Houdini magician chained up

Houdini’s Greatest Secret

This is a true story about a secret that Houdini took with him to the grave. It happened one spring night in New York in 1922*. Harry Houdini magician superstar invited a celebrity guest to a private performance in his home. Houdini’s guest was none other than a certain mystery writer called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed creator of Sherlock Holmes. The performance took place in Houdini’s house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The demonstration spooked Conan Doyle so much that he left the meeting convinced that Houdini had supernatural powers.

The ball spelled out
the exact words Conan Doyle
had written…

It went like this: Houdini presented a chalkboard slate suspended by long wire hooks. He asked Conan Doyle to hang the slate anywhere in the library so it hung freely with space around it. Then Houdini asked his eager spectator to select one of four small cork balls. He then cut the others open to show they were normal while he soaked the chosen ball in white paint. Next, Conan Doyle walked to a nearby park to secretly write a message on a piece of paper in his pocket before returning to Houdini’s house. He returned and the cork ball was lifted out of the paint with a spoon. He held it up to the vertically-hanging slate. The ball inexplicably stuck to the black surface. Then it mysteriously began to roll. Incredibly, the ball spelled out the exact words Conan Doyle had written on the paper in his pocket! But how did Houdini do it? That’s where it gets very interesting…

Related articles:
The time that a Houdini escape went horribly wrong.
Explore the Hackney Empire where Houdini performed live.
Leeds City Varieties where Houdini also appeared.

Houdini’s Incredible Secret

Houdini never revealed the secret even to his closest confidants. But lucky for us, the story lived on and caught the attention of magic historian Bob Loomis. Bob’s ardent detective work would make even Sherlock Holmes himself sit up and take note. Bob explains how he uncovered Houdini’s secret in his book Houdini’s Final Incredible Secret (available on Amazon). The book represents twenty years of passionate research and is a witty and thorough exploration to untangle the mystery of Houdini’s great secret. Thanks to Bob, one of Houdini’s greatest tricks has been revealed. It wasn’t Houdini’s most famous trick by any means. It wasn’t even Houdini’s most dangerous trick. But it was certainly one of his most fascinating.

For the uninitiated, Houdini was one of the most famous stage magicians in history. Harry Houdini was born in Hungary in 1874 (although Bob’s book explains why there are alternative theories!). Houdini emigrated to America and made a name for himself surrounded by myths that are alive and well today. I sat down with Bob in socially-distanced cyberspace and asked him to answer some popular questions about Houdini.

What is Harry Houdini’s Most Famous Trick?

Christopher: People often ask me what was Harry Houdini’s most famous trick. While there are different ways to interpret ‘famous,’ I know I perform two illusions that he is still associated with amongst magicians today. The first is the needle swallow (I’ll let readers figure out the plot from the name!). The second is a lightning fast transposition between two performers called the metamorphosis. One performer is locked in a trunk before the magic happens in the blink of an eye.

Houdini performs the needle swallow illusion.

Bob: I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing you perform them both. The main difference between them is that for Metamorphosis you need to carry around a big box and it takes two people to present it. Over the years Houdini had four different partners. They were his friend Jake Hyman, Jake’s brother Joe, Harry’s brother Dash, and finally Houdini’s wife Bess. From the stagecraft point of view, a male/female partnership is thought to be the best for the metamorphosis. For the needle swallowing you just need a pocket to carry around the needles.

Although the swallowing has the benefit of being an impromptu, one person effect there is a down side – the danger. For a typical example of how it can all go wrong see David Price’s classic 1985 book, Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater. On page 467 he describes “A Needle King’s Accident”. I won’t repeat the gory details.

As to which of the two is the more dangerous, don’t tell Josephine, but in New York, in February 1900, Bess got stuck in the Metamorphosis trunk, and when finally released she was unconscious! (Christopher’s Note: Josephine once actually experienced a similarly terrifying fate!)

Houdini and Bess in a promotional shot for their trunk escape.

How did Houdini Escape?

Christopher: Houdini’s feats captured the public imagination of his day. The stories about his escapes live on and people still wonder how he performed his spectacular escapes. Can you reveal anything here to answer the common questions about how he escaped?

Bob: When asked ‘how they did it’, a standard reply by many magicians is often: “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!” I recently overheard this response to that remark: “Okay, then just tell my wife!”

While many people think Houdini had one big secret, the real answer is that each type of escape had a different, often complex, method. Harry, in fact, had a team of behind-the-scenes experts who were sworn to secrecy. In my book I comment on several of those unseen individuals in detail.

The interesting fact to me is that they were definitely involved in the slate effect that Harry performed (exclusively) for Conan Doyle and Houdini’s lawyer Ernst**. Those ‘backroom boys’ must have had a quite a laugh when Ernst, the man who made them sign a non-disclosure agreement, tried to find out how Houdini did his slate effect. I can imagine them saying something like this to him: “Hey, we can keep our secrets. Stop testing us!”

Harry Houdini chained to two tires.

When did Houdini become famous?

Christopher: Many performers who reach world fame can point back to a moment when everything changed. It could be a new action they took or a lucky break that happened. What can you tell us about that with regards to Houdini?

Bob: Most famous people tend to rewrite their history when they become well-known. Houdini was no different. The one thing that is probably true though about Harry’s career is that his first big break was when Martin Beck discovered him in 1899. Up until then Harry had not managed to raise himself above the lower level of show business, and was beginning to think of giving it all up. The foundation for Harry achieving success and becoming world famous was Beck becoming his manager, as well as a close friend, along with Houdini touring Beck’s Orpheum vaudeville circuit. (Christopher’s Note: For anyone interested in reading about two theatres where Houdini performed in the U.K. here are two articles about the Hackney Empire and Leeds City Varieties).

Houdini… was beginning to
think of
giving it all up

Exactly how Beck first noticed Houdini, and decided to take him on, varies with who is telling the story. It ranges from Beck challenging Houdini to escape from a pair of handcuffs, to a simple request to come to a restaurant for a cup of coffee. The major thing Beck did to improve the act was to tell Houdini to drop all the standard magic stuff and concentrate on escapes, needle swallowing, and the metamorphosis. Beck wanted Harry to focus on being a showman and not a ‘normal’ magician.

How did Harry Houdini die?

Christopher: Thanks to movies and stories that came after him, legends about how Houdini died are numerous. Common renditions I’ve heard range from him drowning, to being buried alive, to actually dying on stage. Can you shed any light on this dark subject?

Bob: Houdini died on Halloween. The date was a publicity gift for magicians, who still hold séances on that day in an attempt to contact him. There are at least seven “true” versions of his death. They vary in how, when and where the great magus escaped from life. They even include a suggestion that Houdini was murdered by a spiritualist conspiracy. (Christopher’s Note: readers interested in seances might like this.)

Harry's last seance with Bess on stage.

The explanation most magic historians usually accept as correct is that in Houdini’s dressing-room in Montreal, on October 22, 1926, a McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, delivered a blow to Houdini’s stomach, which ruptured his appendix. The reason for the punch was to test Houdini’s often-claimed invulnerability, and it led directly to his death from “diffuse peritonitis (streptococci)”, in Grace Hospital, Detroit, nine days later. And, yes, just like everything else to do with Houdini, Houdini nuts still vigorously debate the details.

Houdini magician trivia

Christopher: Do you have any other interesting nuggets to share?

Bob: Several things have happened since I published the book that I wish I’d known beforehand. (These details make more of an impression to those who have read the book.)

The first is that Houdini’s house was recently put on the market and eventually sold. This gave dedicated Houdini nuts a great chance to investigate the house. Some of them travelled thousands of miles to do so. One of them discovered an elevator in the basement big enough for two people. It had secret exits on each floor of the building. The fellow who discovered it said it was exactly what I had been looking for in my book.

The second thing was that the new owners started to do house renovations and, just as I predicted, they discovered old wiring running everywhere in the building.

Third, a retired Chicago Police Captain, after reading my book, said that my detailed speculation about Houdini’s outside surveillance technique was spot on.

Magician in front of his bookcase

Finally, magician David Copperfield recently bought the bookcase I mentioned in my book (shown above), and has installed it in his magic museum in Las Vegas.

If blog readers happen to read my book, do look at the notes and photo albums on the book’s Facebook page. After 20 years’ research, there were many items I did not have room for in the book; so I’ve put them there.

* The exact date is up for speculation as Bob explains in his book.
** Ernst was a second spectator in the room who accompanied Conan Doyle that night.

Seance and Bookcase photos used with kind permission of the Mark Willoughby Collection and wildabouthoudini.com which is a treasure trove of Houdini magician articles.

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

© Christopher Howell 2020.

2 thoughts on “Houdini’s Greatest Secret”

  1. Dr. Simon J. Carmel

    As a deaf author of three books on Deaf Magicians and a biographer-historian of 230 Deaf Magicians from 43 countries, I’d like to let you know that Harry Houdini had used the British two-handed alphabet and also the American one-handed alphabet to communicate with British and Scottish Deaf magicians and also with American Deaf magicians from 1900 to 1920. One time he presented his show to 700 Deaf British people in the large hall near London in March 1920, along with his British fingerspelling in his performance to them. I have a special chapter on Harry Houdini and the Deaf Magicians in my book–“Out of the Magic Cloak: Biographies of 68 Deaf Magicians from 23 Countries” (2019). Dr. Simon J. Carmel, West Palm Beach, Florida USA

    1. Thank you for sharing that fascinating detail. Talk about a performer who knew how to connect with his audience! Also thanks for the reference to your book’s chapter on Houdini.

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