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Houdini - The Legendary Master Magician and Escapologist

Updated on September 13, 2009

Harry Houdini grew up as Erich Weiss in Milwaukee where, for a time, he worked as an apprentice to a local locksmith. Those locksmith skills came in handy when Erich later took the name Houdini, the last name of a famous French magician, and moved to New York to become a magician himself. Houdini, of course, soon became well known throughout the world for his magic in general but especially for his sometimes death-defying escapes.

Harry Houdini

Houdini and Spiritualism

Houdini had always been extremely close to his mother and after her death he was often seen at the cemetery lying on her grave and speaking to her. This depressing separation from his mother eventually led him to seek contact with her spirit through Spiritualism.

But Houdini quickly became disillusioned when he discovered that all of the spiritualists, or psychics, that he consulted were merely using the same types of magic that he himself employed in his magic shows. He decided to dedicate his efforts to prove to the public that whether they call themselves spiritualists, mediums or psychics, they were all fakes.


Houdini Rope Escape


But despite his skepticism, Houdini himself continued to attend séances in an effort to communicate with his mother. He even held séances in his own Hollywood home, and Houdini’s home was no ordinary home. He is said to have purchased a castle complete with ramparts, towers and a basement filled with tunnels and secret chambers. One of the chambers is even thought to have contained a pool where the magician created and mastered his famous underwater escape routines.

Houdini argued with everyone on the subject of psychics and the occult, even some of his closest friends. The writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admired Houdini but also believed in spiritualists and the two often argued about the practice. Doyle became so addicted to Spiritualism that he had forsaken much of his lucrative writing career in order to travel the world lecturing on the subject.

CREDIT: "Houdini and the water torture cell." 1913. The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920, Library of Congress.
CREDIT: "Houdini and the water torture cell." 1913. The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920, Library of Congress.

The Impossiblity Factor

Many claimed that some of Houdini’s amazing feats could not be done with trickery and that he, himself, must be a medium capable of unworldly feats. On one occasion, in an attempt to prove to Doyle and another spiritualist believer that his tricks could be made to look like spiritual happenings, Houdini performed a private feat.

A board was hung in the center of a room and Doyle was given five plain cork balls. He chose one at random and placed it in a cup of white paint. He was then sent from the house alone with a blank piece of paper. As instructed, he walked a random route of his own choosing for several blocks and then, hidden from view, wrote a short secret message on the blank paper. He then folded the paper tightly, placed it in his pocket and returned to the house.

Houdini Speaks

Back at the house, Houdini instructed him to place the paint-covered ball onto the board. The ball then proceeded to roll on its own along the surface, spelling out the very message that Doyle had written in secret. But Houdini’s attempt to prove the effectiveness of trickery backfired. He refused to reveal how the trick was performed, leaving his friends to conclude, again, that Houdini must have spiritual powers to have created such an illusion.

Houdini's Death

Unfortunately, Houdini would soon have the opportunity to test his power to speak from the grave. On October 26, 1926 three students were brought backstage at one of the magician’s shows to meet Houdini. One of the boys asked Houdini if it was true that he could withstand any punch to his stomach. Houdini responded that, given the time to prepare for the punch, he could withstand the hit. The boy misunderstood the remark as permission to hit Houdini, and he viciously punched the magician several times without warning.

Although obviously injured, Houdini refused to seek medical help and, instead, continued to perform. Days later, after another performance he was rushed from his hotel to a hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees. Doctors were unable to repair the ruptured appendix that had been caused by the punch and, in the early morning hours of October 31, 1926, at age 52, the great Houdini passed away.

Houdini's Pact With His Wife to Speak From Beyond The Grave

Despite his doubts about other so-called mediums, Houdini was so convinced of his own ability to communicate with the living after his death that he arranged a secret code with his wife and several close friends so that, if they were ever led to believe that he had contacted them after his death, the code would prove that it was him and not some psychic using a parlor trick.

The Houdini Seances

Houdini often boasted that he would find a way to send a message from the grave back to his wife and close friends. And every Halloween, on the anniversary of his death, close friends and relatives of Houdini would meet for a séance to try and reach out to his ghost.

His wife Bess obviously had faith in Houdini’s promise to contact her because for ten years following his death she held séances to try to reach him. She even offered $10,000 to any medium that could contact her dead husband and reveal their secret code.

But she grew weary of the pursuit after ten years of frustrating failures and held her final “official” séance on Halloween night in 1936.

The public’s attraction to the Houdini mystique was so great that the séance, attended by some of Houdini’s close friends and fellow magicians, was also broadcast on radio from the roof of the famous Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles.

The séance was not the only unusual event to take place at the hotel that was well known as a Hollywood hotspot. Rudolf Valentino frequently spent time drinking and dancing in the bar. In 1948, famed film director D.W. Griffith died from a stroke under the lobby’s huge chandelier, the same spot where actor William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz on the "I Love Lucy" show also died of a stroke almost 20 years later.

Author William Faulkner is rumored to have begun an affair at the Knickerbocker, and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio often met in the bar. Even Elvis Presley lived in a suite at the hotel during the filming of his movie “Love Me Tender”. Other stars that are said to have stayed here at some point in time include Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Mae West, Laurel & Hardy and Cecil B. DeMille.

It’s said that when that séance for Houdini in 1936 ended without success a violent thunderstorm erupted; soaking the group with torrential rains combined with frightening thunder and lightning. And according to legend, the mysterious storm was felt nowhere else in Los Angeles – only directly over the Knickerbocker Hotel.

Since that final séance on the hotel roof, many other Halloween séances searching to reach Houdini have also reported being interrupted by severe, and mysterious, thunderstorms and lightning.

The 1948 Houdini Seance

Houdini Straitjacket Escape

Houdini’s former home in Los Angeles is believed by many to have been located in Laurel Canyon and virtually destroyed by fire in the late 1950s. Today, the home is still in ruins; the lot abandoned. On occasion, especially on Halloween night, trespassers sneak into the ruins to hold their own séance for Houdini. And some of those who have been there claim to have seen a dark figure lurking on the rocky stairs or in the former garden.

Perhaps the Great Houdini has, indeed, discovered a way to reach back from the grave and now walks the grounds of his former home, leading many to believe that it is one of the most haunted spots in Los Angeles.

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      The greatest magicians and illusionist don't claim divinity because they don't need to. They're so great at their craft, they can tell you they're going to trick you beforehand and they're still able to trick you and most of the time, you still can't figure out how they did it.

    • TheMagicOfMagic profile image


      7 years ago

      Great story. As a child I loved the mystery of Houdini. My friend and I had an album that played the final seance. We would listen to it over and over again. I was so intrigued by his legend. I loved the Tony Curtis movie about Houdini's life. I would be on the look out for it all the time. It normally was shown about twice a year on the afternoon movie. I would catch it right after school. Thank you for bringing back some of my wonderful childhood memories. Very good story.

      There is also a book that was recently published titled, "The Secret Life of Houdini The Making of America's First Superhero" written by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It talks about his work as a secret agent gathering information from abroad as he traveled. If you get a chance, give it a read. You will enjoy seeing another side of Harry that was not known before.

    • Aeryn profile image


      7 years ago

      Great write up on Houdini. He is one of the many reasons I started studying magic. I am also glad you reported on the real cause of his death as it has become so convoluted over the years. Really nice hub.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      the more i read your hub the more i get engrossed. i have always loved that topic and you seem to do an add-on. your hub is a good one.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Houdini was actually Hungarian but presented himself as American. You can read more in my recent article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette at

      Good stuff here. Love reading about Houdini!

    • Julie-Ann Amos profile imageAUTHOR

      Julie-Ann Amos 

      9 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

      He's so famous here in the UK I was surprised to discover he was American!

    • packerpack profile image

      Om Prakash Singh 

      9 years ago from India, Calcutta

      Going through this Hub I realized that Houdini was indeed very famous but this is the first time I have come to know of him. Maybe my GK is a bit weak. It was a good history lesson. But somehow I don't believe that he spoke after death. Maybe because I have not come across anything like this yet.


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