Unlocking Houdini’s Secrets at the Muzeo
My dad is a delightfully bizarre and interesting person, who decorates his home with not your typical items. A coffin lays in his living room, a mannequin dressed as Sherlock Holmes sits on a small loveseat, and draped over the arm is a straight jacket, some handcuffs, and hanging on the wall, a small antique poster advertising Harry Houdini’s water tank escape. These are the sorts of items I grew up around, and was bound to have a fascination with the macabre and supernatural, including Houdini (as some of you may know, one of my cats is named Houdini), which is why I was thrilled when I heard the Muzeo announced a Houdini exhibit.
The exhibit, Houdini Unchained, is made up of items from Dr. Randall Bell’s private collection and have never been on display outside of their original use. Items range from props and handcuffs used by Houdini himself, as well as pieces from films inspired by Houdini, such as a water tank from Frances Ford Coppala’s The Escape Artist, and straightjacket from The Linguini Incident, and some areas show footage of Houdini’s astounding escapes.
If you’ve ever doubted that Houdini was his real name, then you are correct, Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiz March 23, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a rabbi. Just a few years after Ehrich was born, the family immigrated to the United States when his father was offered a position in Wisconsin. However, not long after, Ehrich’s father lost his job, and to help out, Ehrich took the jobs he could as a child, including paper boy, shoe shiner, as well as working for a locksmith (where he learned key lock picking skills he would later use) before running away at age 12. By 1887 Ehrich returned to his family, now living in New York City, and worked at a necktie factory. It is around this time that Enrich first read the memoirs of French performer Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, inspiring Enrich to not only pursue magic, but also a stage name, Harry Houdini.
While at the necktie factory, Harry met another young magician, Jacob Hyman, and at just age 17 the pair began performing as the Houdini Brothers. Later Jacob would be replaced by Harry’s real brother, Dash. During a stint on Coney Island with his brother, Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, better known as Bess. Houdini found not only a partner in life, as they married weeks after meeting, but also a new partner for the stage, and the pair embarked on a global tour in 1899. Bess’ small size made her perfect for some of the classic disappearing and transformation acts that magicians were known for. Houdini and Bess performed the “Cone to Flower” illusion using this decorated cone. Bess would be covered by the cone, and when it was removed moments later she would be replaced by a bouquet of flowers. Another included Houdini being tied up and placed inside a bag inside of a trunk, and then pushed behind a curtain by Bess, there would be three claps, and then Houdini would appear, bring the trunk back out, to reveal Bess inside the trunk and bag.
Another stunning artifact was a beautiful table featuring colorful flowers atop it, an illusion in which by pressing a foot pedal, the flowers would appear and bloom instantly. Houdini’s early years were spent doing tricks that are now considered commonplace among magicians today, and he would later go on to push the boundaries of magic and explore other ventures.
In 1905 the Houdinis return to the United States, calling New York City home. Houdini soon began performing his now iconic handcuff and straightjacket escapes, and on January 25, 1908 Houdini debuted his first indoor escape, the milk can escape. The milk can was filled with water, and Houdini was locked inside using six padlocks. The can was then hid behind a screen for two minutes, Houdini re-appearing and the can revealed to still be locked. Once other magicians started copying Houdini’s milk can escape, he set out to go bigger, and in 1912 debuted his infamous “Chinese Water Torture” escape.
Houdini was a pioneer in many ways, and a man of many skills and interests, he was an aviator, and entered the budding world of movie making. In 1918 he starred in his first movie, The Master of Mystery, but decided to set off on his own and in 1921 started the Houdini Movie Corporation. However it would only last two years with two movies that Houdini wrote, starred in, and produced. In addition to the screenplays, Houdini also wrote several books.
As America entered the roaring 20s, it was also wrapped up in the Spiritualism Movement, including Houdini. Houdini had always wanted to make contact with his deceased mother, and was met with fraud after fraud. He saw many classic tricks being used to swindle grieving people, and set out to expose various “mediums” and even going as far as to testify in front of Congress supporting a bill to ban “spirit communication” for money in 1926.
Later that year Houdini was gearing up for a performance at a Montreal theatre, backstage nursing an injured ankle. One visitor, Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, asked Houdini about his claim that he could take a punch to the stomach without pain, and proceeded to repeatedly punch Houdini in the stomach as he lay on a couch. Houdini’s trick to taking a punch to the stomach without pain was to ready himself, and hold himself in such a manner that he could sustain blows. However, Whitehead did not wait for Houdini to rise from the couch before his assault. Despite being in pain, Houdini went on to perform that night and endured continued pain without medical attention for two more days, arriving in Detroit, Michigan for a performance. Upon finally seeing a doctor just prior to another performance, he was revealed to have a fever and appendicitis, and was told to go in immediately to have surgery. Houdini refused and went on to perform what would be his last act, on October 24, 1926.
After his performance, Houdini was taken to the hospital, and his ruptured appendix was removed, however it had already done its damage, causing peritonitis. Houdini clung to life for a few more days, passing on Halloween with his beloved Bess and two brothers beside him. It remains unclear if the appendicitis was a result of Whitehead’s beating, or if it simply may have exacerbated it, but the assault was enough for Houdini’s insurance to pay a double indemnity to Bess.
Houdini willed his props and effects to his brother, Theodore, who was also a magician under the stage name Hardeen, and ordered him to destroy them. Hardeen did not, instead sold the items, some of which ended up in the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Ontario, only to actually be destroyed by a fire in 1995.
Houdini and Bess made a vow that whoever died first would send a coded message from beyond, and thus the annual Halloween Houdini Seance was born. Ten years after Houdini’s death, Bess and Dr. Edward Saint hosted the “Final” Houdini seance, atop Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel, and broadcast it over the radio. After Houdini failed to make contact, Bess declared that she did not believe spirits can return.
Houdini Unchained runs at the Muzeo until January 22, 2023, and afterwards it is slated to tour. Those in or visiting the Anaheim area can gaze upon artifacts from the amazing Houdini at the Muzeo at 241 S. Anaheim Boulevard. For further details, please visit the Muzeo’s website.
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2 comments on “Unlocking Houdini’s Secrets at the Muzeo”
Thank you for a brilliant overview of Houdini’s life. He was a genius on so many levels, and your article captures that.