ParaPedia - Encylopedia of the Paranormal, Bizarre, Mysterious, & the Unexplained

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Harry Houdini

Definition: Famous illusionist and escape artist, also known for his interest in (and debunking of) paranormal claims.
Famous illusionist and escape artist, also known for his interest in (and debunking of) paranormal claims.
Harry Houdini was a Hungarian-American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as "Harry Handcuff Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged different police forces to try to keep him locked up. This revealed a talent for gimmickry and for audience involvement that characterized all his work. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.

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 fabricated, Houdini meanwhile presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists who gave practitioners a bad name. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his own escape stunts. In addition to his performing career, Houdini also pursued an interest in exposing Medium ship and similar claims of the paranormal as frauds.

Houdini made a number of 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 plane in Australia. Even the circumstances of his death in 1926 were dramatic and mysterious. According to one version, a student in Montreal asked him if his stomach was hard enough to take any blow, to which he replied that it was, whereupon the student rained a series of blows on it before Houdini had time to tense up. A few days later, he died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. This may have been unconnected, as he had already been suffering appendicitis and refusing to seek medical attention.

Notable Stunts

Mirror Challenge:
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinee performance at London's Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his "ghost house" (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion he asked if the cuffs could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuffs were unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini's wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuffs. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career.

Milk Can Escape:
In 1901, Houdini introduced his own original act, the Milk Can Escape. In this act, Houdini would be handcuffed and sealed inside an over-sized milk can filled with water and make his escape behind a curtain. As part of the effect, Houdini would invite members of the audience to hold their breath along with him while he was inside the can. Advertised with dramatic posters that proclaimed "Failure Means A Drowning Death," the escape proved to be a sensation. Houdini soon modified the escape to include the milk can being locked inside a wooden chest, being chained or padlocked, and even inside another milk can. Houdini performed the milk can escape as a regular part of his act for only four years, but it has remained one of the acts most associated with him. Houdini's brother, Theodore Hardeen, continued to perform the milk can (and the wooden chest variation) into the 1940s.

Chinese Water Torture Cell:
In 1912, the vast number of imitators prompted Houdini to replace his Milk Can act with the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this escape, Houdini's feet would be locked in stocks, and he would be lowered upside down into a tank filled with water. The mahogany and metal cell featured a glass front, through which audiences could clearly see Houdini. The stocks would be locked to the top of the cell, and a curtain would conceal his escape. In the earliest version of the Torture Cell, a metal cage was lowered into the cell, and Houdini was enclosed inside that. While making the escape more difficult (the cage prevented Houdini from turning), the cage bars also offered protection should the front glass break. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called "Houdini Upside Down." This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators (which he did). While the escape was advertised as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" or "The Water Torture Cell," Houdini always referred to it as "the Upside Down" or "USD". The first public performance of the USD was at the Circus Busch in Berlin, on September 21, 1912. Houdini continued to perform the escape until his death in 1926. After being battered against a building in high winds during one escape, Houdini performed the escape with a visible safety wire on his ankle so that he could be pulled away from the building if necessary. The idea for the upside-down escape was given to Houdini by a young boy named Randolph Osborne Douglas (March 31, 1895 ￿ Dec 5, 1956), when the two met at a performance at Sheffield's Empire Theatre.

Overboard Box Escape:
Another one of Houdini's most famous publicity stunts was to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate after it had been lowered into water. Houdini first performed the escape in New York's East River on July 7, 1912. Police forbade him from using one of the piers, so Houdini hired a tugboat and invited press on board. Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg-irons, then nailed into the crate which was roped and weighed down with two hundred pounds of lead. The crate was then lowered into the water. Houdini escaped in fifty-seven seconds. The crate was pulled to the surface and found still to be intact, with the manacles inside. Houdini would perform this escape many times, and even performed a version on stage, first at Hamerstein's Roof Garden (where a 5,500-gallon tank was specially built), and later at the New York Hippodrome.

Buried Alive Stunt:
Houdini performed at least three variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape during his career. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1915, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing.

Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose mystical Egyptian performer Rahman Bey, who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered Bey on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket, or coffin, submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing. He repeated the feat at the YMCA in Worcester Massachusetts on September 28, 1926, this time remaining sealed for one hour and eleven minutes.

Houdini's final Buried Alive was an elaborate stage escape that was to feature in his full evening show. The stunt would see Houdini escape after being strapped in a strait-jacket, sealed in a casket, and then buried in a large tank filled with sand. While there are posters advertising the escape (playing off the Bey challenge they boasted "Egyptian Fakirs Outdone!"), it is unclear whether Houdini ever performed Buried Alive on stage. The stunt was to be the feature escape of his 1927 season, but Houdini died on October 31, 1926. The bronze casket Houdini created for Buried Alive was used to transport Houdini's body from Detroit back to New York following his death on Halloween.

Debunking Spiritualists

In the 1920s Houdini turned his energies toward debunking self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, a pursuit that would inspire and be followed by latter-day stage magicians. Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. None were able to do so, and the prize was never collected. The first to be tested was medium George Valentine of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. As his fame as a "ghostbuster" grew, Houdini took to attending seances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer. Possibly the most famous medium whom he debunked was Mina Crandon, also known as "Margery".

Houdini chronicled his debunking exploits in his book, A Magician Among the Spirits, co-authored with C. M. Eddy, Jr. (uncredited). These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years, refused to believe any of Houdini's exposes. 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 and led Sir Arthur to view Houdini as a dangerous enemy.

Before Houdini died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe", a secret code which they agreed to use. This was a phrase from a play in which Bess performed, at the time the couple first met. Bess held yearly seances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini's death. She did claim to have contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but Bess later said the incident had been faked. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful seance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man." The tradition of holding a seance for Houdini continues, held by magicians throughout the world.

The Official Houdini Seance is currently organized by Sidney Hollis Radner, a Houdini aficionado from Holyoke, Massachusetts. Yearly Houdini Seances are also conducted in Chicago at the Excaliber nightclub by "necromancer" Neil Tobin on behalf of the Chicago Assembly of the Society of American Magicians; and at the Houdini Museum in Scranton by magician Dorothy Dietrich who previously held them at New York's famous Magic Towne House with such magical notables as Houdini biographers Walter B. Gibson and Milbourne Christopher. Gibson was asked by Bess Houdini to carry on the tradition. Before he died, Walter passed on the tradition to Dorothy Dietrich.

In 1926, Harry Houdini hired H. P. Lovecraft and his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr., to write an entire book about debunking superstition, which was to be called The Cancer of Superstition. Houdini had earlier asked Lovecraft to write an article about astrology, for which he paid $75. The article does not survive. Lovecraft's detailed synopsis for Cancer does survive, as do three chapters of the treatise written by Eddy. Houdini's untimely death derailed the plans, as his widow did not wish to pursue the project.

Death

Harry Houdini died of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Eyewitnesses to an incident at Houdini's dressing room in the Princess Theater in Montreal gave rise to speculation that Houdini's death was caused by a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, who delivered a surprise attack of multiple blows to Houdini's abdomen. Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix at 1:26 p.m. in Room 401 on October 31, Halloween Day, aged 52. In his final days, he optimistically held to a strong belief that he would recover, but his last words before dying were reportedly, "I'm tired of fighting."

 

Additional Photos for this Topic:

Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

 

Resources:

  external linkWikipedia Entry

 

db#221

What are your thoughts?

 

 

Copyright © 2022, PANICd.com - A division of DNS Technology Consultants, Inc.
Follow Us of Facebook Follow Us of Twitter Follow Us of YouTube Follow Us of Pinterest Read our Blog Subscribe to our Feed