March 24, 2011, - 5:20 pm

Harry Houdini & Me

By Debbie Schlussel

You may have noticed, today, that Google’s normal icon on the search engine is a tribute to the late, great American magician Harry Houdini.  Today would have been his 137th birthday. He was brilliant in so many areas aside from magic, and he was a great figure of Americana, whose legend lives well beyond his life.

I’ve always been a fan of Harry Houdini, not just because he was a great American performance artist, and not just because he was a great American Jewish entrepreneur (whose real name was Erik Weisz/Ehrich Weiss), who was born in Hungary and came to Appleton, Wisconsin with his parents.  It’s because, as a kid, I loved to perform magic tricks, and because as an adult, I developed a great appreciation for what you might now know about Houdini–that he was a great skeptic and wrote about his investigations into psychics, mystics, healers, and other snake oil salesman trying to sell people on their powers and their “magical” products, which claimed to heal sundry maladies and problems, but really didn’t.

When I was little, my father bought me magic tricks and my parents encouraged me to perform my “show” for guests and relatives.  It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it.  I used to beg my parents to take me to the magic trick stores, which, sadly, are all out of business, now.  My parents took me to see some of the greats when they performed in Detroit, including the magnificent Harry Blackstone, Jr (who, sadly, died very young in 1997 from pancreatic cancer).  Later on, I took my much younger brother to see Penn and Teller, and he went on stage to help them with a trick.  Today, if you don’t have a spectacular show, with huge production elements like in Vegas, forget it.  The magic world has mostly died out. But I still love the old fashioned one-man act magician.

As a kid, I was really into it–the whole magician business and I still am, though more in watching it than in performing.  I was also a voracious reader and very curious about Houdini.  I read a number of books about him, and he came from a very interesting background.  His father was a Rabbi, and he was one of many children.  He was a great athlete and also an actor and filmmaker.  Everyone knows of him for his terrific escapes from shackles, cuffs, locks, chains, strait jackets, etc.  But he was also an entrepreneur, as the owner of Martinka & Co., a magic trick company.  He really was a pioneer of the magic business, turning it into a headlining act, taking advantage of the vaudeville shows that were hip at the time.

But you probably didn’t know that Houdini wrote a few books not about magic. He knew all about cons and wrote how to perpetrate them the right way in The Right Way To Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals. Though he was a major star at the time, Houdini managed to infiltrate the world of scam artists, at first out of curiosity, but became very skeptical. He wrote Miracle Mongers And Their Methods: A Complete Exposé in 1920.

Reportedly, Houdini’s confidence in himself and his magic act was his downfall. They say he died as a result of injuries suffered when he challenged a student to punch him, saying he could withstand all blows above his waist. Shortly after that, he died in a Detroit hospital.

Regardless of his downfall, Houdini was a genius in business, performing, and logic. If there is one show I wish I could see, it’s Houdini’s magic act. Maybe, someday, when they invent a real-life “time machine” . . . .

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15 Responses

He died of a burst appendix, just at the time of the appendix operation. Whether the blow caused it is highly debatable, as blows to the gut normally won’t adversely affect the appendix.

Jonathan Grant on March 24, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Thanks for this nice post Debbie. I knew that Houdini exposed fake mystics because he didn’t like seeing desperate people taken advantage of, but I didn’t know about his book about criminals!

Mominminnesota on March 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm

He is also famous for being the first to fly a plane in Australia, March 18, 1910.

But there are claims someone else flew on the 17th but no hard evidence as the witness owned the plane and changed the story over time. Houdini actually filmed his flight, which can be seen at the link above. So they label Houdini’s flight as the first “controlled ” flight, hate to see what the first uncontrolled flight looked like.

ender on March 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Wow! I had now idea. He was quite the polymath.

    Mominminnesota on March 25, 2011 at 8:38 pm

I’m also a huge fan of Harry Houdini and one-man magic acts. Sleight of hand too, really intrigues me. I prefer the more intimate tricks to the huge extravaganzas. In fact, certain magicians, in their search for the increasingly “huge” effect, have turned off many people from the genre, I feel.

Alison on March 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Contrast Houdini with the likes of so-called “magician” David Blaine, whom even lefty “comedian” Chris Rock (on one of his HBO specials) once outed as an outright fraud, noting, “Are we so starved of entertainment that we are entertained by a trickless magician sitting in a box for 44 days with no food? That’s not magic – that’s life in The Projects!” (Referring to Blaine’s sitting in a box above London’s Thames River for 44 days in 2004, neither eating nor drinking.)

ConcernedPatriot on March 24, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Concerned Patriot. I would have agreed about David Blaine until I saw his TED talk lecture. He broke a world record with for breath holding on live TV. This took a lot of discipline. Tons of it, and guts as well. Yes, Blaine is a showman, but the great Harry Houdini was a master showman and master magician. He was also a fantastic athlete with great discipline. He worked to develop his breath holding abilities past three minutes in ice-cold water! Can you imagine that? His jumps into frozen lakes were well thought out. He could dislocate his shoulders at will to escape from a straight jacket. He actually almost survived his blow, then infection to the abdomen in Detroit, but ultimately succumbed. Yes, you are right about the sitting in a box routine, but his breath holding record is intense. He did it after free oxygen was given, Houdini did his breath holding magic with regular ‘air’ and then plunged into icy waters. There has been a fairly good movie about Houdini but I think we are due for a new one. He initially appeared with his brothers with standard magic card tricks, but then expanded his act to include death defying stunts. I believe he appeared in Russia under the Czar and was shocked with the anti-semitism in Russia. He also astounded numerous audiences in Europe–Berlin, London with his various escapes.

Debbie, there is one great magic store in Las Vegas in the Forum Shops where you can buy some vintage stuff including very overpriced Houdini posters and actual Houdini hand cuffs. Houdini captured the attention of the world… and still does.

biorabbi on March 25, 2011 at 2:08 am

Check out the Blaine breath holding training video. He may be nuts but he’s intense.

biorabbi on March 25, 2011 at 2:10 am

I should also have added Blaine is a tremendous fan of Houdini, evening emulating him in a way. He does some weird stuff to be sure and is kind of spaced out, but, wow, his breath holding thing amazes me.

biorabbi on March 25, 2011 at 2:11 am

The recent death of Dorothy Young at age 103 inspired Google to feature Harry Houdini as the keeper of the day’s search engine slot. Ms. Young had the honor of being one of Harry Houdini’s stage partners.

Harry Houdini was the consummate showman. Fortunately, there are still many great magicians performing today, and they will readily tell you that Houdini’s multi-level genius and courage was and is a source of inspiration to them all. Every budding magician worth his/her salt has read the books of Walter Gibson, for example, which describe how many of Houdini’s feats were performed. And many of the Houdini tricks that Gibson explicated are still performed today.

Houdini confidence in himself, however, had nothing to do with his death. Houdini did publicly say that he could take a punch from any man when challenged, but when Gordon Whitehead, a McGill University student asked Houdini if this true, Whitehead immediately struck Houdini several times before Houdini could prepare himself for the blows. Eyewitnesses said that Houdini was sitting down when Whitehead approached him to ask him about the “punch test,” and thus surprised Houdini by “sucker punching” him several times in the area of his abdomen. In spite of that, according to reports, Houdini had been suffering from appendicitis for several days prior to the incident involving Whitehead, and Houdini had refused medical treatment. Thus, Houdini’s appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma. Even though Houdini was in serious pain after the incident, Houdini continued to travel without seeking medical attention, and, in fact, went on to perform a show before he died.

Houdini, one of the greatest performers to ever live, certainly believed that “the show must go on.”

Ralph Adamo on March 25, 2011 at 3:49 am

Debbie the Jews are the best magicians. That’s why we still exist.

A1 on March 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

teller has a play on ncdougal street in the village in new york called Play Dead that you would really enjoy-there are highlights online at their web site.

mark on March 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm

My Grandpa saw a Houdini stunt. I forget the details but it involved being thrown in the river off a bridge in winter. Grandpa said that after several minutes ppl began to leave thinking Houdini was surely dead. Ppl were weeping. Needless to say, to the delight of the crowd, Houdini popped to the surface alive. What a showman.

Brian on March 25, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Houdini was not the founder, of Martinka & Co., but was its owner and CEO for a time. The company still exists, now HQ’d in New Jersey.

In modern times, Penn and Teller also expose scams and frauds.

By the way, here’s a modern day “1 person act” magician:

Harry (not Houdini, nor the magician whose link I post) on March 27, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Okay, 2 years late, but it seems to me my dad once told me that they cut a hole in the ice off the Belle Isle Bridge and lowered Houdini into the river in a chained trunk. As I heard it he had trouble finding the hole in the ice and didn’t surface from the freezing water for several minutes, breathing in the air gap between the water and the underside of the ice until he found the opening.
I’m just telling this story, I didn’t fact check it, but my dad was born in Detroit in 1903, and he wasn’t generally given to spinning apocryphal stories for me. Maybe somebody else out there can confirm or deny?

Joe Guiney on April 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm

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