Buried Alive!

Nick Richardson

  • Houdini: Art and Magic by Brooke Kamin Rapaport
    Yale, 261 pp, £25.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 14684 4

Ehrich Weiss was ten when he popped his first pair of handcuffs. He was working as a locksmith’s assistant in Appleton, Wisconsin. One lunchtime the local sheriff came into the shop chained to a bearded hoodlum: the magistrate had decided the man should go free, but when the sheriff tried to unlock the handcuffs his key snapped. Could Ehrich saw through the lock? Ehrich broke two hacksaws before reaching for his lock-pick, a modified buttonhook he’d been experimenting with in his free time. Ehrich, by now better known as Harry Houdini, the Handcuff King, would say years later that the released prisoner was ‘the only person in the world beside my wife who knows how I open locks’. If he’d been concentrating, he could have had quite a career. As Ehrich liked to remind the inhabitants of Appleton, his knowledge in the wrong hands could be disastrous: at night he would roam the streets unlocking the front doors of sleeping homeowners, just to show them they weren’t as safe as they should be.

Ehrich’s first tutor in magic was his father. Mayer Samuel Weiss had brought his wife, Cecilia, and three sons to the US from Hungary in 1878 and settled in Appleton. With his exotic accent and formidable physical presence he was able to convince the townspeople to accept him as the local rabbi even though in Hungary he’d been a soapmaker: an impressive feat of persuasion. But in 1886 his congregation mutinied: a rebel faction decided his English was too poor and his ways too antiquated, and ousted him, forcing him to send his sons out into the world to earn their living. On his 12th birthday Ehrich struck out for New York with his lock-pick in his pocket and a boot-blacking kit under one arm. Plucky, darkly handsome, athletic and very persuasive, he was well equipped to thrive in the city. Not long after his arrival he came across a group of men queuing outside a factory in front of a sign reading ‘Tie-cutter wanted’. He walked to the front of the queue, packed up the sign and told the waiting men the position had been filled. When they’d all disappeared, he strode into the building and claimed the job, introducing himself as all-American ‘Harry White’.

In his time off from the tie factory, Harry’s taste for magic grew into an obsession; and once the rest of his family had joined him in New York, he and his younger brother, Theo, nicknamed Dash, started working on an act together. Harry was fascinated by the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, widely considered the godfather of modern magic, so when he and Dash put their tricks out to work, at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, they performed as the Houdini Brothers: with their thick black hair and swarthy complexions they didn’t really look French, but Italian maybe. Harry made himself up as a yogi, dressed in white robes and wearing brown facepaint. He sat cross-legged on a mat, sprinkled seeds into a shallow dish of soil and began to chant while Dash accompanied on a lyre. The seeds sprouted and began to twist towards the sky.

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