Man of the Month: Harry Houdini – Part 2 – The Escapist


houdini“What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” – Harry Houdini, Magician, Escape Artist, & Actor, 1874-1926

Perhaps what amazes me the most about Houdini is how he heard his true life calling at such an early age, and heeded that call with unreserved fervor. Rather than seeing his passion for illusion wane as he moves into his adult years, we see him all the more consumed by it, never satisfied with his amazing stunts and performances. At the same time, we read about a man who was joy-filled; not pursuing his longshot career in fear, but with a boyish enthusiasm which captured the hearts and minds of all.

- Each month we pick a man of history we find particularly interesting and write an article or two about him. See more Man of the Month articles here. -

Bess – His Wife and Stage Assistant

If there were an award for a wife who both loves and sticks by her husband, Bess should have won it. While in New York, doing various acts with his brother, Dash, Harry met Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, a fellow performer. Though she was initially courted by Dash, it was Harry who won her over. The two were married in 1894. Bess took Harry’s spot on stage and the two performed as “The Houdini’s”. Dash, apparently not upset by the ordeal, went his own way becoming The Great Hardeen. Hardeen and Houdini had a pretend rivalry going on from that time forward in which they would recreate each other’s acts and try to one-up each other.

Bess was certainly one of a kind and a perfect match for Harry. Married young, strapped for cash, and pursuing a career which had little chance of success, Bess never lost her faith in Harry. Whether it was touring in Europe or America, she was there with her husband, sometimes as an assistant, other times as a supportive wife back at the hotel.

Houdini Goes International

While Houdini was becoming known in New York, he still wasn’t able to book the big shows and decided to try his luck in Europe. With barely enough money to make it a week, Bess and Harry headed to England.

Some instances report that he had a booking at the Alhambra in London but when he arrived they had no record of his contract. However, Houdini had been selling his name before he had a name to sell, and marched down to Scotland Yard. Like much of his life story, the details here vary, but in essence, Houdini convinced the Scotland Yard police to cuff him. I imagine they would have been eager to throw the irons on some egotistical Yank. The most common re-tellings of this story say he was cuffed and chained around a pillar. The detectives said they would come and check on him after lunch and turned to walk away. Houdini called out, “ Why don’t I join you?” just as the chains dropped and the cuffs came off. This caused such a sensation that the Alhambra booked him for two weeks and eventually extended his stay to six months.
Here is an account of the above from an interview with Houdini in 1904:
houdini“I sailed from New York,” said Houdini with a reminiscent look in his eyes, “and landed in England on May 30, 1900. I was under the impression that I had been booked at the Alhambra, London, but when I met Dundas Slater he informed me that he knew nothing of any contract for my services. It was up to me then to do something startling, so I made an appointment to astonish the detectives in Scotland Yard. They gave me a very severe test, and I came out of it so well, releasing myself from handcuffs and locked cells, that Mr. Slater at once engaged me for two weeks. My time was extended and I stayed at the same hall six months.” – Houdini interview in the NY Dramatic Mirror 1904
Houdini continued to make his name known in Europe with much of the same tactics: Go into a town, ask the local police to jail him or cuff him, and then escape.

An International Star, an American Sensation

After Houdini had earned a name for himself in Europe, he returned home as an American sensation. Theatres which would not hire him for $40 a performance when he left, were now booking him at $1000. In order for him to see continued success, both at home and abroad, he would have to step up his game considerably as there were a number of quality acts to compete with.

The Chinese Water Torture Cell (or The Upside Down trick)

The most famous and most confounding act Houdini ever created was the Chinese Water Torture Cell, or what Houdini referred to as The Upside Down, or just USD for short. The cell was built in secret in England, to Houdini’s exacting specifications. The endeavor reportedly cost $10,000, which seems fairly steep considering this was 1911 and it appears to be an enormous fish tank.

The trick was simple enough: Houdini would be suspended upside down, feet held by the lid of the tank, hands shackled, lowered into the water-filled tank, lid locked, and Houdini escapes or dies trying.

Houdini said the following of the act:

houdini“Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a Cell filled with water, your hands and feet unable to move, and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment. I believe it is the climax of all my studies and labors. Never will I be able to construct anything that will be more dangerous or difficult for me to do.”

What may be more remarkable than the trick itself, is that the secret to how it worked died with Houdini. Though there has been much speculation, and inspection of the actual cage, there is still a mystery as to how the trick operated. Upon his death, Houdini left the cell to his brother, Dash, with instructions to burn it, which his brother did not do. It is not known if even his brother was aware of how the USD worked as he never performed the stunt himself. The cell was eventually sold to collectors, all fellow magicians, and was eventually lost to a fire, fulfilling Houdini’s wish at last.


Houdini performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell act, or as he called it The Upside Down.

Stay Tuned

Houdini had a truly remarkable life. Living during the time of Manifest Destiny, Tesla, Theodore Roosevelt, and WWI, he captured the spirit of amazement in a world full of great change.

Check out more on Houdini here.

Have anything to add or interesting facts on Houdini? Share them in the comments below!

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