Arts & Culture

Harry Houdini, Master of Escape, Born 140 Years Ago Today

Like so many Jews who came after him and rose to fame, he embodied the notion of the underdog, and dedicated himself to his craft. Read More

By / March 24, 2014

Harry Houdini, the master of escape, had Jewish beginnings: he was born Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874, to Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz and Cecília Weisz of Budapest. The family emigrated to the United States in 1878, when his father was hired as the rabbi of Appleton Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin. After a few years, Rabbi Weisz lost his job and the family relocated to New York City.

Houdini had an entrepreneurial, athletic, daring spirit from a young age. He ran cross-country and pursued magic (quite unsuccessfully at first), and later escape artistry, rising to become America’s most famous and influential magician. But for someone who built a career on illusion, and who actively cultivated his own mythology (he once told a reporter “the greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin”), he had a sharp, rational, no-nonsense intellect. As Rachel Shteir wrote in Tablet Magazine in 2010:

Houdini found a satisfying second act: demystifying Spiritualism, a cult many Americans turned to after losing their loved ones in World War I. From being an escape artist, Houdini became an exposer of psychics whom he considered charlatans because they used trickery to pretend to commune with the dead—as opposed to merely pretending to escape. This was not just Houdini’s competitive spirit. What he did was entertainment. Spiritualism was magic in supernatural clothing.

In 1922, Arthur Conan Doyle invited his old friend to a séance hosted by his second wife, who supposedly made contact with Houdini’s beloved late mother, Cecilia. While communicating with Cecilia, Lady Doyle drew a cross; then, she transcribed an emotional letter to Houdini. Instead of convincing Houdini, the séance outraged him. He would later point out in public the unlikeliness of his mother, a Jew and a rabbi’s wife, drawing a cross—or communicating in English since she never spoke it in real life. Conan Doyle explained that his wife drew a cross whenever she channeled any spirit and that in the beyond, “Hebrew” was translated into English. The fact that Houdini’s mother spoke not Hebrew but German ended the men’s friendship.

Houdini died tragically at the age of 52, after injuries sustained by an ill-timed blow to his abdomen. But his roster of achievements was extensive: illusionist, aviator, film star, producer, author of several books about magic. He was the proto-21st century celebrity, adept at cultivating his brand across multiple platforms. (Imagine what he would have done with Instagram!) In many ways, notes Jon Reiss, Houdini “represents an archetype not only of the hardworking immigrant, but of the hard working immigrant Jew. Houdini, like so many Jews who came after him and rose to fame, embodied the notion of the underdog, and dedicated himself to his craft.”

Here he is performing a rope escape in under 30 seconds. Almost 100 years later, it’s still mesmerizing:

(Image: Harry Houdini with his mother and his wife, Bess, in 1907. Credit: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections)

Related: Houdini Reappears At The Jewish Museum