Harry Houdini’s Relationship with His Mother

face of a prisoner

Harry Houdini had an extraordinarily close relationship with his mother. Houdini’s father brought his family, including Houdini, from Hungary to the U.S. in the 1870s. Houdini’s father struggled to find and hold work as a rabbi. Through a childhood of poverty and marginal social status, Houdini came to view his mother as “a figure of transcendent love and selfless devotion,” an “angel.” Houdini considered himself to be a “mothers-boy.” One biographer noted:

Houdini would claim throughout his life a special relationship to her, as, apparently, she did to him. …she would insist that even as a baby, he never cried. If he started to fret, she would hold him to her breast, and the sound of her heartbeat soothed him. Well into his adult life, Houdini and his mother would gratify each other by reenacting this embrace.^

As an adult, Houdini described his mother as “the guiding beacon of my life.” Houdini wore only clothes that his mother had picked out for him.^ He delighted in bringing her to see his performances. He acknowledged, “if I do anything, I say to myself I wonder if Ma would want me to do this?”^

Even after twenty years of marriage, Houdini’s wife did not outrank his mother in his expressed affections. Houdini described his mother and his wife Bess as “My two Sweet-hearts.” In 1904, after he achieved financial success, Houdini bought a home in the German section of Harlem. He lived in that home with his wife Bess and his German-speaking mother until his mother’s death in 1913 at age seventy-two.^

Houdini suffered greatly from news of his mother’s death. In the course of his career as a performer, Houdini had added death-defying feats to his handcuff and prison escapes. Amid a press conference in Denmark after performing for an audience that included members of the Danish royal family, Houdini received a cable informing him of his mother’s death. He fainted. He regained consciousness sobbing, “Mother – my dear little mother – poor little mama.”^ Houdini later wrote, “I who have laughed at the terrors of death, who have smilingly leaped from high bridges, received a shock {from his mother’s death} from which I do not think recovery is possible.”^

Houdini apparently insisted that his mother not be buried immediately, as was Jewish custom. Upon receiving news of his mother’s death, Houdini broke his European performance contract and returned immediately by ship to New York. Twelve days after his mother’s death, Houdini was at her body’s side in their home in New York.^ He stayed there all night. His mother was buried the next day. In the weeks after her death, Houdini rarely left their house other than to visit her grave:

He visited his mother’s grave every day and also every night at fifteen minutes past midnight, the instant of her death. He lay flat on the ground, his arms embracing her grave, his face pressed close to the earth. There he talked to her, begging her to let him know her last words.^

Houdini was still lying down next to his mother’s grave and speaking into the earth to her a year after her death. Houdini also gathered all the letters he had received from his mother:

He had them transcribed in “good German,” typed out, and put in book form so he could read them easily. Each letter, he observed in his diary, was “a love story, a prayer to God to protect her children, a plea that we should be good human beings.” In gathering and reading them he shed, he said, “many a bitter tear.”^

In burial instructions that he wrote in 1915 and re-initialed in 1916 and 1921, Houdini declared:

It is my wish that all of my Darling Beloved Mothers letters also the 2 enclosed letters, shall be placed in a sort of black bag, and used as a pillow for my head in my coffin, and all to be buried with me.^

Grave goods have been found in human burials from about 14,000 years ago through to the present in a wide variety of cultures. Personal letters from a dead relative are, however, a rather unusual grave good.

Houdini expressed in many ways the loss he felt from his mother’s death. Houdini used black-bordered stationary to indicate his mourning. He also sold the Harlem house where he had lived with her. He explained, “the Home is a Home no longer for me and must be disposed of.” Extravagantly celebrating Mother’s Day, Houdini contacted the daughter of the woman who founded the commemoration, collected Mother’s Day decorative sayings (“every day is mother’s day for me”) and on one Mother’s Day sent flowers to the graves of all the mothers he knew.^ His wife Bess would wake at night to hear Houdini calling out to his mother. According to one biographer, “Bess believed that he was never the same man after the death of his mother; the old vitality was gone.”^ Houdini wrote to his brother:

Am hoping that eventually I will have my burning tears run dry, but know that my Heart will ALWAYS ACHE FOR OUR DARLING MOTHER. …my very Existence seems to have expired with HER…I feel as if my heart of hearts went with HER.

About sixteen months after his mother’s death, Houdini recorded in his diary his loneliness and his longing to die and be with her again:

Here I am left alone on the station, bewildered and not knowing when the next train comes along so that I can join my mother.^

Houdini – the magician, the handcuff king, the jail breaker, the escape artist, the daredevil – was painfully bound by his mother’s death.

Houdini’s communication about his mother went beyond generic conventions. Houdini authored a mass-market book in 1924.^ An optional, conventional component of a book is a dedication. Dedications typically consist of a name and occasionally a relationship description. Houdini dedicated his book to his mother with extravagant praise and capital letters:


Houdini went on to declare in the preface:

I believe in a Hereafter and no greater blessing could be bestowed upon me than the opportunity, once again, to speak to my sainted Mother who awaits me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome, just as she did when I entered this mundane sphere.

These words powerfully express desire for communion. Houdini included this intensely personal communication within a mass-market book.

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