Harry Houdini: Why the world needs magicians
It's the 137th anniversary of the birth of Harry Houdini, an apt occasion to acknowledge the conjurers, escapologists, and prestidigitators who continually remind us that all is not what it seems.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Born in Budapest in 1874, when he was four years old Erik emigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father served as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. The family moved to New York in 1887, by which time Erik was already performing as a trapeze artist, calling himself "Erich, the Prince of the Air."
He began performing as a professional magician at the age of 17, taking the name Harry Houdini, an homage to the French illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.
Houdini is best known as an escapologist, slipping out of handcuffs, straitjackets, prison cells, buried coffins, and, perhaps most famously, a water-filled cabinet. But he was also highly accomplished at sleight-of-hand and conjuring, once vanishing an adult elephant in the New York Hippodrome.
Near the end of his life, Houdini deployed his magic training to the cause of debunking self-proclaimed psychics, mediums, and others who claimed supernatural abilities. He worked with Scientific American magazine to offer a cash prize to anyone who could conclusively demonstrate paranormal abilities. Needless to say, the prize money went unclaimed.
Houdini's efforts cost him the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. An ardent Spiritualist, the creator of Sherlock Holmes remained convinced that the magician was a powerful psychic who used his abilities to "block" those of other mediums.
In discrediting the occult, Houdini helped define what it means to be a modern illusionist. Those who possess the rare combination of showmanship and dexterity required to maintain the illusion of magic can, if they wish, use their gifts to pass off magic tricks as paranormal powers that have been granted by extraterrestrials, or use techniques developed by stage performers to convince people that they are communicating with their dead loved ones. Even Houdini's one-time idol, Robert-Houdin, was enlisted by his government in 1856 to pacify rebellious tribes in French Algeria by performing "miracles" that would demonstrate the superiority of French "magic." [Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained information that has been challenged as an unfair characterization. That was not our intent, and we regret if it was taken the wrong way. We have subsequently removed reference to specific individuals.]