Skip To Content
Houdini poster image
Aired January 24, 2000


The Man Behind the Myth

Film Description

In 1912 Harry Houdini was lowered into New York’s East River in a crate wrapped in chains. The crowd of spectators gasped; reporters pulled out their stopwatches. Houdini was out in less than a minute. The resulting media blitz was just one of the spectacles that forever established Houdini as "The World’s Greatest Escape Artist."

Throughout his rise from Hungarian immigrant to international star, Houdini confronted our greatest fears-entrapment, pain, death-and emerged victorious. He was the premier showman of the century–and a man haunted by doubts, obsessions, and his own mortality.

In this presentation of Houdini, produced by Nancy Porter ("Alone on the Ice," "The Wright Stuff," "Amelia Earhart") and Beth Tierney, Houdini’s greatest escapes are brought to life through archival footage, dramatic recreations performed by professional escape artist Bob Fellows -- one of the few able to perform the difficult Water Torture Cell escape -- and on-camera interviews with illusionist David Copperfield; investigator of psychic claims James Randi; escape artist David De-Val; writers E. L.Doctorow and Ken Silverman; and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who, as a child, saw Houdini perform in New York’s Palace Theater in the 1920s. Mandy Patinkin narrates.

"Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried," says Copperfield. "Houdini takes all those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from."

After years of performing with his wife, Bess, in circuses, traveling medicine shows, and dime museums -- the lowest branches of show business -- Houdini began to wow the crowds on the vaudeville circuit with his handcuff escapes. His fame grew. In 1900 Harry and Bess toured England and Europe. He publicized his appearances by convincing the local police to lock him up, then breaking out of the cell -- in the nude. At his performances, hundreds were turned away; on stage, the short, muscular star created a frenzy with his daring stunts.

After five years on the road, Houdini, now an international celebrity, was worn down. He bought an elegant brownstone in a fashionable part of Harlem and moved in with Bess–and his widowed mother. "Houdini was really twice married," notes biographer Ken Silverman. "He was married to Bess, and then in a way also married to his mother. He always called them ‘my two girls.’"

Harry promised to slow down, but he couldn’t. In 1908 he offered $1,000 to anyone with a device that could hold him. His open challenge attracted the makers of packing cases, pianos, roll-top desks -- even a huge envelope.

Every escape carried some risk, and each performance took a physical toll. "Houdini broke, injured, sprained almost everything," says Silverman. "One of the worst times was in Pittsburgh. He had some longshoreman come up on stage and tie him tightly. They pulled so hard that they ruptured his kidney."

Houdini took his act outdoors, performing ever more dangerous water escapes. He trained by submerging himself in an icy bathtub, holding his breath while Bess timed him -- up to three minutes. Then he learned that his famous Milk Can Escape was being copied and sold to imitators for $35. Furious, Houdini retaliated by introducing what he described as "the climax of all my labors -- the Chinese Water Torture Cell." He would hang by his ankles in a tank full of water, with the lid padlocked. A curtain was drawn, the band played "Asleep in the Deep" -- then, agonizing minutes later, Houdini would emerge, breathless and sodden, to take his bow. "He was so insanely devoted to what he was doing and so disciplined that the ultimate insanity of his life never occurred to him," novelist E. L. Doctorow observes.

In 1918 Houdini attempted to break into the movies with a 15-part serial called "Master Mystery." But his acting skills didn’t hold a candle to his talents as an escape artist, and his Hollywood career bombed. Harry and Bess returned to New York, where he immersed himself in what he called his "world-famous theater library." And in a new cause -- debunking spiritualism.

With the death of millions during World War I, spiritualism was flourishing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife, close friends of the Houdinis, had lost a son at the front, and claimed to communicate with him through mediums. Conan Doyle’s wife offered to hold a séance to reunite Houdini with his mother. Appalled by the exercise and incensed over the exploitation of his grief, Harry embarked on a vigorous crusade against spiritualists, declaring, "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer." His exposés proved incredibly popular, and put him back in the headlines.

Despite his promise to Bess to retire, Harry, now in his 40s, could not step out of the limelight. In 1925, he launched a one-man show on Broadway that featured magic tricks, escapes, and exposés of spiritualists. For a time, it seemed that the man was invincible. "He would say, ‘Hit me, hit me as hard as you can,’" recalls Al Hirschfeld. "And I would hit him, but I would hurt my hand before I would hurt him."

But Houdini would not stay invincible much longer. At McGill University in Montreal he gave a lecture, then was resting before his performance. A student came in and challenged Houdini to withstand a blow to the stomach. Before Houdini could prepare, the young man struck him a painful blow. "That will do," mumbled Houdini. He struggled through his performance, then fell ill on the train to his next stop. Physicians later found widespread infection from a burst appendix. The great magician died in Detroit on Halloween 1926 and was laid to rest in a bronze coffin that had been custom-made for one of his buried alive stunts. He was 52 years old. After a life spent in pursuit of fame, Harry Houdini would now assume his place in history.


Produced by Nancy Porter
Beth Tierney

Edited by
Peter Rhodes

Music by
Claudio Ragazzi

Boyd Estus 
Jeri Sopanen
Christine Burrill

Houdini's escapes performed by 
Robert Fellows
Mind Matters, Inc.

Production Assistant
James Whitters

Research Assistant
Arda Collins
Recreation Performers

Tom Kemp
James Fellows
Edward Germain
Pier Gustafson

Set Design
Katha Seidman

Ann Yoost Brecke

Billy Novick
Brian Clague
Alon Yavnai

Peter Frumkin
Yuri Raicin
John Zecca

Assistant Camera
Jill Tufts
Dick Williams

Guy Holt

Jeffrey King
Walter Argo

Jeremy Roby

Still Animation
The Frame Shop, Ed Joyce

Sound Design and Mix
Heartpunch Studios
Greg McCleary & Geof Thurber

On-line Editor
Dave Allen, Multivision 

Narration Recording
Sync Sound

Film to Tape Transfer
Roland House

Historical Advisors
Kenneth Silverman
Don B. Wilmeth

Archival Footage
Archive Films 
George Eastman House
Richard Flint
The Image Bank
International Magicians Society 
John E. Allen, Inc. 
Library of Congress
The WPA Film Library 
Worldview Entertainment

American Jewish Archive
Archive Photos
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
Brown Brothers 
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library 
Carrandi Collection
Chicago Historical Society
Milbourne Christopher Collection
Kevin A. Connolly Collection
David Copperfield Collection
Culver Pictures 
David De-Val Collection
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library
Ed Hill Collection
Sidney H. Radner Collection, Houdini Historical Center, Appleton, WI
Library of Congress
Library of Congress, Rare Book Room, McManus-Young Collection 
Robert Lund Collection
William H. McIlhany
Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection
McGill University Archives
Minnesota Historical Center
Minnesota Historical Society
Museum of the City of New York
The New York Historical Society 
Kenneth Silverman 
Rosebush Enterprises and Lee Jacobs Productions
Society of American Magicians
Stanley Palm Collection
Morris Young Collection
Manny Weltman Collection

Special Thanks to
David Copperfield
Kit and Gerry Laybourne
Sidney H. Radner
James Randi
Chris Spriano
Richard Wood, Strand Theatre 
On-Air Promotion 
Frank Capria 
James Dunford
Post Production
Maureen Barden
Raymond Powell

Field Production
Larry LeCain
Bob McCausland 
Chas Norton
Dan Lang
Series Designers
Alison Kennedy
Chris Pullman

Title Animation
Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.

Online Editor
Mark Steele

Series Theme
Charles Kuskin

Michael Bacon
Christine Larson

Project Administration 
Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell
Andre Jones

Interactive Media
Rick Groleau
Danielle Dell'Olio
David Condon

Daphne B. Noyes 
Johanna Baker

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Joseph Tovares

Senior Producer
Mark Samels

Executive Producer
Margaret Drain
A Nancy Porter Productions, Inc. film
WGBH Educational Foundation
©2000 All rights reserved


David McCullough, Series Host: Hello and Welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.

Houdini... Except, I suppose, for the legendary Merlin of King Arthur's Court, no name so conjures up the realm of magic. 

The great Harry Houdini, escape artist extraordinaire, is our story, and, I must say, as one of the many who've known the bliss of a boyhood fascination with magic, I love this film.

No secrets to Houdini's tricks will be revealed here, it should be understood at the start. What is revealed -- through a wealth of old photographs, film clips, and particularly insightful interviews -- is the ardent nature of the man himself and how much he and his breathtaking feats said about America in his time.

In this one exceptional life story is to be found a whole panorama of fads, innovations, popular pastimes, and age-old longings that moved the country then. There's the role of spiritualism, the advent of skyscrapers and the airplane, the burgeoning of show business, from vaudeville to Broadway to the movies, the infinite new powers of publicity. There is the insatiable need in some people for the limelight, a desire for which there is no substitute but more limelight. And there is the striking way this one extraordinary performer embodied the deep desire for escape among tens of thousands of his fellow new Americans.

And in the last analysis there is Houdini himself, who once said simply, "I do tricks nobody can explain."

That he would wind up so triumphant a career longing most of all to escape the escape business is still another compelling part of the story. Houdini by producer, Nancy Porter.

JAMES RANDI, Investigator of psychic claims: Everyone who ever experienced seeing Houdini in the flesh remarked on his smile. He grinned from ear to ear. And he looked out over the entire audience. He swept -- Everyone met his eye at one point or another. Up into the balcony, even. He got through.

AL HIRSCHFELD, Caricaturist: They would put him inside of a—a milk can full of water, you know, and put locks on the outside of the milk can. He would make it as difficult as possible for himself it seemed.

DAVID COPPERFIELD, Illusionist: Everybody understands the fear of water, the fear of being buried. You know, he takes all those metaphors that are our nightmares and turns them into something that he can escape from.

RANDI: And one way he did that with the Milk Can was to say to them, "At the moment that I put my head beneath the water, I want you all to take a deep breath and hold your breath as long as you possibly can.

KEN SILVERMAN, Biographer: To build up suspense, for the milk can, he had a huge clock put on the stage. 45 seconds, a minute, a minute and a half, when people in the audience realized they couldn’t hold their breath for 30 seconds. Two minutes.

RANDI: People would panic. Some of them would even leave the audience because they couldn't bear the suspense.

DAVID DE-VAL, Escape Artist: And then suddenly, dripping, he would appear from the cabinet. There, all the locks were still intact. And there was no clue to the method that he used. That’s a good escape, isn’t it?

NARRATOR: He was our greatest showman. Throughout his rise from unknown immigrant to international star, Harry Houdini radiated confidence and courage. In public, he confronted our greatest fears and always emerged victorious. What we didn't know was that Houdini was plagued by doubts and haunted by his own mortality. To us, he was a superman.

NARR: Harry Houdini was not his real name. He was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874. When he was four, he emigrated with his mother and four brothers to the small midwestern town of Appleton, Wisconsin. There they joined Ehrich's father who had come to lead a small congregation of Jewish immigrants. Rabbi Mayer Weiss was educated, uncompromising, and deeply devoted to his wife, Cecelia.

Harry referred to her as a saint, as an angel. She was a very good caring nurturing person. And it is something that gave Harry a goal in is life, to please Cecelia, his mother.

SILVERMAN: Houdini grew up in a family with five boys in it. And Houdini worked very hard to try to stand out. His competitiveness partly came out of trying to out-shine his brothers.

NARR: Ehrich stood out as the most physically agile. Inspired by traveling circuses, he performed for friends as a contortionist and trapeze artist, calling himself The Prince of the Air.

I’m sure that Harry would say "I think I can do that too." No matter how incredible it was or how impossible it seemed, he knew that if they could do it, he could do it.

NARR: But the idyllic years in Appleton were short lived. Ehrich's father was fired by his congregation for being too "old world." He struggled to support his family, and they moved frequently, finally ending up in the crowded tenements of New York City. Ehrich and his father found work in a garment sweatshop. What little time he had, he devoted to building his body. Just five foot six, he was muscular and often ran 10 miles a day.

SILVERMAN: In the wonderful picture of him at about the age of 16, he has a chest full of medals, one of which he won for a cross-country race in New York. That’s a real medal. All the other medals on his chest are fakes. That's very typical of Houdini, no matter how wonderful the things he did, he had to exaggerate them.

E. L. DOCTOROW, Writer: Desperation was the theme of his life. That desperate desire to turn himself into something almost superhuman if he possibly could. "Look at who I am, look at what I can do," is very, very much a desperate kind of thing.

NARR: But nothing Ehrich could do could transform his father's life. As Rabbi Weiss lay dying of cancer at the age of 63, he made his son promise that Cecilia would never want for anything. It became Ehrich's mission.

: I think Houdini was partly ashamed of his failed father. It was very important for him to overcome those beginnings and to really count in the world. Very few people that I know have wanted to make a mark on life as much as Houdini did.

NARR: It was on the streets of New York that Ehrich found a way to make his mark.

DON WILMETH, Theater historian:
There were entertainment venues on virtually every block of the city, concert saloons, variety theatres, dime museums. Dime museums would indeed advertise what's inside on the outside, so there would have been a chance to see human anomalies demonstrated or even possibly a magician on the street.

NARR: At age eighteen, Ehrich joined up with a friend to form a simple magic act performing sleight of hand tricks. They named themselves the Brothers Houdini after the famous French magician, Robert Houdin. Ehrich became Harry.

I think when you're a kid and you do something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, whether it be magic or escapes or something like that, that impresses people, you get that reaction, a very genuine reaction of amazement, of wonder. It’s something you can’t replace with anything else.

NARR: The first big job for the Brothers Houdini was on the mile long midway at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago.

The organizers of the World’s Fair expected the fair, the exposition, to be the great draw. In reality, the midway was probably more successful, more popular. Why? Because people were truly entertained. American entertainment was still very much in its kind of formative stage, but in the 1890’s, it exploded. And Houdini was coming along just at that point of explosion.

NARR: Harry discovered there was plenty of work in show business. He found someone to share it with the following year when he met eighteen year old Beatrice Rahner. Bess was a German Catholic immigrant, lively and funny, part of a song-and-dance act called the Floral Sisters. After a three week courtship, they married.

Bess was a natural born magician’s assistant, she was very petite. She was only about five feet tall and very lithe. Five feet tall, thin, very gamin-like, is wonderful for climbing in and out of boxes.

NARR: Appearing as the Houdini's, they performed conventional magic tricks and featured an illusion called the Metamorphosis taking only three seconds to exchange places in a trunk.

The Houdini's started out in the lowest branches of show business. They did circuses. They did traveling medicine shows where Houdini would sell Kickapoo Joy Juice in between the acts. They started out in dime museums, performing next to various sort of human anomalies. Houdini really grew to hate it.

NARR: He yearned to move up the ladder to the Vaudeville stage. The money was better, the pace less gruelling, and compared to the dime museum, it was positively refined.

Tony Pastor’s in New York was the really first big date that the Houdinis had. It was the place to be. But what was also important was where were you on the bill?

NARR: Harry and Bess played in the worst position - opening the second act, while the audience was still getting seated. When Harry later pasted the program into his scrapbook, he moved The Houdinis into the headliner's position.

NARR: To become a true headliner, Harry needed a gimmick. He was inspired by spiritualist shows in which the performers would enter a cabinet locked in handcuffs. While the audience believed that spirits were playing instruments and making objects fly around, Houdini knew immediately it was a trick. The performers had gotten out of their handcuffs.

The whole idea of the spiritualist was to make the audience believe that they did not escape. Houdini saw the potential in the actual escape.

NARR: The first time he used handcuffs on stage, he knew he was on to something. But escape was just a small part of his act. He had struggled for six years and was still Dime Museum Harry.

He was thinking of getting out of magic but he went to fulfill a contract that he had in Minneapolis. While he was performing in some kind of beer garden there, a very famous agent named Martin Beck one of the leading Vaudeville managers, walked in and happened to see one of Houdini’s handcuff escapes.

RANDI: He didn’t think the escape act could maintain a continuity that an audience would come to see just that. But Beck saw through that. Beck saw that an escape act could be an act in itself.

NARR: Martin Beck wired Houdini saying he could open in Omaha and get paid sixty dollars a week."This wire changed my whole life's journey, " he later wrote. The act was no longer Bess and Harry. It was simply Houdini, the King of Handcuffs. After fourteen months on Beck's vaudeville circuit, he was earning $400 a week and was famous.

NARR: In 1900 Beck sent Harry and Bess on a brief tour of England.

At the time, at the turn of the century, it was important that people in America came to England, because that’s where it—it mattered most to be successful. That’s where -- Everyone from America came to England.

NARR: In London, Houdini astonished audiences and was hailed as "the most wonderful entertainer the world had ever seen." Harry and Bess decided to stay abroad and began performing all over Europe.

I think Houdini appealed to the working class. They considered themselves in chains, chained to the drudgery of their work, for low pay and poor conditions. And to see Houdini actually escape seemingly from impossible things, they thought that maybe it gave them a glimmer of hope that maybe they could do the same.

NARR: Houdini publicized his appearances by visiting the local jail where he convinced the police to lock him up and let him try to escape.

Houdini came to town, and you knew Houdini was in town. He had placards mounted onto handles and he would employ perhaps 20 people to carry these through the street. "Houdini escaped from your jail today at 10:30." It was one just great big hype.

NARR: The jail escapes were especially newsworthy because he performed them nude.

In that day, that was exceedingly daring. But it also proved that he didn’t go in with special tools concealed in his shirt and his trousers and his shoes and what not. Though he would be searched assiduously, he had ways around those searches. As you can imagine, there were so many ways by slight of hand and such that he could actually be in that cell with sufficient tools that, after he’d studied the lock, he knew how to manipulate it.

DE-VAL: The real trick of it all was, I mean, the right key at the right time, but keeping it away from anyone that might see him having it. That [laughs] really sums it up. That’s all escapology is anyway.

NARR: Harry worked the press just as skillfully as he worked his locks. In 1904, he staged an event with London's biggest newspaper, The Daily Mirror. For days, the Mirror fed the public every detail about a set of handcuffs that were guaranteed impossible to pick. In front of four thousand spectators, Houdini appeared to be worried. "I do not know whether I will get out or not," he said. He then withdrew into a cabinet he called a ghost house and the audience waited.

One of the times that Houdini came out of the ghost house, he asked to have his dress coat taken off. He was sweating profusely. The manager of the escape said no. He was afraid that that would show Houdini really how the cuffs could be opened. Houdini then pulled a pure Houdini stunt.

DE-VAL: He struggled to get into a side pocket of his coat, terrifically difficult, removed a pen knife, opened this with his teeth. And he hacked the coat away from his body and threw it on the floor, and everyone cheered. And he held the handcuffs triumphantly in the air, and went back into the cabinet to try again.

NARR: For more than an hour, the audience sat riveted waiting for Houdini to appear.

And when he finally emerged from those cuffs, they literally picked him up on their shoulders and walked around with him. They were so excited. The audience just went berserk.

COPPERFIELD: There is only one way he could have gotten out of it. He was able to get a newspaper to collaborate on a charade to get themselves publicity, which is quite an interesting achievement. It's really amazing marketing.

NARR: "Nothing on the walls but Houdini," Harry boasted. But after 5 years, the constant touring had taken a toll. Harry felt guilty leaving his mother for so long and, as he wrote to a friend, "Bess wishes to stop working and rest long enough to raise one of them things we call children."In 1905, the Houdini's headed home. Harry was now an international star.

NARR: Almost 30 years earlier, Ehrich Weiss had sailed into New York harbor as a young immigrant from Hungary. Now he was Harry Houdini and carried a passport which listed Appleton, Wisconsin as his birthplace.

: After you evolve in a foreign country and you’re welcomed back into your adopted America, you know, that’s -- can be nothing better than conquering something that was unconquerable for yourself.

NARR: Houdini now commanded $2000 a week. He bought an elegant brownstone in a fashionable part of Harlem and moved in his sister, one of his brothers, and, of course, his mother.

Houdini was really twice married. I mean, he was married to Bess, and then in a way also married to his mother. He always called them "my two girls."

RANDI: He was in effect what we would call today — a mother's boy. He loved his mother to the point of obsession. But he also loved Bess, and I think, loved her, uh, passionately, romantically. He left her little notes underneath the tablecloth, and tucked behind a picture that she would eventually find.

NARR: Harry addressed Bess adoringly as "Sweetie, Wifie, Mine," saying he had a "bessyful of love awaiting her."

His whole relation to her is so sort of kidding. There is something very unserious about it. It was the kind of relation Houdini had with other people too. This was someone very wrapped up in himself. He was absolutely immense egoist. None larger. He had the most elaborate stationery that had "Houdini" all over it. His pajamas said "HH." His wallet said "HH." The tiles, the—the floor tiles in his bathroom said "HH."

NARR: Houdini was especially preoccupied with his health. He swam and had massages regularly, didn't drink or smoke, and was evangelical about his diet.

He tried to tell people that he could build them up if they had lots of milk and oranges and eggs and goodness knows what. And he gave them little recipes, jotted things down for them to help them build their physique.

DE-VAL: He was a very personable guy, a guy that you’d like to be around. But the other side of him was that one particular lady who was his secretary told me that he—he didn’t like people. He didn’t like people at all. So ... he—he didn’t just do an act on stage; he did it off, as well.

RANDI: He was an implacable foe. He had people that he disliked if not hated, all of his life, simply because they had slighted him.

NARR: The people Houdini hated the most were the imitators who had plagued him since the beginning of his career. Harry often spied on them and then humiliated them in public. "Do others, " he once said,"or they will do you."

NARR: In 1908, he dropped handcuff escapes and began performing a new act, the Open Challenge. He offered a thousand dollars to anyone with a device that could hold him.

: It was a wonderful gimmick. It—it brought him a lot of local good will. I mean, he’d—he’d come into Milwaukee and some packing case firm -- or some piano maker would say, "We’ll lock you in our piano and nail the lid shut, and you get out." It would be great publicity for them and great publicity for Houdini.

DE-VAL: There were people in factories who I’ve spoken to, who said: Oh, it was wonderful when we—we got together and we said: let’s make up a challenge for Houdini to escape from. They joined in. He brought the public really onto the stage. He made them feel important, I think.

NARR: Houdini escaped from a roll-top desk, a huge envelope, a giant football, even a creature from the deep.

If he were working today, there would be a level of cynicism that just didn't exist then. There was a kind of innocence of that time, before television, before big high-tech $100 million movies, that made his act a kind of a super-act.

NARR: He created a frenzy to see his shows in Europe and America, and streets were often blocked with hundreds unable to get in.

Most Vaudevillians developed 12 minutes of material across a lifetime, and it was always the same. But Houdini’s act had suspense. And no one knew exactly what was going to happen, including himself. It was unbelievable. They would tie every piece of his body with ropes and chains, so it would be absolutely impossible to get out of it. But he seemed to wiggle out of it.

NARR: He would display each challenge in front of the theater before the show to attract an audience. It was a strategy Harry had picked up at the circus. It also gave him a chance to plan his escape.

NARR: But no matter how much he prepared, there was always risk.

Houdini broke, injured, sprained almost everything. One of the worst injuries was: He was performing in Pittsburgh, and he was doing a rope tie. And he had some longshoreman come up on the stage and tie him tightly. They pulled very hard on his body. So hard that they ruptured his kidney. And for about the next week, he was urinating blood.

SILVERMAN: All of Houdini’s escapes involved a lot of pain. And certainly part of the—the interest in it has to do with some kind of masochistic pleasure. Houdini was fascinated by mutilation. He had a gruesome collections of photographs, one of them, some of them of prisoners in Asia who were beheaded, and the heads are sort of lying around the field like cabbages.

NARR: Harry was fascinated by madness and even visited mental institutions. One day, he was struck by the sight of an inmate struggling to get out of a straitjacket.

It was part of his genius that he saw in that a presentation piece, because you appear to be totally helpless.

NARR: But Houdini's strongest obsession was death. After a schoolhouse burned down, he traveled out of his way to view the charred remains of the young victims.

Houdini had a lifelong fascination with death. There are many, many pictures of him visiting graves, usually the graves of other magicians. He's tempting death himself, all of his life.

NARR: When Harry introduced the Milk Can Escape, he played on his audiences' deepest fears.

I was fascinated to see just how crazy this man could get, you know, and—and get himself out of it. Because he put himself in peril. He really did. Many, many times.

NARR: Houdini almost died when he was challenged by the Tetley Brewery in England to escape from a milkcan filled with beer.

: He had a small air space at the top of the can, the lid was slightly domed. Now, when Houdini, who many times had done this trick, went into the can and come up to the top, he then found that little space that literally saved his life many, many times, that was full of CO2 from the beer. As soon as he took a gulp of that air, it wasn’t air. It was poison. I don't know exactly how he contacted the outside but they knew it was going wrong and they hacked him out of the thing, ripped the thing apart and took him out.

SILVERMAN: There’s a story that when he was young, he was swimming in the river. He was seven years old, and almost drowned. That story always fascinates me, because so many of Houdini’s greatest stunts are really underwater escapes. Perhaps that experience so much scared him that he spent a lot of the rest of his life trying to be sure he could overcome it and survive it.

NARR: Harry started preparing for hazardous water escapes. He would submerge himself in an icy bathtub holding his breath as long as possible. Bess timed him as he stayed under for up to three minutes.

He was so insanely devoted to what he was doing, so disciplined that the ultimate insanity of his life never occurred to him.

NARR: At age thirty three, Houdini began performing dangerous water escapes outdoors to promote his vaudeville shows around the country. In New York, he created one of the biggest spectacles the city had ever seen when he was handcuffed, secured in a packing box, and lowered into the East River.

: The crowds were absolutely immense. I mean, up to 100,000 people. You couldn’t get anywhere near the East River. People were standing on the seawall. The police were afraid people were going to topple in. I think actually a few people did.

DOCTOROW: He was enacting over and over again the same impulse that brought people from foreign countries here in the first place: to escape from social hierarchy, to escape from poverty, to escape from injustice. That kind of self assertion appealed to people.

SILVERMAN: But in his head, I think Houdini was always performing for his mother. I mean that was his real audience. What always amazes me that when he was doing some of his most dangerous stunts, he would have his mother come and see him jump off a bridge, locked in handcuffs, and at the end of his performance, he would write in his diary, "Ma saw me jump."

DOCTOROW: It was as if he never grew up, he was the ultimate aspiring teenager or child who could never quite get the recognition he thought he deserved.

NARR: Harry had long wanted to be seen as a scholar like his father.

: Since his father was a rabbi, a learned person, Houdini tried to become a learned person in spite of the fact that he had very little basic education. Most of that was gained in the streets and on the road.

NARR: Houdini tried to turn himself into an intellectual. He collected one of the largest theater libraries in the world, wrote books on magic and pursued friendships with celebrated writers such as Jack London and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Look how he started: in the carnivals, in the circus, the sideshow, this kind of the periphery of respected entertainment. And you really eventually, after you get success, you really want people that you respect to respect you.

DOCTOROW: There was always this feeling that not only would he want to escape from the freezing river, or the coffin, or the milk can, but that he had to escape from the stage as well, and be seen in the real world as a historical figure and not just a stage illusionist.

NARR: In 1910, Harry bought a plane and took it to Australia where he made a daring three minute flight.

RANDI: He was one man who hardly had to worry about being forgotten. But he was never quite confident of that.

NARR: "Even if history forgets Houdini, the Handcuff King, " he said, "it will write down my name as the first man to fly here."

: Who remembers today that Harry Houdini was the first person to fly a plane in Australia? Not many.

NARR: Harry was disappointed he and Bess were unable to have children. Without a family of her own, Bess focused her maternal instincts on Harry.

His wife Bess was always after him to put on a clean shirt. And she’d take a brush on occasion and scrub his knuckles, because he was not too careful about his personal appearance

SILVERMAN: He’s a sort of slob. He looks like he hasn’t changed for weeks. I think his sloppiness in dress was just a function of his total preoccupation with what he was doing.

NARR: By 1912, the Milk Can Escape was being copied and sold to imitators for $35. Houdini was furious but prepared. He had spent five years in his basement workshop secretly developing a new escape. "The climax of all my labors," he said, "is the Chinese Water Torture Cell."

Here we had sort of a man-sized aquarium. There were a couple of tons of water in there, the lid had a couple of notches cut out of it, into which his ankles would be placed, padlocked on the end. He would be lifted up, upside-down, hanging from the lid.

SILVERMAN: To be hung upside-down by your ankles, submerged in water, takes a lot out of you. Your chest feels like it’s exploding. It's scary.

RANDI: The last you saw of Houdini was him hanging upside-down, looking at the audience through the glass. It instilled terror.

SILVERMAN: His hair sort of swirling around, his cheeks puffed out, turning sort of red in the face. And you wondered, how is this guy going to get out of there?

RANDI: And then you saw the curtain drop over it. And the tension was unbearable.

There was a representative or two from the audience standing there to make sure that no one approached it from behind, to release him in any way. And for a couple of minutes, that’s the way it sat while they played "Asleep in the Deep".

RANDI: He would get out of the water torture cell, but concealed from the audience. And they wouldn’t be aware of the fact that he was now out. And he would stall for a while of course, to build the suspense.

And then suddenly, at a signal, the music stopped and there he was out of breath and dripping wet, walking forward to take his bows. What a wonderful moment.

NARR: Even though he insisted it was only a trick, many believed he must have escaped by supernatural means.

Once you know the secret, the whole beauty of it is gone. The secret is actually not the best part of it, it's the presentation.

SILVERMAN: Houdini was headed for a big European trip he was going to take in the Scandinavian countries. He got aboard the ship, but -- and the thing was just about to pull out, but he insisted on running back down the gangplank and giving his mother another kiss and a big hug.

RANDI: There’s a very poignant picture that exists of the moment that Houdini last saw his mother. He took that picture perhaps from the stern of the ship as the ship sailed away from New York Harbor, bound for Europe. And you see his mother, just a small figure in a huge crowd of people waving good-bye to the boat.

SILVERMAN: The worst day in Houdini’s life certainly was the day that his mother died. By one account, when he got the news he was performing in Copenhagen, I think, he fainted dead away.

NARR:"I feel like a child who has been taken to the railroad station by mother," he wrote, "Train rushes in, mother manages to get aboard and before my very eyes away goes the train and mother on board. Here I am left alone at the station."

NARR: Harry cancelled his tour and, for weeks, only left the house to visit Cecilia's gravesite. He bound her letters in a book that so he could read them late into the night. He told his brother he had lost all ambition. And yet, he was still driven to perform.

When you are passionate you don't have very much peace. You have to keep going, you have to be really be passionate about continuing to move forward like the shark going through the water. He had a passionate yearning to stay out there,.

NARR: On a cold winter day in New York City, Houdini, now over forty, performed his most physically demanding publicity stunt.

: He would hang himself across Times Square and get out of a straitjacket. And of course, all traffic at Times Square was tied up. Thousands of people would stand outside and watch this phenomenon. He struck me as just one big muscle, with a controlled center somewhere. He seemed to have control over every muscle in his body.

SILVERMAN: There was a connection to the audience's sense of the modern, too. These tall new buildings ten stories high, these new miracles of architecture. And cranes on the street. It was a kind of very modern feat.

NARR: By 1918 Houdini was a cultural icon. There was even a new word, 'houdinize,' meaning to get out of a tight spot. But Harry still felt restless. He had an affair with Jack London's widow, Charmian. Both suffering from the loss of a loved one, they had a relationship that was passionate but brief.

SILVERMAN: He was really a strait arrow, and he seems to have felt very guilty about it. That he should have had an affair is sort of inevitable. That he had only one and that it seems to have been not very happy is probably more revealing.

NARR: In major cities all over the country. Houdini performed his upside down strait jacket escape, his most popular publicity stunt. It was also the last he ever created. Harry was physically exhausted. "Hereafter I intend to work entirely with my brain," he wrote in his diary.

: It’s generally not appreciated that Houdini, almost from the beginning, really, wanted to get out of the escape business. He writes in his diaries over and over again, "This is too tough. Must find some other way of doing this."

WILMETH: In the teens moving into the 20's, film was gaining rapidly as a major threat to Vaudeville. I think Houdini probably knew that his career as a stage performer might be limited. And therefore it seemed very important for him to succeed on the screen.

NARR: In 1918, Houdini's first attempt to break into the movies was a 15-part serial called Master Mystery.

: His idea was, he would have himself filmed doing his escapes, then he wouldn’t have to do them any more. People could just watch him on film.

NARR: For a time, life in Hollywood was good. Harry and Bess enjoyed staying in one place, after years on the road. On the evening of their 25th wedding anniversary, he left her a note,"We have starved and starred together...I love you and I know you love me. . . . Yours till the end of the world and ever after. Ehrich. But in the movie business, Harry had met his match.

: He was a terrible actor. I mean, he has about three expressions. He can frown, he can look wooden, and he can look quizzical. That’s about it.

RANDI: It’s just so ridiculous, it’s—it’s as if it were a comedy. But he didn’t mean these as comedies. He wanted to be taken very seriously. He was a great failure in the films.

NARR: Harry and Bess retreated to their home in New York. He buried himself in what he called his "world famous theater library." With the death of millions during World War I, a religious movement called spiritualism was flourishing. One of its greatest disciples was Houdini's friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

: Doyle had lost a son in the First World War, and various mediums had brought Doyle’s son back to him to kiss him on the forehead and to speak to him.

NARR: Conan Doyle's wife offered to hold a seance for Houdini. She claims she could receive a message from his mother. Harry was skeptical, but he agreed.

(mother's voice)

Oh my darling, thank God, thank God, at last I'm through. I've tried oh so often now I am happy. Why, of course, I want to talk to my boy - my own beloved boy...-there is so much I want to say to him -- but ---I am almost overwhelmed by this joy of talking to him one more....

The message was in English. And Houdini said his mother knew almost no English. She spoke a kind of mixture of Hungarian, German and Yiddish. So he was sure that the message was a fraud.

NARR: Enraged over the exploitation of his grief, Houdini began a crusade against spiritualists. He went to seances in disguise confident that he was uniquely suited to expose their trickery. "It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer," he said. Harry was back in the headlines.

DOROTHY YOUNG, Houdini's assistant:
He told me that he thought they were wicked. They preyed on poor people. They’d spend their last dollar to hear the voice of a loved one.

NARR: Houdini's exposes proved incredibly popular. They became his new act.

He read the name and address of every single spiritualist in every city. And of course a lot of people sued him and all like that, but they didn't get anywere because the information we had was authentic.

NARR: Houdini even testified against spiritualism at Congressional hearings. At last, he was receiving the respect for his intellect that he had always craved.

He had become very well known in the pages of Scientific American magazine. He’d become something much more than just a Vaudeville entertainer.

NARR: Even though he had promised Bess he would retire, Harry could not step out of the limelight.

He was competing with all kinds of entertainment - Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields. This is the great period of the Ziegfield Follies. This is the great period of the Broadway stage.

NARR: In 1925, Houdini launched a one man show on Broadway.

Doing your own show on Broadway was an enormus leap. There is a kind of class associated with appearing on Broadway, especially then. And Houdini had reached it.

NARR: Houdini's show featured magic tricks, escapes and exposes of spiritualists. He would call on volunteers from the audience to participate in a mock seance.

Really, it was weird. It was so real, the way it was performed. Then after he did the seance, he showed the audience, step by step, how it was done.

NARR: The participants could not understand how the bell under the table rang--without the help of spirits. But the audience could see Houdini slipping out of his shoe and ringing the bell with his toes.

We used to go backstage after his performance and sit in his dressing room. And I got to know him rather well and I was fascinated by him. He could swell his stomach and shrink it, and withstand blows. He would say, "Hit me. Hit me as hard as you can." And I’d say, "Well, I don’t want to." He said, "No, do it." And I would hit him with a -- I would hurt my hand, I mean, before I’d hurt him.

NARR: But Houdini would not stay invulnerable much longer. He fractured his ankle performing the water torture cell escape in Albany. He continued on to Montreal and, before his show that night, gave a lecture at McGill University.

The psychology department invited him to give a talk on the psychology of mediumship, just the kind of thing Houdini loved to do. Some students came back to see him after one of the lectures. One of them was going to sketch him.

NARR: While he was being sketched, Harry lay on a couch in his dressing room reading his mail. He was worn out and in great pain. As the student observed, Houdini looked "in need of a long, carefree vacation." Then another student entered the dressing room.

: The student asked him whether or not he could take a blow to the stomach. And Houdini nodded that he could. And as he put down the letters to stand up, getting ready to be prepared, the student struck him in the stomach.

NARR: Harry could only mumble, "that will do. "

He went on that evening and gave the show, and the next day he left for Detroit by train. And on the train he developed a very high fever.

SILVERMAN: They got a doctor to meet them when the train came to Detroit who urged him, you know, "Don’t do the show." Of course, he did perform that night. And when he finished the show, he collapsed and was taken to the hospital.

NARR: Houdini was operated on but his appendix had burst and the infection had spread. It is likely he had been suffering from appendicitis for several days before the punch.

They ministered to him, but they pretty well knew that he was doomed.

SILVERMAN: After fifty two years of breaking his bones and getting ahead of everyone and insisting on being at the top, he said to his brother, presumably his last words, "I can’t fight any more."

NARR: Houdini died in Detroit on Halloween, 1926. He was laid in a bronze coffin he'd had made for a 'buried alive' stunt. According to his request, a black bag of his mother's letters was placed beneath his head as a pillow. Bess collapsed, "the world will never know what I have lost," she cried. After a life spent in pursuit of fame, Harry Houdini would now assume his place in history.

I've had people actually ask me whether Houdini was a real person or whether he was like Sherlock Holmes, a fictional creation. To get to a point where people don’t know whether you were real or not, that’s fame beyond fame.


Additional funding for Houdini provided by

  • funder icon