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The Magic of Harry Houdini

We look back at Harry Houdini and his magic. See images of Harry Houdini, from The Jewish Museum in New York.

Harry Houdini was the greatest escape artist of his time, maybe any time. A century ago, Americans and Europeans flocked to see him shackled, chained, handcuffed, locked in a box, a jail, a water tank, hanging upside down in a straight jacket from a skyscraper, impossibly bound, nearly drowned, then, magically, free.

His magic tricks are legend. His life is quite a story, too.

He was born in Budapest and raised in Wisconsin and New York. His big break was in Omaha. His fame was worldwide. And his death was on Halloween, in Detroit.

We look at the Harry Houdini story, with David Copperfield and more.

-Tom Ashbrook


Brooke Kamin Rapaport, guest curator of the “Houdini: Art and Magic” exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York.

Kenneth Silverman, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and author of “Houdini!!! The career of Ehrich Weiss.” He’s professor emeritus of English at New York University.

David Copperfield, world-renowned illusionist.

Here’s a little from the exhibit’s introduction:

Through impossibly daring feats Harry Houdini (1874-1926) captivated audiences worldwide, and his legendary escapes instill awe to this day…Born Ehrich Weiss, Houdini was known to observers as someone who could not only escape from straitjackets, water tanks, milk cans and handcuffs, but as an individual who threw off his background, making an immigrant’s getaway from Budapest to Appleton, Wisconsin to New York and the international stage. His celebrity and the metaphor of escape have rightly become significant chapters in the Houdini storyline in biographies and biopics. This message is similarly carried in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century posters, photographs, and film footage from Houdini’s day…

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  • Brett

    Thanks for the photos of Houdini in various restraints and posters of the day…I was fascinated by magic as a child and learned some tricks. My introduction to Houdini came by way of Hollywood via the film in which Tony Curtis played him (great stuff for a little boy to day dream about).

    Question: when he died, was it a ruptured appendix in conjunction with a heavy punch to his stomach? This is what I remember, anyway…Also, it would make for some interesting discussion to link him to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a fascination with contacting “spirits,” “investigating” photos of fairies, etc.)

  • Nick

    I’m not an expert on Houdini, but I suspect given what we know about “magicical escapes,” Houdini was an entertainer + huckster; Ms. Ramon Rapaport has just stated as much!

    If you wish to see real, extraordinary daring, I fully recommend you watch the documentary, “Man On Wire” (2008), about French tight-rope walker, Philippe Petit.

  • John

    Houdini was devoted to debunking spiritualist claims.

  • mark russell

    hi folks. simple question: i seem to remember having heard or read somewhere some time ago that houdini could button his shirt with his toes. is this true?

  • BHA

    Mr. Silverman said Houdini studied the workings of hundreds of locks so he could break them.

    I am curious – I ASSUME the locks of today are more sophisticated than those of Houdini’s time. Would he be able to do the escapes with current locks?

  • http://danielwetmore.com Dan Wetmore

    I lived on Block Island, RI in the early ’80′s,
    was a member of a writers’ group. A man named Elliot
    Sanford was also a member, an elderly man in his eighties
    who had been Houdini’s piano player for several years towards the latter part of HH’s career. He was writing a memoir of his experiences. It was extremely interesting. He became a close to the family, spent time in the home.
    I don’t know if the book was ever finished.
    Good raw material.

  • Brett

    “Houdini was devoted to debunking spiritualist claims.” -John

    Yes, John, quite right. However, one has to also ask why Mr. Houdini engaged in a debunking process of many spiritualists: it was in an effort to get to what he considered were true spiritualists, true spiritualism as he thought of it. Doyle, who was his friend for a time, felt very similarly about spiritualism (as both men thought of it). The difference in Doyle is that he not only embraced many fake spiritualists, he participated in a hoax or two. The two men had a falling out over these very issues. Both also had a Judeo-Christian view of spiritualism…Now, compare and contrast the two men in two hundred words or less.

  • http://www.jasonpurdy.com Jason Purdy

    Great program… I’m glad I tuned in. They say perception is reality. Amazingly the legend of Houdini is oftentimes remembered larger than ever. Houdini created his reality. He has continued to keep people guessing and talking… What a trick!

  • Nanette in Wisconsin

    There’s a permanent Houdini exhibit at The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, WI, which is where he grew up.

    The museum reveals the secret behind one of his most popular escapes. This was pretty controversial when it first opened, but it’s still great to see. You say to yourself “Ah, but of course! How clever!”


  • http://www.houdini-lives.com/ John Cox

    Superb show! Thank you for this.

    Dan Wetmore… I’m VERY interested in your comments about Elliot
    Sanford and his memories of Houdini. As far as I know, his book was never published. Would love to hear his stories.


  • zaza

    How you make a wand work

  • Marna Ehrech

    My father was born in NYC in 1905, and he saw Houdini perform. I don’t remember now much of what dad said about that–he passed on in ’99–but he did say it was an amazing act, that Houdini was incredible.

  • Harry Abraham

    Your guests are following the nearly sacred magician’s code to protect secrets. Copperfield would not have appeared otherwise. Houdini’s stage escapes were illusions. He was never in danger in the milk can escape, the water torture cell, metamorphosis, etc. The apparatus was covered by a drape and he was out in seconds, waiting behind the curtain as the band played and the clock ticked. His challenge escapes were real and often dangerous: success required subterfuge and concealed tools. His most dangerous escapes — buried alive, and the packing case thrown into the river — had elements of his stage illusions, but the environment of the escape made them dangerous, daredevil stunts. He very nearly died performing each of them. Creating Houdini the legend was his greatest feat. My favorite trick: walking through a solid brick wall. Pure magic.

  • Dean Cottrill

    Hi Tom,

    Very much enjoyed your show on Houdini. There was a celebrated sleight-of-hand artist by the name of Dai Vernon who dumfounded Houdini with a card trick. Not to diminish Houdini’s talents, but the story is deserving of investigation.

    Love the show!

  • Herbert L. Becker

    Harry Houdini was the greatest FAKE in the history of the world.

    None of his claims are true nor are the stories of his success.

    There has been a myth which has been perpetuated over the years, growing in size as the years go by.

    For more information see http://www.magicweb.com

  • Slipstream

    It is great to hear my former professor, Ken Silverman, on the radio. He was always an excellent teacher on the subject of American literature, and he continues to be one on the subject of Harry Houdini. I am glad that he is experiencing some success as a result of his work as a biographer.

  • Wentwentt


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  • Anonymous

    He was not a fake. I spoke to him the other night in a seance, and he explained his tactics.

  • Eliezer Pennywhistler

     He claimed that his illusions were illusions and that his escapes were not.  So what’s the problem?

    I think most people would agree that his success was phenomenal … and lasted for decades.  And after his death movies, books, radio shows … and even a Houdini Museum.

    I know of no Herbert L. Becker Museum.

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