Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Great Houdini: Escape Artist

My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business.
Harry Houdini

I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That's what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the "human fly" who scales the walls of the same building.
Harry Houdini,
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini‎ (1993)
by Ruth Brandon, p. 153

He had the essential masculine quality of courage to a supreme degree. Nobody has ever done and nobody in all human probability will ever do such reckless feats of daring. His whole life was one long succession of them.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
in The Strand Magazine (August 1927): Vol. 74, p. 134

Harry Houdini [1874-1926] A full-length portrait, taken in 1899,  Houdini stands facing front, bound in chains. The public has long been fascinated by persons who can escape from "certain death." Houdini established himself as the world's most known known escape artist.
Source: Wikipedia
There is something about escape artists that appeal to our sense of freedom. And persons who can perform daring feats, escaping from imposed prisons, are looked at as impressive figures, as supermen. There are a number of such personages today, but one of the first to become famous was Harry Houdini, a man whose exploits as an escape artist and performer captured the imagination of the world a hundred years ago.

Houdini stood five-foot five and had dark wavy hair. He was initially known as Erich Weiss, but eventually used the stage name Harry Houdini, naming himself after a famous French magician. He was famous for such stunts as handcuff escape, buried alive escape, straightjacket escape, Chinese water torture cell escape, and the underwater box escape. He also was a film actor and a noted skeptic who used his fame to expose spiritualists and fortune tellers as frauds.

He was without a doubt an entertainer and performer rolled into one. But he was also a man who strongly supported science. He was a member of Scientific American's Committee that offered a cash prize of $10,000 to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were successful. Houdini's strong views against superstition and spiritualism cost him his friendship with, but not admiration of, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the noted British writer of Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Wikipedia says:
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.
His Early Life

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz to Mayer Samuel Weisz and Cecilia Weisz (nee Steiner)  in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874, the middle child of seven children. When he was four years old, his family moved to America, sailing into New York City on the S.S. Fresia on July 3, 1878. The family changed the Hungarian spelling of their German surname into Weiss, a German spelling, and Erik's name was likewise changed to Ehrich. The Weiss family first lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as pulpit rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation, where his annual salary was $750. In 1882, Rabbi Weiss became an American citizen.

In 1887 he lost his position of pulpit rabbi, when members of the congregation considered his view on religion antiquated, out of step with modernity. Accordingly, Rabbi Weiss moved his family to New York City. Weiss' childhood was spent in poverty, and his desire was to escape poverty. But not through traditional means. At age nine, he billed himself as a trapeze artist, "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air."  He started his magic career in 1891, a year before his father died of cancer on October 5, 1892. Rabbi Weiss was 63. By then, Erich Weiss had started calling himself Harry Houdini and performing magic tricks. (Although it was only in 1913 that he legally changed his name to "Harry Houdini.")

His entry into the world of magic, at age 17, came when he had viewed a traveling magician, the site, MagicTricks says:
Houdini became fascinated with magic as a young boy after seeing Dr. Lynn, a traveling magician, perform the Linking Rings trick. He did not, as legend has it, run away with a circus, nor was he an apprentice to a locksmith. In reality, he turned to magic at age 17 as an alternative to factory work. He teamed up with Jack Hayman, a fellow magic enthusiast, to form the Houdini Brothers. (The name "Houdini" was used in tribute to Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the most famous magician of the era). The team's specialty was the Crate Escape. When Hayman became bored, Houdini's brother Theodore (later known as Hardeen) became his partner. Shortly, Hardeen was replaced by Bess Rahner, the woman who became Houdini's partner both in the act and in his life.
Erich Weiss and Bess (Wilhelmina) Rahner married in 1893, both under 20 years of age, and from different religious backgrounds: he a Jew and she a Catholic. They had no children. They struggled together for six years, until a big break happened in 1899 when Martin Beck, a theater manager, saw him perform a handcuff act. As the PBS newssite says: "Theater manager Martin Beck sees his handcuff act in St. Paul, [Minnesota] and wires several days later: 'You can open Omaha March 26 sixty dollars, will see act probably make you proposition for all next season.' "

Within months, Beck's management skills at promotion had Houdini greatly in demand at the top vaudeville houses across the country. Houdini was now called the "King of Handcuffs" for his ability to escape from shackles. Any and all shackles.

Houdini the Film Actor:  Poster for the movie serial, The Master Mystery (1920), where Houdini played Quentin Locke, an agent for the U.S. Justice Department. In 1918 Houdini had signed a contract with B.A. Rolfe, a film producer, to star in the 15-part serial.
Credit: B.A. Rolfe Productions
Source: Wikipedia
Becoming a Top Vaudeville Act

One of his most famous escapes, which solidified Houdini's reputation as an escape artist took place in London's Hippodrome, where he managed to extricate himself from a "Mirror Cuff" in 1904, the PBS news-site put it:
It had taken a Birmingham blacksmith five years to build the cuffs, which featured an impossible-to-pick set of nesting Bramah locks. The challenge is big news in the press for weeks. After an hour-long struggle, Houdini emerges free from the cuffs and is carried away in triumph by the adoring crowd. 
By then he had become internationally recognized, earning top dollar as an escape artist. When he returned to America, in 1905, one of the first things that Houdini did was buy an elegant brownstone for $25,000 at 278 W. 113th Street in fashionable Harlem in New York City. Besides he and his wife, his mother, sister, and two brothers moved into the house, which would serve as Houdini’s home base for years. He performed many publicity stunts. Among them was his escape from the prison cell that held the assassin of President James Garfield.

In 1912, when Houdini performed his underwater box escape in New York's East River before a huge crowd, "Scientific American" magazine says it's "one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed." Houdini was close to his mother. So much so that in 1913, when his mother died at age 71, Houdini, who was performing in Copenhagen, fainted when given the news. " My mother was everything to me,” he said in a speech to the Magician’s Club. “It seemed the end of the world when she was taken from me…All desire for fame and fortune had gone from me. I was alone with my bitter agony…”

But he pressed forward. One of his duties, so to speak, was exposing frauds, The New York Times reported in an article from March 23, 1969, on Houdini:
During the golden age of vaudeville, from 1905 to 1925, he was a headliner. More than that, he got more newspaper space than any American entertainer before or since. And when people got bored with his escapes, Houdini began exposing spiritualist mediums, who were in vogue after World War I.
The Last Act

His last show took place at Detroit's Garrick Theater on October 24, 1926. He went on stage, despite having a fever of 40°C (104°F) and a diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Although he  passed out during the show, Houdini was revived and continued to perform. After the show, he was brought to the hospital. Harry Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at Detroit's Grace Hospital on October 31, 1926. He was 52. He has been suffering from appendicitis for several days and had refused treatment.

His funeral took place on November 4, 1926, before more than 2,000 persons. Houdini was interred at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, with the crest of the Society of American Magicians inscribed on his grave-site. His widow, Bess, died in Needles, California, on February 11, 1943. She was 67. They were not buried together, since her family refused her wish and that of her husband that they be buried together at a Jewish cemetery. She was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester, New York.

Houdini and his wife, Bess: Legend has it that Houdini, who doubted spiritualism and mediums, shared a secret codeword with Bess 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.” It never happened.
Photographer: St. Louis Smith, McManus Young Collection: 1922
Source: Wikipedia