He Was Born, But Where?
Not long ago the breast pocket snipped from a man's pajamas came up for auction in New York City. Immediately, bids around the room erupted like doves flushed from cover. So eager was the crowd for this fragment of sleepwear that a lofty price of $3,910 was reached before the auctioneer banged his hammer and shouted, "Sold!"
Why would anyone want the pocket of an old pair of striped pajamas with the initials HH monogrammed in gray?
Easy. The first initial stood for Harry. The second for Houdini.
Harry Houdini, the world's greatest magician and escape artist. No jail cell, no chains, no manacles could hold the man.
Houdini, who walked through a red-brick wall! He came through without a scratch, too.
Houdini, who clapped his hands like cymbals and made a five-ton Asian elephant disappear into thin air. Not even the elephant knew how he did it.
Like those engaged in the ancient commerce in relics of saints, buying and selling a wrist bone here, a great toe there, today's magic collectors seek anything associated with the supernova of sorcery, the incomparable, the fabled Houdini—even a trivial scrap of flannel.
This powerfully built but diminutive young man was the most commanding wizard to burst upon the world scene since Merlin performed his parlor tricks during the misty days of King Arthur. Houdini could have sawed Merlin in half.
An abject failure as a magician in his early twenties, Houdini woke one morning, like the poet Lord Byron, to find himself famous.
A knockabout kid, the son of an impoverished rabbi, he insisted that he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. An ambitious finger finger, he crowned himself King of Cards, with holes in his socks. Leaping onto a carousel horse at full gallop, he reached for the gold ring of stardom—and caught it. That, perhaps, was his greatest sleight-of-hand trick, as we shall see.
What exactly did he do that so excited the world's imagination? What razzle-dazzle fixed the name Houdini in the public memory so firmly that it is still remembered today, more than eighty years after his final disappearing act?
Tightly strapped and buckled into a canvas straitjacket designed to restrain the violently insane, he is being raised by his ankles to dangle like a fish from the cornice of a tall building. He wriggles free as adroitly as a moth emerges from a cocoon. The crowd cheers. Can nothing hold the great escape artist?
After recrowning himself the "King of Handcuffs," a defiant Houdini is being shackled at the wrists and ankles. He is quickly nailed inside a wooden packing case and thrown into the untidy waters of New York Harbor. Moments later, he splashes to the surface, rattling aloft the police jewelry.
He has escaped the inescapable. The skeptics are befuddled. The man must have supernatural powers!
Equally confounding is his trademark Indian Needle Trick. At the same time, the faux secrets were demeaning, for they dismissed the magician's hard-won sleight-of-hand skills and mastery of the arts of fooling the socks off people. Houdini was the grand guru of magic. He didn't need the unseen assistance of sprites, spirits, and imps.
It is said that you know you are truly famous when the deranged imagine that they are you.
Once Houdini's exploits blazed across newspaper headlines, the opportunists, the cunning, the nutcases, and the jealous emerged like theatrical chameleons. The imitators not only parted their hair in the middle, as did the escape artist, they mimicked his style of dress and his billing. There were more self-crowned Kings of Handcuffs before the footlights than in all the royal houses of Europe—half a hundred in England alone. To Harry's great annoyance, these pests tried to counterfeit his name, coming up with such worshipful thefts as Whodini, Oudini, and Hardini.
Women, too, tried to get into the act. Most nettlesome was a Miss Undina in Germany whose name, when pronounced, sounded close to the original. He had to sue to get her and her copycat tricks out of the escape business. And where a heavily manacled Houdini had had himself photographed in his underwear, an imitator named Miss Lincoln had herself photographed in a racy costume that could pass as knee-length bloomers. But not even the curves and black stockings of that distaff queen of handcuffs were a match for Harry's commanding footlight razzmatazz.
His strategy was to trump his imitators with ever more daring and death-defying feats of mystification. It was this battle for supremacy that inspired one of his most dangerous illusions—the awesome Milk Can Escape.
In earlier days, milk fresh from the cow was transported in large cans. Houdini had one made just large enough to hold him tightly folded in a fetal position. Buckets of water were poured into the can, followed by Houdini himself. Challenging his audience to hold its breath with him, the great showman lowered his head under water. The lid was secured with six padlocks, and a curtain was drawn around this impending death scene.
At thirty seconds the audience was gasping for breath. Sixty seconds passed. Tick, tick, tick. Two minutes! Had the escape gone wrong? Tick, tick, tick. Was Houdini drowning?
Assistants with axes stood ready to burst open the death can. At the last moment, just short of 180 seconds, out popped the master of escape, breathless, dripping wet, but very much alive.
He Jests at Handcuffs shouted a Los Angeles newspaper, while Houdini challenged the world to duplicate his escapes. But as the years passed, he could read his voluminous scrapbooks, and they were telling him that flinging off handcuffs was no longer making headlines.
While his name had become as recognizable as that of Napoleon, of Shakespeare, of Lincoln, the former carnival magician feared slipping back into obscurity. He understood that fame needed constant renewal, and he went at it with ingenuity and furious energy.
Excerpted from Escape! by Sid Fleischman Copyright © 2006 by Sid Fleischman. Excerpted by permission.
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