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This Week in History: Houdini

This Week in History: Houdini

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Harry Houdini is still known today as history's most famous magician, but there was a time when his act needed to be rescued from the dead.

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini ( / h uː ˈ d iː n i / born Erik Weisz, later known as Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American escape artist, illusionist, stunt performer and mysteriarch, noted for his escape acts. [3]

He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the United States and then as "Harry 'Handcuff' Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London's Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, emerging in a state of near-breakdown. While many suspected that these escapes were faked, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. He was also quick to sue anyone who imitated his escape stunts.

Houdini made several movies but quit acting when it failed to bring in money. He was also a keen aviator and aimed to become the first man to fly a powered aircraft in Australia.


Having visited the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in 1980, I was honored to have a received a copy from David. The many documents and photographs (including the WTC) are truly amazing. And the story of how his father found out and ultimately purchased the Houdini collection is fascinating. Love it!

Cannot wait to read the book! For anyone who didn't get to see the museum, I videotaped most of the interior (when I was 11, so please be kind). The year before it burned down:

Nice video OT! The photo of the front entrance reminds me of the photo of Randi's suspended straitjacket escape at the opening of the museum.

I received the book yesterday. The stories are great and it has a lot of interesting information for the Houdini enthusiast. Thank you so much David!

Making our mark on the outdoor industry

The first collection i 1993 was made by a local seamstress in Vällingby outside Stockholm, but already for the second collection she had to find a production partner with bigger capacity. Functional wear with a stylish, minimalistic look was something new at the time. The success came quickly. A company run by a woman was also something that stood out in the outdoor business that was, and to a great extent still is, run by men.

Now, over 25 years later, Lotta is still a part owner of Houdini, but she is no longer a part of the daily operations.

— Houdini was founded because I needed clothes that didn’t exist, Lotta remembers. I am very proud of what I did achieve and to see how Houdini is evolving. Especially for the sustainability work that lies at the heart of everything that Houdini does.

Houdini’s history is characterized by a constant will to shake things up. We are inspired by Lotta’s determination, creativity and will to drive innovation. We want to create better products, challenge existing norms and change the things we don’t believe in. That’s when we are at our best.


Advancement in conjuring is mainly to be measured in the improved manner of achieving the limited number of effects possible to the art. These are, chiefly, apparent creation destruction and restoration disappearance (“evanishment”) surprising transformations substitutions transportation (“apporting”) and similar acts seemingly done in defiance of natural laws.

The decapitation act (involving the apparent severance of the left arm, left leg or head of a man), introduced by Dr. Lynn in 1874 under the title of “Palingenesia,” was revived, and a variation presented in the form of “sawing a woman in half.” The effects depend on optical illusions and mechanical principles cleverly utilised. Among acts done in apparent defiance of the law of gravitation is that known as “Asrah,” which involves the disappearance of a floating form and its reappearance.

In ‘Houdini,’ Adrien Brody wants to ‘convey the truth of an illusion’

NEW YORK — Over a colorful career that’s included an Oscar win for a Roman Polanski film, collaborations with unconventional directors such as Rian Johnson and Wes Anderson and — of course — that Halle Berry kiss seen ‘round the world, Adrien Brody has pulled rabbits out of many hats.

On Monday he will attempt one of his most interesting‎ tricks, debuting as Harry Houdini in “Houdini,” the History Channel’s two-night miniseries about the legendary escape artist. “Houdini” offers the challenge of portraying an icon in all his complexity — of playing on the small screen, really, one of the entertainment world’s most larger-than-life figures.

“I wanted to convey the truth of an illusion, an understanding of the man, the complexity of the motivations behind him, the youthful sincerity he possessed and the cynical exhausted state that he subjected himself to,” Brody said of his approach to the role. “And make the magic tricks work.”

Born Erik Weisz ‎in Budapest, Hungary, before immigrating with his family to Appleton, Wis., the boy who would become Harry Houdini was not a simple figure, in love with illusions and attention equally and willing to undertake risky acts to pursue them both. After early struggles, he found success in the U.S. and Europe with improbable escapes. When audiences tired of the novelty he moved on to increasingly dangerous feats — plunging off bridges into icy water, for instance.

Written by Nicholas Meyer and executive produced by the TV veteran Gerald W. Abrams (“Nuremberg”), “Houdini” packs in plenty about its subject’s life over four hours. (The last half will debut Tuesday.) Shot in Budapest, the miniseries covers Houdini’s invention as a magician upon leaving home, a fraught relationship with wife and assistant Bess (Kristen Connolly), a battle against spiritualists with whom he strongly disagreed and even his (not quite historically accurate) recruitment into Western espionage circles in the days leading to World War I. A disclaimer at the start of the miniseries offers that what we’re about to see is a mix of fact and fiction, and producers “defy you to tell the difference.”

“I wanted to do justice to the spectacular character of this man’s life while at the same time feathering in some attempts to psychologically interpret what his motives were,” said Meyer, who counts a diverse roster of movies including “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” and “The Seven-Percent Solution” among his credits.

A lot of those motives, Meyer’s script suggests, had to do with Houdini’s father, a failed rabbi who died young and whose disappointing life fueled his son’s need for success and adoration. Those elements came from research conducted by Meyer’s late father, whose book on the subject Meyer relied on and that History Channel bought as source material.

There is also a strong element of the first modern celebrity in Houdini, who understood marketing and self-promotion in ways that seem‎ eerily prescient.

“This,” Abrams said, “is really the story of America,”

He added that he wanted the full effect of the tricks to come across (director Uli Edel shows classics like the milk-can escape in intimate and revealing detail), even visiting a shop of Houdini paraphernalia near downtown Los Angeles to better understand the tricks.

Brody said those feats of magic resonated with him too. By now the story of him as “The Amazing Adrien,” a persona he invented in his childhood as he performed magic tricks for family, is well told, and, he said, indeed spurred his interest to take his first major television role.

But there were other aspects that appealed, he said. After winning the lead actor Oscar for 2002’s “The Pianist,” when he planted that kiss on Berry, Brody has sometimes baffled fans and Hollywood with choices in indie dramas and other genres well outside the mainstream. But he said he saw in Houdini’s own tricks — particularly the death-defying ones — an echo of his own process.

“There are a lot of reasons to be safe as an entertainer. It helps you avoid the risk of not making a blunder,” he said as he nursed an iced tea in a downtown hotel in New York, the city where as a child he first practiced those tricks as the Amazing Adrien and where Houdini also made an early mark‎. “That’s especially true when you reach a certain level of visibility and you can be easily knocked for a misstep. But taking a risk is the best way to stumble on to something interesting.”

Houdini has enjoyed a pop-cultural renaissance of sorts lately. Johnny Depp is attached to star in a planned feature film, and a Broadway show is in the works.

Some of the popularity may stem from how different Houdini’s brand of entertainment seems from that of the modern era. Houdini created spectacular illusions in ways that were practical and immediate, a contrast to a modern moment when most dazzling effects are created by people huddling over computers in dark rooms.

But Brody’s costars — Connolly and Evan Jones, who plays assistant Jim Collins, a composite character — said ‎ Houdini also fits snugly into this era.

“He was a global celebrity in a time before television, before Twitter, before any of that stuff, which is astonishing,” Connolly said.

Added Jones‎: “He was such a rock star in a time before rock stars. When you dig into it you realize that Houdini is really where modern performance comes from.”

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Steven Zeitchik is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer who covered film and the larger world of Hollywood for the paper from 2009 to 2017, exploring the personalities, issues, content and consequences of both the creative and business (and, increasingly, digital) aspects of our screen entertainment. He previously covered entertainment beats at Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, has contributed arts and culture pieces to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times and has done journalistic tours of duty in Jerusalem and Berlin. While at The Times he has also reported stories in cities ranging from Cairo to Krakow, though Hollywood can still seem like the most exotic destination of all.

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Hodgson versus Houdini

Work this week has had me scouring the Internet Archive’s scanned books more than usual for source material. You’ll see the fruits of this in due course but the search turned up a small book from 1922, The Adventurous Life of a Versatile Artist: Houdini, an anonymous account of the escapologist’s career padded out with many newspaper reports of his exploits in various cities. One of these is the notorious meeting between Houdini and writer William Hope Hodgson on the stage of the Palace Theatre, Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1902. Hodgson was still running his School of Physical Culture in the town at this time, and was otherwise unknown he only began writing the weird fantasy for which he’s celebrated when the school failed and he needed to earn a living some other way.

The following account has been reprinted often enough in collections of Hodgson ephemera but this is the first time I’ve seen it in a Houdini book. Houdini was a hero of mine when I was 12 or 13, not so much for his escapology but for his magic tricks. I had an obsession with stage magic for a while, and had read and re-read JC Cannell’s The Secrets of Houdini (1932) which exposed for the first time the workings of Houdini’s tricks and many of his escape acts. It was a surprise after finding Hodgson’s work to read about the Houdini encounter. Strangest of all is that Hodgson’s books were later championed by HP Lovecraft who ghost-wrote Under the Pyramids (aka Entombed with the Pharaohs or Imprisoned with the Pharaohs) for Houdini, a story published in Weird Tales in 1924. I’ve wondered for years whether Houdini or Lovecraft were aware of this connection. Probably not. Hodgson in 1902 was unknown and Houdini’s career and fame were such he would have been far too busy to dwell on the matter or care what happened to the diminutive bodybuilder who treated him so badly that evening.


Star, Blackburn, England, Saturday, Oct. 25, 1902.

Unparalleled Scenes at the Palace Theatre.

Never in the history of Blackburn or music hall life has there been witnessed so remarkable a scene as occurred last night. Houdini, the Handcuff King, and Mr. Hodgson, principal of the School of Physical Culture, provided a big sensation for the patrons of the Palace Theatre, Blackburn.

Houdini, who has been appearing at the Palace during the week, claims to be able to release himself from any of the regulation shackles or irons used by the police of Europe or America, and offered nightly to forfeit £25 if he failed to prove his claim. Mr. Hodgson, of the Physical Culture School, Blackburn,took up the challenge, stipulating that he was to use his own irons and fix them himself. Houdini consented, and deposit the £25 with the editor of the Daily Star.

The trial of skill and strength was fixed to take place last night, and the crowd which came together to witness it crammed the theatre literally from floor to ceiling — even standing room being ultimately unobtainable.

Shortly after ten o’clock the parties to the challenge faced each other, and excitement at once became intense.

Mr. Hodgson produced 6 pairs of heavy irons, furnished with clanking chains and swinging padlocks. These were carefully examined by Houdini, who raised some disappointment and much sympathetic cheering by stating that his claim was that he could escape from “regulation” irons. The “cuffs ” brought by Mr. Hodgson, he said, had been tampered with — the iron being wrapped round with string, the locks altered, and various other expedients adopted to render escape more difficult.

Mr. Hodgson’s answer, given dramatically from the stage,was that he stipulated that he should bring his own irons.

Houdini again protested that Mr. Hodgson was going beyond the challenge, but added that he was quite willing to go on, if only the audience would give him a little time in which to deal with the extra difficulties.

This announcement was greeted with great cheering, and the work of pinioning proceeded.

First, Mr. Hodgson, with the aid of a companion, fixed a pair of irons over Houdini’s upper arm, passing the chain behind his back and pulling it tight, and fixing the elbows close to the sides.

To make assurance doubly sure, he fixed another pair in the same way, and padlocked both behind.

Then, starting with the wrists, he fixed a pair of chained “cuffs” so that the arms, already pulled stiffly behind, were now pulled forward. The pulling and tugging at this stage was so severe — the strong man exercising his strength to some purpose — that Houdini protested that it was no part of the challenge that his arms should be broken.

He also reminded Mr. Hodgson that he was to fix the irons himself.

This led to Mr. Hodgson’s assistant retiring.

Proceeding, Mr. Hodgson fixed a second pair of “cuffs” on the wrists and padlocked both securely, Houdini’s arms being then trussed to his side so securely that escape seemed absolutely impossible.

Still Mr. Hodgson was not finished with him.

Getting Houdini to kneel down, he passed the chain of a pair of heavy leg irons through the chains which bound the arms together at the back. These were fixed to the ankles,and after a second pair had been added, both were locked,and Houdini now seemed absolutely helpless.

A canopy being placed over Houdini in the middle of the stage, the waiting began, and excitement grew visibly every minute.

Meanwhile Mr. Hodgson and others kept strict watch on the movements of Houdini’s wife and brother (Hardeen), who were both on the stage.

At the end of about 15 minutes the canopy was lifted and Houdini was revealed lying on his side, still securely bound.It was at first thought he had fainted, but he soon made it known that all he wished was to be lifted up. This Mr. Hodgson refused to do, at which the now madly excited audience hissed and ” booed ” him for his unfair treatment, and Hardeen lifted his brother to his knees. The curtain of the cabinet was again closed.

Another 20 minutes passed, and again the curtain was lifted. This time Houdini said his arms were bloodless and numb owing to the pressure of the irons, and asked to have them unlocked for a minute so that the circulation could be restored.

Mr. Hodgson’s reply, given amidst howls, was: “This is a contest, not a love match. If you are beaten, give in.”

Great shouting and excited calling followed, which was renewed when Dr. Bradley, after examining Houdini, said his arms were blue, and it was cruelty to keep him chained up as he was any longer.

Still Mr. Hodgson was obdurate, and the struggle proceeded, Houdini again appealing for time.

Fifteen minutes more: Houdini appeared and announced that one hand was free.

This was the signal for terrific cheering, which was continued after the canopy was dropped.

At intervals Houdini now appeared, and announced further progress in his escape and when, shortly after midnight, he came out with torn clothing and bleeding arms, and threw the last of the shackles on the stage, the vast audience stood up and cheered and cheered, and yelled themselves hoarse to give vent to their overwrought feelings. Men and women hugged each other in mad excitement. Hats, coats, and umbrellas were thrown up into the air, and pandemonium reigned supreme for 15 minutes.

Houdini, when quietness had been restored, said he had been doing the handcuff trick now for 14 years, but never had he been subjected to such brutality as that to which his bleeding arms and wrists gave witness.

When Houdini again obtained a hearing, it was to state that, not only had the irons been altered, but the locks had been plugged.

It was well after midnight when the huge audience left the theatre, and broke up into excited, gesticulating groups.

Houdini’s Big Break

With no other prospects, the Houdinis went back to performing with the Welsh Brothers Traveling Circus. While performing in Chicago in 1899, Houdini once again performed his police station stunt of escaping handcuffs, but this time it was different.

Houdini had been invited into a room full of 200 people, mostly policemen, and spent 45 minutes shocking everyone in the room as he escaped from everything the police had. The following day, The Chicago Journal ran the headline “Amazes the Detectives” with a large drawing of Houdini.

The publicity surrounding Houdini and his handcuff act caught the eye of Martin Beck, the head of the Orpheum theater circuit, who signed him for a one-year contract. Houdini was to perform the handcuff escape act and Metamorphosis at the classy Orpheum theaters in Omaha, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco. Houdini was finally rising from obscurity and into the spotlight.


In 1912 Harry Houdini was lowered into New York’s East River in a crate wrapped in chains. The crowd of spectators gasped reporters pulled out their stopwatches. Houdini was out in less than a minute. The resulting media blitz was just one of the spectacles that forever established Houdini as "The World’s Greatest Escape Artist."

Throughout his rise from Hungarian immigrant to international star, Houdini confronted our greatest fears-entrapment, pain, death-and emerged victorious. He was the premier showman of the century–and a man haunted by doubts, obsessions, and his own mortality.

In this presentation of Houdini, produced by Nancy Porter ("Alone on the Ice," "The Wright Stuff," "Amelia Earhart") and Beth Tierney, Houdini’s greatest escapes are brought to life through archival footage, dramatic recreations performed by professional escape artist Bob Fellows -- one of the few able to perform the difficult Water Torture Cell escape -- and on-camera interviews with illusionist David Copperfield investigator of psychic claims James Randi escape artist David De-Val writers E. L.Doctorow and Ken Silverman and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who, as a child, saw Houdini perform in New York’s Palace Theater in the 1920s. Mandy Patinkin narrates.

"Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried," says Copperfield. "Houdini takes all those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from."

After years of performing with his wife, Bess, in circuses, traveling medicine shows, and dime museums -- the lowest branches of show business -- Houdini began to wow the crowds on the vaudeville circuit with his handcuff escapes. His fame grew. In 1900 Harry and Bess toured England and Europe. He publicized his appearances by convincing the local police to lock him up, then breaking out of the cell -- in the nude. At his performances, hundreds were turned away on stage, the short, muscular star created a frenzy with his daring stunts.

After five years on the road, Houdini, now an international celebrity, was worn down. He bought an elegant brownstone in a fashionable part of Harlem and moved in with Bess–and his widowed mother. "Houdini was really twice married," notes biographer Ken Silverman. "He was married to Bess, and then in a way also married to his mother. He always called them ‘my two girls.’"

Harry promised to slow down, but he couldn’t. In 1908 he offered $1,000 to anyone with a device that could hold him. His open challenge attracted the makers of packing cases, pianos, roll-top desks -- even a huge envelope.

Every escape carried some risk, and each performance took a physical toll. "Houdini broke, injured, sprained almost everything," says Silverman. "One of the worst times was in Pittsburgh. He had some longshoreman come up on stage and tie him tightly. They pulled so hard that they ruptured his kidney."

Houdini took his act outdoors, performing ever more dangerous water escapes. He trained by submerging himself in an icy bathtub, holding his breath while Bess timed him -- up to three minutes. Then he learned that his famous Milk Can Escape was being copied and sold to imitators for $35. Furious, Houdini retaliated by introducing what he described as "the climax of all my labors -- the Chinese Water Torture Cell." He would hang by his ankles in a tank full of water, with the lid padlocked. A curtain was drawn, the band played "Asleep in the Deep" -- then, agonizing minutes later, Houdini would emerge, breathless and sodden, to take his bow. "He was so insanely devoted to what he was doing and so disciplined that the ultimate insanity of his life never occurred to him," novelist E. L. Doctorow observes.

In 1918 Houdini attempted to break into the movies with a 15-part serial called "Master Mystery." But his acting skills didn’t hold a candle to his talents as an escape artist, and his Hollywood career bombed. Harry and Bess returned to New York, where he immersed himself in what he called his "world-famous theater library." And in a new cause -- debunking spiritualism.

With the death of millions during World War I, spiritualism was flourishing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, close friends of the Houdinis, had lost a son at the front, and claimed to communicate with him through mediums. Conan Doyle’s wife offered to hold a séance to reunite Houdini with his mother. Appalled by the exercise and incensed over the exploitation of his grief, Harry embarked on a vigorous crusade against spiritualists, declaring, "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer." His exposés proved incredibly popular, and put him back in the headlines.

Despite his promise to Bess to retire, Harry, now in his 40s, could not step out of the limelight. In 1925, he launched a one-man show on Broadway that featured magic tricks, escapes, and exposés of spiritualists. For a time, it seemed that the man was invincible. "He would say, ‘Hit me, hit me as hard as you can,’" recalls Al Hirschfeld. "And I would hit him, but I would hurt my hand before I would hurt him."

But Houdini would not stay invincible much longer. At McGill University in Montreal he gave a lecture, then was resting before his performance. A student came in and challenged Houdini to withstand a blow to the stomach. Before Houdini could prepare, the young man struck him a painful blow. "That will do," mumbled Houdini. He struggled through his performance, then fell ill on the train to his next stop. Physicians later found widespread infection from a burst appendix. The great magician died in Detroit on Halloween 1926 and was laid to rest in a bronze coffin that had been custom-made for one of his buried alive stunts. He was 52 years old. After a life spent in pursuit of fame, Harry Houdini would now assume his place in history.


Produced by Nancy Porter
Beth Tierney

Edited by
Peter Rhodes

Music by
Claudio Ragazzi

Boyd Estus
Jeri Sopanen
Christine Burrill

Houdini's escapes performed by
Robert Fellows
Mind Matters, Inc.

Production Assistant
James Whitters

Research Assistant
Arda Collins

Recreation Performers

Tom Kemp
James Fellows
Edward Germain
Pier Gustafson

Set Design
Katha Seidman

Ann Yoost Brecke

Billy Novick
Brian Clague
Alon Yavnai

Peter Frumkin
Yuri Raicin
John Zecca

Assistant Camera
Jill Tufts
Dick Williams

Jeffrey King
Walter Argo

Still Animation
The Frame Shop, Ed Joyce

Sound Design and Mix
Heartpunch Studios
Greg McCleary & Geof Thurber

On-line Editor
Dave Allen, Multivision

Narration Recording
Sync Sound

Film to Tape Transfer
Roland House

Historical Advisors
Kenneth Silverman
Don B. Wilmeth

Archival Footage
Archive Films
George Eastman House
Richard Flint
The Image Bank
International Magicians Society
John E. Allen, Inc.
Library of Congress
The WPA Film Library
Worldview Entertainment

American Jewish Archive
Archive Photos
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
Brown Brothers
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Carrandi Collection
Chicago Historical Society
Milbourne Christopher Collection
Kevin A. Connolly Collection
David Copperfield Collection
Culver Pictures
David De-Val Collection
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library
Ed Hill Collection
Sidney H. Radner Collection, Houdini Historical Center, Appleton, WI
Library of Congress
Library of Congress, Rare Book Room, McManus-Young Collection
Robert Lund Collection
William H. McIlhany
Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection
McGill University Archives
Minnesota Historical Center
Minnesota Historical Society
Museum of the City of New York
The New York Historical Society
Kenneth Silverman
Rosebush Enterprises and Lee Jacobs Productions
Society of American Magicians
Stanley Palm Collection
Morris Young Collection
Manny Weltman Collection

Special Thanks to
David Copperfield
Kit and Gerry Laybourne
Sidney H. Radner
James Randi
Chris Spriano
Richard Wood, Strand Theatre

On-Air Promotion
Frank Capria
James Dunford
Post Production
Maureen Barden
Raymond Powell

Field Production
Larry LeCain
Bob McCausland
Chas Norton
Dan Lang
Series Designers
Alison Kennedy
Chris Pullman

Title Animation
Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.

Online Editor
Mark Steele

Series Theme
Charles Kuskin

Michael Bacon
Christine Larson

Project Administration
Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell
Andre Jones

Interactive Media
Rick Groleau
Danielle Dell'Olio
David Condon

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Joseph Tovares

Senior Producer
Mark Samels

Executive Producer
Margaret Drain

A Nancy Porter Productions, Inc. film

WGBH Educational Foundation
©2000 All rights reserved


David McCullough, Series Host: Hello and Welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

Houdini. Except, I suppose, for the legendary Merlin of King Arthur's Court, no name so conjures up the realm of magic.

The great Harry Houdini, escape artist extraordinaire, is our story, and, I must say, as one of the many who've known the bliss of a boyhood fascination with magic, I love this film.

No secrets to Houdini's tricks will be revealed here, it should be understood at the start. What is revealed -- through a wealth of old photographs, film clips, and particularly insightful interviews -- is the ardent nature of the man himself and how much he and his breathtaking feats said about America in his time.

In this one exceptional life story is to be found a whole panorama of fads, innovations, popular pastimes, and age-old longings that moved the country then. There's the role of spiritualism, the advent of skyscrapers and the airplane, the burgeoning of show business, from vaudeville to Broadway to the movies, the infinite new powers of publicity. There is the insatiable need in some people for the limelight, a desire for which there is no substitute but more limelight. And there is the striking way this one extraordinary performer embodied the deep desire for escape among tens of thousands of his fellow new Americans.

And in the last analysis there is Houdini himself, who once said simply, "I do tricks nobody can explain."

That he would wind up so triumphant a career longing most of all to escape the escape business is still another compelling part of the story. Houdini by producer, Nancy Porter.

JAMES RANDI , Investigator of psychic claims: Everyone who ever experienced seeing Houdini in the flesh remarked on his smile. He grinned from ear to ear. And he looked out over the entire audience. He swept -- Everyone met his eye at one point or another. Up into the balcony, even. He got through.

AL HIRSCHFELD , Caricaturist : They would put him inside of a—a milk can full of water, you know, and put locks on the outside of the milk can. He would make it as difficult as possible for himself it seemed.

DAVID COPPERFIELD , Illusionist: Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried. You know, he takes all those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from.

RANDI: And one way he did that with the Milk Can was to say to them, "At the moment that I put my head beneath the water, I want you all to take a deep breath and hold your breath as long as you possibly can.

KEN SILVERMAN , Biographer : To build up suspense, for the milk can, he had a huge clock put on the stage. 45 seconds, a minute, a minute and a half, when people in the audience realized they couldn’t hold their breath for 30 seconds. Two minutes.

RANDI: People would panic. Some of them would even leave the audience because they couldn't bear the suspense.

DAVID DE-VAL, Escape Artist: And then suddenly, dripping, he would appear from the cabinet. There, all the locks were still intact. And there was no clue to the method that he used. That’s a good escape, isn’t it?

NARRATOR: He was our greatest showman. Throughout his rise from unknown immigrant to international star, Harry Houdini radiated confidence and courage. In public, he confronted our greatest fears and always emerged victorious. What we didn't know was that Houdini was plagued by doubts and haunted by his own mortality. To us, he was a superman.

NARR: Harry Houdini was not his real name. He was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874. When he was four, he emigrated with his mother and four brothers to the small midwestern town of Appleton, Wisconsin. There they joined Ehrich's father who had come to lead a small congregation of Jewish immigrants. Rabbi Mayer Weiss was educated, uncompromising, and deeply devoted to his wife, Cecelia.

RANDI: Harry referred to her as a saint, as an angel. She was a very good caring nurturing person. And it is something that gave Harry a goal in is life, to please Cecelia, his mother.

SILVERMAN: Houdini grew up in a family with five boys in it. And Houdini worked very hard to try to stand out. His competitiveness partly came out of trying to out-shine his brothers.

NARR: Ehrich stood out as the most physically agile. Inspired by traveling circuses, he performed for friends as a contortionist and trapeze artist, calling himself The Prince of the Air.

RANDI: I’m sure that Harry would say "I think I can do that too." No matter how incredible it was or how impossible it seemed, he knew that if they could do it, he could do it.

NARR: But the idyllic years in Appleton were short lived. Ehrich's father was fired by his congregation for being too "old world." He struggled to support his family, and they moved frequently, finally ending up in the crowded tenements of New York City. Ehrich and his father found work in a garment sweatshop. What little time he had, he devoted to building his body. Just five foot six, he was muscular and often ran 10 miles a day.

SILVERMAN: In the wonderful picture of him at about the age of 16, he has a chest full of medals, one of which he won for a cross-country race in New York. That’s a real medal. All the other medals on his chest are fakes. That's very typical of Houdini, no matter how wonderful the things he did, he had to exaggerate them.

E. L. DOCTOROW , Writer: Desperation was the theme of his life. That desperate desire to turn himself into something almost superhuman if he possibly could. "Look at who I am, look at what I can do," is very, very much a desperate kind of thing.

NARR: But nothing Ehrich could do could transform his father's life. As Rabbi Weiss lay dying of cancer at the age of 63, he made his son promise that Cecilia would never want for anything. It became Ehrich's mission.

SILVERMAN : I think Houdini was partly ashamed of his failed father. It was very important for him to overcome those beginnings and to really count in the world. Very few people that I know have wanted to make a mark on life as much as Houdini did.

NARR: It was on the streets of New York that Ehrich found a way to make his mark.

DON WILMETH, Theater historian: There were entertainment venues on virtually every block of the city, concert saloons, variety theatres, dime museums. Dime museums would indeed advertise what's inside on the outside, so there would have been a chance to see human anomalies demonstrated or even possibly a magician on the street.

NARR: At age eighteen, Ehrich joined up with a friend to form a simple magic act performing sleight of hand tricks. They named themselves the Brothers Houdini after the famous French magician, Robert Houdin. Ehrich became Harry.

COPPERFIELD: I think when you're a kid and you do something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, whether it be magic or escapes or something like that, that impresses people, you get that reaction, a very genuine reaction of amazement, of wonder. It’s something you can’t replace with anything else.

NARR: The first big job for the Brothers Houdini was on the mile long midway at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

WILMETH: The organizers of the World’s Fair expected the fair, the exposition, to be the great draw. In reality, the midway was probably more successful, more popular. Why? Because people were truly entertained. American entertainment was still very much in its kind of formative stage, but in the 1890’s, it exploded. And Houdini was coming along just at that point of explosion.

NARR: Harry discovered there was plenty of work in show business. He found someone to share it with the following year when he met eighteen year old Beatrice Rahner. Bess was a German Catholic immigrant, lively and funny, part of a song-and-dance act called the Floral Sisters. After a three week courtship, they married.

SILVERMAN: Bess was a natural born magician’s assistant, she was very petite. She was only about five feet tall and very lithe. Five feet tall, thin, very gamin-like, is wonderful for climbing in and out of boxes.

NARR: Appearing as the Houdini's, they performed conventional magic tricks and featured an illusion called the Metamorphosis taking only three seconds to exchange places in a trunk.

SILVERMAN: The Houdini's started out in the lowest branches of show business. They did circuses. They did traveling medicine shows where Houdini would sell Kickapoo Joy Juice in between the acts. They started out in dime museums, performing next to various sort of human anomalies. Houdini really grew to hate it.

NARR: He yearned to move up the ladder to the Vaudeville stage. The money was better, the pace less gruelling, and compared to the dime museum, it was positively refined.

RANDI: Tony Pastor’s in New York was the really first big date that the Houdinis had. It was the place to be. But what was also important was where were you on the bill?

NARR: Harry and Bess played in the worst position - opening the second act, while the audience was still getting seated. When Harry later pasted the program into his scrapbook, he moved The Houdinis into the headliner's position.

NARR: To become a true headliner, Harry needed a gimmick. He was inspired by spiritualist shows in which the performers would enter a cabinet locked in handcuffs. While the audience believed that spirits were playing instruments and making objects fly around, Houdini knew immediately it was a trick. The performers had gotten out of their handcuffs.

WILMETH: The whole idea of the spiritualist was to make the audience believe that they did not escape. Houdini saw the potential in the actual escape.

NARR: The first time he used handcuffs on stage, he knew he was on to something. But escape was just a small part of his act. He had struggled for six years and was still Dime Museum Harry.

SILVERMAN: He was thinking of getting out of magic but he went to fulfill a contract that he had in Minneapolis. While he was performing in some kind of beer garden there, a very famous agent named Martin Beck one of the leading Vaudeville managers, walked in and happened to see one of Houdini’s handcuff escapes.

RANDI: He didn’t think the escape act could maintain a continuity that an audience would come to see just that. But Beck saw through that. Beck saw that an escape act could be an act in itself.

NARR: Martin Beck wired Houdini saying he could open in Omaha and get paid sixty dollars a week."This wire changed my whole life's journey, " he later wrote. The act was no longer Bess and Harry. It was simply Houdini, the King of Handcuffs. After fourteen months on Beck's vaudeville circuit, he was earning $400 a week and was famous.

NARR: In 1900 Beck sent Harry and Bess on a brief tour of England.

DE-VAL: At the time, at the turn of the century, it was important that people in America came to England, because that’s where it—it mattered most to be successful. That’s where -- Everyone from America came to England.

NARR: In London, Houdini astonished audiences and was hailed as "the most wonderful entertainer the world had ever seen." Harry and Bess decided to stay abroad and began performing all over Europe.

DE-VAL: I think Houdini appealed to the working class. They considered themselves in chains, chained to the drudgery of their work, for low pay and poor conditions. And to see Houdini actually escape seemingly from impossible things, they thought that maybe it gave them a glimmer of hope that maybe they could do the same.

NARR: Houdini publicized his appearances by visiting the local jail where he convinced the police to lock him up and let him try to escape.

DE-VAL: Houdini came to town, and you knew Houdini was in town. He had placards mounted onto handles and he would employ perhaps 20 people to carry these through the street. "Houdini escaped from your jail today at 10:30." It was one just great big hype.

NARR: The jail escapes were especially newsworthy because he performed them nude.

RANDI: In that day, that was exceedingly daring. But it also proved that he didn’t go in with special tools concealed in his shirt and his trousers and his shoes and what not. Though he would be searched assiduously, he had ways around those searches. As you can imagine, there were so many ways by slight of hand and such that he could actually be in that cell with sufficient tools that, after he’d studied the lock, he knew how to manipulate it.

DE-VAL: The real trick of it all was, I mean, the right key at the right time, but keeping it away from anyone that might see him having it. That [laughs] really sums it up. That’s all escapology is anyway.

NARR: Harry worked the press just as skillfully as he worked his locks. In 1904, he staged an event with London's biggest newspaper, The Daily Mirror. For days, the Mirror fed the public every detail about a set of handcuffs that were guaranteed impossible to pick. In front of four thousand spectators, Houdini appeared to be worried. "I do not know whether I will get out or not," he said. He then withdrew into a cabinet he called a ghost house and the audience waited.

SILVERMAN: One of the times that Houdini came out of the ghost house, he asked to have his dress coat taken off. He was sweating profusely. The manager of the escape said no. He was afraid that that would show Houdini really how the cuffs could be opened. Houdini then pulled a pure Houdini stunt.

DE-VAL: He struggled to get into a side pocket of his coat, terrifically difficult, removed a pen knife, opened this with his teeth. And he hacked the coat away from his body and threw it on the floor, and everyone cheered. And he held the handcuffs triumphantly in the air, and went back into the cabinet to try again.

NARR: For more than an hour, the audience sat riveted waiting for Houdini to appear.

RANDI: And when he finally emerged from those cuffs, they literally picked him up on their shoulders and walked around with him. They were so excited. The audience just went berserk.

COPPERFIELD: There is only one way he could have gotten out of it. He was able to get a newspaper to collaborate on a charade to get themselves publicity, which is quite an interesting achievement. It's really amazing marketing.

NARR: "Nothing on the walls but Houdini," Harry boasted. But after 5 years, the constant touring had taken a toll. Harry felt guilty leaving his mother for so long and, as he wrote to a friend, "Bess wishes to stop working and rest long enough to raise one of them things we call children."In 1905, the Houdini's headed home. Harry was now an international star.

NARR: Almost 30 years earlier, Ehrich Weiss had sailed into New York harbor as a young immigrant from Hungary. Now he was Harry Houdini and carried a passport which listed Appleton, Wisconsin as his birthplace.

COPPERFIELD : After you evolve in a foreign country and you’re welcomed back into your adopted America, you know, that’s -- can be nothing better than conquering something that was unconquerable for yourself.

NARR: Houdini now commanded $2000 a week. He bought an elegant brownstone in a fashionable part of Harlem and moved in his sister, one of his brothers, and, of course, his mother.

SILVERMAN: Houdini was really twice married. I mean, he was married to Bess, and then in a way also married to his mother. He always called them "my two girls."

RANDI: He was in effect what we would call today — a mother's boy. He loved his mother to the point of obsession. But he also loved Bess, and I think, loved her, uh, passionately, romantically. He left her little notes underneath the tablecloth, and tucked behind a picture that she would eventually find.

NARR: Harry addressed Bess adoringly as "Sweetie, Wifie, Mine," saying he had a "bessyful of love awaiting her."

SILVERMAN: His whole relation to her is so sort of kidding. There is something very unserious about it. It was the kind of relation Houdini had with other people too. This was someone very wrapped up in himself. He was absolutely immense egoist. None larger. He had the most elaborate stationery that had "Houdini" all over it. His pajamas said "HH." His wallet said "HH." The tiles, the—the floor tiles in his bathroom said "HH."

NARR: Houdini was especially preoccupied with his health. He swam and had massages regularly, didn't drink or smoke, and was evangelical about his diet.

He tried to tell people that he could build them up if they had lots of milk and oranges and eggs and goodness knows what. And he gave them little recipes, jotted things down for them to help them build their physique.

DE-VAL: He was a very personable guy, a guy that you’d like to be around. But the other side of him was that one particular lady who was his secretary told me that he—he didn’t like people. He didn’t like people at all. So . he—he didn’t just do an act on stage he did it off, as well.

RANDI : He was an implacable foe. He had people that he disliked if not hated, all of his life, simply because they had slighted him.

NARR: The people Houdini hated the most were the imitators who had plagued him since the beginning of his career. Harry often spied on them and then humiliated them in public. "Do others, " he once said,"or they will do you."

NARR: In 1908, he dropped handcuff escapes and began performing a new act, the Open Challenge. He offered a thousand dollars to anyone with a device that could hold him.

SILVERMAN : It was a wonderful gimmick. It—it brought him a lot of local good will. I mean, he’d—he’d come into Milwaukee and some packing case firm -- or some piano maker would say, "We’ll lock you in our piano and nail the lid shut, and you get out." It would be great publicity for them and great publicity for Houdini.

DE-VAL: There were people in factories who I’ve spoken to, who said: Oh, it was wonderful when we—we got together and we said: let’s make up a challenge for Houdini to escape from. They joined in. He brought the public really onto the stage. He made them feel important, I think.

NARR: Houdini escaped from a roll-top desk, a huge envelope, a giant football, even a creature from the deep.

E. L. DOCTOROW: If he were working today, there would be a level of cynicism that just didn't exist then. There was a kind of innocence of that time, before television, before big high-tech $100 million movies, that made his act a kind of a super-act.

NARR: He created a frenzy to see his shows in Europe and America, and streets were often blocked with hundreds unable to get in.

HIRSCHFELD: Most Vaudevillians developed 12 minutes of material across a lifetime, and it was always the same. But Houdini’s act had suspense. And no one knew exactly what was going to happen, including himself. It was unbelievable. They would tie every piece of his body with ropes and chains, so it would be absolutely impossible to get out of it. But he seemed to wiggle out of it.

NARR: He would display each challenge in front of the theater before the show to attract an audience. It was a strategy Harry had picked up at the circus. It also gave him a chance to plan his escape.

NARR: But no matter how much he prepared, there was always risk.

SILVERMAN: Houdini broke, injured, sprained almost everything. One of the worst injuries was: He was performing in Pittsburgh, and he was doing a rope tie. And he had some longshoreman come up on the stage and tie him tightly. They pulled very hard on his body. So hard that they ruptured his kidney. And for about the next week, he was urinating blood.

SILVERMAN : All of Houdini’s escapes involved a lot of pain. And certainly part of the—the interest in it has to do with some kind of masochistic pleasure. Houdini was fascinated by mutilation. He had a gruesome collections of photographs, one of them, some of them of prisoners in Asia who were beheaded, and the heads are sort of lying around the field like cabbages.

NARR: Harry was fascinated by madness and even visited mental institutions. One day, he was struck by the sight of an inmate struggling to get out of a straitjacket.

RANDI: It was part of his genius that he saw in that a presentation piece, because you appear to be totally helpless.

NARR: But Houdini's strongest obsession was death. After a schoolhouse burned down, he traveled out of his way to view the charred remains of the young victims.

SILVERMAN: Houdini had a lifelong fascination with death. There are many, many pictures of him visiting graves, usually the graves of other magicians. He's tempting death himself, all of his life.

NARR: When Harry introduced the Milk Can Escape, he played on his audiences' deepest fears.

HIRSCHFELD: I was fascinated to see just how crazy this man could get, you know, and—and get himself out of it. Because he put himself in peril. He really did. Many, many times.

NARR: Houdini almost died when he was challenged by the Tetley Brewery in England to escape from a milkcan filled with beer.

DE-VAL : He had a small air space at the top of the can, the lid was slightly domed. Now, when Houdini, who many times had done this trick, went into the can and come up to the top, he then found that little space that literally saved his life many, many times, that was full of CO2 from the beer. As soon as he took a gulp of that air, it wasn’t air. It was poison. I don't know exactly how he contacted the outside but they knew it was going wrong and they hacked him out of the thing, ripped the thing apart and took him out.

SILVERMAN: There’s a story that when he was young, he was swimming in the river. He was seven years old, and almost drowned. That story always fascinates me, because so many of Houdini’s greatest stunts are really underwater escapes. Perhaps that experience so much scared him that he spent a lot of the rest of his life trying to be sure he could overcome it and survive it.

NARR: Harry started preparing for hazardous water escapes. He would submerge himself in an icy bathtub holding his breath as long as possible. Bess timed him as he stayed under for up to three minutes.

DOCTOROW: He was so insanely devoted to what he was doing, so disciplined that the ultimate insanity of his life never occurred to him.

NARR: At age thirty three, Houdini began performing dangerous water escapes outdoors to promote his vaudeville shows around the country. In New York, he created one of the biggest spectacles the city had ever seen when he was handcuffed, secured in a packing box, and lowered into the East River.

SILVERMAN : The crowds were absolutely immense. I mean, up to 100,000 people. You couldn’t get anywhere near the East River. People were standing on the seawall. The police were afraid people were going to topple in. I think actually a few people did.

DOCTOROW: He was enacting over and over again the same impulse that brought people from foreign countries here in the first place: to escape from social hierarchy, to escape from poverty, to escape from injustice. That kind of self assertion appealed to people.

SILVERMAN: But in his head, I think Houdini was always performing for his mother. I mean that was his real audience. What always amazes me that when he was doing some of his most dangerous stunts, he would have his mother come and see him jump off a bridge, locked in handcuffs, and at the end of his performance, he would write in his diary, "Ma saw me jump."

DOCTOROW: It was as if he never grew up, he was the ultimate aspiring teenager or child who could never quite get the recognition he thought he deserved.

NARR: Harry had long wanted to be seen as a scholar like his father.

RANDI : Since his father was a rabbi, a learned person, Houdini tried to become a learned person in spite of the fact that he had very little basic education. Most of that was gained in the streets and on the road.

NARR: Houdini tried to turn himself into an intellectual. He collected one of the largest theater libraries in the world, wrote books on magic and pursued friendships with celebrated writers such as Jack London and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

COPPERFIELD: Look how he started: in the carnivals, in the circus, the sideshow, this kind of the periphery of respected entertainment. And you really eventually, after you get success, you really want people that you respect to respect you.

DOCTOROW: There was always this feeling that not only would he want to escape from the freezing river, or the coffin, or the milk can, but that he had to escape from the stage as well, and be seen in the real world as a historical figure and not just a stage illusionist.

NARR: In 1910, Harry bought a plane and took it to Australia where he made a daring three minute flight.

RANDI: He was one man who hardly had to worry about being forgotten. But he was never quite confident of that.

NARR: "Even if history forgets Houdini, the Handcuff King, " he said, "it will write down my name as the first man to fly here."

RANDI : Who remembers today that Harry Houdini was the first person to fly a plane in Australia? Not many.

NARR: Harry was disappointed he and Bess were unable to have children. Without a family of her own, Bess focused her maternal instincts on Harry.

RANDI: His wife Bess was always after him to put on a clean shirt. And she’d take a brush on occasion and scrub his knuckles, because he was not too careful about his personal appearance

SILVERMAN: He’s a sort of slob. He looks like he hasn’t changed for weeks. I think his sloppiness in dress was just a function of his total preoccupation with what he was doing.

NARR: By 1912, the Milk Can Escape was being copied and sold to imitators for $35. Houdini was furious but prepared. He had spent five years in his basement workshop secretly developing a new escape. "The climax of all my labors," he said, "is the Chinese Water Torture Cell."

RANDI: Here we had sort of a man-sized aquarium. There were a couple of tons of water in there, the lid had a couple of notches cut out of it, into which his ankles would be placed, padlocked on the end. He would be lifted up, upside-down, hanging from the lid.

SILVERMAN: To be hung upside-down by your ankles, submerged in water, takes a lot out of you. Your chest feels like it’s exploding. It's scary.

RANDI: The last you saw of Houdini was him hanging upside-down, looking at the audience through the glass. It instilled terror.

SILVERMAN: His hair sort of swirling around, his cheeks puffed out, turning sort of red in the face. And you wondered, how is this guy going to get out of there?

RANDI: And then you saw the curtain drop over it. And the tension was unbearable.

There was a representative or two from the audience standing there to make sure that no one approached it from behind, to release him in any way. And for a couple of minutes, that’s the way it sat while they played "Asleep in the Deep".

RANDI: He would get out of the water torture cell, but concealed from the audience. And they wouldn’t be aware of the fact that he was now out. And he would stall for a while of course, to build the suspense.

And then suddenly, at a signal, the music stopped and there he was out of breath and dripping wet, walking forward to take his bows. What a wonderful moment.

NARR: Even though he insisted it was only a trick, many believed he must have escaped by supernatural means.

RANDI: Once you know the secret, the whole beauty of it is gone. The secret is actually not the best part of it, it's the presentation.

SILVERMAN: Houdini was headed for a big European trip he was going to take in the Scandinavian countries. He got aboard the ship, but -- and the thing was just about to pull out, but he insisted on running back down the gangplank and giving his mother another kiss and a big hug.

RANDI: There’s a very poignant picture that exists of the moment that Houdini last saw his mother. He took that picture perhaps from the stern of the ship as the ship sailed away from New York Harbor, bound for Europe. And you see his mother, just a small figure in a huge crowd of people waving good-bye to the boat.

SILVERMAN: The worst day in Houdini’s life certainly was the day that his mother died. By one account, when he got the news he was performing in Copenhagen, I think, he fainted dead away.

NARR:"I feel like a child who has been taken to the railroad station by mother," he wrote, "Train rushes in, mother manages to get aboard and before my very eyes away goes the train and mother on board. Here I am left alone at the station."

NARR: Harry cancelled his tour and, for weeks, only left the house to visit Cecilia's gravesite. He bound her letters in a book that so he could read them late into the night. He told his brother he had lost all ambition. And yet, he was still driven to perform.

COPPERFIELD: When you are passionate you don't have very much peace. You have to keep going, you have to be really be passionate about continuing to move forward like the shark going through the water. He had a passionate yearning to stay out there,.

NARR: On a cold winter day in New York City, Houdini, now over forty, performed his most physically demanding publicity stunt.

HIRSCHFELD: He would hang himself across Times Square and get out of a straitjacket. And of course, all traffic at Times Square was tied up. Thousands of people would stand outside and watch this phenomenon. He struck me as just one big muscle, with a controlled center somewhere. He seemed to have control over every muscle in his body.

SILVERMAN: There was a connection to the audience's sense of the modern, too. These tall new buildings ten stories high, these new miracles of architecture. And cranes on the street. It was a kind of very modern feat.

NARR: By 1918 Houdini was a cultural icon. There was even a new word, 'houdinize,' meaning to get out of a tight spot. But Harry still felt restless. He had an affair with Jack London's widow, Charmian. Both suffering from the loss of a loved one, they had a relationship that was passionate but brief.

SILVERMAN: He was really a strait arrow, and he seems to have felt very guilty about it. That he should have had an affair is sort of inevitable. That he had only one and that it seems to have been not very happy is probably more revealing.

NARR: In major cities all over the country. Houdini performed his upside down strait jacket escape, his most popular publicity stunt. It was also the last he ever created. Harry was physically exhausted. "Hereafter I intend to work entirely with my brain," he wrote in his diary.

SILVERMAN: It’s generally not appreciated that Houdini, almost from the beginning, really, wanted to get out of the escape business. He writes in his diaries over and over again, "This is too tough. Must find some other way of doing this."

WILMETH: In the teens moving into the 20's, film was gaining rapidly as a major threat to Vaudeville. I think Houdini probably knew that his career as a stage performer might be limited. And therefore it seemed very important for him to succeed on the screen.

NARR: In 1918, Houdini's first attempt to break into the movies was a 15-part serial called Master Mystery.

SILVERMAN: His idea was, he would have himself filmed doing his escapes, then he wouldn’t have to do them any more. People could just watch him on film.

NARR: For a time, life in Hollywood was good. Harry and Bess enjoyed staying in one place, after years on the road. On the evening of their 25th wedding anniversary, he left her a note,"We have starved and starred together. I love you and I know you love me. . . . Yours till the end of the world and ever after. Ehrich. But in the movie business, Harry had met his match.

SILVERMAN: He was a terrible actor. I mean, he has about three expressions. He can frown, he can look wooden, and he can look quizzical. That’s about it.

RANDI: It’s just so ridiculous, it’s—it’s as if it were a comedy. But he didn’t mean these as comedies. He wanted to be taken very seriously. He was a great failure in the films.

NARR: Harry and Bess retreated to their home in New York. He buried himself in what he called his "world famous theater library." With the death of millions during World War I, a religious movement called spiritualism was flourishing. One of its greatest disciples was Houdini's friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

SILVERMAN: Doyle had lost a son in the First World War, and various mediums had brought Doyle’s son back to him to kiss him on the forehead and to speak to him.

NARR: Conan Doyle's wife offered to hold a seance for Houdini. She claims she could receive a message from his mother. Harry was skeptical, but he agreed.

Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I'm through. I've tried oh so often now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy - my own beloved boy. -there is so much I want to say to him -- but ---I am almost overwhelmed by this joy of talking to him one more.

SILVERMAN: The message was in English. And Houdini said his mother knew almost no English. She spoke a kind of mixture of Hungarian, German and Yiddish. So he was sure that the message was a fraud.

NARR: Enraged over the exploitation of his grief, Houdini began a crusade against spiritualists. He went to seances in disguise confident that he was uniquely suited to expose their trickery. "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer," he said. Harry was back in the headlines.

DOROTHY YOUNG, Houdini's assistant: He told me that he thought they were wicked. They preyed on poor people. They’d spend their last dollar to hear the voice of a loved one.

NARR: Houdini's exposes proved incredibly popular. They became his new act.

YOUNG: He read the name and address of every single spiritualist in every city. And of course a lot of people sued him and all like that, but they didn't get anywere because the information we had was authentic.

NARR: Houdini even testified against spiritualism at Congressional hearings. At last, he was receiving the respect for his intellect that he had always craved.

SILVERMAN: He had become very well known in the pages of Scientific American magazine. He’d become something much more than just a Vaudeville entertainer.

NARR: Even though he had promised Bess he would retire, Harry could not step out of the limelight.

WILMETH: He was competing with all kinds of entertainment - Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields. This is the great period of the Ziegfield Follies. This is the great period of the Broadway stage.

NARR: In 1925, Houdini launched a one man show on Broadway.

WILMETH: Doing your own show on Broadway was an enormus leap. There is a kind of class associated with appearing on Broadway, especially then. And Houdini had reached it.

NARR: Houdini's show featured magic tricks, escapes and exposes of spiritualists. He would call on volunteers from the audience to participate in a mock seance.

YOUNG: Really, it was weird. It was so real, the way it was performed. Then after he did the seance, he showed the audience, step by step, how it was done.

NARR: The participants could not understand how the bell under the table rang--without the help of spirits. But the audience could see Houdini slipping out of his shoe and ringing the bell with his toes.

HIRSCHFELD: We used to go backstage after his performance and sit in his dressing room. And I got to know him rather well and I was fascinated by him. He could swell his stomach and shrink it, and withstand blows. He would say, "Hit me. Hit me as hard as you can." And I’d say, "Well, I don’t want to." He said, "No, do it." And I would hit him with a -- I would hurt my hand, I mean, before I’d hurt him.

NARR: But Houdini would not stay invulnerable much longer. He fractured his ankle performing the water torture cell escape in Albany. He continued on to Montreal and, before his show that night, gave a lecture at McGill University.

SILVERMAN: The psychology department invited him to give a talk on the psychology of mediumship, just the kind of thing Houdini loved to do. Some students came back to see him after one of the lectures. One of them was going to sketch him.

NARR: While he was being sketched, Harry lay on a couch in his dressing room reading his mail. He was worn out and in great pain. As the student observed, Houdini looked "in need of a long, carefree vacation." Then another student entered the dressing room.

RANDI: The student asked him whether or not he could take a blow to the stomach. And Houdini nodded that he could. And as he put down the letters to stand up, getting ready to be prepared, the student struck him in the stomach.

NARR: Harry could only mumble, "that will do. "

RANDI: He went on that evening and gave the show, and the next day he left for Detroit by train. And on the train he developed a very high fever.

SILVERMAN: They got a doctor to meet them when the train came to Detroit who urged him, you know, "Don’t do the show." Of course, he did perform that night. And when he finished the show, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

NARR: Houdini was operated on but his appendix had burst and the infection had spread. It is likely he had been suffering from appendicitis for several days before the punch.

RANDI: They ministered to him, but they pretty well knew that he was doomed.

SILVERMAN: After fifty two years of breaking his bones and getting ahead of everyone and insisting on being at the top, he said to his brother, presumably his last words, "I can’t fight any more."

NARR: Houdini died in Detroit on Halloween, 1926. He was laid in a bronze coffin he'd had made for a 'buried alive' stunt. According to his request, a black bag of his mother's letters was placed beneath his head as a pillow. Bess collapsed, "the world will never know what I have lost," she cried. After a life spent in pursuit of fame, Harry Houdini would now assume his place in history.

RANDI: I've had people actually ask me whether Houdini was a real person or whether he was like Sherlock Holmes, a fictional creation. To get to a point where people don’t know whether you were real or not, that’s fame beyond fame.

The Judaism Of Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini (1874-1926), undoubtedly the greatest showman of his age and probably of all time, was an awe-inspiring escape artist and the undisputed master of his craft.

He was the first “superstar” to manipulate the media to gain broad mass acceptance, and his fame was such that George Bernard Shaw quipped that Jesus, Sherlock Holmes, and Houdini were the three most famous people in world history. Even almost a century after his death, his name is synonymous with magic, and he remains a renowned cultural icon.

Houdini was particularly important to American Jews, for whom he came to embody the idea that a Jew could achieve success in an anti-Semitic world. For Jews who had a long history of fear and vulnerability, Houdini was the ultimate contemporary symbol of strength, and the renowned escape artist became the paradigm of the Jewish immigrant’s belief that he could escape the metaphorical shackles of Jewish history.

Even after achieving great success, Houdini maintained his ties to Judaism and his loyalty to his Jewish family, saying: “I never was ashamed to acknowledge that I was a Jew, and I never will be.” He recited Kaddish for his mother every day for the entire year after her death dutifully marked his father’s yahrzeit throughout his world travels and made a point to repurchase the family Bible that his father had sold when the family was struggling financially. He apparently studied it as evidenced by the notes he wrote in the margin of the sefer.

During WWI, Houdini founded and presided over the “Rabbi’s Sons Theatrical Association” (1918), a group consisting of sons of rabbis and Jewish scholars (Al Jolson served as its vice president and Irving Berlin as second vice president) that raised funds for Hebrew associations helping military families.

He was also a great American patriot who supported a variety of American causes, including the American Red Cross, and was also a major supporter of Zionist institutions. Throughout his life, Houdini performed great acts of charity, but insisted upon anonymity because “the Jewish way is to give charity quietly.”

Although it is the subject of some dispute, some of Houdini’s friends said that he carried his tefillin with him while on tour, regularly putting them on in the morning, and that he carried mezuzot with him, which he nailed to the doorpost of his hotel room during his travels.

Nonetheless, he became the first person in his family to intermarry, which caused a rift with his family that never healed completely, although his parents eventually came to terms with his marriage. He was greatly devoted to his Catholic wife, Bess, but Houdini insisted that he be buried in a Jewish cemetery near his parents despite knowing his wife could not be buried near him.

Houdini was shocked by his first exposures to anti-Semitism during his performances in Germany. He wrote, “[T]here is a secret feeling among Europeans against Jews. It surprised me greatly to think that such things exist in this country. It is awful what I hear from people who are Jew haters.” When he performed in Russia soon after the notorious Kishinev Pogrom (1903), when Jews were not permitted to remain in Moscow overnight, he muted any reference to his Judaism, but he was deeply affected by what had happened, and what was happening, to his fellow Jews there, and he wrote critically about Russian anti-Semitism.

Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz (later “Weiss”) in Budapest, where his father, Rabbi Samuel Weisz, Ph.D., L.L.D., was a great scholar. Seeking a haven from rampant anti-Semitism, Samuel immigrated to America in 1876, where he quickly discovered that the streets were not paved with gold. After a two-year struggle, he managed to barely save enough to bring his family to the U.S., including four-year-old Ehrich.

The Appleton, Wisconsin Zion Reform Jewish Congregation retained Samuel as its first rabbi, but it paid him a pittance and, four years later, he was dismissed because his immigrant English was weak and the congregation wanted a modern rabbinical leader.

Soon after losing his position in Appleton, unable to secure another rabbinical position, and virtually indigent, Samuel moved the entire family first to Milwaukee, where he also failed to support his family. To ease the financial strain on the family, Ehrich left home at age 12 to seek his fortune. He lived at a YMCA in New York City and, while still very young, supported himself doing elementary magic tricks as “Erik he Great.”

After Samuel moved to New York City, where he found a job working in a necktie factory, he was joined in that work by Ehrich. Soon after, Ehrich read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, which was officiated by the Orthodox Rabbi Bernard Drachman, who reported that Ehrich’s progress in Hebrew was “extremely weak” but that the boy had “a profound reverence for the Jewish faith.”

Shortly after his father died of tongue cancer in 1892, Ehrich, now Eric, got a job as a magician at Coney Island performing common card tricks, billing himself as “The King of Cards.” He was unsuccessful until he met and befriended Martin Beck, a fellow Jewish immigrant who advised Eric that he would never succeed as a card magician but could achieve great fame as “The King of Handcuffs.”

July 3, 2002 postal cover of the U.S. Houdini stamp, depicting Houdini in handcuffs.

After Beck got him a job on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit as an escape artist, Eric adopted the stage name “Houdini” in honor of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern conjuring” whom he revered at the time. Houdini quickly gained celebrity for incorporating an audience challenge into his act: He offered to pay $100 (not an inconsequential sum at that time) to anyone who could lock him into a set of handcuffs from which he could not escape. No one ever earned the prize he became known as “Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini,” and by the turn of the 20th century, his fame took him on a five-year tour of Europe.

During his career, the great Houdini only failed to escape a pair of cuffs once – when he was presented with a rigged set stuffed with buckshot, rendering the locking mechanism inoperative, even with the key. Houdini had to be cut out of them and, thereafter, all challengers had to demonstrate that the cuffs could be opened before he would permit them to be put on him. His reputation remained untarnished, however, as the media and the public deemed buckshot-filled cuffs to be a hoax and an exercise in dishonesty.

Houdini became one of the first early masters of self-promotion, planning carefully to ensure that his feats would be witnessed by the public – and by the mass media. His fame and reputation were sealed with incredible stunts, including breaking out of various city jails including cells in Siberia and Scotland Yard taking less than three minutes to escape from a water-filled milk can freeing himself from a straitjacket while shackled at the ankles and dangling upside-down in midair escaping from a crate thrown into New York’s East River into which he had been locked and manacled making an elephant disappear (1918) and escaping from a water-torture chamber in the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell trick (1913).

Houdini also performed the famous “bullet catch” trick – which has killed at least 12 magicians – in which a bullet would be fired at his head and he would catch it with his bare hand in mid-air. When the czar watched the trick, he was so impressed that he asked Houdini to repeat it – with the czar himself firing the weapon – and Houdini again caught the bullet.

As an interesting historical note, after the czar’s death, his family asked Houdini to serve as its spiritual advisor. When he declined the offer (on the grounds that he wanted nothing to do with Russian anti-Semitism), the position went to – wait for it – the infamous Rasputin.

In one of his most famous tricks, which turned out to be his final stunt, Houdini performed his “underwater coffin trick” on August 5, 1926 in the swimming pool at the Hotel Shelton in New York. With his hands cuffed in front and chained to his shackled ankles, his arms chained around his neck, and his torso bent over, he was squeezed into a 700-pound metal coffin that was lowered into the pool. Much to the astonishment of the journalists in attendance, Houdini emerged from the coffin some 91 minutes later.

Exhibited here is a remarkable August 28, 1926 correspondence written and signed by Houdini to Edwin A. Dearn in which he describes where he obtained the coffin for the underwater coffin trick:

Houdini handwritten letter regarding his “underwater coffin trick.”

A friend of mine Mr. John P. Spatz of the Boyertown Casket Company is going to Shanghai on business and have given him a letter of introduction to you. I know you will be interested to hear that he is the man to whom I am indebted for the use of the caskets while training for the under water coffin experiment. They have treated me very nicely in all of this and know you will be glad to meet him.

Interestingly, several authorities have insisted that Houdini used a 700-hundred-pound sealed tank, not a coffin, for this trick, but this letter, on its face, conclusively proves them incorrect.

Houdini corresponded regularly with Dearn (1892-1980), an amateur magician, during the 1920s. Dearn was also a popular ventriloquist who lived in England before spending 25 years as a regular performer in theaters in the Shanghai district of China, and he entertained many world-famous magicians in his home there.

He was also a passionate collector of magic memorabilia and books, including some 2,000 magic works and apparatus. Dearn was held captive for two years when Mao Zedong took over China in the early 1950s, but he ultimately escaped to Sydney, Australia.

Among other distinctions, Houdini became the first man to fly an airplane in Australia. He starred in silent films, founded his own film production company, and amassed an enormous theater archive, which he donated to Harvard.

After the death of his mother in 1913, Houdini became preoccupied with conquering death. Toward that end, he conferred with noted spiritualists, the result of which was what became a lifelong crusade against charlatans trafficking in the despair of the bereaved with fake séances and bogus raisings of the dead, including testifying before Congress against spiritualists and mediums in 1926.

“Spiritualism” to Houdini was little more than amateur magic clothed in the supernatural, and his close friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended when the creator of Sherlock Holmes refused to renounce spiritualism. He alienated Doyle further after Mrs. Doyle conducted a séance during which she claimed to have received directions from Houdini’s deceased mother and drew a cross and transcribed a detailed message from her.

Ink signature, “H. Houdini” and his address in Brooklyn: “394 E 21st Street, Flatbush, N.Y.”

Houdini later publicly humiliated the Doyles by noting that the late Mrs. Weisz, a rabbi’s wife and a practicing Jewess her entire life, would not be drawing a cross nor would she be speaking English instead of her usual German.

Houdini offered a standing $10,000 reward for any “supernatural” manifestations that he could not duplicate (there were, not surprisingly, no takers), and he wrote several books about spiritualist fraud. Many of the charlatans whom he exposed launched anti-Semitic diatribes against him, calling him “Judas” and arguing that since his Judaism made him un-American, no one should pay any attention to him.

Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix, sustained when he took punches to the stomach from an audience member. Significant mythologies developed regarding his death during a performance – on Halloween – and there are still some who argue that the man who regularly escaped death during his lifetime would somehow manage to escape it after his “death.”

Houdini vowed that, if at all possible, he would contact Bess from beyond the grave. However, to disprove any allegation by pseudo-mystics or the like that they had communicated with him after his death, he gave her a secret code known only to them (and to close friend and confident, mentalist Joe Dunninger), in the absence of which any alleged medium, channeler, or spiritualist could be shown to be a fraud.

Bess held a séance on the tenth anniversary of her husband’s death, and Harry’s bother, Hardeen, conducted séances thereafter, but Harry never did communicate with them – or with anyone else.

Watch the video: Houdini and the history of magicORIGINAL (June 2022).


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