March 24

Harry Houdini (1874)

It was on this date, March 24, 1874 that Harry Houdini was born Erich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary. His father, a rabbi, died shortly after the family emigrated and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin. Young Erich was devoted to his mother, but he left home as a teenager to make his fortune, found a job as a tie cutter in New York City, and performed a magic act in his spare time. He kept himself in peak physical condition and this, coupled with his dramatic good looks counterbalanced his poor education and rough English skills.

Erich adapted the name of his favorite French magician and ever afterward was known as Harry Houdini. It was in New York that he met Beatrice Rahner, a Catholic girl, and married her — three times — Catholic, Jewish and secular, just to be sure! In Europe the Houdinis first tasted success, and for the next 26 years from the turn of the century, Houdini maintained his name as a household word in vaudeville venues around the world. Houdini defied death by escaping from every container imaginable. His most famous escape, from a locked water tank while suspended upside down, was dramatized, incorrectly, as the cause of his death in the 1953 Tony Curtis film. Though many believed it, the magician stoutly denied he had supernatural powers.

Houdini struck up an unlikely friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was dramatized in the 1997 film, Fairy Tale: a True Story, featuring Harvey Keitel. Doyle was a devout believer in Spiritualism; his wife was a medium, and Houdini's mother had recently died. At a séance, in which Mrs. Doyle used "automatic writing" to reach the spirit world, Houdini's orthodox Jewish mother apparently made the sign of the cross and wrote an effusive message in English, a language she never understood while alive!

Yes, Houdini had the desire to believe, but the facts kept getting in his way, and he crusaded for 13 years against phony spirit mediums. As their friendship deteriorated, Houdini wrote to Doyle, "I know you treat this as a religion, but personally I cannot do so, for, up to the present time, and with all my experiences, I have never seen or heard anything that could really convert me."

Houdini did keep his options open: though one of his heroes was the Great Agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, he gave his wife Bess a secret code to extract from any medium who presumed to contact him after he died. On Halloween, 1926, within a week of a freak incident that ruptured his appendix, Houdini took his last bow. His widow conducted séances every October 31 until her own death in 1936, but this time Houdini was in a box from which he could not escape.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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