Heroes of Science: Harry Houdini?
Discover how scamming spiritualists could not escape the escapologist
Hanging upside down with his ankles locked in stocks, a crowd watched as Harry Houdini was lowered into a tank of water. Once the stocks were fixed to the top of the tank, a curtain was drawn and the audience collectively held their breath wondering how he would make it out alive. Minutes later, a soaked and unshackled Houdini would emerge unscathed from behind the curtain to huge sighs of relief and rapturous applause.
This was just another one of Harry Houdini’s spectacular escapes, which proved much more dramatic for the crowd than they did for the skilled escapologist himself Having worked for a locksmith at a young age, Houdini had learnt how to pick any lock, and so, with the help of slight of hand, some rigging equipment and his gymnastic abilities, he could free himself from the trickiest of situations with very little trouble.
The life of Harry Houdini
One of seven children, Houdini was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, in 1874. He developed a fascination with magic from a young age and performed in circuses and vaudeville shows throughout his teenage years, but it wasn’t until he met showman Martin Beck at age 25 that his career reached new heights. He began touring America and Europe, and breaking free from various contraptions became the main part of his act. To promote his shows he would often hang upside down from cranes above the city streets, freeing himself from a straightjacket as crowds of thousands gathered below.
He achieved great fame with his daring escapes, but in his later life, he became more interested in shattering illusions rather than creating them. After his beloved mother, Cecilia, died in 1913, Houdini was devastated and believed that by visiting mediums he could make contact with her beyond the grave.
However, knowing the art of trickery himself, he was angered to discover that every one of the so-called psychics he visited was simply a fraud dishonestly exploiting the bereaved. He became a member of the Scientific American committee and offered a cash prize to anyone who could demonstrate actual supernatural abilities. He attended many séances to debunk their methods.
Thanks to his efforts no one was ever awarded the prize, but he continued to believe that it was possible to speak with the dead. He regularly visited mediums for the rest of his life hoping to find one that was honest, and he even told his wife Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner (better known as Bess Houdini) that he would try to contact her after he had passed away. Sadly that day came sooner than he thought, as he died of peritonitis aged just 52.
For the following decade his wife diligently listened out for his secret message on the anniversary of his death, but with no success she eventually gave up, saying, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”
5 things to know about Harry Houdini
His stage name came from his nickname ‘Ehrie’, pronounced ‘Harry’, and the surname of his idol, French conjurer Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who he later accused of stealing people’s tricks.
In 1909 Houdini bought a French Voisin biplane, which he then crashed during his first flight. Some historians credit him today with being the first person to ever pilot an airplane in Australia.
Many believe he was punched while boasting about his strong abdominal muscles, failing to tense them in time for the impact, while some think he was killed by spiritualists seeking revenge.
He met dancer Bess Rahner while performing in Coney Island, and she replaced his brother as his stage assistant. She continued to work with him for the rest of his career.
As well as entertaining soldiers and raising money for the war effort, Houdini also trained American troops to escape from restraints in the event of capture by the Germans.
This article was originally published in How It Works issue 117, written by Jo Stass
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