Published: October 26, 2010
Magician, escapologist, showman and anti-spiritualist crusader, Harry Houdini (1874‱926) spent his life in pursuit of fame. The success of his mission can be measured by the fact that he became an American superhero, the most famous magician who ever lived †and a figure whose influence on American culture persists to this day.
In his prime, 1890s‱920s, Houdini’s theater performances sold out, his outdoor presentations attracted tens of thousands of spectators, and his escapes made front-page news around the world. Photographs, posters and films captured his exploits, presaging today’s well-publicized entertainment scene.
The immigrant son of a rabbi, Houdini overcame anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant attitudes to gain mainstream acceptance, and became a source of great pride to America’s Jewish community. Moreover, his sensational escapes from handcuffs, chains, trunks, boxes and packing crates resonated with those who sought liberation from ethnic, religious or political oppression.
All this and more is documented in “Houdini: Art and Magic,” on view at the Jewish Museum October 29 through March 27, the first major art exhibition to examine the subject. Organized by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the exhibition’s 163 objects explore the great magician’s career and legacy. Noting that Houdini often closed his performances with the question “Will wonders never cease?,” Rapaport observes that “casting his spell on audiences today, Houdini’s persona remains as vibrant in contemporary culture as it did in the Golden Age of Magic.”
The saga of the legendary escape artist’s rise from humble origins to international celebrity is fascinating. Born Erik Weisz into a large family in Budapest, Hungary, at the age of 2 he joined his rabbi-father in Appleton, Wis., where his name was Americanized to Ehrich Weiss. As a youngster there and in Milwaukee, where the family soon moved, he appeared as an acrobat in neighborhood circuses, beginning at the age of 9. Because his father never found steady work with a congregation, the family lived in poverty.
Accompanying his father to New York City in 1887, Ehrich worked as a uniformed messenger and a necktie cutter in the garment industry. Forming “The Brothers Houdini” with a friend from the necktie factory, he starred as “Harry Houdini,” a name chosen in tribute to the famous French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.
In the early 1890s, he met and married 18-year-old song and dance performer Bess Rahner, and thereafter teamed with her as his stage assistant in “The Houdinis.” Agile and petite, she proved an excellent partner.
They toured with traveling circuses and medicine shows, appeared in dime museums, dance halls, beer joints †the lower rungs of American entertainment. In addition to a punishing performance schedule, Houdini pursued a rigorous physical fitness routine that put him in top shape for feats of physical derring-do to come.
His earliest celebrated illusion was the Metamorphosis, in which the magician was bagged and then sealed into a trunk by an assistant, who seconds later reappeared bagged and sealed in the same trunk while Houdini stood free. Houdini invariably delivered on the claim in his advertising posters to perform the Metamorphosis in three seconds.
By the turn of the century, as Houdini’s fame grew and escapes became central to his act, Bess’s time on stage decreased, and she became his behind-the-scenes supporter.
An early, famous routine involved extricating himself from handcuffs, objects familiar to him as a young apprentice to Wisconsin locksmiths and one who for fun unlocked stores in Appleton after shopkeepers had gone home. This facility led to tours of theaters in the United States and performances in Europe, during which he became known as “The Handcuff King.”
Meanwhile, Houdini devised more sensational escapes that employed his entire body. In one, heralded in posters as “Houdini’s Death-Defying Mystery,” in which “Failure Means A Drowning Death,” he was handcuffed, folded and sealed in a milk can filled with water and secured with six padlocks. Front curtains were drawn and the audience held its breath for Houdini to reappear. His assistant stood by with an axe, prepared to strike if something went amiss. According to an eyewitness report, after three minutes, “the tension was almost unbearable, something must have gone wrong. Surely any second the assistant would slash&nd cut into the can. At this moment, Houdini, dripping wet but smiling, burst through the curtains to a rafter-shaking ovation.”
The use of water in a confining space also added a terrifying dimension for spectators of Houdini’s original invention, the Water Torture Cell. It involved the magician hanging suspended by his ankles in a long, glass-paneled box filled with water, and then escaping from his watery prison. It is a trick much emulated by performers, including, most recently, Penn and Teller.
Houdini became a master at attracting publicity to shape his public persona and increase interest in and attendance at his performances. For example, he publicized appearances by challenging local police to lock him up; handcuffed, he would then break out of the cell. “Of course,” adds Rapaport, Houdini was “often nude when he&scaped.” He performed new tricks in front of newspaper headquarters, guaranteeing full coverage in print and in photographs.
In his Needle Threading Trick, an outgrowth of ancient sword swallowing and Nineteenth Century bead swallowing, Houdini invoked his considerable powers of innovative stagecraft. After calling volunteers to the stage to examine a package of needles and having them peer into his mouth for hidden gimmicks, he laid the needles on his tongue and swallowed them.
He then drank water to push down the needles and consumed some unraveled thread. Finally, with a great flourish, he reached into his mouth and pulled out a long length of needles embedded in thread. Photographers, of course, documented the climactic moment when, with outstretched arm and open mouth, he extracted the needles.
In outdoor exhibitions Houdini was suspended, head down, high above the ground, in which position he freed himself from a straitjacket. He first performed this feat in 1915 in front of newspaper offices in Kansas City and Minneapolis, eventually making the escape “easily Houdini’s most documented achievement,” according to Rapaport. A photograph of a crowd of 80,000 on the streets of Providence, R.I., watching a straitjacket escape suggests why subsequent indoor performances regularly sold out.
“Embedded in Houdini’s ventures were competing ambitions,” says curator Rapaport. “He simultaneously courted mortality and the triumph of life. The size of his audience only increased as he raised the stakes of his act.”
Indeed, his performances increasingly confronted the public’s greatest fears †entrapment, pain, death †resulting in palpable relief among onlookers when he survived. As contemporary illusionist David Copperfield observes, “Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried. Houdini takes all of those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from.”
Although his rise to fame coincided with breakthroughs in photography and filmmaking, it was the popular media rather than prominent photographers who aimed their cameras at Houdini. “The mass media eagerly propelled Houdini from a young sleight-of-hand magician&⁴o a world-class performer,” posits Rapaport.
Vintage photos of the escapist jumping shackled from Harvard Bridge in Boston, 1908; being lowered into a Water Torture, circa 1912; surrounded by a mass of humanity outdoors as he performed the Straitjacket Escape, circa 1915; and hanging by his feet above the clock tower in Times Square after 1915, document ways in which the popular media disseminated Houdini’s image and established a record of his astounding feats.
On the other hand, celebrated photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen apparently never took the magician’s picture. Nor did contemporary painters such as George Bellows, William Glackens, Edward Hopper and John Sloan record his exploits †”preferring the generic magicians, clowns and ballet dancers that characterized American realism,” says Rapaport.
The Jewish Museum exhibition appropriately makes much of the fact that onlookers could identify with Houdini’s own transformation “from foreign immigrant to native star&n inspiring backstory that solidified his popularity.” Rapaport adds, “The unusual image of a man freeing himself from a straitjacket powerfully evoked the escape from adversity experienced by many immigrants.” Thus, Houdini’s ability to escape from the direst of circumstances “had personal and inspiring symbolism.”
Posters from the 1920s chronicle Houdini’s campaign to debunk mind readers, mediums and other spiritualists who claimed supernatural powers. His feats as an illusionist and escape artist enabled him to see through a medium’s hokum. As he said in 1924, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.”
“Houdini,” says Rapaport, “never claimed to have supernatural powers in his performances and writings. He was infuriated by spiritualist guff” and denounced such fake practices in books, lectures, posters and 1926 testimony against spiritualists before Congress.
At the same time, Houdini battled professional peers who tried to duplicate his signature tricks. He objected to imitators and published books revealing some of his methods. Nevertheless, says Rapaport, “Houdini copycats, riding on his coattails, proliferated during his lifetime.” Contemporary magicians like Copperfield, Doug Henning and Penn and Teller have all expressed their indebtedness to the master, and his use of posters to promote performances has been widely copied.
Houdini appeared in a number of silent films in the early 1920s, served as a president of the Society of American Magicians and hobnobbed with the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Theodore Roosevelt. He made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear in front of a packed audience at New York City’s Hippodrome. “While other magicians made doves and rabbits vanish, Houdini used a pachyderm to stunning effect,” observes Rapaport.
During his lifetime Houdini carefully controlled his image, hiring cameramen to record his feats and starring in feature-length movies that capitalized on his daring.
In 1926, Houdini allowed a college student to punch him in the abdomen in order to test the magician’s strength. In spite of intense pain, he persevered through stage appearances until he collapsed a week later. Doctors found a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. He died several days later, on October 31, and was buried with his family in Jewish Machpelah Cemetery in Queens.
In spite of his anti-spiritualist efforts, on his deathbed Houdini asked his wife Bess to try to communicate with him at séances on the anniversary of his death. No word was ever received, however, and after ten years Bess declared the experiment a failure.
After he died, various creative figures revived the magician as a fictionalized figure. Houdini’s colorful career, widely publicized exploits and enormous public appeal spawned numerous books, movies and works of art.
Fans still visit Houdini’s grave in Queens hoping to make contact with his spirit. That spirit clearly lives on among writers, actors, artists and entertainers who continue to animate our cultural life with their evocations of the great magician and illusionist.
Writers like E.L. Doctorow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, actors such as the late Tony Curtis (who starred in the film Houdini in 1953), and artists as diverse as Matthew Barney, Petah Coyne, Jane Hammond, Vik Munoz and Richard Pettibon have helped make the magician a cultural icon.
Houdini once attributed his success partly to his great physical strength and the fact that he was slightly bowlegged. Of course, there was much more to it than that.
Imaginative showman and master magician, Houdini charmed, alarmed and captivated the American public during and after his lifetime. In achieving what curator Rapaport calls “his fundamental ambition †endowing the everyday with illusion and mystery,” Harry Houdini made himself a fascinating and enduring figure in American history.
A book on Houdini, titled by his name and serving as the exhibition catalog, is written by Rapaport with valuable contributions from other experts and crammed with historical photos. Co-published by the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, it sells for $39.95, hardcover.
After closing in New York, “Houdini” travels to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Madison, Wis.
The Jewish Museum is at 1109 Fifth Avenue. For information, www.thejewishmuseum.org or 212-423-3200.
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