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Leo Brent Robillard on Houdini's 140th Birthday

Harry Houdini circa 1905 Harry Houdini circa 1905 Library of Congress

In the recent British film, Rush, the character of real-life Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda says, “I accept every time I get in my car there’s 20% chance I could die. But I will not accept 1% more.” While the figures here are a bit suspect, and while I would draw the line a little earlier, I understand the sentiment.

We take calculated risks every day: taking the car to work, eating fatty foods, drinking alcohol, smoking cigars. Some are safer bets than others. But all of us have a line we will not cross.

Well, almost all of us.

Erik Weisz—better known as Harry Houdini—will be 140 years old on March 24th of this year, should he choose to rise from his grave, once again. And although he is not the central character in my novel, Houdini’s Shadow, the idea of him certainly is. Like a shadow, he creeps along behind my protagonist. A constant reminder that “even in the midst of life, we are in death.”

At the height of his popularity, Houdini was the highest paid performer in American vaudeville. He was also one of the earliest “escape artists” to have his own one-man, full-evening show: “Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed.”

But why such widespread fame? What did showgoers hope to experience? Was it simple entertainment? I think not.

Others have certainly rivalled and even surpassed his success as illusionists and magicians. David Copperfield has become his own corporation. Criss Angel packs the house nightly in Las Vegas, and has garnered more primetime television hours than any magician in history. This is entertainment. People watch to be consciously hoodwinked.

But in Houdini’s lifetime science had not yet completely jaded spectators. Large segments of the population still believed in the possibility of spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle championed the cause. The audience attended anticipating something miraculous. And in the case of Houdini—who never once claimed to possess supernatural powers—they were bated with possibility of danger, and even death.

Over the course of his career, Houdini progressed from handcuffs, to straightjackets, to milk cans, to Chinese water torture cells, sealed boxes in the East River, and coffins six feet underground. Oddly, most of these escapes contained no “trickery.” Houdini often depended upon his cunning and athleticism—his ability to regurgitate a key, apply pressure at the right points, or dislocate his own shoulder in order to wriggle free. This left very little room for error.

Once, he almost drowned in a tanker of beer—having misjudged the effects of the alcohol’s fumes. On another occasion in 1915, he narrowly escaped death in California after being shackled and buried alive.

We are drawn to spectacle like moths to flame. We gasp at circus performers who make “death-defying” acts appear mundane. We sit glued to television sets as Felix Baumgartners plunge from impossible heights. And more darkly, we slow at traffic accidents to achieve a better view.

Death, or its imminent possibility, is fascinating. From a certain distance. We fear it, and yet we long to better understand it. To be almost close enough to touch it.    

This is the opportunity Houdini offers us.

A fleeting glimpse through a small crack at “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

Last modified onWednesday, 19 March 2014 12:24
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