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.

Morris Young Collection/KRT/Newscom/File
Best known as an escape artist, Harry Houdini devoted much of his energies to debunking claims of supernatural ability.

As you may have learned from Google's home page, March 24 marks the 137th anniversary of the birth of Erik Weisz, the legendary conjurer and escape artist who became world famous as Harry Houdini.

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.]

Professional magicians, by contrast, disclaim having any supernatural abilities, and some prominent ones have continued Houdini's legacy of ghostbusting. Magician James Randi has a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can objectively prove the existence of psychic powers. As with the Houdini's Scientific American challenge, nobody has yet collected the prize. Vegas headliners Penn & Teller routinely take aim at astrology, ESP, alien abductions, and other pseudoscientific assertions.

Stage magic has long walked hand-in-hand with scientific skepticism. One of the earliest magic textbooks, Reginald Scot's 1584 book "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," was written in an attempt to show that the "magical" powers exhibited by so-called witches were actually clever illusions.

I should probably disclose here that my mother has worked as a professional stage magician for most of my life. When I was a child, she made me take the Magician's Oath, in which I promised never to reveal the secret of a trick to a non-magician, and never to perform a trick before an audience until I was good enough not to blow the gaff. (I never actually got that good.)

So you won't learn any tricks from me. But the magician community probably won't object to me noting that the success of most illusions has much more to do with being able to manipulate the attention of your audience than it does with the mechanics of the trick itself.

And, boy, how our attention is manipulated these days, particularly by the media. Understanding the patter, misdirection, legerdemain, and unseen mechanisms that make up the stock in trade of magicians will get you a long way toward becoming a better media consumer. In a country where sizable minorities accept the existence of ghosts, curses, fortune-tellers, UFOs, and astrology, it's important to keep in mind that the hand is often quicker than the eye.

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