Houdini Now and Then – Caught on the Web

This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:5), April 2012

Houdini Now and Then
Caught on the Web

It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. Your non-magician friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say “Watch me escape from this” or “Tie me up! Tighter!” The patience of your significant other wears thin as you beckon “Look at this photo of the fourth milk can!” And your magician friends who are not fans of HH (a defect we fans describe with the phrase “just doesn’t get it”) are likely to respond with “You know, he wasn’t really much of a magician” or “You know, Vernon fooled him with a double” or “You know, he was sort of an arrogant bastard to… well… everyone.”

Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)
Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)

OK. Yes, we know. Even so, there’s just something about Houdini the man and the myth. And being a fan is no longer about becoming Houdini (though for some it once was). Nor is it about defending Houdini. (Well, maybe a bit.) It’s about appreciating two interwoven themes in the life of Ehrich Weiss: a tragically imperfect pursuit of the American Dream and a splendidly perfect example of magical theatrics. The actor lived a life, not always well, but the character he played projected a fiction, always magnificent.

Weiss came as close as anyone to embodying the formula that Drive plus Opportunity plus Intelligence plus a dash of Charisma equals Success. Ehrich is the little guy, the underdog, the undereducated middle child of an impoverished immigrant family with no advantages. Unpolished, unsophisticated, and unpromising, he falls in love with magic (as each of us has done) and with the stage (as many of us have also done). He tolerates his miserable life in a New York sweatshop by dreaming big dreams and harboring unlikely ambitions. Finally, against all good judgment, he goes for broke and pursues a life in show business. And hundreds of odd engagements and thousands of days later, broke and broken is precisely where he ends up. Then, on the brink of failure and defeat, he’s discovered, coached, funded, and placed on a short path to unparalleled fortune and glory. By cultivating his uniqueness, working hard, and never giving up, Ehrich Weiss becomes the Great Houdini.

That rags-to-riches tale is the essence of the Houdini legend. The biographical facts are much more complex, of course, but part of what’s so appealing about the legend is that it is both highly improbable and also true—or at least truthy. It’s a show business parable densely packed with lore, and mining it for wisdom yields gem after gem: At least try to follow your dream. Don’t settle when you could be doing what you love. Act confident, and people will read you as confident and assume that you have good reason to be confident. Talk clearly in ways that reach people. Be a generalist for your own satisfaction, if you wish, but be a specialist for your agent and publicist. Establish a brand and promote it relentlessly, interestingly, and evidentially. Do your homework, know your stuff, and be better prepared than your competitors. Be trained and ready for production when opportunity knocks. Lend a helping hand where you can. Invest in your community. Innovate. Be sure they spell your name right. Think Outside The Box!

Of course, that platter of proverbs has a flipside: Don’t alienate potential allies. Don’t beat down colleagues. Don’t humiliate passionate fellow travelers who also have dreams to pursue. Don’t be a narcissistic control freak. Don’t take publicity as the measure of true greatness, especially if the praise came from your own pen. Don’t hog the spotlight and suck all the oxygen out of every room. Celebrate others’ talents and let someone else shine from time to time. Don’t inflate an already impressive resume. Try not to get bent out of shape when criticized. These are just a few of the lessons apparently lost on Ehrich Weiss.

Houdini, late 1890s, Kevin Connolly Collection
Houdini, late 1890s (Kevin Connolly Collection)

So part of the attraction of Houdini is the fact that his biography is brimming with life lessons. But there must be more. After all, he wasn’t the only person who rose from humble origins to achieve success. Another part of the appeal is that Houdini’s success depended on the moment, and on how he met that moment with his magic. Consider what he achieved: international celebrity on the vaudeville stage as a variety entertainer. Now consider his core talents. He was strong, athletic, and mechanically inclined. He had good metalworking skills, a robust memory, and a disciplined approach to training and presentation. He was smart and sometimes charming. He was an effective leader, commanding the loyalty of his team for many years. And he understood the business of drawing in the public and giving them something to talk about.

That doesn’t sound much like the profile of an actor or magician, and especially not of the biggest box office draw in vaudeville. It sounds more like the profile of the general manager at a local auto shop. How did someone with his disposition and skill set become an entertainment superstar, of all things?

Houdini was able to bring together his talent, his moment, and his magic because he understood a few things not generally recognized. He understood the vulnerability of locks in an era when mechanisms were relatively simple and non-specialists were utterly clueless. He grasped that a sympathetic audience would follow guidance and spin rather than deductive inference. He also learned that for the sake of publicity or a quid pro quo, local industrial businesses, police officials, and journalists would collaborate in promoting him. Unlike his audiences, Houdini knew that these adversaries wouldn’t try too hard to thwart him; their interests were aligned.

Most powerfully, Houdini understood that being handcuffed, or chained, or locked in a jail cell, or nailed into a crate or coffin, or tied up in a sack, or hurled into the sea served as a metaphor that everyone could understand. Every member of the public knows what it is to be confined, impeded, suppressed, or denied. And everyone knows, at least in theory, that overcoming such adversity makes you the good guy, the hero, maybe even the superhero. And a superhero would never collude with his challengers, or hack away a tough handcuff with a file or cutter under cover of the orchestra, or swap out a tough piece of hardware for an easier one from his own extensive collection, or plant stooges, or hide tools on his person or in that little cabinet where he achieves his escape. So if he escapes, it must be by magic. Fold in some theatrics, and Houdini becomes the feisty little guy who uses his magical superpower to punch back at The Man.

Mix the part about the American Dream with the part about using superpowers to defeat early 20th-century tools of oppression – fetters, crates, and underwater torture cells! – and the appeal of the Houdini legend comes into focus. Houdini fans are locked onto a duality: the boy Ehrich Weiss realized his dream of performing magic for a living, and the fictional character he played, Houdini, put his fictional powers to practical, manly, down-to-earth, democratic use. Making a cane dance or a birdcage vanish or a thousand flowers appear or playing cards proliferate— that’s all nice, but so very… refined and precious and beside the point. Restoring severed or bisected bodies— although that might be useful under the right circumstances, how often does the need arise? But escaping from anything, anytime, anywhere? Bring it.

Houdini performing card manipulations, Kevin Connolly Collection
Houdini performing card manipulations (Kevin Connolly Collection)

Ehrich Weiss wanted to dress up in a white tie and tails, to speak in elevated terms, and to make things vanish and appear and float and fly because the fancy and ephemeral is what had caught his young eye in the first place. Despite his disappointment in some of Robert-Houdin’s exaggerations, Houdini never gave up wanting to be like his French predecessor, a sophisticated purveyor of baffling blossoms and evocative levitations. He longed to play the role of a magician who puts his powers to incidental, delicate, beautiful use. Goodbye, Winter! Hello, Summer! My, how time flies!

Houdini envisioned reaching up and making art. But early in his career, his middle- and working-class European and American audiences did not want the refinement and nuance of a world they couldn’t recognize; they wanted their fictional magic to play out in the world they knew, the world of industrial stuff, wood, iron, canvas, stone, and steel. At least, that’s what they wanted when he was the man on the platform. Ironically, it was just because Ehrich Weiss was in fact an unpolished, macho, cocky sweatshop worker turned defier-of-authority and not an elite suit with soft hands that he was able to give them what they wanted. So the full evening magic show with silk tubes and split fans continued to dangle before him, and he in a leathery straitjacket continued to dangle before them. The ongoing negotiation of this compromise between magic and metal made Houdini great. And exploring that duality still enchants his fans.

Houdini’s enchanted fans were once a scattered tribe. Finding one another was like spotting needles on the Hippodrome stage: you weren’t really catching more than a glimpse of them, but everyone was assuring you that they were there, somewhere, united by a common thread. Once in a while, at the Castle or a magic club event, you’d meet a partner in obsession, but more often, you’d encounter the doubters, the naysayers—the Houdiniphobes. And they would haze you. And it wasn’t just the Vernon taunt; sometimes it got physical.

For example, our esteemed Editor in Chief, Shawn, is a classic Houdiniphobe. (“Just doesn’t get it.”) And he was a hazer (now recovered). Many a decade ago, when I was yet in high school and Shawn wasn’t much past it, a bunch of us from the local SAM observed Halloween by hosting a walk-through haunted house. Heads on tables, thrilling chilling sounds, etc. If memory serves, Shawn as a strobe-lighted Mr. Hyde in a room decked out as a madman’s lab spent a portion of the evening repeatedly chopping off my still-crawling forearm while I beckoned in futility for passers-through to save me. Good times.

Well, it turns out that a straitjacket was one of the props in play that Halloween. Not a cool, period-proper leather model like the one recently authenticated as Houdini’s and sold at Christie’s. No, it was one of those white canvas deals that every magic shop carried back in the 70s. Still, that was thrilling to me, and it might have set me off on a bit of a pro-Houdini harangue.

This jacket was, shall we say, professionally enhanced to accelerate escape. But I didn’t know that. After all, Houdini didn’t need no stinkin’ gimmicks! In the afternoon before showtime, as we were scheming and setting up, Shawn’s anti-Ehrich issues boiled over and he took them out on me by proposing that I escape from said jacket. Feeling confident that I understood Houdini’s methods, I tolerated the hazing and let them strap me in. I had forgotten one thing: Houdini was a buff athlete with an expansive ribcage, and I was a scrawny, stick-thin weakling. I did eventually escape, but it took me nearly an hour. During this interval, none of the flippin’ Houdiniphobes (this means you, Shawn) saw fit to tip me off to the fact that there was… an easier way. It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini.

Therapy helped, and I’m over it now. *twitch*

Since the advent of the internet, being a fan of anything has become much easier. Houdini fandom is no exception. Those who share the Houdini mania can now find one another with ease, compare notes and speculations, circulate photos, and correct one another’s misconceptions. We are many, and we can hold our heads high, confident that however marginal our preoccupation may actually be, it is now trivially easy to find fandoms that make ours seem mainstream, healthy, and downright patriotic. This newfound dignity comes alongside a slew of wonderful Houdini resources in the old media – three excellent scholarly studies (Silverman plus notes, Kalush & Sloman, Culliton) and a roving museum exhibition with its slick catalogue. But the new media, the web and facebook and Twitter and such, are the ones that have changed the game. Here are just three of the game changers.

John Cox, Dean Carnegie, and Kevin Connolly
John Cox, Dean Carnegie, and Kevin Connolly

Consider the screenwriter John Cox, the proprietor of the website Wild About Harry (at WildAboutHoudini.com , because Harry Potter got there first!) In his autobiographical blurb, John exhibits all the classic tropes of Houdinimania: sucked in by the Tony Curtis movie, further entranced by Doug Henning’s adapation of the Torture Cell, willingly stereotyped at school as the magic kid— these gateway drugs eventually led to John’s stint as an escape artist and to his energetically making the acquaintance of anyone who had breathed the same air as Ehrich Weiss.

John has become a one-man aggregator of all Houdini news on the web, as he creates original content, links to the work of others, and exploits the power of social media to spread the word far and wide. John has broken many stories: the recent recovery of a seldom- or never-seen photograph of Houdini performing his Water Torture Cell; an overview of all the women with whom Houdini has been linked romantically by evidence, gossip, or speculation; informed speculation about why Harry and Bess never had children; the definitive answer to the question How Tall Was Houdini; identifying the exact location where Houdini’s ball and chain escape (not a euphemism for divorce!) took place; a series on the leading ladies in Houdini’s ill-fated films; Houdini’s apparent belief in reincarnation; a pilgrimage to Houdini’s home on west 113th Street; identifying the make and model of Houdini’s wristwatch; weighing whether Houdini performed the underwater casket breath test not once but at least three times; reporting on clues that Houdini may have performed the Bullet Catch; and of course John’s ongoing hunt for lost recordings of Houdini’s radio broadcasts. Most dramatically, he uncovered a 1932 RKO film treatment for an unrealized Houdini biopic! John Cox has put together a fascinating site for fans of Houdini and magic history, and John is performing a service for us all by going the extra mile, past those first few Google result pages, to find the really obscure, undiscovered stuff.

Another website that feeds the addiction is Dean Carnegie: Magic Detective. Whereas John Cox is an all-inclusive, indiscriminate Houdini-linker (“A lunchbox with Houdini on it? Linked! Houdini soda pop? Linked!”), Dean Carnegie has a specific mission: “Researching and hunting for unusual pieces of magic history and anything to do with Houdini.” Dean has uncovered quite a few gems on Houdini by reading old, digitally archived newspapers and foraging where no man has gone before. For example, he turned up yet another example of Houdini performing the Bullet Catch during his tour of Russia. He found two photographs and a heap of information about Houdini’s assistant (and likely lover) Daisy White. Dean manages to give the play-by-play for Harry’s casket on the day of his funeral, and uncovers a forgotten and puzzling incident that saw Houdini arrested for assault in Rhode Island. He reproduces in its entirety (1, 2, 3, 4) a lengthy article from the Los Angeles Herald in 1907, at the height of his Challenge act, in which Harry rambles on about jailbreaking and handcuffs. From the same year, Carnegie brings forth a single newspaper page that includes promos for Houdini, Boudini, Thurston, and Buster Keaton. In another piece, he gives a brief history of straitjacket escapes. *twitch* And like John Cox, Dean Carnegie somehow manages to put his hands on previously unpublished photographs of the teen-aged magician, Ehrich Weiss. Plus, he can’t stop himself from visiting, and documenting, whatever now stands at the site of any place where Houdini worked or played. If you want to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of Houdini, spend some time with the Magic Detective.

Houdini, Kevin Connolly Collection
Houdini (Kevin Connolly Collection)

At HoudiniHimself, the legendary Houdiniana collector Kevin Connolly takes a different approach to fandom. Cox aggregates everything, and Carnegie tries to answer particular questions. In contrast, Connolly blogs about particular items in his collection, offers general advice about how to collect wisely, and even offers items for sale. There has hardly been a significant book, documentary, or exhibition on Houdini that didn’t include important items from Kevin’s collection, and it’s fascinating to watch him take down some spurious junk on eBay or slowly reveal details about his latest treasure. For example, Kevin memorably pieces together a photographic puzzle having to do with Houdini’s assistants. Indeed he scans and shares all sorts of photographs that most Houdiniphiles have never seen before: a variant of the famous Grim Game promo shot, an extremely rare variant of the Metamorphosis poster, an X-ray of Houdini’s left hand showing a bullet lodged among the metacarpals, Houdini’s childhood home in Budapest, Houdini taking risks with a deck, and on and on. It’s astonishing how much unpublished Houdini material still exists; Connolly figures that hundreds of photos remain to be discovered.

In a recent post called The Cologne Papers, Connolly reveals his most recent exciting discovery: Houdini’s own scrapbook relating to the trial in Germany in which he prevailed over a policeman who had slandered him with accusations of fraud. This incident, well known to Houdini fans, is the subject of one of the most recognizable Houdini posters. Until now, however, Houdini’s bound volume of press clippings and legal documents was on nobody’s radar. And the most wonderful aspect of Kevin’s collecting endeavor is that he doesn’t hoard in silence and secrecy; he scans, shares, and shouts from the rooftops. Because of this enlightened practice, everyone wins.

These three webmasters illustrate the impact of the internet on the world of Houdini, and on magic history in general. It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. But it has never been less tough, nor more exciting, than it is right now.

One thought on “Houdini Now and Then – Caught on the Web”

Leave a Reply