Each year, on Halloween, members of the Professional Magicians' Fraternity conduct a sťance in New York City, with the goal of connecting with the spirit of Harry Houdini, who died in 1926. To date, each year they have come away disappointed.
Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss in 1874, is generally regarded as one of the all-time great magicians, world-wide. His career began as an attempt to escape from a life of poverty in the Jewish ghetto of New York City. Early on he adopted the name of Houdini, after the great French illusionist, Robert Houdin. He had a bit of success in his magic act, doing small tricks and illusions, under the name, "Harry Houdini, The King of Cards," but it was slow going, and Houdini became very discouraged, to the point that he ran an ad in the newspaper offering to sell all his tricks for $20. Even at that price there were no takers.
As King of Cards, Houdini really had one illusion that was considered outstanding, and apart from the work that others of his contemporaries were performing -- the Needle and Thread Trick, in which he swallowed a handful of needles and a length of string, then brought them up, the needles all neatly strung on the thread. Audiences liked that trick, but he needed more
Houdini did not really find his niche until he began to specialize in escapes, from handcuffs, from locked cells, from straitjackets, seemingly any restraint that the public could devise for him. In a new city where he was appearing at a theater, he would visit the police station and dare the police to imprison him, in shackles or jail cell. Through various means he would invariably escape from the restraints. He was a student of locks generally and understood how they worked and how he could unlock them, often with short piece of steel, which he would conceal in his mouth. Sometimes the police did not play fair and deliberately jammed the mechanism of the handcuffs, so that they were impossible to open short of a hacksaw.
Houdini was wonderfully agile. He could disjoint his arms, to help in his escapes, and was as limber as any contortionist. One of his tricks was to have himself encased in a straitjacket, then hauled aloft by a building crane, to make his escape in full view of the crowds that always turned out for these exhibitions. Once, in Detroit, in mid-winter, Houdini was still encased in the straitjacket when the rope broke and Houdini was dropped into the mostly frozen river. He immediately sank into the water, and when he tried to surface he found that he was below a layer of ice, and was being swept along by the current of the river.
Instead of panicking, he rid himself of the restraints of the straitjacket quickly, then swam under the ice, breathing by sticking his nose into the narrow air space that remains between a cover of ice and the water below. Between gulps of air he swam under the ice, until he identified (by the difference in color) an open space in the river's ice covering, and came to the surface, chilled, but alive. The police plucked him out of the river almost a quarter of a mile from where he had been dropped into the water.
By 1912 Houdini had completed a tour of European Capitals, with an act which featured some of his miraculous escapes, of which the "under water sealed box" was the most spectacular. The tour had made him an international star, and a friend of kings and other celebrities, including ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, for whom he astounded with magic tricks on the voyage home, aboard an ocean liner returning to the United States.
Houdini had a lifetime interest in many things, besides magic. He was a pioneer aviator and as early as 1909 made flights in Germany, and a tour of several cities in Australia.
In 1906 Houdini began filming his great stage escapes, such as the Chinese Water Torture Cell Trick and his Buried Alive Stunt. This led to his starring in several feature films, and serials for Paramount Pictures in the 1920s.
Houdini had been interested in the occult for some years, and that interest led to a friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Mr. Doyle was known to be a great proponent of sťances and their supposed link to personages who had passed into the great beyond. The two had great discussions on the subject. Houdini remained interested, but skeptical about the claims made by the various spiritualists of the days.
Houdini's interest in spiritualism turned into an obsession in 1913, with the death of the magician's mother. He desperately wanted to make contact with his mother in the "great beyond," but found that claimed contacts invariably turned out to be hoaxes.
At one point, during this time, Houdini offered a prize of $10,000 (a great deal of money in those days) to any medium who would prove to have made contact with someone who had passed on. He began to follow the great medium of the day, a spiritualist by the name of "Margery" from city to city, with his own "sťance," which used the same means that Margery used in making her "contacts" -- the ringing of bells, the moving pen on paper, the rapping in code, and other "signs" -- then showing the audience just how she had performed these deceptions. Audiences loved the debunking show. His $10,000 prize was never claimed.
Even though Houdini was able to expose these mediums as frauds, did not mean that he himself had given up the hope that somehow he would be able to communicate with his mother and others in "the great beyond." He and his wife worked out a pact that whoever passed on first would communicate with the partner who was living, using a secret code that the two had used in their stage act some years before.
In the meantime, Houdini kept at his craft, confounding audiences coast to coast and abroad. He was the longtime President of the Society of American Magicians, and in this capacity he offered help and encouragement to young magicians across the country -- as long as they did not infringe upon what Houdini considered his niche in the Magic Industry. For instance, in the year before his death a magician, claiming to be an Egyptian Fakir, went into a "trance" and spent one hour in a sealed coffin under water. When the coffin was retrieved and opened the Fakir came out of his trance. He had seemingly survived the ordeal unharmed.
Houdini immediately ordered a bronze coffin of his own, and performed the same trick, remaining under water in the sealed coffin for one and one half hours! He emerged from the coffin smiling, saying that the secret was not a trance, just shallow breathing. Thereafter, Houdini had that coffin on display in the theater lobby where he was performing. It was also the coffin in which he was eventually buried (this time for eternity).
Houdini's last tour included appearances in Montreal and Detroit, in 1926. In Montreal Houdini entertained several students from McGill University in his dressing room after the show. Houdini mentioned that he had trained himself to absorb a powerful punch to his torso. One of the students took that as an invitation, and before Houdini could prepare himself, he was pummeled several times by the student, himself an athlete. This apparently brought on an attack of appendicitis, which burst the next day in Detroit, and Houdini died of peritonitis in Detroit on Halloween Day, 1926.
For 10 years, on the anniversary of his death, Mrs. Houdini conducted a sťance, in accordance with her husband's wishes, but never did receive the secret sign that the couple had agreed upon. After 10 years she gave up, but the Society of American Magicians never has. Some believe that Halloween, 2011, will be the time that Houdini, the Master of Escapes, will make his escape from the ultimate prison, "The Great Beyond."