Hands down one of the world’s most interesting people, Harry Houdini is a man who is still shrouded in mystery, even 90 years after his death. The illusionist was perhaps best known for his fear defying stunts that pushed the human body to its very limits. First finding fame in the vaudeville, the escape artist soon rose through the ranks and hit the big leagues, quickly becoming the most famous name in the world in his business. Despite his well documented life, however, there are many things about the man that remain unknown and only now are intimate facts surfacing to build a bigger picture of the man behind the act.
Given his taste for death defying scenes, it should perhaps come as little surprise that Houdini was a man fascinated with the macabre. Death, darkness and all their associations were big parts of the illusionist’s obsessions and over the years, he built up a hefty collection of items relating to all things morbid. As well as collecting detailed descriptions on the lives of the most notorious murderers, Houdini added the first electric chair to his collection and even splashed out on Edgar Allen Poe’s original writing desk. His taste for the macabre spread into other facets of his life, too and soon, he was taking up dares to match his strong stomach.
One such dare involved the illusionist wedging himself into the body of a sea creature. The animal, which had washed up on the shores of the Boston Harbor in 1911, had died in the seas and was left to rot on the beach side. Seeing it as an opportunity to test the escape artist’s skills on his own terms, a businessman is said to have dared Houdini to shackle himself inside the carcass and escape. Incredibly, Houdini managed the feat, despite the fact that the creature was filled with the fumes of toxic chemicals.
While Houdini left a legacy in the illusionist world, he never had any children with his wife, Bess. At least, that’s what the history books will tell you. According to a correspondence between the husband and wife, the pair named an imaginary child after the illusionist’s father who they continued to refer to over the years. Their “son”, Mayer Samuel Houdini, seemed to be doing so well, in fact, that he eventually went on to become President of the United States. Who knew?
Family ties are what can tell us the most about Houdini and yet, it appears what we might already know could be subject to a great deal of interpretation. While the illusionist had an incredibly strong bond with his mother, it was believed for years that he had a deep rivalry with his younger brother. In fact, the pair’s disagreements were created as a way of adding drama to Houdini’s set ups, drawing in the public’s interest to his development. The pair’s feud was a publicity stunt and even after Houdini’s death, his younger brother kept the legacy alive and well.
With many of the mysteries about Houdini were cracked during his lifetime, there seemed to be very little to solve in the future. Mysteries, of course, have a way of hiding themselves and it is only years later that they rise back to the surface. Take Houdini’s postage stamp as an example. In 2002, the United States Postal Office released a stamp with the illusionist’s image as a commemorative nod to his career. Things weren’t quite as they seemed, however, and if you enlisted the help of a special lens, an image of a shackled Houdini was revealed from the depths.
A man stranger than fiction, Harry Houdini couldn’t be made up. While we might be getting to know more about the escape artist, a great deal more is left unsaid and with the centenary of his death fast approaching, it seems we are still in the dark on many aspects about his life. Harry Houdini; the man, the myth, the mystery.