struck both of us was that there were huge
gaps in Houdini’s life story and some puzzling inconsistencies. So we
on a journey to discover the real man. Early on, we discovered an
connection that most biographers seemed to miss.”
From the Introduction to The Secret Life of Houdini, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, 2006
As noted earlier in this series, there is considerable debate over the question of whether Harry Houdini ever lived in the Laurel Canyon home known locally as the “Houdini House” (the History Channel’s Brad Meltzer’s Decoded recently aired an episode on Houdini that included a segment filmed at the site, which was unreservedly identified as the former Houdini estate; the series, however, doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with accuracy).
Even if Houdini did live in the home that now
ruins, his story would seem to have little relevance here. After all,
Houdini, widely considered to be the consummate entertainer of his era,
the peak of his career long before there was a
What are generally claimed to be the basic
Harry Houdini’s life can be found in countless published biographies
posts. Born Erik Weisz in
In mid-1878, Rabbi
his five sons and pregnant wife in tow, set sail for
In 1893, he met singer/dancer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, known as “Bess,” who would become both his wife and lifetime stage assistant. The pair though, performing as “The Houdinis,” continued to find success an elusive goal.
To say that Houdini’s
changed in 1899 would be a bit of an understatement. As recounted by
Sloman, “Within months, he had gone from cheap beer halls and dime
the big-time – vaudeville. In one year’s time, he had gone from
eating rabbits for survival to making what today would equal $45,000 a
After finally hitting it big, however, Houdini then did something
inexplicable – he abruptly sailed off to
Kalush and Sloman
obvious question: “Why would someone who had finally made it big risk
everything and leave behind lucrative contracts to go to
After a four-year
Houdini returned to the
In 1918, Houdini
decided to try
his luck with the fledgling new entertainment medium known as motion
starring first in a multi-part serial and then in The Grim Game
and Terror Island (1920). It was during this time that he is
said to have
taken up residence in
For the last few years leading up to his death on October 31, 1926, Houdini primarily focused on debunking psychics and mediums, leading some to speculate that the spiritualist movement may have been behind his untimely demise. To this day, séances are regularly held around the world in attempts to contact the famed magician and escape artist.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Harry Houdini story as it is usually told. But telling stories as they are usually told is a rather boring pursuit, so we are, shockingly enough, going to take a slightly different approach to see if maybe there isn’t an entirely different story hidden in the obscure details of Houdini’s life, beginning with his sudden rise to fame after wallowing in obscurity for years.
As noted by Kalush
“The young Houdini … couldn’t make enough money to succeed at magic.
crestfallen, he was ready to give up his dream, until he walked into a
That detective was John Wilkie, a major player in the formation of the International Association of Police Chiefs (founded in Chicago in 1893, at the outset of what has been dubbed the Decade of Regicide, which set the stage for World War I) and the ominously titled National Bureau of Identification, and ultimately the chief of the U.S. Secret Service, America’s premier intelligence operation during that era. It should probably be noted here that one of Houdini’s nephews, Louis Kraus, worked for the Treasury Department, overseer of Wilkie’s Secret Service.
Authors Kalush and
Sloman are of
the opinion that, “It was forward-thinking for the chief of
It could also be noted that an entertainer of a different variety, stage actor John Wilkes Booth, also appears to have served as an intelligence operative during the Civil War, so the practice of utilizing entertainers for covert operations clearly didn’t begin with Wilkie, who was himself a magician and a disciple of escape artist R. G. Herrmann. In addition to Houdini, Wilkie recruited other magicians as well, including Herrmann, Louis Leon, and heavyweight prizefighter/magician Bob Fitzsimmons.
Another of Houdini’s
backers was Senator Chauncey Depew, an uncle of magician Ganson Depew
former mentor to then-Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt (who would soon
catapulted into the presidency by the assassination of William
McKinley, one of
the final victims of the Decade of Regicide). Houdini would soon gain
hidden backer – William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special
the most visible law enforcement official in the
As Kalush and Sloman
“Within days of arriving in
The document listed
as April 6, though his actual birthday is said to be March 24. It
he was born in 1873, making him one year older than he actually was.
curiously of all, the document indicated that Houdini was a native born
citizen, though he most assuredly was not. He had been allowed to
previous passport, issued to a naturalized citizen, in exchange for the
officially-issued but clearly fraudulent passport that he used to tour
Given his background as both a magician and a Mason (by his own account), it goes without saying that secrecy, deception, and illusion were second-nature to Houdini. He also, as Sloman and Kalush noted, had the unusual “ability to interact with a country’s police officials and do demonstrations inside their jails,” and he was known to be rather proficient at the art of breaking-and-entering. Needless to say, these abilities would have served Houdini well in the world of espionage.
So too would many of the devices he boasted of inventing. According to Kalush and Sloman, “[Houdini] told the New York Herald that he invented rubber heels and cameras that work only once. The Boston Transcript reported that he invented ‘an envelope which cannot be unsealed by steam without bringing to light the word ‘opened’ and a wash which will remove printer’s ink from paper’ … In his own Conjurer’s Monthly, he touted the use of chloride of cobalt for sending invisible messages.”
A friend of Houdini’s, fellow magician Billy Robinson, was also well-versed in the tradecraft of the intelligence community. In his book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena, Robinson “detailed thirty-seven methods for secret writing [which] would play an important part in spy communication during World War I.” He also “detailed how to read other people’s letters without opening the envelopes by using alcohol to render them temporarily transparent,” and offered readers “subtle methods to share information while being closely scrutinized.”
Kalush and Sloman share what became of Robinson not long after penning the book: “Then, virtually overnight, he changed his name and appearance, left the country, and broke many of his connections. Years later, his only brother wouldn’t even be able to find him.” Robinson died in 1918 while performing a bullet catch trick that he had performed many times before. Houdini would write that “it seems as if there were something peculkar [sic] about the whole affair.”
In addition to possessing skills and knowledge that were ideally suited to the spook trade, Houdini also ran what could best be described as his own personal spy ring. In addition to an unknown number of fulltime confederates (mostly young women, including one of his nieces), “Houdini employed female operatives on an ad hoc basis when he came to town.” Probably the most important of these operatives was a young fellow magician named Amedeo Vacca, whose relationship with Houdini was unknown to virtually everyone throughout the escape artist’s life. So secret was the close relationship between the two that even Harry’s wife and brother, magician/confederate Hardeen, were unaware of it.
Houdini was a man for whom secrecy seems to have been something of an obsession. His home was said to be laced with secret passageways and hidden rooms, and his desk contained hidden compartments. There are indications that, while on the road, he would frequently maintain, for unknown purposes, a second hotel room in a different hotel. A man named Edward Saint (aka Charles David Myers), who was close to Bess, once claimed that Houdini “had safes and vaults in his home, and vaults in banks that his lawyers had access to; but one secret, now made public for the first time, is the fact that Houdini had one safety deposit vault in a bank or trust company in the East under some familiar name other than Houdini, and of which the secret location rested only in Houdini’s brain. In this vault was kept highly secret papers.” As far as is known, no one – not even Geraldo Rivera – has located that secret vault.
With his espionage
dubious passport in tow, Houdini traveled to
As he had in the
After performing to
In Czarist Russia,
had official permission to appear in any city in
Following the lengthy
pre-war Europe, Houdini returned to
The gunshot wounds
Guiteau were not fatal.
But here, I suppose, I have digressed (yes, I am officially bringing that word back out of retirement).
Houdini, needless to
succeeded in escaping from Guiteau’s former cell – and also rearranged
prisoners residing on the jail’s fabled ‘murderer’s row.’ To do so, of
he would have needed a master key, which someone clearly provided to
why? Such were the perks provided an entertainer who appeared to be
an agent for
A couple years after his escape from the US Jail, there was a curious incident at the Houdini household. On October 25, 1907, an intruder made a concerted effort to kill the performer, slashing at the sleeping figure more than 100 times with a razor. Harry Houdini, however, was not home at the time. The victim of the attack was his brother Leopold, who closely resembled Harry. Household servant Frank Thomas was arrested and charged with the attack, though there was scant evidence linking him to the crime and no known motive. Indeed, Thomas had arrived the next morning for work seemingly unaware the attack had taken place.
Had Houdini been home at the time, there might have been a different outcome, given that some reports contend that the escape artist carried a handgun at all times. Remarkably, Houdini was able to keep his name out of all press accounts of the crime and trial despite the fact that the attack occurred at his home, he appears to have been the intended victim, and the alleged assailant was his own servant.
On November 26, 1909,
became the first man to successfully fly a powered craft on the
continent. He cheerfully dispatched publicity photos featuring him in a
surrounded by German soldiers – a move he would soon regret when those
soldiers found themselves on the opposite side of the battlefields of
The magician’s first
all his subsequent Australian flights, were arranged by Lieutenant
Taylor of the Australian Intelligence Corps. Curiously, despite
early interest in aviation, he did not, as far as is know, ever fly
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In other news, it appears that, while Lookout Mountain Laboratory has been out of business for many years, the spirit of the clandestine film studio is still very much alive and well, as evidenced by the ‘Kony 2012’ video.