Regardless of whether he is remembered as a magician, film star or aviator, Harry Houdini longed for immortality, writes Conor Barry.
HARRY HOUDINI. He’s just one of those names. You ask anyone to name a magician and even if they don’t know a thing about him they instantly say Houdini, because the two words are effortlessly linked in your brain. Just think about it.
It’s a ridiculously huge feat that over 80 years after his death, Harry Houdini is recognised purely by the mention of his second name. This is exactly what he wanted, however. The most important thing for Houdini is that he be remembered.
Born with the name Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874 (although, bizarrely, he claimed to have been born in Wisconsin in 1873), he and his family moved to America when he was young. He made his first public appearance at the age of nine as “Ehrich, the prince of air”.
For anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, you have an idea (well, a rather over the top idea) of the kind of magic market Houdini was trying to break in to. While nowadays there is a niche market for magic, in Houdini’s time it was one of the biggest entertainment industries.
“Houdini was failing quite miserably to break into a career in magic, relying on card tricks that others had been doing for years”
In 1893 Houdini was failing quite miserably to break into a career in magic, relying on card tricks that others had been doing for years. It was only when it was suggested to him that he should focus on his uncanny ability to escape from handcuffs that he toured Europe as ‘The Handcuff King’ and gained an audience.
Houdini then broke into the American market as an escapologist. Freeing himself from countless handcuffs, straitjackets (while suspended upside down), mailbags and once from a whale that had washed ashore. Accordingly, he became a sensation and was one of the most talked about entertainers around. His act drew crowds of thousands hoping to experience real magic before their eyes.
Surprisingly, considering his line of work, Houdini was a huge sceptic when it came to the supernatural. Although Houdini’s publicity representatives pronounced that he used paranormal powers when performing his tricks, the magician himself never made such claims.
Later in life, Houdini went about trying to debunk self-proclaimed psychics and mediums. He was a member of a Scientific American group which proposed that anyone who could demonstrate supernatural abilities would win a cash prize.
A long-time friend of his and writer of the Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a firm believer in spiritualism. He thus became convinced that Houdini was using paranormal powers to succeed in his tricks and that Houdini was using his violent scepticism to hide the ‘truth’.
Doyle even went as far as to suggest that Houdini was using his powerful abilities to block the powers of anyone who tried to demonstrate theirs. Their friendship, unsurprisingly, ended.
Then, of course, there was Houdini’s death. This has become a confused area of myth and skewed facts. The 1953 Houdini biopic would lead you to believe that Houdini died during his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell trick, but this was pure fantasy.
In actual fact, Houdini was told that his appendix was inflated and may burst, but ignoring medial advice, he continued his tour. During a show in Montreal he collapsed onstage. Never wanting to disappoint a crowd, the magician persisted with his show. Afterwards, he was rushed to hospital and died of appendicitis on the 31st, October 1926, aged 52.
From what we know about Harry Houdini, he appears to have been a man who craved popularity. In an effort to be remembered he put his life at risk again and again, doing all he could to create a lasting legacy for himself.
For instance, in 1910 Houdini became fascinated with aviation and was on board the first controlled power flight over Australia. He claimed that while the world may forget Houdini the escapologist, they would always remember Houdini the aviator. He also had a short but fairly successful career in the film industry.
He was a man that from birth until death was trying to captivate his audience through high-risk stunts. It is ironic, then, that his eventual demise would be from something as un-theatrical as appendicitis.
Yet even now there are annual séances each Halloween to try and contact the spirit of Houdini. To date, it has been to no avail.