Harry “Handcuff” Houdini…“It’s A Kind Of Magic”
“You either have the magic or you don’t. There’s no way you can work up to it”. Freddie Mercury, refering to Jimi Hendrix
Magic: The skill of those magicians (also called illusionists), who are involved in the arts of appearing to perform paranormal feats, or to the abilities of those who create magic in fiction, poetry, or other fields of art or games. Even more generally, it can refer to the abilities of those who simply produce forms of wonder and mystery in various fields of endeavor, which many can find either appealing or frightening, or both.
“Houdini really did free himself from those fetters and chains and sealed trunks dropped into the river, and survived the Chinese Water Torture (an effect used prominently in The Prestige night after night). But there were those who argued his tricks were physically impossible, and thus must be supernatural”.Roger Ebert
“My professional life has been a constant record of disillusion, and many things that seem wonderful to most men are the every-day commonplaces of my business”. HH
Harry Houdini (24 March 1874 – 31 October 1926) was a Hungarian-born American stage magician, escapologist, stunt performer, actor, film producer and investigator of spiritualist claims; born Erik Weisz he used the name Ehrich Weiss until legally changing his name to “Harry Houdini” in 1913.
He first attracted notice as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged different police forces to try to keep him locked up. This revealed a talent for gimmickry and for audience involvement that characterized all his work. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath inside a sealed milk can.
“I make the most money, I think, in Russia and Paris, for the people of those countries are so willing to be amused, so eager to see something new and out of the ordinary”. HH
“But it must not be thought that I say this out of personal experience: for in the many years that I have been before the public my secret methods have been steadily shielded by the strict integrity of my assistants, most of whom have been with me for years”. HH
Many of these challenges were pre-arranged with local merchants in what is certainly one of the first uses of mass tie-in marketing. Rather than promote the idea that he was assisted by spirits, as did the Davenport Brothers and others, Houdini’s advertisements showed him making his escapes via dematerializing, although Houdini himself never claimed to have supernatural powers.
“I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That’s what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the ‘human fly’ who scales the walls of the same building”. HH As quoted in The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993) by Ruth Brandon
In 1904, the London Daily Mirror newspaper challenged Houdini to escape from special handcuffs that it claimed had taken Nathaniel Hart, a locksmith from Birmingham, five years to make. Houdini accepted the challenge for March 17 during a matinée performance at London’s Hippodrome theater. It was reported that 4000 people and more than 100 journalists turned out for the much-hyped event. The escape attempt dragged on for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his “ghost house” (a small screen used to conceal the method of his escape) several times. On one occasion he asked if the cuffs could be removed so he could take off his coat. The Mirror representative, Frank Parker, refused, saying Houdini could gain an advantage if he saw how the cuffs were unlocked. Houdini promptly took out a pen-knife and, holding the knife in his teeth, used it to cut his coat from his body. Some 56 minutes later, Houdini’s wife appeared on stage and gave him a kiss. It is believed that in her mouth was the key to unlock the special handcuffs. Houdini then went back behind the curtain. After an hour and ten minutes, Houdini emerged free. As he was paraded on the shoulders of the cheering crowd, he broke down and wept. Houdini later said it was the most difficult escape of his career.
The real secret of magic lies in the performance. ~ David Copperfield
More than half of Houdini’s archival estate holdings and memorabilia, however, were willed to his fellow magician and friend, John Mulholland (1897–1970). In 1991, well-known illusionist and television performer David Copperfield purchased the entirety of Mulholland’s Houdini holdings from Mulholland’s estate. These are now archived and preserved in Copperfield’s museum in a warehouse at his headquarters in Las Vegas. His museum there contains the world’s largest collection of Houdini memorabilia, and all told, preserves approximately 80,000 items of magic memorabilia of Houdini and many other famous practitioners of the arts of magic and illusion – including, among others of Houdini’s stage props and material, his famous “Water Torture Cabinet” and “Metamorphosis Trunk”. The museum is not open to the public, but tours are available by invitation-only to fellow magicians, scholars, researchers, journalists, and serious collectors.
“No performer should attempt to bite off red-hot iron unless he has a good set of teeth”. Harry Houdini