The Secret Life of Houdini:
The Making of the World’s Greatest
by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
Pocket Books, Simon and Schuster
Reviewed by Simon Roberts
Houdini was the World’s first superstar. He travelled all over the planet enthralling larger and larger audiences. Apart from his incredible and dangerous magic stunts and escapology he was one of the first ever aviators and was reputed to have worked with the intelligence service.
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Hungary in 1874. His father was a rabbi, who emigrated to the USA in 1876. Erik, together with his mother and brothers followed in 1878. Erik became Harry upon entering the US, and later adopted the surname Houdini in honour of his idol the great magician Robert Houdin.
Houdini left home at the age of 12 after his Father died. He travelled the country working in various circuses and performing in numerous vaudeville shows. He was an excellent imitator carefully studying the acts of experienced show people and copying the best elements into his own performances. In 1894 he married Bess Raymond a showgirl, they remained married until his death in 1926.
Gradually Houdini became more famous for his escapology, particularly escaping from handcuffs and straightjackets. His incredible stunts and shows became more dramatic and dangerous, often involving hanging upside down 100 feet above a city street, or plunging into a freezing river. These displays together with his challenges to the police services to try to restrain him in their handcuffs and prisons generated huge publicity.
In 1900 he made his first voyage to England, together with his young wife. They alighted at Southampton on June 9th and made their way to London. One of the first people Houdini met in London was William Melville; Head of London’s Scotland Yard and reputed to be an early member of MI5. Houdini continued his publicity trick by challenging Melville to lock him up in police handcuffs. Having subsequently escaped easily it is claimed he was recruited as an informant for the British intelligence service.
A few years later Houdini became fascinated by the new field of powered aviation and in 1909 purchased his own plane for US$5,000. His first flight was in Hamburg. In 1910 he sailed to Australia. He packed his plane and shipped it out with him. It is claimed Houdini then became the first person to successfully fly a powered aircraft in the Antipodes.
When he returned to the States his fame continued to grow. He became interested in film-making and ensured that his most audacious stunts were recorded. He became friends with the early movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, and by 1920 was a very wealthy man.
After his Mother died, he took an interest in the growing spiritualist movement. In the 1920’s in the States spiritualism became a massive quasi religion with millions of followers. Arthur Conan Doyle the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes books was one of the movement’s most fervent adherents. Doyle invited Houdini to join a séance and try to contact the spirit of his dearly beloved Mother. Unsurprisingly this was apparently successful; however Houdini quickly became suspicious when his deceased mother communicated in fluent English, a language she had scant knowledge of when mortal.
Houdini decided to investigate spiritualist mediums, and began to unmask their tricks and deceptions. In doing so he upset many people including powerful members of the community who believed in them, and the mediums themselves who stood to lose their incomes. One of these friends was Doyle who upon realising Houdini’s tactics quickly admonished him and criticised him publicly.
As every schoolboy knows, Houdini died after being punched in the stomach. His death certificate filed on November 20th 1926, records that he died of ‘diffuse streptococcic peritonitis’. This was a result of being punched a number of times when he was in a prone position and not expecting the blows. There were claims at the time that his death was as a result of foul play. Furthermore the claims were that this was possibly planned by spiritualists upset with his investigations into their movement. These claims still persist to the present day.
Houdini died a national hero. Many thousands turned out for his funeral in New York. His presence was such that even today, 60 years after his death he is still a household name. This book is an excellent account of the life of this incredible man. The authors searched through millions of census records, millions of electronic records, and tens of thousands of documents to produce this fascinating biography. The book is weighty at 560 pages but very readable and filled with numerous photographs throughout.
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© Simon Roberts, May 2008