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.
Encouraged by an enthusiastic reception, back in New York the brothers set to work on the illusion that launched Harry’s career, the Metamorphosis. Harry was tied up, wrapped in a sack, locked in a trunk; the trunk was then placed inside a cabinet with a curtain across the front of it. Dash would announce the trick, sneak inside the cabinet and clap three times: on the third clap the curtain would burst open to reveal Harry, who had liberated himself in seconds. He would then unlock the trunk, pull out the sack, untie it and extricate Dash. It was an impressive display. But Dash was too tall to pull off the trick as smoothly as Harry wanted, and after a couple of botched performances it was decided – Harry decided – that Dash should be replaced. A young girl called Bess Rahner, who performed a song and dance routine at Coney Island, had caught Harry’s eye: not only was she pretty, and used to an audience, she was tiny. One stormy night, if we are to believe her romantic account, the brothers indoctrinated her into their illusion’s secret, and Harry and Bess became the Houdinis. Whether or not they ever married is a matter of conjecture, but Bess’s parents, strict German Protestants, unable to bear the thought of their daughter living with a Jew, disowned her.
Harry and Bess lugged the Metamorphosis round the vaudeville theatres and circuses of America as the climax of a show that included card tricks, a séance and Harry’s Needles, a staple of his live act for decades: he would swallow a dozen sewing needles and a long thread, then cough the thread up with the needles dangling from it. Handcuffs were introduced as a modification of the Metamorphosis, an extra bind in the trunk. It wasn’t until Harry realised what a powerful tool for self-promotion they could be that they became the focus of the show. In November 1895 he walked into the police station in Gloucester, Massachusetts and challenged the officers to handcuff him. He then proceeded to pick his way out of every pair of cuffs they produced. The local papers got hold of the story, splashed it over their pages, and the Houdinis’ show sold out. So Harry repeated the stunt in every town they visited. At the central police station in Chicago he escaped from cuffs and leg-irons in front of 200 policemen, ‘experts’ and reporters. The following day there was a large pencil drawing of ‘Harry Houdini’ on the front page of the Chicago Journal.
The trick Houdini learned in Appleton, and the association that began there between himself and the law, made him famous. The police gave him publicity and in return, as the National Detective Police Review put it, they got the ‘benefit of his skill’: he advised them on how to improve their locks. On one occasion, he had himself locked up in the forbidding United States Jail in Washington DC, in the cell that had held James Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau. He not only escaped from it, but also, on the way out, opened the cells of two other inmates and made them switch places. Legend has it that he asked the occupant of one of the cells what he’d done to get locked up. ‘I’m a housebreaker,’ the man replied. ‘Not a very good one, clearly,’ Houdini said, ‘or you’d be out of here by now.’ Not entirely fair: Houdini, though he was strip-searched before each of his escapes, would hide lock-picks in his bushy hair, or inside a hollow false finger.
By 1905 the Handcuff King – as his publicity posters described him – was famous enough to embark on a tour of Europe, where he played to packed houses. In Germany and England he got local constabularies to incarcerate him, but even foreign locks were no match for Harry’s pickery. The Daily Mirror challenged him to escape from a pair of cuffs that a locksmith had worked on for seven years; he acquitted himself in front of 4000 people, including more than a hundred reporters. Before the handcuff challenges he and Bess had struggled. Now he was one of the most recognised performers in the world; a lurch into stardom that has led some to wonder whether Houdini might have been more to the police than a celebrity consultant. William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s rollicking biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, suggests that he moonlighted as a secret service agent. He was often well placed to gather useful information. In Germany, as well as acquiring a thorough knowledge of police procedure and incarceration methods, he met and performed for the kaiser. In Russia, he did even better: Nicholas II believed him to be a holy man and offered him a permanent position at court, the post Rasputin would eventually occupy. Certainly, Houdini fantasised about being a special agent. In his screenplay for The Marvellous Adventures of Houdini, sadly never finished, he cast himself as a debonair spy on a top secret mission.
Houdini or one of his assistants would turn up at the shows of rival Handcuff Kings – legions of imitators had appeared in the wake of his success – and heckle, or challenge them with impossible locks. His tricks also got more daring, more physically challenging, as he sharpened his competitive edge. His straitjacket escapes – introduced into his act in 1901 – became straitjacketed bridge jumps; his trunk escapes now took place underwater. In Paris, in 1908, he jumped from the top of the morgue into the Seine, handcuffed and chained: a dozen gendarmes, surprised by this act of apparent lunacy, dived in after him, but one of Houdini’s assistants, waiting in a motorboat, sped him to shore, leaving the sodden pursuers to swim unhappily back to safety. In February 1911, he was challenged by a group of naval officers to escape from in front of a loaded steel cannon before it went off – it had a 20-minute fuse. Later that year he had himself chained and sealed inside the belly of a giant ‘sea monster’; after 15 minutes he escaped, pale and panting, half-poisoned by the arsenic solution the taxidermist had used to keep the creature from rotting. In the autumn of 1912 he debuted his Water Torture Cell, a steel cabinet with glass windows, filled with water, into which he was suspended upside down. The trick made him more popular than ever. After a hugely successful run at the Hippodrome in New York, he asked to be paid in gold pieces rather than dollars. He took the jangling sack back home to his mother and poured the pieces into her apron.
Brooke Kamin Rapaport begins her essay in Houdini: Art and Magic, a handsome collection of essays, interviews and images, brought out to coincide with a touring Houdini exhibition (it’s at the Skirball Cultural Centre in Los Angeles from 28 April), with an account of one of Houdini’s most spectacular exploits: escaping from a straitjacket while suspended by his ankles 35 feet above 46th Street and Broadway. This sort of performance, Rapaport contends, played out symbolically the aspirations of the immigrant class and the rural poor (for his Milk Can Escape Houdini was chained inside a giant churn). She compares Houdini to Henry Brown, the slave who in 1849 had himself shipped in a postal crate from his Virginia plantation to freedom in Philadelphia. Brown, too, was a showman: he turned the story of his escape into a theatre piece. As his show was to the black community, so Houdini’s was to the 13 million immigrants who had come to the US from Europe in the previous 50 years. Alan Brinkley’s essay ‘The Immigrant World of Harry Houdini’ reminds us that the world Mayer Samuel had brought his family into was hardly welcoming. This was the era of the Presbyterian minister Josiah Strong’s bestselling attack on unregulated immigration, Our Country, which described the European immigrant as a ‘peasant, whose horizon has been narrow, whose moral and religious training has been eager or false, and whose ideas of life are low’. Strong held the immigrant community responsible for illicit liquor trafficking. Houdini, as a very public ally of the police, was the counter-model.
Art and Magic uses the idea of Houdini as liberator as the starting point for many of its pieces. An essay by Hasia Diner brings Bess out of the shadows and shows her to have been a capable magician in her own right. Yet Houdini’s greatest act of emancipation, hardly touched on here, was his exposé of spiritualism, his long campaign to bring an end to the exploitation of the public by fraudulent psychics. He had disabused Bess early on: soon after they’d begun touring together, Harry remarked one evening that she had never told him her father’s name; he asked her to write it on a piece of paper, then burn it and give him the ashes. When she did so he rubbed the ashes into her forearm until the name ‘Gebhardt’ appeared there. She screamed with fright and bit Harry on the arm – but when she simmered down he explained the trick to her, and made a sceptic of her in the process, or at least a cautious agnostic.
By the 1920s Houdini had incorporated an exposure of spiritualist techniques into his act. He would pick a volunteer from the audience, get them to put on a semi-opaque hood – replicating the dark of the séance room – then perform the medium’s tricks with the house lights up so the rest of the audience could see how they were done. In 1922 he was invited by Conan Doyle – by this time in full-on mystic maniac mode – to take part in a séance in Atlantic City, at which Lady Doyle attempted to summon Houdini’s mother. Through Doyle, Cecilia spoke, with the faint, ethereal diction of a spirit: ‘Thank you, with all my heart for this … My only shadow has been that my beloved one hasn’t known how often I’ve been with him.’ The trouble was that Cecilia had never learned to speak English. Houdini would retell this anecdote with a snigger as he warned his audience never to believe that ‘any medium can take a message for your mother when she has passed to eternal rest.’ In 1926 he was summoned to testify at a hearing in Washington to determine the fate of proposed legislation that would make it illegal to tell fortunes or pretend to contact the dead. Once he’d given evidence the bill looked set to pass, but it stalled and died in committee, thanks to a penchant for séances among senior members of the Senate.
Houdini’s relationship with spiritualism was complex. The late 19th-century craze for psychic spectacle soaked up crowds that would otherwise have gone to magic shows, and when he first started out he had a psychic section in his act: Bess would enter a ‘trance state’ and intuit personal information about audience members – tidbits of local gossip gleaned from visits to the cemetery or chats with local drunks. But though he knew every trick in the spiritualist toolbox, and constantly presented himself as a scientist and materialist – an illusionist, not a sorcerer – Houdini never stopped believing in the possibility of necromancy. It was the phony practitioners he had a problem with, not the metaphysics. His war with spiritualism was triggered by an early visit to a cack-handed medium who claimed to be able to put him in touch with his father, who had died soon after the move to New York. He was bitterly disappointed when it didn’t work, but blamed it on the medium and continued to believe that someone might one day be able to contact his dead parents for him. In his will Bess was instructed to hold an annual séance after his death to try and get in touch.
He may have described himself as ‘a charlatan, a mountebank, a vaudevillian, and an itinerant magician’, but Houdini didn’t behave as though he’d quite convinced himself that he didn’t have supernatural powers. From 1918, his performances became more dangerous, and explicitly death-defying. He had himself sealed inside an airtight coffin and thrown into a swimming-pool, where he remained for an hour and a half before emerging deathly white. He performed Buried Alive, for which he was locked in a coffin and buried six feet under. When he heard that his friend Chung Ling Soo, the Marvellous Chinese Conjuror, had died onstage performing a bullet catch, Houdini made arrangements to incorporate a version of the same trick into his own act. And while filming his first feature film, The Grim Game, the plane he was flying collided with another: their propellers locked, 3000 feet in the air, and remained locked for a terrifying minute before they miraculously righted themselves and came apart. Houdini must at times have been tempted to believe, like those around him, that he had some kind of power over death. Then in October 1926, at McGill University, where he had been lecturing on spiritualism, Houdini invited the students to test his indestructibility by punching him in the stomach. A 19-year-old footballer rose to the challenge and thumped him as hard as he could. A week later Houdini was in hospital dying of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix. ‘I … am a fake,’ he wheezed to the surgeon who had tried to save him. Not a disclosure – he was always telling his audiences that there was nothing supernatural about his act – so much as a moment of realisation.