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Escape crusader: Houdini in London

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought Harry Houdini was far more than a mere showman. Peter Gruner examines the life of the world’s greatest (and most famous) magician

25 June, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

Houdini in chains. Photo: Library of Congress

HOUDINI – who was to become the world’s greatest magician – first arrived in London from America in July 1900 when he was an unknown, with much to prove.

For a start, after settling in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, he couldn’t even find a theatrical agent interested in his handcuffs routine, writes Adam Begley in his new book, Houdini, The Elusive American.

He was said to have shackled himself to a pillar with a pair of handcuffs outside Scotland Yard, impressing an audience of police officers and public by eventually setting himself free.

As a result of the stunt the manager of the Alhambra theatre in Leicester Square decided to book him for a week’s run, which was later extended due to being so popular.

Much has been written about the magician over the years but this book, part of a Jewish Lives series, delves not just into his tricks and star-studded life, but also probes his poor background and ferocious determination to succeed.

He was described as a man who managed to master his fears by immersing himself in the very thing that terrified him. But he shackled and tortured himself even when he was rich and famous, and this book sheds a fascinating light on his inner drive and turmoil.

Born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, Houdini was the son of a Rabbi and grew up in the American Midwest.

When his father lost his religious job and become demoralised, the family of seven were left destitute.

In the words of Minni Marx, mother of the famous Marx brothers (Groucho, Chico and Harpo), the only way up and out was show business and the stage. “Where else can people who don’t know anything make so much money?” she said.

Houdini became a master of illusions, stunts and death-defying escapes, like the Water Torture Cell first performed in the UK in Cardiff.

This was his most famous and daring trick yet.

Locked in stocks by the feet, Houdini was lowered upside down in a straightjacket into a tank filled with water. If he couldn’t escape within two minutes, an assistant stood by with an axe ready to break the glass.

Very much a businessman who was able to manipulate the press after settling in London, he and his wife Bess spent many years touring Europe and making lots of money. “We’re just two young people,” he wrote, “trying to make an honest million.”

During his shows he was always capable of surprises. Like the moment at the Finsbury Park Empire where he suddenly stopped the show to present his first full-time assistant, Austrian born Franz Kukol, with a gold watch for 10 years of loyal support and service. Kukol would, of course, have had to sign an oath pledging that he would never divulge the secrets of the Houdini’s trade.

One of the most dramatic challenges came in march 1904,when a reporter from the Daily Mirror climbed onto the stage of the London Hippodrome and dared Houdini to free himself from a pair of handcuffs made by a master blacksmith, who was said to have spent five years improving them and who declared the lock couldn’t be picked “by mortal man”.

At first Houdini refused, arguing that the cuffs were not “regulation”. Goaded by the reporter, Houdini accepted the challenge – with a show of reluctance, as if the possibility of defeat were real. A date was set and a massive publicity campaign unleashed by the Mirror and the Hippodrome. Four thousand people bought tickets for the event on Thursday, March 17.

Following many warm-up acts, Houdini walked on stage and declared he was ready to be manacled. The reporter slipped the cuffs on Houdini and turned the key six times to drive the bolt home.

Houdini slipped behind a screen, the orchestra played, and the audience waited 22 minutes. He was to poke his head out several more times, always looking hot and bothered, before an hour went by.

Then he bounced out from behind the screen holding the cuffs aloft in one hand.

Another stunt saw him buried alive and only just able to claw himself to the surface, where he emerged in a state of near-breakdown.

At the height of his powers he became friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. It was Conan Doyle, “That paragon of cold, clear logic and rational deduction,” who believed Houdini was touched by supernatural forces, and encouraged the magician to explore the world of Spiritualism. Houdini was invited to Conan Doyle’s home in East Sussex following an appearance at the Brighton Hippodrome.

Houdini attended séances at the London HQ of the Society for Psychical Research in Hanover Street, which lasted three hours or more.

However, Houdini was a practical man and began to question the practice. By 1923 he had began lecturing against Spiritualism and even wrote a book about it. He sent a copy of the book to his friend Conan Doyle but, not surprisingly, never got a reply.

  • Houdini: The Elusive American. By Adam Begley. Yale University Press, £16.99

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