Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Life of Harry Houdini: Part 2

Houdini returned to America as an international superstar. While in Europe he escaped from many notorious jails after being stripped naked and searched. He also won a court case in Germany after he was accused of using bribery to aide in his escapes. Legend has it that he won the case after opening the judge’s safe, which it turns out he had just forgotten to lock. Fact states that he demonstrated a few of his handcuff techniques for the courtroom, including revealing the fact that some handcuffs could be escaped from by simply banging them on a hard object. In London he escaped from the “Mirror Cuffs”, which had taken a blacksmith 5 years to build and had locks that were impossible to pick. Houdini escaped from the cuffs in about an hour.
Houdini bought a luxurious Brownstone residence with his newfound wealth upon his return. His whole family moved in and it would be his base of operations for years. The year after his return, Houdini stunned spectators by escaping from the prison cell in Washington D.C. that once held Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield. By this point Houdini was a force to be reckoned with, and in the next few years his list of accomplishments grew ever longer.

Over the next few years Houdini would invent some of his most celebrated illusions, such as his manacled bridge jumps and his extremely famous milk can escapes. If Houdini was unable to escape from the milk can and did not receive assistance, he would have drowned. This added a level of danger to the act that would become a sort of signature of Houdini’s performances. In 1908 he wrote a controversial book called “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin”. In the book he would accuse his former hero (Houdini’s stage name is simply Houdin with the addition of an “I”, which Houdini incorrectly believed meant “like Houdin” in French. The book would accuse Houdin of performing old routines and claiming them as his own, and Houdini actually traced the original origins of many of Houdin’s routines. He also claimed that Houdin exaggerated many of his accomplishments, a criticism that would occasionally be thrown at Houdini by other magicians.

Houdini was interested in flight and aviation, and in 1910 did something truly remarkable when he flew his Voisin Biplane in Sydney, Australia. It was one of the first human flights ever recorded, lasted a full three minutes, and was the first human flight recorded on camera. Houdini’s performances would become even more dangerous and exciting in the next few years as he created his underwater box escape and his Chinese Water Torture Cell escape, the latter of which is the illusion for which Houdini is best known.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell escape involved Houdini being lowered upside down into a locked steel and glass container filled with water. The performance involved Houdini holding his breath for over three minutes. It quickly became one of his most celebrated acts and he performed it for the rest of his life. Popular belief is that Houdini died while performing this escape and his death was portrayed that way in two separate Hollywood films. In fact, the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape had nothing to do with the death of Houdini.

1913 was a year of great change for Harry Houdini, who finally legally changed his name from Ehrich Weiss. On July 17, 1913, Cecilia Weiss died. Houdini was performing for the Swedish Royal Family at the time and apparently fainted when he was delivered the news after the performance. Houdini always was a family man. His career showed no signs of slowing down and would only continue to grow as he enjoyed his spot as America’s top vaudeville performer. Soon Houdini would turn his gaze to another form of entertainment as well – the silver screen.

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