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Remembering Houdini

The most famous magician and escape artist the world has ever known passed away on October 31, 1926. But what memories he left!

For many years members of the American Society of Magicians gathered on October 31 at Machpelah Cemetery in New York to break a magic wand over the grave of the man whose name is synonymous with magic. They came to pay homage to Harry Houdini, performer extraordinaire, who passed away on Halloween in 1926, but never really left us. His exploits spawned books, movies and plays and inspired countless youngsters to take up the engaging hobby of prestidigitation. I wish I could tell you that the “Ritual of the Broken Wand” will be performed on Monday as tradition dictates, but alas, that will not happen. Machpelah will be closed on Halloween because the operators of the cemetery have sadly discovered through experience that the holiday invites acts of vandalism. Indeed, Houdini’s grave has been desecrated several times, and was severely damaged in 1993. Magicians from around the world, led by David Copperfield and James Randi, raised the money needed for its restoration.

My interest in Houdini actually stems more from his tireless efforts to foster critical thinking than from his magic or his incredible escapes. It was his mother’s death in 1913 that launched Harry on a second career that would intertwine with his magical performances right up to his premature death from peritonitis at age 52. The magician had been extremely close to his mother and was utterly devastated when he received the telegram informing him of her death. “A shock,” he sighed, “from which I think recovery is not possible.” Although he was the son of a rabbi, Houdini had no religious convictions and had never expressed any belief in an afterlife. But desperate people do desperate things. A distraught Houdini began to seek out mediums who claimed to be able to contact the dead. Instead of finding solace in the darkness of the séance room, though, Houdini found rampant fraud. Tables moved, trumpets floated in the air and bells mysteriously rang, supposedly signalling the presence of spirits. While many sitters were amazed by these phenomena, Houdini was greatly angered. He knew exactly what was going on, for the simple reason that he had performed similar effects on the stage himself. Levitations and apparitions are classic magic effects and are produced by perfectly explicable scientific means. A livid Houdini now saw his beloved art being used to defraud vulnerable people of their money and resolved to unmask the charlatans.

Harry began to give lectures on the fraudulent methods used by mediums and introduced an expose of psychics into his full evening show. The audience was first treated to magic, then to some amazing escapes, and finally, to a séance where the methods commonly used by mediums were exposed. This was a bit of a touchy business, given that Houdini served as president of the American Society of Magicians, an organization that had a cardinal rule to never expose magic tricks. But the greater good of protecting the public from scams warranted an exception, Houdini argued. In any case, he maintained that he was only revealing effects that were used in the total darkness of a séance, and therefore not of much use on the stage.

In 1924, Scientific American, the leading science magazine of the time, established a committee to investigate purported paranormal phenomena. By this time Houdini had established himself as an expert debunker of nonsense and was asked to sit on the committee. A prize of $2500 was offered to the first person who under test conditions could produce an “objective psychic manifestation of physical character.” Had it not been for Houdini, Nino Pecoraro, an Italian medium may have walked off with the prize.

The magician was away on a lecture tour the first time the committee tested Pecoraro, and in spite of his hands and feet being effectively bound, the medium was able to produce the usual séance manifestations. Trumpets sounded, a bell bafflingly flew through the air, and dollar bills materialized seemingly out of nowhere. When Houdini heard about these wonders he cancelled his tour and returned to New York to take part in the Italian’s next test. As the world’s foremost escape artist, Harry knew that “tieing up” could not be left to amateurs. The use of short ropes was critical because long ones inevitably introduced the potential for some slack. Under Houdini’s guidance Pecoraro’s hands were placed into gloves that were then sewed to his underwear. His coat sleeves were also sewn to his trousers and then he was securely tied with numerous short ropes.

After Houdini finished his handiwork, the committee members sat back and waited for the appearance of the spirits. It was a futile wait. There were no physical apparitions either. No mystifying bell ringing. And consequently, no prize money awarded! Many other exposes followed, both neither Houdini nor others who followed in his footsteps were successful in preventing people from believing the unbelievable.


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