Jewish Escape Artist Houdini Lives on Each Halloween
If anyone can escape from the afterlife, it is Harry Houdini.
Born Erik Weisz to Austro-Hungarian Jews, Houdini was arguably the greatest escape artist ever. Magic enthusiasts from around the globe gather annually in a predetermined city to celebrate Houdini. Since Houdini died on October 31, 1926, the gathering takes place on Halloween.
This year enthusiasts picked Fort Worth, Texas for a celebration that includes an effort to contact Houdini during a séance.
Houdini scholar John Cox’s fascination with the magician began when he saw the film “Houdini,” starring Tony Curtis, at age 10. Cox—whose website, wildabouthoudini.com, is a popular destination for Houdini fans—will give a talk on Houdini before the Fort Worth séance and will be at the séance table itself.
“From my childhood my quest to learn the truth about Houdini has just never stopped. It’s amazing to me that I’m still discovering new things every day,” Cox told JNS.org.
Some facts about Houdini are clear. His father was a rabbi, and while this did not necessarily impact his professional life, it did shape his personal life. Houdini had a strict sense of morality and a strong attachment to family. His mother called him “little father” as a boy. No matter where he was in the world, he always said the Kaddish prayer on the anniversary of his father’s death, and he dedicated his first book to his father, who instilled in young Erik a love of study and patience in research.
Houdini first attracted attention as “Harry Handcuff Houdini” on a tour of Europe, where he challenged different police forces to keep him locked up. This revealed his talent for gimmickry and affinity for audience involvement. Soon Houdini extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and holding his breath inside a sealed milk can.
In 1904, thousands watched as he tried to escape from a special handcuff commissioned by London’s Daily Mirror, keeping them in suspense for an hour. Another stunt saw him buried and barely able to claw to the surface, emerging in a state of near breakdown. While many suspected these escapes were fabricated, Houdini presented himself as the scourge of fake magicians and spiritualists. As president of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists who gave practitioners a bad name. He was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his own escape stunts.
A screenwriter and Houdini historian from Los Angeles, Cox as a teen performed magic and escapes, and even appeared on television doing a straitjacket release on the “Toni Tennille Show.”
Cox said the fascination with Houdini “has to do with the basic idea of a man who can escape from anything.”
“Add to that the element of death, and that’s a real attention grabber,” Cox told JNS.org. “Houdini became a mythological figure in his own right—like Merlin. The word “Houdini” means magic and the impossible. Then to learn he was a real person, who died on Halloween, who escaped from water torture cells onstage. It is fascinating stuff.”
The first famous American magician was Alexander Herrmann. Herrmann was also Jewish, and he showed that magic was a lucrative path open to newly arrived immigrants.
Cox said that because Houdini’s father was a rabbi, Houdini founded the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, whose membership included Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, and the Three Stooges. Houdini also “helped found the Jewish theatrical Guild, which counted Eddie Cantor and William Morris among its leaders,” according to Cox.
Another Houdini scholar asked to sit at the séance table with Cox in Forth Worth is Arthur Moses. A collector of Houdini memorabilia with over 4,500 items in his collection, Moses became interested in Houdini after reading a book about him in the 7th grade. He wrote two books and dozens of articles about him.
“There are many things so interesting about him, mostly his personality of being fearless,” Moses told JNS.org. “Houdini was fascinating for his sheer magnetism on the stage and his ability to command interest in his escapes and magic. He was able to overcome all of the challenges, both in life and in performing, set before him.”
Moses’s book, “Houdini Speaks Out,” reveals new insights and vividly recreates the lectures Houdini presented from 1922 until his death in 1926. The reader learns about Houdini’s struggles to reach into the afterlife to contact his deceased mother during an era filled with deceptive spirit mediums. Each of the 50 glass-lantern slides that Houdini used to highlight his lectures are painstakingly recreated and matched to his original lecture text.
Before his final years, Cox said Houdini visited the scene of a Jewish massacre near Kishinev in Russia, which occurred while he was performing there in 1903. The massacre occurred on Houdini’s birthday. Houdini wrote of his encounters with anti-Semitism for journals.
“Houdini married outside the faith, as did all his brothers. He celebrated Christmas and sent out Christmas cards. He also had an interest and belief in reincarnation, so, go figure,” added Cox.
Moses said the Oct 31, 2012 séance in his hometown of Fort Worth will have tickets available to the general public for only the second time ever, and he expects about 250 attendees.
The séance came to Fort Worth via Will Radner, son of Sidney Radner, who had inherited many of Houdini’s effects from the escape artist’s younger brother, Hardeen, in 1945.
Cox explained that Houdini’s widow, Bess, used to hold séances each year.
“The most famous of these occurred in 1936 – the 10th anniversary of Houdini’s death,” Cox said. “It was held on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood and was opened to the public. They actually set up bleachers on the roof.”
While Houdini himself didn’t return, the séance script was recorded, “and you can still hear it today,” according to Cox.
“While that was the last séance held by Bess (she’s reported to have said, ’10 years is long enough to wait for any man’), the tradition was carried on by Houdini’s brother and colleagues and continues right up to Fort Worth,” he said.