Ask people to name one magician and most probably they will say, “Harry Houdini.” He’s a popular escape artist, illusionist, and stunt performer most famous for his escape acts. And he’s often most quoted and imitated by magicians that lived after him, until today.
Houdini first attracted attention through vaudeville in the US, and as “Harry ‘Handcuff’ Houdini” on a European tour, where he challenged the police to keep him locked up. Soon after, he extended his repertoire to include ropes slung from skyscrapers, chains, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water.
Harry Houdini is one of a kind personality of his generation that continued to influence pop culture until today. Here’s how he influenced popular culture:
He inspired generations of magicians and artists
Magicians see Houdini as a role model for the magic business, more than for the sleight of hand mastery. Houdini’s reputation is very much alive and visibly replicated among today’s magicians like Penn and Teller, David Blaine, and David Copperfield, as well as contemporary artists like Raymond Pettibon, Mathew Barney, and Vik Muniz. Penn and Teller’s routine of slowly divulging the trick while being up to their ears in increasing danger is a classic Houdini move.
Houdini’s extraordinary impact on his time and ours is chronicled in “Houdini: Art and Magic” at a Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue, New York. It’s a show that strives to frame Houdini’s hold on the contemporary artistic imagination. The exhibition curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport also places Houdin’s career at the heart of the Jewish immigrant experience in the US in the early 20th century.
For contemporary artists, Houdini is a muse and a font of visual culture, from his various posters to the familiar movie character of “the magician.” To them, he is also a precursor to today’s performance artist from Paul McCarthy to Marina Abravomic.
He was the king of handcuffs
During his early years in show business, Houdini struggled and considered quitting and opening a magic school. Finally, he caught a break in 1899 when vaudeville impresario Martin Beck booked him on a US and Europe tour. Following Beck’s advice, Houdini made escapes a central part of his act. He started challenging audiences to tie him up or lock him in handcuffs, then promoted his shows by staging escapes from local jails. His shtick was a huge success – the public christened him “King of Handcuffs” and performed to sold-out crowds across Europe. He later cemented his fame by staging numerous high-profile escapes in the US.
In most of his escape stunts, his props included handcuffs – rows of them, particularly heavy ones – which is ideal for weighing him down to make underwater escapes happen all the more rapidly. There are crude handcuffs, sinuous handcuffs, and those that look deadly. Growing up, her worked in a locksmith’s shop and for pleasure, he would go up and down the empty main street reopening the doors of the shops, as legend says it.
In 1904, Houdini tried to escape from special handcuffs commissioned by London’s Daily Mirror. They claimed that the handcuffs took five years to make. Houdini kept thousands of people and more than a hundred journalists watch this trick and kept them in suspense for over an hour, during which Houdini emerged from his ghost house several times.
He was a brilliant escape artist
Today’s magicians and magic scholars say that Houdini isn’t revered for typical stage magic but for his brilliance as an escape artist.
The most iconic of his magic stunts are those stunts when he tried to escape a difficult scenario he staged. Besides the Daily Mirror challenge, his most famous stunts include the Milk Can Escape, where he was handcuffed and sealed inside an oversized milk can with water; the Chinese water torture cell, where his feet were locked and he was lowered upside down in a glass tank filled with water; and the overboard box escape, where he tried to escape from a nailed and roped packing crate that has been lowered into the water.
One of his most popular publicity stunts is the suspended straitjacket escape, where he had himself strapped into a straitjacket and suspended by his ankles from a tall building or crane. This stunt would draw tens of thousands of onlookers, bringing traffic to a halt.
Another stunt saw him buried alive and not only being able to claw himself to the surface – he emerged in a state of near-breakdown.
Probably the most bizarre escape stunt of his career is the staged escape from the belly of a 1,500-pound sea monster that was washed up in the harbor of Boston City. Historians still are not sure about what creature really was (it’s been described as different things between a whale to a leatherback turtle). Houdini manage to escape handcuffs, leg iron shackles and being wedged inside the stinking carcass in 15 minutes, but he admitted that he nearly suffocated from the fumes of the chemicals used to embalm the beast.
He debunked spiritualists
As the world’s greatest and most popular trickster, Houdini had little patience for anyone who claimed they have supernatural powers. In his later years, he campaigned against mind readers, table knockers, conduits for fairies from the great beyond, and other people who claimed they have supernatural powers, calling them charlatans. He argued that these people produced all their effects through natural means.
Beginning in the 1920s, Houdini started his second career as a professional skeptic and a debunker of psychics, mind readers, mediums, and other spiritualists who claim that they are able to contact the deceased. He wrote Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920) and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924). He campaigned tirelessly for this cause, often visiting séances in disguise to expose their ringleader as frauds. He even offered a $10,000 reward to any psychic who can present physical phenomena that could not be explained rationally (No one ever got to collect that reward). And in 1926, Houdini testified before Congress in support of a bill to outlaw the practice of pretending to tell fortunes for compensation or reward.
However, Houdini and his wife, Bess, agreed to conduct an experiment in spiritualism. The first to die must try to communicate with the survivor. The couple agreed to communicate the message “Rosabelle believe,” and when Houdini died first, Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after his death. But after hearing nothing, she stopped the experiment, and declared that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man” before her death.
He brought immediacy to show business
A great visual artist knows how to read the temper of the times and find ways to crystallize it. This is Houdini’s genius – he used the illusions of magic and its paraphernalia to explore his audience’s needs.
Relations between the performer and the audience were highly formal when Houdini first entered the performing scene in the 1890s. But the influx of media – radio, movies, magazines, and mass circulation newspapers – brought a new immediacy and intimacy to show business. Houdini recognized this and took advantage of it. He often dangled upside down in a straitjacket high above the street but near a newspaper office so his death-defying act can be captured and make the late edition.
The new media during the beginning of the 20th century leveled the playing field, allowing all people enter the center ring of show business. His popularity and cash flow baffled his rivals and contemporaries. The other magicians felt that he bullied his audiences where he should have seduced them, as was their practice.
Unknowingly, he taught people to develop their own brand
Houdini remains a contemporary figure because the way he worked with the media, the way he used irony and spectacle, and the way he “developed his brand” (to use a contemporary term) – these all plays comfortably in the age of TV, Instagram and Twitter. His career offered a window into the celebrity culture and use of identity as a commodity.