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.
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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.