In my last post Spirits, Levitation and I described Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the leading figures of the spiritualism movement. I also referenced Harry Houdini but only in passing as one of the great entertainers of that era.
I was very quickly called upon the carpet for not fully explaining Houdini’s other role in that age of spiritualism and wonder, the role of skeptic. Thus today, on the 84th anniversary of his death I will attempt to set the record straight.
Today we are constantly bombarded by television programs and images of illusionists and psychics, from David Copperfield on a brightly lit stage to the back room parlour tricks of a tarot card reader or clairvoyant on the Psychic Hot-line. But today most of us recognize that what Copperfield does on stage is just a cleverly crafted trick, and illusion designed to entertain and confound us. We know that he really didn’t make the Statue of Liberty disappear into thin air, but why do we know that? We know that because of men like Harry Houdini.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz, March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. His family moved to the United States when he was only 4 years old. Harry began his career performing card tricks and other simple slight of hand illusions. He also convinced audiences that he could fall into a trance like state and commune with the dead although he reportedly felt horrible doing so and would later become one of spiritualism’s greatest foes.
From card tricks and psychic cons he graduated to the acts that would make him famous around the world, illusion and escape. Along with his new wife Bessie they premiered the illusion “Metamorphosis” in which Harry and his assistant Bessie would switch places in a locked cabinet.
It was also around this time that Harry would offer the princely sum of $100 dollars for anyone that could produce a set of handcuffs that he could not escape from. As he toured from town to town he not only never paid out the $100 prize but also escaped from all manners of jail cell and locked room. Harry you see had trained himself extensively as a locksmith and would often secret any number of picks upon himself that remained undetected as he set about his task of escaping.
His future name forever secured as the world’s foremost escape artist, and a cunning illusionist, it was in the early 1920’s after the death of his mother that Houdini began dealing with the charlatans of the spirit world. When he felt the need to try and contact the spirit of his departed mother he contacted a number of mediums who he felt were taking advantage of his grief in order to extract large sums of money from him. Given his extensive knowledge of slight of hand and illusion Houdini quickly saw through their parlour tricks becoming a crusading force in what he saw as “Vultures who prey on the bereaved.“
Harry even went so far as to make a pact with his wife that in the event of his passing he would attempt to make contact with her, if possible from the other side, giving her a secret code so that only she could verify the legitimacy of any attempt at contact.
In 1923 Houdini took time away from his stage show touring instead to give lectures against mediums and to promote his new book A Magician Among the Spirits. He also joined a panel formed by American Scientific Magazine which offered a cash reward for anyone who could prove the existence of genuine psychic gifts. Much like Houdini’s handcuff award this prize was never claimed.
Harry Houdini’s public debunking of spiritualistic practices did not sit well with his close friend Arthur Conan Doyle a promoter of contact with the other side. The friendship turned sour over the case of one Mina Crandon, a regular member of the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton circle in Winnipeg. Once considered a front runner to win the American Scientific prize until she ran up against Houdini. The American Scientific panel had crafted a special cabinet for Crandon in which her hands were bound. Unable to produce the spiritual phenomena that she claimed was real when unfettered she was pronounced a fraud by the committee. What had started as a friendship based on admiration and respect between Doyle and Houdini had deteriorated into threats of legal action and public animosity.
Eventually Houdini’s gambling ways came back to haunt him. He had long boasted to be able to take a blow to the abdomen from any man. His bet was called in full Oct 22, 1926 when McGill University student J. Gordon Whitehead asked Houdini if he could indeed take a punch from anyone. Houdini reportedly replied “Yes, given time to prepare”. At which point Whitehead struck Houdini 4 times in the stomach before he had a chance to brace himself for the blows. He went on stage that night performing in severe pain and for the next two weeks could not even sleep due to the agony he was in. He refused medical attention until it was too late, collapsing on stage at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. He was rushed to hospital with a ruptured appendix and died at 1:52 pm on Halloween day.
Today Houdini’s legacy is carried on in many forms. Magicians continue to debunk the spiritualists. One need only look to Penn and Teller, or The Amazing Randy for a rational and often entertaining look beyond the veil. Winnipeg’s own Dean Gunnarson is a rightful heir to Houdini’s escape crown performing many of the escapes that Houdini himself had performed with a modern twist.
In fact today on the anniversary of Houdini’s death he is as I write this buried beneath 6 feet of soil and in a grave site escape. If you hurry you may be one of the lucky ones in attendance when he breaks free of the frozen ground at 1:52.
May you rest in quiet peace Harry, free of those who claim to have contacted you, laughing in what ever afterlife awaits at those who you continue to discredit even from your grave.
Authors Note: For more on the feud between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over spiritualism check out my earlier post. Spirits, levitation and Sherlock Holmes.