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A Houdini Low Point

October 31st is not only Halloween but also National Magic Day, dedicated to the legendary Harry Houdini!

National Magic Day is celebrated annually on October 31st in memory of Harry Houdini who passed away on that day in 1926. While his name has become synonymous with magic and escapes, it should be remembered that Houdini was also a prolific writer, authoring such classics as “The Right Way to Do Wrong,” “A Magician Among the Spirits,” and “Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.” But his most curious work, published in 1909, was “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin” in which he aimed to topple his former hero by demonstrating that the illusions and tricks that the celebrated magician claimed were his invention were actually stolen from others.

The book concludes with a vicious attack on the performer whose name young Ehrich Weiss pinched to become “Houdini:” “The master magician, unmasked, stands forth in all his hideous nakedness of historical proof, the prince of pilferers. That he might bask for a few hours in public adulation, he purloined the ideas of magicians long dead and buried, and proclaimed these as the fruits of his own inventive genius. His “Memoirs,” written by the hand of another man, who at his instigation belittled his contemporaries, and juggled facts and truth to further his egotistical, jealous ambitions.”

What makes this really curious is that “juggled facts and truth to further his egotistical, jealous ambitions” can well be applied to Houdini himself. For example, he always maintained that he had been born in Appleton, Wisconsin when he had actually been born in Hungary, believing that being born in America would be more appealing to his audiences. Houdini’s egotism was legendary; he vigorously attacked other magicians he believed were imitating his performances. It was partly this contempt for imitators that spawned his attack on Robert-Houdin. The other factor was Robert-Houdin’s widow expressing no desire to meet him when he travelled to France to walk in the footsteps of his hero. He couldn’t accept that the great Houdini could be spurned in such a fashion and proceeded to lash out with a venomous assault on Robert-Houdin’s legacy which he claimed was undeserved.

Houdini proceeded to demonstrate how Robert-Houdin’s most famous effects such as the “Orange Tree” and “The Etheral Suspension” were not original. But Robert-Houdin never claimed they were; he referred to them as new tricks, which indeed they were. Virtually all novel magic effects are modifications of older tricks. What matters is the performance, and Robert-Houdin’s was novel.

His Etheral Suspension was stimulated by the discovery of ether anesthesia in Boston in 1846. The magician pretended to put his son to sleep with ether, and then suspended the boy parallel to the ground with only his elbow resting on a rod, apparently defying gravity. Indeed, the effect was not new, street artists in India had been performing it since the 1830s. The secret relies on the rod being inserted into a support hidden under the performer’s clothes. These days you can see the effect staged in public squares around the world with tourists gawking at some busker apparently floating in air. Robert-Houdin’s linking the performance to the discovery of ether was not only novel, it introduced audiences to the concept of anesthesia.

The “Orange Tree” that enchanted audiences at his theatre in Paris was Robert-Houdin’s signature effect. He vanished a ring inside a handkerchief and then introduced an orange tree sporting only green leaves. Magically the tree began to sprout flowers that turned into real oranges, handed out to the audience. One orange stayed on the tree, opening up to reveal two fluttering butterflies that lifted a handkerchief bearing the previously vanished ring. The tree was a mechanical marvel, made by Robert-Houdin who had originally been trained as a clockmaker. Certainly “automata” driven by various types of clockwork mechanisms had been around for centuries. Prague’s famous “Astronomical clock” created in the fifteenth century featured automata portraying the twelve apostles and the figure of death in the form of a skeleton that struck a bell to ring out the time, a reminder of how short life is and the need to use time well. Leonardo da Vinci also designed a mechanical knight that could stand, sit and maneuver its arms through a system of pulleys and cables. Robert-Houdin added to the genius of those who came before to create his marvelous orange tree, a replica of which still amazes audiences today.

Houdini was a superb performer and fierce opponent of pseudoscience who deserves to be commemorated by National Magic Day. But his attempt to elevate himself by deflating the accomplishments of his famous predecessor is an unfortunate blight on a stellar career.


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