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Harry Houdini

Insights from the World's Greatest Escape Artist

Harry Houdini in chains

by Dennis Pollock

Harry Houdini was not a Christian. In his short but spectacular fifty-two year life there is no evidence that he ever gave Jesus Christ any more than a passing thought. Some might suppose that he would be an unlikely subject for a devotional article written to instruct believers. Yet there is much in his life that is incredibly instructive and profitable for Christians to consider and contemplate. Just as there are parallels between the physical world and the spiritual world, so there are parallels between secular success and spiritual fruitfulness. Our Lord Jesus told us that “The sons of this world are more shrewd… than the sons of light.” Sometimes we Christians need to take a look around at some of our non-Christian friends that are enjoying fabulous success, and see if there might be a thing or two we might learn from them, to help us become better servants of our Lord Jesus.

Natural Inclination

It seems a basic fact of life that people who attain extreme success often display an unusual predisposition toward the area of their success as children. Harry Houdini, who started out in life named Ehrich Weiss, was no exception to this rule. As a boy he was fascinated with the various shows that came to his small town in Wisconsin. He was especially mesmerized by the circus, with its trapeze artists, freak shows, elephants, tightrope walkers, magic performances, exotic animals, and clowns. Once, when he saw a trapeze artist swing from a rope by his teeth, young Ehrich tried the stunt himself and promptly ripped out a couple of his front teeth. He had not realized that the professional had been wearing a mouthpiece.

But there was another realm that captivated the young boy perhaps even more, which, in hindsight, clearly forecast the career he would eventually take. Strangely, young Ehrich seemed drawn to locks and keys. Biographer William Kalush writes:

He had always been intrigued by all types of locks and fasteners and hardware, practicing at home by opening the drawers, closets, and pantries of his house at will, using a small buttonhook. He had become notorious in Appleton as the boy who had unlocked all the doors to the shops on College Avenue one night.

Becoming a Magician

Anyone who doubts the power of words need only read a few biographies, and he will learn of lives forever changed by a single book. In Ehrich Weiss’ life that book was a biography of the famous French magician, Robert Houdin. From the opening pages, Ehrich was transfixed. He began reading the book one evening, and after waking up in the morning, his mother found her obsessive son sitting in the same chair and in the same position, still reading. The teen was hooked. He later wrote: “My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero. I accepted his writings as my text-book and my gospel.”

Within about a year, Ehrich took the stage name “Houdini,” after the magician who had had such a profound influence upon him, and began testing the waters in little halls and shows performed in small towns. In the beginning he was no smash hit. He used various partners, including one of his brothers, but eventually met a twenty year old singer named Beatrice who stole the young magician’s heart. They were married in a few weeks, and since the income from the show could barely sustain two, he had to drop his regular partner and make his bride his assistant.

The young couple were deeply in love, but they were also poor and were by no means setting the show business world on fire. They performed their act in the dime museums of the day. These so-called “museums” represented the lowest rung of entertainment. They provided cheap entertainment for those who could not afford to go anywhere else. They were often nothing more than a hall which had been rented for a short while, being used to showcase all the show business acts of people eager to someday reach the “big time.” Typical acts might include sword swallowers, the morbidly obese, women with beards and moustaches, belly dancers, strong men (all claiming to be the strongest man on earth), midgets, people born without arms (known as “armless wonders”) and the like. And of course, there were the magicians, most of which were barely able to put together a few card tricks and simple vanishing stunts.

Harry Houdini was not the typical magician. His athletic body and nimble fingers enabled him to do tricks others could never do. His brilliant mind and restless quest for perfection resulted in constant inventions of new and better ways to do the things that all the magicians were doing. Yet still there was something missing. Year followed year, and there seemed no evidence that Houdini would ever graduate from the dime museum circuit. It was hard work, and it paid barely enough to sustain them. At times Beatrice, whom Harry always called Bess, would get so discouraged she would refuse to perform with her husband, and young Harry would have to go out and face his tiny audiences alone.

It might have seemed that the young couple were doing little more than spinning their wheels, but in truth Harry Houdini was laying a foundation for a remarkable career, which would soon catapult him into such fame that he would possess the most recognizable name in the world. Day by day and stunt by stunt Harry was honing his considerable skills. Perhaps even more importantly, he was learning the fundamentals of showmanship: how to relate to an audience and how to exaggerate and magnify a stunt until the audience becomes totally drawn in at an emotional level. Houdini was coming to recognize that a successful magician is more than a trickster; he is an entertainer.

While Houdini was pulling rabbits out of hats and doing card tricks, he found a way to make his love for locks and keys a part of his magic show. He inserted a simple handcuff escape into the act, and found his audiences responding enthusiastically. In those days this was a rarity in a magic show and for Houdini to be locked in a pair of impressive, strong iron handcuffs and then go behind a curtain, where he would emerge a few minutes later with his wrists free, seemed almost… well, magical.

Breakout

HoudiniHoudini’s life changed with the help of the vaudeville tycoon, Martin Beck. The wealthy Beck happened to catch Houdini’s act at a beer hall in Minnesota. At the time Houdini was terribly discouraged and was contemplating quitting show business and getting a job as a locksmith. Seeing young Houdini, Beck was impressed, not with Houdini’s standard magic tricks, but with his ability to free himself from handcuffs. Beck returned the following night with three sets of cuffs he had purchased and challenged Houdini to get out of them. Houdini obliged. By now he had studied handcuffs so thoroughly that he could tell at a glance what type of handcuff he was dealing with, and which type of key or pick was necessary to release the lock.

Of course the audience never actually saw Houdini get out of the cuffs. He would go into a sort of box out of view and do his “magic.” Then he would emerge, sometimes within minutes, sometimes taking more than an hour, free from the cuffs. Upon his death his effects included scores of handcuff keys, as well as lock-picking instruments. In those days, each brand of handcuffs used the same exact key to open them. Houdini, having memorized the varied brands and styles of locks, could quickly size them up and know exactly what was required to open them.

He employed a great many deceptions to hide the keys and pics. In later years he would strip naked and allow his body to be carefully searched to prove he had no such devices. But he was so clever and his dexterity so perfect that he could start out palming a key in his hand while they searched through the hairs of his head. Once the hair search was done he would casually rub his hand through his hair and the key or pick would be transferred to the already searched head.

At other times he kept keys ingeniously hidden in the box where he freed himself. He created a thin fake finger which fit over one of his own fingers, and could contain a key or lock pick. Biographers say that he even hid keys in a tiny case which he would swallow and then regurgitate when hidden from the audience. It was thought that in some cases his assistants would secretly pass them to him, although nobody knew quite when or how. Houdini was so brilliant in these various deceptions that over the long course of his career, there is no record of anyone ever catching him at this, or figuring out just how he did it.

At this early point in his career, Houdini was still in his elementary stages of escaping handcuffs, but already he was good enough to get out of Beck’s fairly simple cuffs. The vaudeville tycoon was amazed. Within a short time he offered to sponsor Houdini and become his agent. Beck promised to heavily promote his young magician and take him to the top of the heap of entertainers. Houdini gladly signed.

Beck was as good as his word. He offered more than opportunities and promotion, though. He also had some excellent advice for the young man. He told Houdini to change his act, leaving out most of the standard magic routines, and focus mainly on his amazing escapes from handcuffs. Houdini learned to make them more and more dramatic. He realized that when escapes happened too quickly they lost their sensational appeal. The audience had to feel he was really struggling to effect the escape. In many cases he had the exact key needed for the handcuffs and could be free from them in a couple of seconds. But it would never do to show himself to the audience that quickly, and so he would sit inside the box for fifteen or twenty minutes, reading the papers until enough time elapsed.

Conquering Europe

Harry prospered and became famous under Beck’s management, but he was far too independent to endure such a strong personality as a manager for long. After about a year of performing in Beck’s theaters, he decided to head for Europe, where he could work more independently. One of Beck’s agents promised to get him some bookings in England, and soon Harry and Bess were off to try the waters of Europe. Houdini had been doing so well in America by this point he was becoming certain of his abilities both as a performer and a businessman.

When the Houdinis reached London they discovered that the agent that had promised them bookings was lying. There were no bookings at all. Houdini, never one to either give up or sit around and hope for something to happen, knew what to do. He found an agent who promised to help him, and they went to the manager of a prominent London theater asking for an opportunity to perform. He was not convinced by Houdini’s on the spot demonstration, and said the young man could find a place in his theater, provided he go to Scotland Yard and extricate himself from official police handcuffs. Houdini was happy to comply.

Police Superintendent Melville thought the young man brash and foolish, and smugly chained him with his arms around a pillar, telling him, “Here’s how we fasten Yankee criminals who come over here and get in trouble.” He told Houdini they would go out for lunch and then come back and check on him. He and the theater manager headed for the door, but before they could leave the room, Houdini was behind them, calling out, “Wait, I’ll go with you.” Throwing the hand cuffs to the floor he triumphantly declared, “Here’s the way Yankees open the handcuffs.” Needless to say, Houdini got the gig.

Houdini was fully prepared for success in Europe. He had perfected his craft in those little, smelly dime museums and then later in the nicer theaters of vaudeville. By now he was not only an amazing escape artist, but also a phenomenal showman. He knew how to create suspense and how to draw out his words as he announced his amazing feats. He could read an audience and judge just how long they would endure while he pretended to struggle with handcuffs. He went from one sold-out venue to another.

Astonishing the Police

Houdini developed what would become a lifetime routine of showing up in a town, heading straight for the local police station, and asking them to put him in their jail, securely handcuffed. After he escaped the bars of prison, his handcuffs left on the floor, astonished police chiefs would tell the press they had never seen anything like it, and create the required publicity for sellout crowds at his evening shows.

In fact Houdini was so successful that he soon faced a complication common to all successful people: imitators. After a few years performers were everywhere doing handcuff escapes, which ended up not only diluting Houdini’s audiences, but also making his escapes look less impressive. If a dozen men could do the same thing, it must not be such a big deal. Houdini’s creative mind was always working, and he would simply add a new dimension to his shows, which others could not yet do.

As the years passed Houdini’s escapes and tricks became more and more dramatic. He had himself locked in an oversized milk can, he jumped off bridges with chains on his hands and feet, and even allowed himself to be buried alive, usually in some type of coffin or crate. In nearly all these escapes there was some type of trick to it, of which the audience was completely unaware. Often Houdini allowed them to bring their own crates for him to escape, but he would have the regular long screws on one side replaced by short screws which would allow him to easily kick out one end of the box. Once out, he would replace the short screws with long screws again.

Mediums and “Ghosts”

In the latter part of his career Houdini went through a transformation. Throughout his life he had loved, indeed been nearly obsessed with his mother. He was in Europe when the news reached him that she had died, and upon hearing this he immediately fainted. For months he was inconsolable. In his grief he sought out the fringe community of the mediums. In those days the possibility of communicating with the dead had become popular in many quarters. The mediums and psychics had turned the hope of speaking with one’s dead mother, child, or friend into a big business. Séances were held in darkened rooms, where hopeful mourners held hands with the professional mediums, who claimed the gift of reaching into the afterlife and contacting the spirits of the dead. They provided all sorts of “proofs” of their abilities, including the loud blowing of trumpets, spooky voices, floating chairs, and ghostlike apparitions.

Houdini yearned to hear from his beloved mother, and to know that she was in a better world, but as he visited the mediums he quickly caught onto their game. Their apparitions, voices, noises, and other phenomenon were nothing more than parlor tricks, and Houdini, who was himself a master of deception, wasn’t fooled the least little bit. Soon he developed a loathing for these men and women who profited on the grief of those who mourned, and he determined to expose them.

For the remaining years of his life Houdini did exactly that, devoting a major part of each show showing his audiences exactly how the mediums were fooling the gullible. The mediums and those who truly believed that they had talked with dear momma, hated him for it, but most people recognized that the master of deception knew wherein he spoke. You can’t kid a kidder, you can’t play a player, and you can’t deceive a deceiver.

Ironically, Houdini never truly gave up on the idea of communicating with the dead; he simply had never seen a medium who wasn’t involved in deception. He told his wife Bess that when he died, he would try his best to reach out to her from the grave. He even gave her a word code, which if she heard from any medium, would “prove” that it was truly him talking.

Finally Houdini had his chance. A ruptured appendix brought him to an early grave at the age of fifty-two. In the years that followed Bess tried constantly to contact her beloved Harry, even offering a ten thousand dollar reward to any medium who could put her in touch with her late husband. Of course they would have to know the exact code he had given her, and relate other things that only the two of them would know.

There were many who came forward to attempt to claim the prize, but none was believable. After ten years of trying, Bess tried one last séance. When there was no evidence of the real Houdini, she gave up, declaring that ten years of waiting for a man, living or dead, was enough. She said, “Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone… It is now my personal and positive belief that spirit communication in any form is impossible… Good night, Harry.”

Lessons for Believers

What insights can we gain from the life of the great Harry Houdini? Although not a Christian, still we find several aspects of his life that we could all profit by emulating. First, Houdini was passionate about excelling in his field. Some might say that he was maybe a little too passionate, but when we consider how many people float through life, lazily taking the easiest course, having no desire to do anything more than the bare minimum, it is refreshing to observe a man who poured himself into the achievement of success in his avocation.

Second, Houdini was willing to suffer through his early, tough years where there was little acclaim and few indicators that he would ever break through to greatness. This is something we usually see in almost every person who makes a significant impact upon this world, whether spiritually or naturally. Nearly every such person will have their wilderness seasons, where they are tested and shaped, and without which they will never see the full attainment of all for which they hope and dream. Sadly, as was noted earlier, “The sons of this world are more shrewd… than the sons of light.” Many secular musicians, athletes, and entertainers are far more diligent to persevere until they attain their goals, than many Christians.

One thing that seemed to bother the great escape artist was that he had spent his life giving himself entirely to mere entertainment – a form of entertainment that was based on deception. As he was dying, he said to the doctor that was attempting to save his life: “Doctor, you know I always wanted to be a surgeon, but I never could. I have always regretted it.” The doctor was shocked to hear such a comment from the world famous celebrity. He called it one of the most amazing statements he had ever heard, and said, “Here you are, the greatest magician and the greatest entertainer of your age. You make countless thousands of people happy. You have an unlimited income and you are admired and respected by everybody, while I am just an ordinary dub of a surgeon trying to struggle through life.” Houdini smiled and replied, “Perhaps those things are true, doctor, but the difference between me and you is that you actually do things for people. I, in almost every respect, am a fake.” In that comment Houdini was exactly right. To put it in a Christian perspective, the simplest, most obscure Christian who manages to lead one soul to Christ in his lifetime has accomplished far more than the great Houdini had achieved in thirty years of astonishing the world with his tricks and deceptions, indeed more than Houdini could do had he been given one hundred such lifetimes.

Last, Harry Houdini, for all his exceptional qualities, was like all the rest of humanity – he yearned for an answer for the universal phenomenon of death. He longed to know that there was something beyond the grave, something more than rotting flesh and consuming worms. He even declared, “If there is a way to come back from the dead, I will do so.” But death was something over which even the great Houdini was powerless. When his mother died one of his assistants asked him if he couldn’t do something to bring her back. So great was he in the eyes of his admiring helper, the man thought maybe Houdini could somehow restore his mother to life. Houdini, knowing better than anyone else that his escapes were based on sleight of hand, hidden keys, and his own dexterity, freely admitted that he had no such power.

And when it came his turn to enter that realm from which no man returns (permanently), he likewise had no power to communicate to those on this side. Although he was in many ways a great man and a highly skilled man, he was still just a man. No hidden key, no palmed lock pick, no trap door, no specially made crate with a false bottom, could stave off death for even one minute longer than his Creator had determined. Nor could he penetrate that dark wall that separates the dead from the living.

The Ultimate Escape

Empty tomb

Although many do not consider it, there is an escape artist far greater than Houdini. Long before Houdini was born, Jesus Christ, the spotless, sinless Son of God was nailed to a cross and left there to suffer until His life was extinguished. Afterwards He was taken off that cross and His body was laid in a dark tomb. A huge stone was rolled in front of the opening and a Roman seal was placed on the stone. For three days the stone stayed in place and the seal was unbroken. On the third day, that wonderful Sunday morning, our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead. It was not a magician’s trick; Jesus was raised by the power of our Almighty Creator, the One with whom nothing is impossible. Over the next forty days He appeared many times to His disciples. When some doubted, He invited them to examine Him carefully and see the nails in His hands and feet, and put their hands into the hole in His side made by a cruel spear.

The Scriptures affirm that this Jesus is the “firstfruits from the dead,” the premiere demonstration of God’s intention to raise all who die in Christ into everlasting life. Jesus is the ultimate escape artist, not from a crate or a pair of handcuffs, but from death itself. And He offers unto men and women from every race and nation the gift of eternal life. Like our Master, we too can escape the cold hands of death; we can share in the ultimate deliverance God has provided for all who will trust in Jesus.

The Bible declares: “Our God is the God of salvation; and to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death” (Psalm 68:20). Paul exults: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11).

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