone is lively and he develops a relationship with readers by revealing just enough truth behind Houdini's "razzle-dazzle" to keep the legend alive. Numerous black-and-white photographs chronicle the magician's life, and Fleischman's postscript shares his own relationship with Madame Houdini, whom he visited at length when he was a young man. Engaging and fascinating.-Vicki Reutter, Cazenovia High School, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It seems obvious that Fleischman, Newbery author of numerous novels involving magic, would write a biography about master magician Houdini, but it took decades before he was able to transport his personal connection and admiration into a book. Fleischman separates fiction from fact, discrepancies and contradictions of Houdini's life as skillfully as sawing a woman in half. What sets this biography apart from and above others is the author's personal involvement with his subject; it's a mesmerizing configuration of both lives. When Fleischman found a forgotten box of photos of the magician that Houdini's wife had personally given him, they ignited his curiosity-could he unveil the illusions of the great man? Cunning chapter titles, spacious format and the black-and-white photos that profile the man's unique mystique are tied together like a string of silk scarves spilling from a sleeve that fascinate, intrigue and amaze. What do you get when you put two prestidigitators, one a spellbinding escape artist, the other a magician with words, into a black hat and wave the wand? Abracadabra-a feat that's pure magic. (Biography. 9-14)

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


The Story of the Great Houdini
By Sid Fleischman

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Sid Fleischman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060850957

Chapter One

He Was Born, But Where?

Not long ago the breast pocket snipped from a man's pajamas came up for auction in New York City. Immediately, bids around the room erupted like doves flushed from cover. So eager was the crowd for this fragment of sleepwear that a lofty price of $3,910 was reached before the auctioneer banged his hammer and shouted, "Sold!"

Why would anyone want the pocket of an old pair of striped pajamas with the initials HH monogrammed in gray?

Easy. The first initial stood for Harry. The second for Houdini.

Harry Houdini, the world's greatest magician and escape artist. No jail cell, no chains, no manacles could hold the man.

Houdini, who walked through a red-brick wall! He came through without a scratch, too.

Houdini, who clapped his hands like cymbals and made a five-ton Asian elephant disappear into thin air. Not even the elephant knew how he did it.

Like those engaged in the ancient commerce in relics of saints, buying and selling a wrist bone here, a great toe there, today's magic collectors seek anything associated with the supernova of sorcery, the incomparable, the fabled Houdini--even a trivial scrap of flannel.

Thispowerfully built but diminutive young man was the most commanding wizard to burst upon the world scene since Merlin performed his parlor tricks during the misty days of King Arthur. Houdini could have sawed Merlin in half.

An abject failure as a magician in his early twenties, Houdini woke one morning, like the poet Lord Byron, to find himself famous.

A knockabout kid, the son of an impoverished rabbi, he insisted that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. An ambitious finger finger, he crowned himself King of Cards, with holes in his socks. Leaping onto a carousel horse at full gallop, he reached for the gold ring of stardom--and caught it. That, perhaps, was his greatest sleight-of-hand trick, as we shall see.

What exactly did he do that so excited the world's imagination? What razzle-dazzle fixed the name Houdini in the public memory so firmly that it is still remembered today, more than eighty years after his final disappearing act?

Watch him.

Tightly strapped and buckled into a canvas straitjacket designed to restrain the violently insane, he is being raised by his ankles to dangle like a fish from the cornice of a tall building. He wriggles free as adroitly as a moth emerges from a cocoon. The crowd cheers. Can nothing hold the great escape artist?

After recrowning himself the "King of Handcuffs," a defiant Houdini is being shackled at the wrists and ankles. He is quickly nailed inside a wooden packing case and thrown into the untidy waters of New York Harbor. Moments later, he splashes to the surface, rattling aloft the police jewelry.

He has escaped the inescapable. The skeptics are befuddled. The man must have supernatural powers!

Equally confounding is his trademark Indian Needle Trick. At the same time, the faux secrets were demeaning, for they dismissed the magician's hard-won sleight-of-hand skills and mastery of the arts of fooling the socks off people. Houdini was the grand guru of magic. He didn't need the unseen assistance of sprites, spirits, and imps.

It is said that you know you are truly famous when the deranged imagine that they are you.

Once Houdini's exploits blazed across newspaper headlines, the opportunists, the cunning, the nutcases, and the jealous emerged like theatrical chameleons. The imitators not only parted their hair in the middle, as did the escape artist, they mimicked his style of dress and his billing. There were more self-crowned Kings of Handcuffs before the footlights than in all the royal houses of Europe--half a hundred in England alone. To Harry's great annoyance, these pests tried to counterfeit his name, coming up with such worshipful thefts as Whodini, Oudini, and Hardini.

Women, too, tried to get into the act. Most nettlesome was a Miss Undina in Germany whose name, when pronounced, sounded close to the original. He had to sue to get her and her copycat tricks out of the escape business. And where a heavily manacled Houdini had had himself photographed in his underwear, an imitator named Miss Lincoln had herself photographed in a racy costume that could pass as knee-length bloomers. But not even the curves and black stockings of that distaff queen of handcuffs were a match for Harry's commanding footlight razzmatazz.

His strategy was to trump his imitators with ever more daring and death-defying feats of mystification. It was this battle for supremacy that inspired one of his most dangerous illusions--the awesome Milk Can Escape.

In earlier days, milk fresh from the cow was transported in large cans. Houdini had one made just large enough to hold him tightly folded in a fetal position. Buckets of water were poured into the can, followed by Houdini himself. Challenging his audience to hold its breath with him, the great showman lowered his head under water. The lid was secured with six padlocks, and a curtain was drawn around this impending death scene.

At thirty seconds the audience was gasping for breath. Sixty seconds passed. Tick, tick, tick. Two minutes! Had the escape gone wrong? Tick, tick, tick. Was Houdini drowning?

Assistants with axes stood ready to burst open the death can. At the last moment, just short of 180 seconds, out popped the master of escape, breathless, dripping wet, but very much alive.

He Jests at Handcuffs shouted a Los Angeles newspaper, while Houdini challenged the world to duplicate his escapes. But as the years passed, he could read his voluminous scrapbooks, and they were telling him that flinging off handcuffs was no longer making headlines.

While his name had become as recognizable as that of Napoleon, of Shakespeare, of Lincoln, the former carnival magician feared slipping back into obscurity. He understood that fame needed constant renewal, and he went at it with ingenuity and furious energy.


Excerpted from Escape! by Sid Fleischman Copyright © 2006 by Sid Fleischman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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