Harry Houdini

By: Matthew Battles
March 24, 2010


The boy who would become the world’s greatest magician immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, part of the first ripples in the great human tide rising out of Southern and Eastern Europe. The son of a Hungarian rabbi, Ehrich Weiss performed his first great trick by transforming himself into HARRY HOUDINI (1874-1926), turning his vaudeville act into multimedia superstardom spanning the stage, the screen, and the printed page. And yet in life as in his magic, Houdini never hid his secrets in the mist of hocus-pocus and faux esoterica. Houdini’s prodigious mysteries unfolded not inside of star-spangled cabinets, but utilitarian vessels like milk cans and crates. His feats were spectacular, uncanny, harrowing to behold — and yet he never attributed them to anything but physical prowess and sheer cunning. What his contemporaries missed is readily apparent today: the magician, with his black boxes containing powers compounded of nothing more than skill and hype, was a perfect avatar of the machine age. His skepticism was rigorous and utterly modern; he knew that truth too is a kind of magic, and skepticism a spell.

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READ MORE about the Psychonaut Generation. And see Spirits and Skeptics, in which Matthew and Hilobrow contributor Joe Alterio dramatize Houdini’s struggle with Arthur Conan Doyle.

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What do you think?

  1. Brilliant. The photos at the American Memory collection of Houdini jumping into the Charles River near Harvard are one of the few times that I’ve really sensed the gulf between the past and my present. People lined the banks to watch this little man in chains.

    Speaking of which, I sometimes wonder about Houdini’s musculature. Is there a good source on his eating and workout habits? Few people looked like that from my casual browsing of old photos.

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