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Saturday, March 23, 2024

March 23-24, 2024: American Magic: Harry Houdini

[This weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ve performed some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to this special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three lesser-known layers to perhaps our most famous magician.

1)      An Immigrant Family: Born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, Houdini was literally part of such a family, as he, his parents, and his six siblings immigrated to the United States in 1878 (part of that era’s sizeable wave of immigration from Eastern Europe among other places). But that family was also an influential part of Houdini’s development as a performer, including his debut as a 9 year old trapeze artist “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air” in entertainer Jack Hoeffler’s traveling circus; and his first true performances in the early 1890s, working alongside his brother Theodore (known as “Dash”) in an act called “The Brothers Houdini.” As I wrote about in one of my early posts, the late 19th century was the heyday of the concept of the “self-made man,” but it takes a village to produce any successful figure, and Harry Houdini was no more self-made than anyone else in that category.

2)      An Inspiring Partnership: There are likely various reasons why Houdini and Dash stopped performing together, including Houdini’s own developing turn of the 20th century fame as an individual artist (especially when he began transitioning from card magic to escapes), but one factor was a bit less of a fraternal bond: Dash had a romantic interest in a fellow performer, Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner; but Houdini was likewise interested, won her hand in marriage in 1894, and made her his stage assistant in a new act known as “The Houdinis.” Although that’s obviously a complicated story and one on which Dash would undoubtedly have a different perspective, it did lead to a lifelong partnership for Houdini on multiple levels, as Bess would remain both his wife and his performing partner for the rest of his life.

3)      An Irritable Author: Those performances would of course define the remaining three decades of Houdini’s career, from that 1894 marriage through his tragically early death in 1926 (officially from appendicitis, but apocryphally from a punch to the stomach). But another through-line in his career was Houdini’s use of writing not only to market himself but also and especially to express his grievances with fellow performers and the profession. When he founded a periodical, the Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine, in 1906, it only featured two editions before the preponderance of what magic historian Jim Steinmeyer calls Houdini’s “own crusades” led to its failure. Undeterred by that failure, in 1908 Houdini published a book, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, which attacked the French magician from whom Houdini had drawn his stage name as a fraud (due at least in part to Houdini feeling slighted by Robert-Houdin’s family during a European tour). Houdini could escape most anything, but clearly not the fraught chambers of his own psyche, no more than any of us can.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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