Houdini (FYI – he didn’t really like the “Harry” and not even “Mr. Houdini” – just “Houdini”) was a remarkable figure. “He achieved afterlife as a fabulous archetypal being.” How did he get to this point?
Skill and dedication to his craft certainly played a part. He gained fame initially as the “Handcuff King.” He claimed to be able to get himself out of any pair of handcuffs that were in working condition. How it did it is not always known. But, certainly part of the trick involved substantial research – knowing the intricacies of the 20 or 30 most popular models of handcuffs in current use, and having the master keys or relevant lockpicks hidden somewhere on his person. (For the famous “naked” escapes … there were some rubbery capsule-like objects found in Houdini’s effects that could hold a key or two and then be inserted into some bodily oriface…) Then there were the “strange” cuffs which were one-offs or custom-made jobs. For these, he often made a show of testing them out with the owner’s key, then swapping out their key with similar looking one. Or he would make sure the strange cuffs were put higher up the arm so they could be wiggled off easier. Or, finally, there was always old-fashioned bribery in order to get a copy of the key or obtain similar help.
Besides skill, being an extreme publicity hound undoubtedly helped Houdini find lasting success. Starting out America, he claimed to be famous all over Europe before he’d even been there; after building up a reputation in the States he did go to Europe and found great success in England and Germany; then when he got back to America he was a really big star. One successful technique was to visit the local police station when arriving in a new city, and offering to test out there security by being locked up and put in a cell. Invariably, he would invite members of the press to attend the event, and they would obligingly write up wonderful stories after Houdini freed himself from the best the city’s police could muster after only a few minutes (undoubtedly using some of the methods described above). He was also famous for being suspended by a crane or from the tallest building in town a hundred feet in the air or more, upside down, and extricating himself from a straightjacket (lots of wiggling!) in just a few minutes.
Later, as he expanded beyond magic into other endeavors, his publicity-seeking gene remained alive and well. He bought a second hand plane and learned to fly it shortly before a trip to Australia; he whole motivation to learning to fly was to be able to claim being the first to fly a plane on that continent. (Apparently that claim is now not really recognized.) He wrote a large number of articles, books, and short stories, but used unattributed ghost writers so extensively it is hard to tell what’s really his own work.
Finally, he ensured an air of mystery about his life because he never really revealed how he did all his tricks. Unfortunately, the author of this book is also a magician and follows the “code” – he doesn’t explain the tricks either! Being curious, I looked up most of them. There are some good Houdini-specific explanations I found, but the best overall “reveals” were Youtube excerpts from the show “Magic Secrets Revealed.” (Apparently, the “masked magician” from this show got a lot of heat, but justifies breaking the magician’s code for these tricks because they are so old and well-known anyway.)
Houdini was born as Ehrich (“Harry” comes from “Ehry”) Weiss in Hungary, to a Jewish rabbi father. The family emigrated to the US when he was a child, but Mayer Weiss struggled to find steady work and provide for large family. Houdini grew up in poverty. But, apparently it was a loving childhood – he always respected his father and felt like he got a raw deal; and Houdini had an almost reverential affection for his mother. Her death really depressed him for the rest of his life, and when he himself died, per his own request Houdini’s burial pillow was a stack of letters his mother had written.
That said, this book didn’t contain a whole lot of info on his childhood. The story pretty much starts with him doing magic shows at cheap “dime museums” (aka freak shows). How did he get there? What made him want to be a magician? Unanswered questions…
Houdini was always interested in magic history and used his fortune to build up a formidable collection of texts and artifacts. While on tour around the world, he looked up and visited with elderly magicians of yesteryear. One touching story in the book is about his visit to Wiljalba Frikell in Germany. The aged Frikell was very excited anticipating the visit — but he died the same day Houdini was slated to arrive. Houdini “retained all his life a small scrap of paper found in Frikell’s dress suit, on which the revolutionary magician had written his last words, in pencil, illegibly.”
This sentence may be a linguistic paradox: As a magician, Houdini knew that magic wasn’t real. (After being impressed with one of his shows, Theodore Roosevelt asked Houdini whether there really was something supernatural about it all. “No Colonel – it’s just hocus pocus.”) Trained magicians like Houdini were well positioned to recognize the fraud of the popular Spiritualist movement, in which mediums claimed communication with dead spirits. However, most hesitated to speak out, since the mediums’ tricks were often the same as their own: “such exposés came perilously near violating the cardinal rule of magic: Don’t Expose.”
Houdini, however, was famous enough to make a stand without worrying too much about incurring the wrath of his fellows (he was president of the Society of American Magicians, after all). He was famously intransigent as a member of the Scientific American committee investigating the claims of “Margary“, when the committee was nearly convinced of the veracity of her paranormal claims. Houdini quickly saw through her shams but nonetheless struggled to convince his academic colleagues. “Men like <them> are menaces to mankind, because laymen believe them to be as intellectual in all fields as they are in their own particular one.”
Houdini’s death from appendicitis and subsequent infection was sudden, as often the case in a world before antibiotics. It does seem like an overconfidence in his invincibility, and a failure to heed warning signs about his own health, sadly contributed to his demise.
All-in-all, it seems Houdini lived a genuine and a happy life. I liked the little anecdote in the book’s appendix by one of his nieces — when she was 4 or 5, she would jump into Houdini’s bed in the mornings. They would both have their arms outside the covers, but something would start pinching her legs! Houdini’s dexterous toes were undoubtedly another factor, whether natural or practiced, which contributed to his escapes.
The traditions of English magic stem primarily from the Raven King, a shadowy figure who emerged from Faerie (kind of an alternate dimension) around the 11th century, established and ruled the Kingdom of Northern England by the power of magic and fantastical armies. He ruled for 300 years and then disappeared, seemingly taking most of the magic with him. Some magicians remained and tried to preserve things as best as they could. But, by the early 1800s, magic was all but dead and most “magicians” were simply men interested in the old books of magical history. One real magician remained, the socially awkward and cantankerous old man Gilbert Norrell. Norrell is simultaneously striving for a return of English magic, while at the same time hoarding all the useful magical texts and techniques for himself. The reasons are unclear, but probably he is deathly afraid of the consequences of serious magic in misguided hands.
Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic almost by accident, but a strong innate magical sense quickly establishes him as Norrell’s peer. First Norrell’s student, Strange later becomes his rival due to a reckless eagerness (in Norrell’s point of view) for the general return of magic. (Which really is kind of interesting, since Norrell’s summoning of a Faerie King, who becomes the main villain of the book, to help impress the English government was indeed reckless.) In the end, Strange decides that to really understand things, he must make himself insane. The funny thing is that he’s right and it works — maybe this says more about the nature of magic in this book than anything else.
I really enjoyed the depiction of magic. It’s always full of mystery and at least a bit dangerous. It’s not so much fireballs and magic wands, but a somewhat uncontrollable tapping into a real power, much larger than the magician. I think my favorite instance is in the first part of the book, when Norrell makes all the statues in/on a cathedral come alive and speak, all at once. One of them just repeats over and over the details of a murder it witnessed centuries ago, and has obviously been waiting for its moment to publicly condemn the perpetrator. Another good one was the creation of wind and rain ships outside of French ports, to make them think they were blockaded.
Really a good read, although I didn’t really like how the ending wrapped things up (or rather, failed to wrap some things up). Some really funny dialogue and memorable characters. The main villain, the Faerie with the thistledown hair, is suitably crazy and frightening at the same time.