Monday, October 31, 2011

Containing Houdini

On the way in to work this morning, I heard a report on WBEZ about Harry Houdini's great nephew. The great illusionist died of complications of a burst appendix eighty-five years ago today.

Anyone who leads as eclectic and fascinating a life as Ehrich Weiss (Houdini's given name) did deserves a closer look. So I did some digging, and found out some fascinating tidbits about this early twentieth-century magician.

  • Houdini ran away from home when he was 12, riding a box car from his childhood hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin all the way to Kansas City. He was away from home for over a year, and little is known about what he did while away.

  • Houdini first began performing in public on New York's Coney Island, where he met his wife and stage assistant, Beatrice (Bess) Raymond. He would perform up to twenty shows a day for crowds of on-lookers. She was a dancer and singer at the park.

  • Houdini was not only a talented escape artist, he was also savvy marketer. In order to grow excitement for his stage performances he would challenge local precincts to contain him in their best handcuffs or jail cells. It generally took him minutes to escape, much to the chagrin of his pseudo-captors.

  • His most famous publicity escape was at Scotland yard in London, where he was locked with his arms around a pillar. This escape led to international acclaim and European tours.

  • After Houdini's mother died, he spent much of his time learning about Spiritualism and attempting to connect to his mother from beyond the grave. His extensive knowledge of magic tricks gave him a very skeptical view of Mediums and readers, and he denounced phony psychics as he came across them. He spent much of his life seeking out someone who could reconnect him with his mother, and eventually integrated this into a portion of his show, debunking psychic shams before his live audience.

  • Houdini had an extensive collection of books, totally to over five thousand at his death. He hired a professional librarian to manage the collection.

  • Houdini was good friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. They had a falling out when Doyle believed that Houdini's skills as an illusionist came from some supernatural source.

  • Leading up to his Hallows Eve demise, Houdini broke his ankle, withstood several blows to the stomach from a professional boxer, and had his appendix explode. On top of that, Bess had contracted food poisoning, which led to Harry going three days without sleep, sitting by her side. He did not miss a performance.

  • On his death bed, Houdini gave Bess a secret word that he claimed he would use to communicate with her from beyond the grave. The message was "Rosabelle believe". This was a reference to a song that Bess sang as a street performer on Coney Island.

  • Every Halloween, seances are held to attempt to communicate with Houdini's spirit. None have claimed success.
Harry Houdini was a fascinating individual. Shrouded in mystery, he led a highly public life, and inspires intrigue and exploration even eighty-five years after he died.

If tonight as you are trick-or-treating down the brisk autumn neighborhoods, you hear the words "Rosabelle believe", it may be the master illusionist himself. Or it could be the wind.

Both are impossible to contain.

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