Harry Houdini: The Mythbuster of His Age

In my last post Spirits, Levitation and Sherlock Holmes 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.

Houdini Handcuff King and Prison Breaker

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.

A Rare Surviving Metamorphosis Poster

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.

Houdini and his Wife Bessie perform Metamorphosis.

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.

Houdini Making Hands felt in a Seance

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.

Ectoplasm or Tissue Paper?


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.

8 responses to “Harry Houdini: The Mythbuster of His Age

  1. I would love to have seen Houdini in action when he was alive

  2. I must agree with you Nurse Myra, I think that his showmanship would have been second to none. Back in that age I bet they had incredible stage presence.

  3. “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.”

    I love this. I wonder if she’s gotten any signs yet.

    • Well I guess she has been getting daily signs from him since about 1943. She died Feb 11 of that year.

      That is if they went to the same place??? Maybe she got stuck in a Wal-Mart parking lot?? Who knows??

      But more to the point, the best I could find is that she held séances for 10 years after his death at which point she gave up. Reportedly saying, “ten years was long enough to wait for any man.”

      Time Magazine: Feb 15,1943 – http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774270,00.html

  4. The photo of a medium with ectoplasm coming out of her nose is incorrectly attributed to Mina Crandon. That is NOT Mina.

    • I stand corrected, I was in error on the ectoplasm photo.

      I have done some more research on the picture in question and do you agree that it is Minnie Harrison in the shot AThurlow?

  5. LOVE the wife’s comment “10 years is enough to wait for any man.” I’d say plenty…

    • Strange thing when I wrote this piece I just was trying to write a little something for the anniversary of Houdini’s death. Now it’s become one of my biggest consistent posts. Who Knew?

      When I wrote that little bit about his wife moving on after his death I figured my women readers would appreciate it. Glad you got a chuckle Amblerangel!

      If you dig in my back issues I am sure you’ll find plenty more to giggle about, looking forward to your upcoming comments!