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HARRY HOUDINI, HIS LIFE-STORY—FAMOUS SPIRITUALIST LEADER WHO BECAME HIS FRIEND—ACCIDENT WHICH BROUGHT HIM A LIFE-PARTNER—EARLY STRUGGLES—ULTIMATE TRIUMPH AND PREMATURE DEATH
THIS is the story of one of the world's most remarkable men, Harry Houdini, genius, prince among professional deceivers, a wizard of our times.
Though of slight education, Houdini was richly gifted with personality and natural resourcefulness.
Beginning his professional career as a circus boy, he became a famous figure in a class of entertainment which he himself created.
From early youth he understood the lure of magic for the crowd and set out to establish himself as a maker of mysteries. In this he succeeded eminently. He was obsessed by magic, escapes and illusions. When a dying man he staggered through his last stage performance in defiance of his doctors and friends who watched anxiously from behind the scenes. He collapsed at the end of the performance and was carried to hospital never to return to that stage which had been the centre of his life.
It may be said, above all things of Houdini, that he cast out fear. Possessed of wonderful physique and an extraordinarily quick mind, he defied the efforts of experts in almost every part of the world to devise a restraint from which he could not free himself. He escaped from iron boxes, paper bags, bank safes and from packing-cases in which, handcuffed, he was thrown into the sea. Buried in a coffin six feet below the surface of the earth, he emerged smiling an hour later from his living grave.
"My chief task," he once said, "has been to conquer fear. When I am stripped and manacled, nailed securely within a weighted packing-case, and thrown into the sea, or when I am buried alive under six feet of earth, it is necessary to preserve absolute serenity of spirit. I have to work with great delicacy and lightning speed. If I grow panicky I am lost. And if something goes wrong; if there is some slight accident or mishap, some slight miscalculation, I am lost unless all my faculties are free from mental tension or strain. The public see only the accomplished trick; they have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training that was necessary to conquer fear. Another secret of mine is that by equally vigorous self-training I have been enabled to do remarkable things with my body. I make not one muscle or a group of muscles but every muscle a respective worker, quick and sure for its part, to make my fingers super-fingers, in dexterity, and to train my toes to do the work of fingers."
A remarkable fact about Houdini's career as a magician was that his secrets were preserved with such completeness. Although his performances were seen by many hundreds of thousands of people in different continents, few among all the public could tell how he performed even one of his wonders. The only explanation that the average man can offer is that Houdini was able to contract his wrists.
I am afraid that the ability to contract his wrists does not go far to explain his escape from a steel safe, an iron boiler, a sealed sack or from that type of handcuffs fitted with ratchets so that they can be fastened to the wrists with the tightness of a vice.
Houdini's physical strength and dexterity formed only one part of his methods of escape. Added to that was his extensive knowledge of locks and other forms of restraints. But, above all, he owed his distinctive success to his natural capacity for deception. He had the mental agility of ten men and his mind never slept.
His achievements caused such wonderment among mankind that many attributed to him super-normal power.
Among these was the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who once wrote to Houdini, "My dear chap, why go round the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? Mrs. Guppy could dematerialise, and so could many folk in Holy Writ, and I do honestly believe that you can also. My reason tells me that you have this wonderful power though I have no doubt that, up to a point, your strength and skill avail you."
In spite of their acute differences of opinion concerning spiritualism, Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remained good friends until the end, although the creator of Sherlock Holmes held firmly to his belief that Houdini was a medium who was using his psychic powers to make a fortune.
Shortly before his death Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an article for a magazine in which he set out to explain the mystery of Houdini by asserting that he was in reality a great medium. This article was shown by Sir Arthur to my friend Will Goldston, founder of the Magicians' Club, and one of the few people who have known the secrets of Houdini, for he was in the confidence of the magician. Mr. Goldston is a spiritualist, but after reading the article he advised Sir Arthur not to publish it in that form because the conception of Houdini which it contained was entirely erroneous. I believe that Sir Arthur was ultimately prevailed upon to modify the article.
Another prominent spiritualist who held similar views concerning the work of Houdini is Mr. J. H. McKenzie, President of the British College of Psychical Science. He wrote: "Houdini ... is enabled by psychic power (though this he does not advertise) to open any lock, handcuff or bolt that is submitted to him. He has been imprisoned within heavily barred cells, double and treble locked, and from them all he escaped with ease. This ability to unbolt locked doors is undoubtedly due to his mediumistic powers and not to any normal mechanical operation on the lock. The effort necessary to shoot a bolt within a lock is drawn from Houdini the medium, but it must not be thought that this is the only means by which he can escape from his prison, for at times his body can be ... dematerialised and withdrawn."
Houdini was usually annoyed by such assertions, which placed him in a slightly embarrassing position, for he could not dispute the words of the spiritualist without revealing exactly how he made his escapes, and that, of course, was impossible. He once wrote: "I do claim to free myself from the restraint of fetters and confinement, but positively state that I accomplish my performance purely by physical means. My methods are perfectly natural. I do not dematerialise or materialise anything. I simply control and manipulate material things in a manner perfectly well understood by myself and thoroughly accountable for by any person to whom I may elect to divulge my secrets."
During one of his visits to England the magician made a particularly smart escape from a packing-case and after this feat had been reported in the Press, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sent a long telegram to Houdini declaring that, for his own good, he should acknowledge his wonderful occult power. "You should get your proofs soon," telegraphed Sir Arthur, "unless all proofs and all higher personal development are cut off from you, because you are not playing the game with that which has been given to you already. This is a point of view to consider. Such a gift is not given to one man in 100 million that he should amuse the multitude or amass a fortune. Excuse my frank talking, but you know this is all very vital to me."
I have much respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was in every way a fine man, utterly sincere in his work as a crusader for spiritualism. As a journalist I had the opportunity of talking with him on several occasions, but I am afraid I must say quite frankly that this telegram which he sent to Houdini shows that his enthusiasm for a cause got the better of his judgment. Had he been faced with the mystery of the escape from a packing-case, Sherlock Holmes, keen and cautious, would not have jumped impulsively to such a theory.
He would have said to himself, "Is it possible for a man to escape by trickery from a packing-case in which he has been secured?" Moreover, Sherlock Holmes would have demanded, first of all, to know everything about the packing-case; the manner in which Houdini was secured in it; the length of time required for the escape and other vital details. Sir Arthur often talked about the necessity for procuring the correct" conditions" in which a medium can work. Like every spiritualist he declared that even the attitude of the sitters was important, so delicate a thing was communication between the living and the dead. He defended the darkness of the séance room, pointing out that it was a necessary condition, a kind of law over which neither the spirits nor the mediums had any more control than has a photographer who must develop his plates in the dark.
Yet Sir Arthur was eager to believe that Houdini could, in the full glare of footlights, and in the presence of two or three thousand people, reproduce twice nightly, to order, manifestations which would have been astonishing even under the best séance conditions. Apparently, Sir Arthur had little or no knowledge of the principles of magic nor of the possibilities of organised illusion.
In all his life's work he did not, I think, go more sadly astray than in forming this conception of Houdini.
There is no doubt that Houdini, particularly after he lost his mother, to whom he was passionately devoted, was eager to discover if there was any truth in spiritualism. He tried hard to obtain some communication from her and after each series of failures he used to stand at his mother's grave, and say aloud : "I have heard nothing yet." Lady Doyle, an admirable and charming woman, possessed, it is claimed, some powers as a medium and during one of her visits to America, Houdini sat at a private séance over which she presided.
This is how Houdini describes the experience: "I walked with Sir Arthur to the Doyles' suite. He drew down the shades so as to exclude the bright light. We three, Lady Doyle, Sir Arthur and I, sat around the table, on which were a number of pencils and a writing pad, placing our hands on the surface of the table. Sir Arthur started the séance with a devout prayer. I had made up my mind that I would be as religious as was in my power to be and not at any time did I scoff at the ceremony. I excluded all earthly thoughts and gave my whole soul to the séance. I was willing to believe, even wanted to believe and with a beating heart I waited, hoping that I might feel once more the presence of my beloved mother.
"Presently Lady Doyle was 'seized by a spirit' ... her hands beat on the table, her whole body shook and at last, making a cross at the head of the page, she started writing. As she finished each page, Sir Arthur tore a sheet off and handed it to me."
The message purporting to come from his mother which Houdini read, was : "O my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I am through. I have tried, oh ! so often, now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy—my own beloved boy. Friends, I thank you with all my heart for this, you have answered the cry of my heart and of his—God bless him a thousand-fold for all his life for me—never had a mother such a son—tell him not to grieve—soon he will get all the evidence he is so anxious for. Happiness awaits him that he has never dreamed of—tell him I am with him—and just tell him that I will soon make him know how close I am all the while—his eyes will soon be opened. Good-bye again—God's blessing on you all."
At the end of the séance, Houdini, who knew of Lady Doyle's great sincerity, appeared so sympathetic, that the Doyles were almost convinced that they had set him on the road towards belief, but in his heart he was thoroughly disappointed at what he regarded as a vague and meaningless message, just a collection of pious platitudes. Houdini, the magician, the man with an ultra-shrewd mind, could not accept such a message as evidential or important. In life Houdini's mother spoke only a few words of English; her native tongue being Yiddish, she always spoke to him in this dialect.
He could not accept the belief that in death she would speak to him in English, nor did Sir Arthur's assertion that the spirits could use any language they chose reconcile him.
Houdini was unbelieving, too, because, although the date of the séance happened to be his mother's birthday, she made no reference to this fact. Not one of the intimate phrases with which she was used to address him, it was later pointed out by Houdini, was used by the spirit of his mother. I think that this failure to get into communication with her embittered him against spiritualism. Towards the end of his life, he waged a relentless crusade against the mediums at séances which he knew to be bogus, dragging the medium before the police courts. He lectured against them and on the stage produced mock séances in which he showed the public the possibilities of trickery on the part of mediums.
I describe in detail in another chapter the methods of psychic frauds as revealed by Houdini. The effects produced at some of Houdini's "séances" were brilliant, and had he claimed the possession of genuine psychic powers he would have made a fortune.
I agree most earnestly with Mr. Harold Kellock, friend of the magician, when he said: "Had Houdini put his abilities to evil uses he would undoubtedly have been the greatest individual menace ever known.
"He could enter or leave any building or chamber at will, leaving no trace of breakage behind him, and he could open the strongest steel vault. He could solve any lock system in a few minutes and pass through the most elaborate door. Had he chosen the crooked path, society would have been compelled to put him to death for its own protection, for nothing short of the capital penalty would have served.
"Doubtless Houdini would have wrought even greater havoc in human society had he perfected his genius for illusion to make himself the central figure of a new religious cult. He could have done this without difficulty. Moreover, he was aware of what he could accomplish in setting himself up as the inspired prophet of a new mystical religion."
When Houdini was a baby his mother's chief anxiety was that he slept so little. A keen-eyed child, he was always staring at the walls and ceiling.
His first exploit as a lock-picker was directed on a cupboard where his mother kept her jam tarts. A number of these disappeared mysteriously, although the cupboard was always kept locked. The boy Houdini had discovered means of opening the cupboard, stealing two or three jam tarts, afterwards leaving the cupboard exactly as he had found it. He continued this for some time, then his mother, much puzzled, added a padlock to the cupboard. This made no difference and the pastry continued to disappear until the boy was once caught in the act.
He never lost his fondness for pastry and in later years delighted to extract cakes from his wife's cupboard by the same method he had employed as a boy to help himself to his mother's pastry. More than once his wife found the cupboard empty although locked, with Houdini's visiting card on one of the plates.
The son of Dr. Mayer Samuel Weiss, a Jewish Rabbi, Houdini was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, U.S.A., on April 6, 1874. He died in Detroit on October 81, 1926, at the age of fifty-two, when he had been a performer for forty-three years. His real name was Ehrich Weiss. Houdini's family came from Hungary.
As a boy he was restless and eager, showing distinct signs of those tendencies, the development of which was to make him famous.
At the age of six, Houdini's hobby was conjuring. The first trick he learned was making a dried pea appear in any one of three cups. Possessed of a fine body he practised acrobatics and at the age of seven was astonishingly agile, outdoing most of the boys with whom he played. His family were not well-to-do, and the boy did odd jobs as a newspaper seller and boot-black.
The arrival of a circus in his native town when he was nine was an important turning-point in Houdini's life. He persuaded the manager of the circus to let him show his repertoire of tricks. The man was astonished at the boy's cleverness in releasing himself from rope ties and picking up pins with his eyelids when suspended head downwards from a rope; the result was that the lad was given an engagement which lasted during the stay of the circus in the town, but in spite of his pleas Ehrich's father refused to allow him to go off with the circus.
When eleven years old, the boy Weiss obtained a job at the local locksmith's and was soon able to pick any lock submitted to him. As the locksmith gave up his business shortly afterwards, Houdini returned to blacking boots and selling newspapers, and later obtained work as a necktie cutter, at which he was employed two years, distinguishing himself in his spare time as an athlete.
His mind was set on being a magician for he had already achieved considerable fame locally by his performances at concerts. It was a book, a memoir of Robert Houdin, which finally decided Ehrich Weiss to become a professional entertainer. In the book the famous French magician described conjuring and some secret codes for tricks with a few coins. When he had finished reading it, young Weiss was in a state of excitement, and made up his mind at once. With a friend named Hayman he started as a professional entertainer and the pair were known as the Houdini Brothers. The name was an adaptation, by the addition of "i" to the name of the French magician.
Excerpted from THE SECRETS OF HOUDINI by J.C. CANNELL. Copyright © 1973 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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