What Harry Houdini, the Quintessential Escape Artist, Declined to Escape

Houdini’s was the prototypically self-made American tale. But even while turning himself into the world’s greatest breaker of constraints, he remained a proudly identified Jew.

A poster for a performance of Harry Houdini’s in the late 19th-century. Alamy.

A poster for a performance of Harry Houdini’s in the late 19th-century. Alamy.

Observation
March 17 2020
About the author

Michal Leibowitz is a Krauthammer fellow at the Jewish Review of Books.

“My birth occurred April 6, 1874, in the small town of Appleton in the state of Wisconsin, U.S.A,” wrote Harry Houdini in an autobiographical essay for the Magical Annual of 1910. The sentence is revealing not in its facts—Houdini was actually born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Austria-Hungary—but because its falsehoods illustrate the difficulty of attempting a biography of a man who spent his career showing the public only what he wanted it to see.

Not that biographers have been deterred; on the contrary, they’ve multiplied, and the ranks have just recently been expanded by two more: Adam Begley, former books editor for the New York Observer and the author of a life of John Updike, and the sports journalist Joe Posnanski.

Begley, in Houdini: The Elusive American, a volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, offers a succinct account of the escape artist’s life and a window into the forces—both Jewish and non-Jewish—that shaped his psyche. Posnanski, in The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, interweaves Houdini’s story with anecdotes about his fans and his professional inheritors. Different in focus, both books are compelling additions to the voluminous literature surrounding one of America’s most influential showmen.

By the time Houdini achieved spectacular fame, his choice of performance—magic—had come to seem predestined. Tall tales about his childhood penchant for lock-breaking and mischief had become widespread. (One story features the then-toddler astounding his mother by circumventing the locks guarding her apple cake.) But, in truth, while Houdini had long enjoyed conjuring and circus arts, and greatly admired the magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin from whom he would eventually derive his stage name, his path as a magician and escape artist wasn’t always clear.

Born Erik Weisz (Ehrich Weiss), he was four years old when he, his mother Cecilia, and his four siblings immigrated to the United States. (Two more siblings would be born in America.) The Weiszes settled in the mill town of Appleton, Wisconsin where Erik’s father, Mayer Samuel, had arrived earlier and found work as the rabbi of Appleton’s small Jewish congregation. The Weisz family lived comfortably in Appleton until 1882, when the rabbi was dismissed in favor of a younger, more assimilable man.

The dismissal marked the end of the family’s security and stability. By 1888, both father and son had joined the growing mass of East European Jewish immigrants laboring in New York’s shmatte business. The son spent two-and-a-half years in a sweatshop cutting linings for neckties while dreaming of hustling his way into show business. In 1891, Erik, now “Harry,” began performing in public, at first with a former coworker and then with his brother Theodore. Their largely uninspired act consisted of sleight of hand, card tricks, mind-reading, and rope-tie escapes—performed, writes Begley, at “every kind of low-rent venue, from dime museums and medicine shows to beer halls and cheap variety theaters, often in the company of a circus troupe, blackface minstrels, snake charmers, strongmen, belly dancers, and assorted sideshow freaks.”

In 1894, the twenty-year-old Houdini found a new partner. Wilhelmina Beatrice (“Bess”) Rahner, a young Catholic woman, had been performing in Coney Island as part of a song-and-dance group. Quickly wed, the couple toured America on the vaudeville circuit, doing whatever was needed—acrobatics, hypnotism, even staged séances—to make ends meet. Harry added handcuff escapes to his act, performed his first jailbreak for publicity, resorted to selling his tricks, and even tried opening a magic school. But no one enrolled, and he and Bess struggled for new bookings.

By the end of 1898, they were considering closing up shop. But then the big break came. Martin Beck, a prominent vaudeville manager with a chain of successful theaters in the Midwest and West, saw Houdini performing at a beer hall in St. Paul, Minnesota and offered him a contract. The contract did not guarantee fame—that, he would still need to work for—but it offered stability, respectability, and financial security of the kind the couple had never known.

It was Beck who urged him to switch his attention from magical illusions to escape, the acts for which he would ultimately become most famous. Over the course of 1899, Houdini made a name for himself by escaping from handcuffs, leg irons, and straitjackets for audiences across America. He received top billing at Beck’s Orpheum theaters, booked gigs in New York, Boston, and Washington, and at one point was earning $400 a week—a sum, Begley notes, greater than half of what Rabbi Weisz had earned in a year in Appleton.

 

But Houdini was not one to be complacent. In May 1900, the Houdinis left America to establish Harry’s fame on the world stage. Abroad for the next five years, he displayed his knack for self-promotion, employing some of the same tactics he had used in America—including staging prison breaks and other special demonstrations for the press—to generate publicity in advance of his shows.

After successful runs in England and on the continent, he decided to take on Russia. This was a bold move, not only because he didn’t speak Russian but also in light of the country’s rampant anti-Semitism. Houdini was the sort of Jew who saw no reason to let his Jewishness inhibit his actions—whether performing on the Sabbath or marrying a Catholic—but who retained connections to his Jewish roots. (After his mother died, he recited the mourner’s kaddish nightly for a year.) Of course, writes Begley, he had “been exposed to anti-Semitism before, but not the implacably murderous variety.”

It was the murderous variety on display in the Russian empire. Just weeks before his arrival in 1903, a vicious pogrom in Kishinev had left 49 Jews dead, hundreds raped or injured, and 1,500 homes damaged. Though he completed his tour, even staging a well-publicized escape from a vault used to transport prisoners to Siberian labor camps, he was disturbed enough to write in his monthly column for the New York Dramatic Mirror, a weekly show-business paper: “It has even gone so far that they will not allow a Jew to turn Christian. This is a fearful country to be in.” (Typically, one might note, his critique focused on Russia’s hampering of self-transformation.) He also wrote angrily about the regime’s shutdown of the only synagogue in Moscow. After the trip, he reported feeling “prouder than ever to be an American.”

And he was an American, now more than ever. During his time abroad, Houdini had managed to swap his old passport, issued to him as a Hungarian-born naturalized citizen of the United States, for one identifying him as American-born. The new document, obtained at the U.S. embassy in London, served to smooth his European border-crossings and represented the final stage in the birth of Harry Houdini as an entirely American phenomenon.

To a reader, Houdini’s varied activities following his five years in Europe all seem motivated by fear of a single thing: obsolescence. Back in America in 1905, he began introducing elements of danger to his escapes. “I knew,” he later wrote, “as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.” He began jumping off bridges—handcuffed—to generate publicity for his shows. In 1908, he allowed himself to be stuffed (again handcuffed) into airtight containers filled with water.

By the end of 1915, he had been buried alive, strapped into a straitjacket and suspended from buildings, and trapped inside a “Chinese Water Torture Cell” of his own devising. The last trick is perhaps the one most associated with Houdini today, popping up frequently in Hollywood movies and popular mythology. He called it “the climax of all my studies and labors,” even copyrighting the act in the form of a play in order to discourage imitators.

In the crudest sense, the Chinese Water Torture Cell was just a box filled with water in which Houdini was locked and from which he then escaped. But as a performance, the Chinese Water Torture Cell was much more: the peak of his creativity as an inventor, self-torturer, and showman. “Anyone who sees the cell today in [the magician] David Copperfield’s museum,” writes Posnanski,

has the same reaction: it’s tiny. The entire cabinet is roughly five-and-a-half feet tall. It is so small, you feel yourself suffocating just a little when you see it. That’s the Chinese Water Torture Cell’s brilliance: it is immaculately crafted to cut deep into our fears.

The tiny cell was made from steel, glass, and mahogany and covered with padlocks, handles, and hasps. During the escape itself, the cell would be concealed by a curtain, but first Houdini invited his audiences to inspect the box, even moving it across the stage to prove the absence of a trap door underneath. When the audience was satisfied, he allowed himself to be locked into a set of stocks and lifted by his ankles. Begley:

The winching-up of the victim, the heart-stopping pause before he was lowered headfirst into the water, the sight of him jammed upside down in that glass coffin—torture was the right word.

An expert at timing, Houdini would wait until the last possible second, “the exact moment,” Begley continues, “when the entire audience had become convinced that catastrophe had struck,” before emerging from behind the curtain “gasping, eyes bloodshot, lips flecked with foam.”

Before long, the escape—“without a doubt the greatest spectacular thing ever witnessed on the stage,” Houdini wrote to a fellow magician—was the mainstay of his act.

 

Around the same period (1905-1920) when Houdini was developing many of his most famous tricks, he was also experimenting with two other forms of immortality: literature and film. Though he never evinced much artistry in either medium, he was prolific, publishing over the course of his life eight books (some with the help of a ghost writer) and starring in four feature-length films plus a fifteen-part serial.

Even while largely consumed with sustaining and strengthening his reputation, Houdini made time for certain public-spirited activities. During World War I, he tried to enlist as a soldier but was told that at forty-three he was too old. Instead, he sold Liberty bonds, trained soldiers to escape from German handcuffs, and helped form the Rabbis’ Sons’ Theatrical Benevolent Association, which gave benefit performances in support of the troops. Houdini served as president of the association, Al Jolson as vice-president, and Irving Berlin as secretary.

In the early 1920s, he became involved, intriguingly, with spiritualism, by then a big business in America and England particularly among members of the middle and upper classes. (Posnanski, confessing “I can’t lie: It bores me,” largely skips this chapter.) World War I had left many eager to believe in the possibility of communing with their deceased loved ones, and rapid technological advancement had blurred the line between the possible and the impossible.

Probably out of a wish to preserve his relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books and an ardent spiritualist, Houdini initially presented himself as agnostic on the issue. But then in 1922 he not only publicly expressed his skepticism but made it his mission to expose false mediums across America. “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer,” he would later tell an interviewer.

As a member of a committee sponsored by the magazine Scientific American that offered two cash prizes of $2,500 each to anyone who could provide “conclusive psychic manifestations,” Houdini became responsible for unmasking some of America’s most convincing false mediums. He also gave debunking lectures in universities, and even published a book, A Magician among the Spirits, claiming to present the results of an “investigation . . . that has extended over 30 years.” His crusade against the mediums eventually led him to Washington, D.C., where he appeared before a congressional committee to offer his opinion on a bill that would outlaw fortune-tellers in the city. (It didn’t pass.)

Though his battles with spiritualism brought him even greater levels of fame, they also made him a target of anti-Semitic attacks. Noting that “Mr. Weiss” was “racially a Jew,” the National Spiritualist dismissed his campaign as “racial bombast” undertaken “for his own financial gain.” To Conan Doyle, Houdini was “as Oriental as our own Disraeli.”

To a certain extent, Houdini encouraged the image of himself as a prophet of monotheism, noting in the Christian Register: “All I am trying to do is to save [people] from being tricked in their grief and sorrows, and to persuade them to leave spiritualism alone and take up some genuine religion.” But in truth his motivations for getting involved in spiritualism probably had little to do with any religious sensibility. For one thing, his battles brought him fame and a level of respectability—Congress! a fawning profile in the New Republic!—he had never known before. Also, as Begley points out, there was an aspect of professional pride at work: it bothered him to see sloppy and exploitative mediums giving magic a bad name. Begley also argues that after the death of his beloved mother in 1913, he developed a sincere respect for grief and was offended by the false mediums who dishonored the dead.

Houdini was still fighting against the spiritualists when his own end came. It was October 1926, and he was in the midst of a grueling five-month coast-to-coast tour combining his best magic tricks, escape acts, and anti-spiritualist lectures. Experiencing a pain in his stomach, he insisted on performing anyway. (Popular legend has Houdini felled by a sucker punch to the gut; though the punch did happen, it likely had little effect on his health.) On October 23, diagnosed with acute appendicitis, he again performed. By the time he finally conceded to a hospital visit and an operation, it was too late; his appendix had burst.

Houdini died six days later, at age fifty-two. He was buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens beside his mother and father and beneath an ostentatious marker featuring a weeping woman and a marble bust in his own image.

 

This is roughly where Begley’s Houdini: The Elusive American ends. Posnanski’s The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, however, offers considerable discussion of later portrayals of Houdini in film and popular culture as well as of his influence on subsequent generations of magicians and escape artists.

This is an ambitious project in itself. The presentation—much first-person narrative by Posnanski, interspersed with stylized descriptions of Houdini’s greatest tricks—is initially compelling as we follow the superfan trying to understand his hero through the places, people, and things he touched. But the result is finally unsatisfying. Posnanski devotes so many chapters to Houdini’s inheritors and the intricacies of their careers that at times the book reads as a primer for a history of modern magic. Meanwhile, the man himself—his magnetism, his motivations—threatens to become buried beneath the weight of his mythos and legacy.

If Posnanski asks why and how Houdini lives on, Begley asks how he lived. Ultimately, the answer to the second question best illuminates the first. The secret of Houdini’s immortality lies less in the careers of his acolytes than in the charisma and contradictions of the man himself. Here Begley shines. Retaining a tight focus on his subject and on the social, religious, and economic forces driving him, he paints a well-researched and psychologically intimate portrait of America’s most spectacular self-liberator. Houdini emerges as an egoist, an attention whore, and competitive to a fault; yet all of this came packaged in an insatiable spirit. That he himself was never satisfied, upping the ante again and again, meant his audiences almost always were.

Some critics have read Houdini’s life as a prototypically American tale. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine it playing out anywhere else. In both his act and his being, he spoke to the capacity to self-define against constraints, an idea that remains as universally appealing today as a century ago.

But, for Houdini at least, there was another side to self-definition, as Begley carefully considers. Even as Erik Weisz transformed himself into the exemplar of American individualism, he remained a non-pious but proudly identified Jew. He believed in a Supreme Being; he recited kaddish for his parents; he donated charitable funds to Jewish causes; he raged publicly against anti-Semitism; and he even added a clause to his will stipulating that, before inheriting his portion of the Houdini trust, his brother Theodore was required to show that his children had been “confirmed according to Jewish law and tradition.” For this most self-made of men, liberation sometimes meant not escape but return.

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More about: American Jews, Arts & Culture, Harry Houdini, Magic