the astonishing escapes of houdini -- 11/24/15

Today's selection -- from The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher. Harry Houdini, whose real name was Erik Weisz, was a superbly accomplished and boundlessly energetic magician who was one of the most famous men in America in the early twentieth century. However, his fame did not come from mere magic but instead from the real risk inherent in his death-defying escapes:

"During the 1920s, Sigmund Freud advanced the idea that the death drive, what he called Todestrieb, is intrinsic to our nature. As if to prove it, Houdini leaped, while others peered, into the abyss. ...

Houdini in 1899

"In New York a daredevil known as the Human Fly lost his grip while scaling the facade of a skyscraper. With the words SAFETY LAST -- the title of the Harold Lloyd picture he was promoting -- painted on the back of his iridescent white garment, the superhero seemed to hang lighter than air for a moment, then plummeted ten stories to the asphalt. The Human Fly died in front of 20,000 aghast spectators at Greeley Square -- among them his twenty-year-old bob-haired wife, who would receive for her loss the $100 he was supposed to have been paid for the caper. 'For goodness sake take care of those dangerous stunts of yours,' Sir Arthur wrote Houdini. 'You have done enough of them. I speak because I have just read of the death of the Human Fly. Is it worth it?'

"Indeed, it was worth it! All of Houdini's wealth and notoriety came from performing dangerous feats; it would be far worse to walk the streets unrecognized than to fall ten stories. ... When a younger Houdini had escaped a packing crate dropped from a barge into New York Harbor, Scientific American had called it 'one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.' ...

Houdini prepares to do the overboard box escape circa 1912

"The Great Houdini's feats were designed to persuade the masses that he faced annihilation if he failed his test. In every escape he was feared lost then rose again. Once, in California, they had trussed and buried him under six feet of sandy soil. Emerging bleeding, pale, and dazed, he was the 'perfect imitation of a dead man rising.' Another time, in Australia, upon leaping manacled and chained from a bridge, he dislodged a corpse on the river floor that burst the surface next to him. Believing it part of the act, the spectators had applauded the Lazarus effect.

"[He was once] caged in an iron witch's chair. They put him in a straitjacket ... and watched as he dangled from [a] tower, one hundred feet in the air. Before the mayor and scores of other onlookers, he was rolled in two sheets by attendants from a Worcester asylum, strapped to a cot, and had a dozen buckets of ice-cold water poured on his body. He slithered out nonchalantly. Restrained in cuffs and irons, he was stuffed inside a dead, reeking 1,600-pound sea creature and dropped into Boston Harbor. He escaped like Jonah from a whale.

"When traveling in those days by train, Houdini used to do push-ups in the aisles or pull-ups between the cars. After returning to his seat, he would soon feel the urge once again to exercise or perform."


David Jaher


The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World


Crown Publishing


Copyright 2015 by David Jaher


93, 227-228
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