Every thrilling escape he made involved a high-stakes gamble that immigrants who left the Old World for the New could identify with.
In the photograph, there is a man—Houdini—straitjacketed and dangling head-first like a human plumb-bob high above a square in Providence. R.I., in 1917. Beneath him is an enormous crowd—some of the hundreds of thousands of people who witnessed Houdini’s escapes during his lifetime. The man in the sky draws all the attention. And yet how many men and women in the crowd below him bear a resemblance to the dangling man— immigrants from the Old World to the New, claiming a new patrimony, working their way into altered and unimagined versions of themselves?
In one sense, we have a better vantage than they do, because we can see what would have been invisible to them: the scale of Houdini’s personal transformation. To them, he was a superman of sorts, who sprang into being fully formed out of vaudeville, a hero of strange and nearly miraculous powers. To us, he is Erik Weisz, born a Hungarian Jew in Budapest, who turned himself into not-quite-plain Harry Houdini from Appleton, Wis., one of the most famous and admired men on the planet. He is, in fact, one of the few men from that era, like his contemporary Caruso, whose stage name still resonates right down to the present.
From our distance we can also see that the root of his story is roughly the same as most American immigrant stories at a time when immigration was nearing its peak. He came to America in 1874, at age 4, with his mother and four brothers, following his father to Wisconsin. His life wasn’t merely a departure from a world to be forgotten. It was an acceptance of the transformation America inherently offered, a transformation that would have seemed quite natural to anyone, but perhaps especially to a dedicated and aspiring magician. It’s hard to miss the restless ness in him, the unwillingness to be confined, even as a boy.
In reality, of course, the crowds who saw Houdini enact a series of ever more daring escapes between 1899 and 1925 have the advantage over us. They got to witness the spectacle Houdini created before each performance, the elaborate public ceremony of inspection and testimony, official persons of various kinds verifying the legitimacy of his bonds and the apparent absence of any chicanery. They could feel the instantaneous suspense of time ticking past as the escape began, the agitation building in each other, all through the crowd, as the seconds crawled by. And when Houdini emerged—arms spread wide holding the straitjacket or freed from a load of chains and padlocks or stepping forward, soaked, after escaping from a water-filled milk can—they saw in him not a metaphor for escape— his or theirs—but the raw physical impact, and the mystery, of the literal escape itself.
For his time, Houdini was a global phenomenon, a man of relentless activity performing in cities all across the United States, in London, Paris, Berlin, even in Moscow in 1903 during a violent episode of anti-Semitic pogroms. He jumps, chained and manacled, from bridges everywhere. He dangles, straitjacketed, wherever he can, as an advertisement for his stage performances. He performs celebrated escapes that are part of his act—escaping, handcuffed, from inside a water-filled milk can and hanging upside down in a metal cage dubbed the Water Torture Cell—and he accepts challenges wherever he goes, escaping from jails and making the first airplane flight in Australia in 1910.
What we see of Houdini now is mostly images on posters and in photographs—his face sometimes neighborly and kind, sometimes with penetrating, almost Bela Lugosi–like eyes. Sometimes he appears with his mother—a constant presence in his life—and his wife, Bess. But he often appears nearly naked, a man hunched forward, burdened with handcuffs and chains like a ferociously intelligent King Kong standing before his captors. Some of Houdini’s escapes were recorded on film—you can find them on YouTube—and to watch them is to grasp at once how the man himself has escaped us.
Somehow we expect to see an almost mystical serenity as the great Houdini releases himself magically, effortlessly. But there is nothing like that in his performance. The scene is prepared—Houdini hanging upside down in a straitjacket or roped and knotted to a chair on stage by a team of strapping young men. The clock starts—always the clock—and then at once Houdini begins writhing like a man wrestling with a host of devils inside him. Writhing is too weak a word. He convulses, and the chair tips over backwards or onto its side. He thrashes aloft like a demented pendulum. The effort is shockingly visible, absolutely without decorum. It is, in some sense, the most naked physical effort the crowd has ever seen. The violence, the agitation, the contortion of Houdini’s body is overwhelming, unceasing, epileptic.
Doctors in his day testified to Houdini’s extraordinary strength and agility, the result of constant exercise and practice. To see him in action, on film, is to recognize instantly how powerful he was, something the still photographs hide from us. Writhing the way he did for more than a few seconds would exhaust most of us. Writhing the way he did with reputation and life on the line while submerged in water would, in fact, kill any one of us. And yet what makes him Houdini is the quality of his mind and will, the still focus at the heart of that violently thrashing body. What looks to us like a convulsion is a plan. What seems to be dementia is applied rationality, and a little trickery.
Like every great magician, Houdini lived on the boundary of secrecy, crossing effortlessly back and forth, making a lifelong study of illusion. But he also had the great magician’s ability of seeming to reveal everything while revealing nothing simply by understanding the limits of his audience’s perceptions. Every escape was a gamble of sorts, and he was the house, with the odds in its favor. Some of his tricks seemed—or were made to seem—nearly suicidal, and the audience caught fire with a sense of risk. What Houdini offered them was a sense of catharsis, a way to build up an almost unbearable tension—a shared tension—and then a joyous release. In his most death-defying tricks—hurled into the water locked inside a trunk, for instance—he was nothing less than Lazarus, emerging wet and dripping from a watery grave to the uproarious relief of the crowd.
What we can never see in the work of any great magician is the extent of his preparation—or rather we see it, as the trick is performed, but are not allowed to notice it. We can look at the relics of Houdini’s life—his diary, the various props he used, the photographic record of his growing celebrity— but what we get absolutely no glimpse of—because none is ever available in the magician’s life—is the years of practice it took to become Houdini.
There was the public man and the private man. But within the private man there was yet another place—a hidden cabinet of sorts where Erik Weisz, the former messenger boy and necktie cutter and 9-year-old circus operator, was always becoming Houdini over and over again by relentless rehearsal, a commitment of time and energy unimaginable to most of us. All of Houdini’s public escapes put together probably added up to no more than a few dozen hours. But it is no exaggeration to say that the better part of his life was spent preparing for them. It was the only way of tipping the odds in his favor. It was also the foundation of the risk he allowed members of the audience to feel.
Why does Houdini still survive in our consciousness more than a century after his greatest triumphs? It’s almost as if a cultural memory of what those great crowds witnessed still echoes within us. An entire generation has recently grown up in magic, but it is Harry Potter magic, which is to say necromantic and spiritual—not to mention completely imaginary. That is perhaps part of the answer. Houdini’s magic was physical, actual, with his own body thrown into the wager. His magic was, in fact, anti-spiritual.
Once he was established, he devoted a great deal of his time to an attack on the fashion of spiritualism—on the world of séances and mediums. In doing so, he seems have to been drawing a fundamental distinction—the difference between a hoax and a trick, which is both a difference in skill and intent. But the real distinction he seems to have drawn was emotional. Spiritualists were telling lies about the very nature of life and death, and gullible audiences often took those lies to heart in a way that tended to obscure the reality they lived in, to fill them with a vague and certainly unscientific hopefulness.
What Houdini offered audiences was in every sense more basic—a one-man circus, so to speak. His death-defying escapes were not about life or death. They were about survival, which everyone in the crowd knew a little something about. The emotions Houdini played upon were simple: awe, mystification, terror, relief, rejoicing, and all parlayed within a matter of minutes. There was perfect resolution—as there could never be in a séance—and the audience went away happily—very happily—not quite understanding why the sight they had just seen was making them so ebullient. Houdini escapes. The crowd roars. And all of this happens not only because Houdini is among the greatest of magicians. It happens too because he is among the greatest of crowd psychologists. And the crowd loves nothing better than someone who truly understands its needs.
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board of the New York Times. His books include The Rural Life.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.