Welcome to escapology month.
Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz in 1874, is best known as the greatest escape artist of our time. From the milk can escape to the straitjacket to metamorphosis, he has done it all, and he has gained legendary status in the magic industry. To this day, his sudden and tragic death mystifies people and makes them wonder what greater things could’ve been in store had he not passed on at the height of his fame.
In the realm of magic, Houdini isn’t very popular despite the fact that he has performed feats such as making an elephant vanish in the middle of a carnival tent. Owing to his small frame, most people were much more entertained by the prospect of seeing him put himself in mortal danger as he tried to escape from locks, shackles, handcuffs, and other implements, using a wide variety of methods he was familiar with. He is very well-known for his ability to dislocate his shoulders when he tries to escape from certain devices, so that he’d be able to gain some slack.
The truth is, Houdini has done a lot over his entire career. Calling himself “Harry Houdini” in honor of both Robert Houdin and (supposedly) Harry Kellar, he was a cross-country runner and trapeze artist even before he got into magic. He started in magic as a cardician, even dubbing himself as the “King of Cards” at some point, but at 5’5 and with a stocky frame, he wasn’t terribly entertaining to watch. He then got into escapology, and the rest is history.
Aside from magic, Houdini was also into aviation, and was a very big skeptic who has attempted to debunk many mystic performers of his time. In fact, one of the most infamous instances of his scepticism was when this resulted in a rift between him and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, who believed in the Cottingley Fairy hoax, which at the time, seemed completely impossible for them to disprove.
Houdini’s contribution to magic and escapology in particular would be insurmountable. From the Chinese Water Torture chamber to the milk can escape to simple handcuff escapes, he brought to the mainstream a kind of exciting act that offered magicians an avenue that goes beyond “tricks” or “powers”. The best escapologists, as most laymen would tell you, are outright skilled people. They know how to escape, they know how to liberate themselves from the most difficult of implements, and there is no reason for them to rely on trickery or supernatural powers. They are simply that talented.
Without Houdini, it would be hard to imagine escapology as it is today. It’s still dangerous, it’s still high-profile, but ultimately, there’s little to do that Houdini hasn’t already done in his time.
It was rather unfortunate, then, that his death was most likely linked to an incident where he was punched multiple times in the stomach before he was ready to take such a blow. This supposedly ruptured his appendix, and it led to his untimely demise. Ever the skeptic, he gave a secret message to his wife prior to his death that would be his means of disproving from even beyond the grave any psychic or medium who would claim to be able to communicate with the dead. All Houdini’s wife had to do was ask for the specific message his husband gave her before his death, and if the soothsayer couldn’t give it, then he fails the challenge.
Houdini kicks off this month of escapology, and is certainly worth a moment of recognition and honor, no matter what controversies may hound him in life and in death.