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The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero

William Kalush and Larry Sloman (2006)


Houdini learned an important lesson here. For variety artists to win over an audience, the performance itself must be amplified by other variables like presentation. The audience comes to the show essentially unprepared. What's different about this performance? Is this the first time it's ever been done? Is it particularly hard to do? Showmanship is the element that provides the context for the audience to understand what they're seeing. It's a way of making a performance exceptional. That was Mr. White's genius—the ability to contextualize his wife's performance in a grandiose way. (28)

"Houdini, can't you do something on a Sunday night of a religious nature so we can get a house?" Dr. Hill asked him.
"There is one thing I can do of a religious nature and that is make a collection," Houdini cracked. (49)

The years from 1892 until 1901 would be noted as the Decade of Regicide, a time when more kings, prime ministers, and even presidents met their fate at the hands of assassins than in any other period in recorded history. (72)

On August 27, while preparing for a leap into the San Francisco Bay, he wrote his good friend Dr. Waitt back in Boston. "Tomorrow I will take a leap from the wharf into the Frisco Bay ... Perhaps some day my time will come like that, but being a Fatalist, it worries me very little." After jumping into the deep, dark, and cold Mississippi River from a steamer in New Orleans, he dreaded the experience. "That's an awful river," he told a local reporter. "The worst I have ever been in ... It's only a question of time that the man who works trained lions and tigers gets his violent passage to the other world, and it is pretty much the same with me." The reporter noted a tinge of sadness in Houdini's voice. "I'll get in the water some day, my trick will fail, and then good night!" (189)

From 1904 on, Houdini was the only escape artist who accepted such a wide panoply of challenges. Although many of his imitators would do handcuff and rope challenges, only a very few accepted more difficult challenges. Brindamour escaped from challenge paper bags and packing boxes; Mysto did a variation of the box challenge by getting out of a sealed coffin; and Houdini's brother Hardeen accepted challenges against Houdini's explicit wishes. Houdini struck back in a fury. He exposed Mysto onstage, called Brindamour a cross-dressing fancy dancer, and shunned his own brother until Bess was forced to make peace. (191-2)

To a chorus of cheers, he did a magnificent header off the twenty-foot-high structure, cutting into the water clean. Unfortunately, the water itself was anything but. The Yarra had such a reputation for its muddy water that Sydney residents mocked it by claiming it was the only river in the world that ran upside down. For a few seconds the crowd nervously awaited Houdini's fate. Suddenly, two figures emerged from the mucky water. The impact of Houdini's leap had dislodged a corpse from the muddy riverbed. The event so disquieted Houdini that he momentarily froze and had to be helped into the waiting police launch. (250)

"It is good for me that I am not a tall man. Why? Because I must be quick! quick! and a tall man is always slow. It is so all through the profession: The best men are not too high. A tall man is easy-going, good-natured; a short man is sometimes good-tempered, more often not so. All the mean, cunning men that I have known—short! All the keen, eager, ambitious men—short! And for work—the tall man has too much to carry, he is too far from the ground, he cannot lose and recover balance as it is necessary, in a flash. (256)

Bess and the Danish physician went outside to consult, leaving Houdini alone with Jim Collins, one of his trusted assistants. As soon as they departed, Collins locked the door and walked back over to the bed. He bent over his shattered boss.
"Mr. Houdini, can't you do anything for your mother?" he asked.
The question seemed to jar Houdini from his stupor.
"What do you mean, Jim?"
"You know what I mean," Collins said. "Can't you do anything for her?"
An uneasy silence fell between them.
"Do I understand you, Jim, that you think I really possess some power whereby I could help my mother?"
Houdini finally said.
Houdini sighed. (293-4)

Two days later, the German authorities tried to maintain that Houdini was not a good human being and hauled him into court for presenting a professional performance without obtaining police permission when he jumped manacled into the Dutzend Lake twice in one day. He was fined fifty marks for bathing in the water, fifty marks for not obtaining prior allowance for the performance, and an additional twenty marks for walking on the grass. Houdini naturally appealed the case, and the local police became laughingstocks in the press when it was revealed that they had attempted to prevent the jump into the lake on the day after it had occurred. It was also wryly noted that while city authorities had warned Houdini against carrying out his publicity stunt, the city's municipal streetcar administration had placed additional cars in service to transport the thousands of citizens who flocked to see a performance that was verboten. (296)

Houdini canceled his December Paris dates and took Bess to Monte Carlo to divert himself with the casinos. He won two thousand francs but soon got bored with the gaming tables. What seemed to pique his interest was the special graveyard that contained the bodies of people who had committed suicide after losing their life's fortunes. Houdini made several visits to this bleak landscape. It's unlikely that he himself was contemplating such a grisly fate but if he was, the visits seemed to disabuse him of that notion. "A terrible feeling pervades the first time one sees the graves, and thinks of the human beings who finish their lives in this manner." More sociologist than potential suicide, Houdini made some acute observations about the phenomenon in his diary. He noted that there were more suicides in winter than in summer; that the casino workers would stuff money into the bare pockets of recently discovered suicides to suggest other motives than financial; and that the casino now offered to pay for shipping bodies back to their home towns to "keep things quiet." A grave of a man and woman who committed suicide together particularly fascinated him. (297)

The next morning, Houdini and [Theodore] Roosevelt took their usual constitutional around the upper deck of the steamship. Roosevelt stopped halfway around the deck and put his arm around Houdini. He looked him straight in the eye.
"Houdini, tell me the truth. Man to man. Was that genuine Spiritualism or legerdemain last night?" Houdini was amazed that this brilliant statesman, who would go down in American history as one of its most colorful characters, was undecided whether the effect was genuine or not.
"No, Colonel," Houdini shook his head. "It was hokus pokus." (307)

[Houdini:] "We are all more or less an army fighting our way to our own graves." (326)

The previous year had been rough for the French actress [Sarah Bernhardt]; ten years after a serious injury, her right leg was finally amputated and she was continuing her stage career with the assistance of a wooden leg. On the way back to the hotel, the Divine Sarah suddenly embraced Houdini. "Houdini, you are a wonderful human being," she purred. "You must possess some extraordinary power to perform such marvels. Won't you use it to restore my limb for me?"
Houdini was shocked when he realized that she was dead serious. (327-8)

Houdini was too polite to comment on the fairy pictures. [Arthur Conan] Doyle stuck to his guns and eventually published a book touting the [Cottingley Fairy] photos as real and revelatory. Years later, the teenager who took the photos of her nine-year-old niece cavorting with the fairies would admit that the pictures were faked. If Doyle had done better research, he would have determined that the fairies had been cut out of one of the most popular children's books of 1915, a book that contained one of his own stories. (384)

Conan Doyle was stunned. Houdini asked him to take the paper out of his pocket and verify that this was the phrase he had written. Of course, it was.
"Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion; I have been working on it, on and off, all winter. I won't tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery," Houdini lectured. "I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along those lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see . . . are necessarily 'supernatural,' or the work of 'spirits,' just because you cannot explain them. This is as marvelous a demonstration as you have ever witnessed, given you under test conditions, and I can assure you that it was accomplished by trickery and by nothing else. Do, therefore, be careful in the future, in endorsing phenomena just because you cannot explain them. I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of caution, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it."
Sir Arthur just smiled. So Houdini's still being cagy about his power, he thought. Is not this yet another demonstration of his psychic ability? (388)

Materialization seances were often just fronts for prostitution rings both in England and in America. Joseph Rinn, Houdini's ghost-busting friend, reported that in the late i880s there were more than a hundred mediums in New York City who advertised in the personal columns of newspapers, many of them actually madams who ran prostitution rings. As late as 1979, the sociologist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had clients have sex with "materialized spirits" as part of a therapeutic regimen for people with morbid fears of death. (419)

"Then it is your wits against mine," she [alleged medium Margery Crandon] said, and gave Houdini a "furtive" look. "How would it look for my twelve year old son to grow up and read that his mother was a fraud?"
''Then don't be a fraud," Houdini suggested. (434)

"I am not denouncing spiritualism, ladies and gentlemen, I am showing up the frauds. I cannot show up an honest medium. But trot her out," he said, to much laughter and applause. (443-4)

While he was sparring with the Spiritualists, his own investigations into the mysteries of life after death continued. Repeated exposure to fraudulent mediums hadn't made him lose hope of contact with the dead. His brother Bill had been fighting tuberculosis for years and had been living at a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York. During a heavy snowstorm, Houdini drove up to the mountains and stood on Bill's front porch and performed some new effects for him. As Bill's condition worsened, Houdini had a phone installed at his bed and instructed the nurse to ring him when the end was imminent. Shortly after the New Year, the call came and with the nurse holding the receiver to his brother's ear, Houdini shouted, "Remember our compact. After you die, communicate with me."A minute later, Bill was gone. Houdini holed himself up in a room on the top floor of his house and waited for twenty-four hours, going without food or drink, for the message that never came. (446)

Houdini had begun his campaign against mediums in the nation's capital by pleading with President Coolidge back in January of 1926 to throw his "vast influence" with the campaign to abolish the "criminal practices" of spirit mediums, but after his own investigation he was convinced that the president and his wife were believers and that he could prove his case. They certainly fit the profile, having recently lost a son. After the hearings, Houdini wrote his friend the journalist Walter Lippmann, who had been the special assistant to the secretary of war during World War I. "Sorry to tell you that I have heard on rather good authority that they do hold seances in the White House and am looking for further proof regarding same. This is, of course, in strict confidence." (488)

Heartfelt tributes came from all quarters. "Houdini was the greatest showman of our time by far," the great humorist Will Rogers wrote. "I played with Harry at Keith's Philadelphia over eighteen years ago for the first time. I was roping at my pony on the stage and was billed to close the show .... Harry was just ahead with his handcuff tricks. It was late when he went on. He held that audience for one hour and a quarter. Not a soul moved. He would come out of his cabinet every fifteen or twenty minutes, perspiring and kinder size up that crowd to see just about how they were standing it. Now, mind you, when he is in that cabinet there is not a thing going on. A whole Theatre full are just waiting. Now he had that something that no one can define that is generally just passed off under the heading of showmanship. But it was in reality, Sense, Shrewdness, Judgment, unmatched ability, Intuition, Personality, and an uncanny knowledge of people." (528)

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