October 31, 2014

Harry Houdini, 1874-1926

I was thrilled when I saw the History Channel come out with its recent miniseries Houdini, which, despite its historical inaccuracy in some regards, was terrific.

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, to Rabbi Mayer Shmuel Weisz and his wife Cecilia (nee Steiner). The family immigrated to the U.S. when Erik was four years old, and they settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. The family adopted the German spelling of their names-- e.g., Erik Weisz became Ehrich Weiss. Houdini's family did not speak Yiddish, but German.

"Ehrie", as his mother affectionately called him, developed an interest in magic at a young age, and when he became a magician himself, would take the name Harry Houdini; Harry was a variation of his nickname Ehrie, and "Houdini" was in honor of a French magician named Houdin.

After his father lost his position as rabbi of their synagogue, the Weiss family relocated to New York City. For awhile Ehrich took a job as a cutter in a necktie factory, one of the few professions open to Jews, before he and his brother Theodore ("Dash") partnered in a magic act.

When Harry was 19, he met a vaudeville singer named Bess Rahner; they were married just weeks later, and she replaced Dash in their act.

For years, Harry built his reputation, career, and fortune on being able to escape from virtually anything: handcuffs, chains, straight jackets, jail cells, and even water tanks; the only thing he was better at than escapes was promoting himself. He dabbled in aviation, flying across Australia in an airplane, as well as moving picture shows.

Harry was absolutely devoted to his mother, and when she passed away in 1913, he was devastated. He reportedly never really got over her loss.

His mother's death almost certainly played a large role in his next mission. At a low point early in Houdini's career, he and Bess had held false seances purporting to contact deceased loved ones, and he now felt guilty. It was one thing to fool people's eyes, but capitalizing on their grief and pain was something else.

So Houdini began a crusade against false spiritualists. He publicly challenged and exposed them, offering large sums of money to any so-called mediums whose tricks he could not uncover. Among those he antagonized were former friends Sir Arthur and Lady Conan Doyle.

Houdini with his mother Cecilia and wife Bess-- the text reads, "My two sweethearts, Houdini, 1907"

And still he performed his death-defying acts. Harry had always been athletic and fit, but in 1926, he was 52 years old-- well into middle age-- and had taken a lot of physical punishment over the years. In October of that year, he fractured his ankle while being lowered into the Chinese Water Torture cell.

A few days later, on October 22, he was in his dressing room being visited by some university students who wanted to sketch a portrait of him before a show. One of them, J. Gordon Whitehead, asked him if it was true that he could withstand the hardest punch to the stomach. Houdini replied that he could, and Whitehead asked if he could try himself. Houdini agreed, and started to rise from his couch-- with some difficulty, due to his recent ankle injury. Whitehead punched before Houdini had a chance to get into position and tighten his stomach muscles-- and kept punching. Houdini had to tell him he'd had enough.

Houdini insisted he was fine, and went on stage, but he was visibly pale and unwell; he developed a high fever and couldn't sleep. By the time he finally got medical attention days later, he was found to be suffering from severe appendicitis, and the infection was too fargone for anything to be done for the Great Houdini except to keep him as comfortable as possible. Whether the punches to the gut ruptured his appendix or whether Harry had already been suffering from appendicitis is not known.

Houdini passed away on 31 October 1926.

For the next ten years his widow Bess held a seance each Halloween (the anniversary of his death) in an attempt to contact his spirit. She never felt that she succeeded and finally gave up, wryly declaring that ten years was long enough to wait for any man. She lived until 1943, surviving her husband by 17 years.

Apparently even today spiritualists conduct seances each All Hallow's Eve to try to communicate with the legendary magician. I figure, though, that if he wouldn't or couldn't even talk to his beloved Bess, he's not talking to anyone.

Because of his death date and his link to spiritualism, Harry Houdini is forever associated with Halloween.

Today let us honor his life and legacy.

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