Houdini’s Amazing Appearances in Public Deliberation

face of a prisoner

In his highly successful, early twentieth-century acts, Harry Houdini presented his intense personal struggles for freedom and participated in public deliberation about confining criminals. Houdini described himself as a “Handcuff King and Jail Breaker” in a mass-market bookthat he authored in 1906.^ In public events staged at police stations, prisons, and vaudeville theaters, Houdini escaped from handcuffs, elbow irons, leg irons, thumbscrews, packing boxes, milk cans, paper bags, coffins, prisons, and various combinations of these and other constraints. The personal struggles that Houdini displayed in these acts could hardly be doubted. Personal struggles of various sorts, however, are quite common. What distinguished Houdini was his claim to public significance.

Houdini’s acts, while intentionally highly public, were not setup through the normal public process of administering justice. Houdini clearly didn’t have the real status of a criminal or prisoner. Houdini’s escapes often included sensational, harrowing elements in addition to common penal technology. For example, Houdini, handcuffed and chained, jumped from bridges. Another of his acts was to free himself from a straightjacket while suspended upside-down over a street. To maximize publicity, he was often suspended from the building of a major newspaper in the city in which he performed. Seeing such acts as publicly significant required appreciation for the penal implications.

Penal-system participation in Houdini’s performances was extensive. In the first week of January, 1906, Houdini was booked for daily matinee and evening performances at Chase’s “Polite Vaudeville” Theatre in Washington, D.C. Houdini’s Washington, D.C. performances began in the morning of January 1, 1906. Houdini undertook a challenge that Major Richard Sylvester, Chief of Washington Police and President of the Police Chief Association of America, reportedly organized. The location of the performance was the formidable Tenth Precinct police station:

The cells are the latest lock-proof kind. … The bars are of steel and so strongly set that they cannot be shaken. Each cell has a heavy barred door with a bar lock that is first set to lock three times. A lever throws another lock, and a Yale padlock completes the quintet of locks.

Houdini was stripped, searched, handcuffed, and placed in a cell. He got out in eighteen minutes. The Washington Post, acting like a straight man, reported that Major Sylvester declared, “That baffles me.”^

Police officials described Houdini’s police-station performances as exercises intended to advance the public interest in improving instruments of confinement. They conducted these exercises repeatedly without any apparent increase in knowledge. Thus, four days after the first baffling exercise, at noon on January 5, Police Commissioner Biddle, Major Sylvester, and other invited guests observed as Houdini was stripped and locked in a cell at the new Fifth Precinct police station. According to the Washington Post, police authorities were “thoroughly convinced…that there is nothing in the way of a cell that can hold him.” Houdini passed through six locked doors to get dressed and free in thirty-two minutes.^ Nobody observed how he did it. But at least spectators didn’t over-extend the usual boundaries of their lunch hour.

The next day Houdini performed even more spectacularly at a more prominent public prison. At the invitation of the Warden of the United States Jail in Washington, D.C, Houdini “tested” cell No. 2. That cell had held Charles J. Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield. According to a report the next day in the Washington Post:

{Houdini} was stripped to the skin and locked into No. 2 with Hamilton, the negro, who crouched in the far corner of the cell, presumably laboring under the belief that one of the arch-fiends was already there to get him ready for a red hot furnace. In two minutes Houdini was out of the cell, free, the lock holding him hardly longer than it took him to get into the place and get his bearings. Then, without the knowledge of the waiting officials who had retired from view, Houdini quickly ran to the cells of Chase, Whitney, Mercer, Ferguson, Donovan, Gaskins, Backus, and Howlett. To each occupant the unclad cell-breaker seemed like an apparition from some other world, and the astonishment he created when he commanded each to come out and follow him can be better imagined than described.^

The reporter probably did not interview each prisoner to record their impressions of Houdini as he came to set them (temporarily) free from their cells. The report evokes a racist stereotype of blacks as animal-like and believing in primitive superstitions (“the negro, who crouched in the far corner of the cell…”). The newspaper account also seems to parody an angel’s release of Peter in the Book of Acts.^ Houdini’s ability to draw forth such performances from newspapers and public officials is an under-appreciated aspect of his genius.

Houdini’s performances in Washington, DC, were not unusual. Houdini in 1906 stated:

As for the prison cell, I have never been locked in one I could not open. I have had the honor of making my escape from securely locked cells in jails, prisons, and police stations in almost every large city in the world, and under the most rigid conditions. The chiefs of police, the wardens, the jailers, the detectives, and citizens who have been present at these tests know that they are real and actual. … Since my return from abroad, October, 1905, I have escaped after being locked up in a nude state from cells in New York City, Brooklyn, Detroit, Rochester, Buffalo, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Providence, and City Tombs in Boston and Lowell. In all cases I submitted to a close search, being stark naked and heavily manacled into the cell, which was also thoroughly searched.^

These tests evidently were not carefully controlled and observed experiments. They evidently did not contribute to the development of useful knowledge. They seem to have been publicly significant only in providing publicity for Houdini.

Houdini Exploited Public Interest in Criminals and Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Harry Houdini’s first mass-market book, The Right Way to Do Wrong, used well-established rhetorical routines to exploit public interest in criminals and prisoners.^ Houdini’s book was published in 1906. Houdini was then performing escapes from police stations and jails in conjunction with touring Benjamin F. (B. F.) Keith’s circuit of vaudeville theaters. The Right Way to Do Wrong seemed to allude to escaping from punishment for doing wrong. An interview with Houdini in January, 1906, in Keith’s Theatre News, which B. F. Keith published, pointed to that possibility:

“You would give the police a tough time if you should turn criminal.”

“There’s no doubt about that,” {Houdini} said with a smile. “However, there is no danger. I make all the money I want honestly.”^

The Right Way to Do Wrong seemed to offer to others the knowledge and skill that Houdini possessed. Unlike Houdini, others might feel that they are unable to make all the money they wanted honestly. But Houdini advised:

IT DOES NOT PAY TO LEAD A DISHONEST LIFE, and to those who read this book, although it will inform them “The Right Way to Do Wrong,” all I have to say is one word and that is “DON’T.”

Why then publish The Right Way to Do Wrong? The book claimed that its purpose was to promote public safety:

to safeguard the public against the practices of the criminal classes by exposing their various tricks and explaining the adroit methods by which they seek to defraud. “Knowledge is power” is an old saying. I might paraphrase it in this case by saying knowledge is safety.

Houdini further explained:

In this book I have told of the methods of criminals, and held them up to your gaze, not as heroes, but as malefactors; not as examples to be emulated, but as corruptions to be shunned, as you would shun a plague.

Encouraging oneself or others to explore vices in order to gain knowledge about evil others or to learn what to avoid is a common trick of verbal distancing. You show me a salacious photo and say, “Look at what others are looking at!” I enjoy a long look and respond, “That’s terrible. How could they do that?” To serve those seeking a more straightforward vicarious thrill, Houdini included a small advertisement:

As this book is not a history of crime or criminals, to those wishing to read positive facts of great criminals…I can safely call attention to the book called “Our Rival the Rascal!” written by my friend Chief Inspector of Police, Wm. B. Watts, of Boston, Mass. This book is the greatest book on the subject that I have ever seen.^

Accounts of criminals and crime have been at the center of the historical development of mass media. Houdini’s book is squarely within that genre of public discourse.

Houdini represented crime and criminals primarily through already publicized stories, conventional descriptions of criminal crime-types, emotional clichés, and hearsay. In the second paragraph of The Right Way to Do Wrong, Houdini declared:

You who live your life in placid respectability know but little of the real life of the denizens of this world. …Of the real thoughts and feelings of the criminal, of the terrible fascination which binds him to his nefarious career, of the thousands – yea, tens of thousands, of undiscovered crimes and unpunished criminals, you know but little.

The imperative to know the truth — “the real thoughts and feelings of the criminal” — plays out here in the field of attention-seeking public representations such as “the terrible fascination which binds him to his nefarious career.” Houdini described a burglar in theatrical disguise (“a specially made wig, with false side-whiskers and a moustache of the best quality”) and a burglar walking backwards to disguise his tracks. He described “a smart young married couple” living in “a smart little villa in one of the suburbs” while the husband led a double life as a pathetic beggar:

One arm hung helpless by his side, his head hung with the weakness of paralysis. His right leg was paralyzed, and he laboriously dragged it after him. No one on earth would have supposed a connection between the crippled match-seller, always so grateful for alms, and the snug suburban home.

Houdini then declared: “nine times out of time – yes, ninety-nine times out of one hundred – every coin that goes into the tin cup or the hand of a street beggar goes to a fraud of the worst description.” Houdini quoted criminals based on what he heard from detectives, used descriptions taken directly from books and newspapers, and described famous crimes and criminals. Houdini also drew upon the burgeoning scholarly literature of criminal anthropology:

The ordinary criminal’s hand has a peculiar rough shape, the thumb being very plump and short, while the fingers are uneven and heavy. The small finger is turned inward, and bluntness is the hand’s chief characteristic.^

Houdini’s description of criminals aren’t empirical observations. They are a mélange of established public representations.

Houdini’s accounts of crime follow conventions of attention-seeking public stories. The plot is simple, and the narrative emphasizes character and feelings:

The wayward youth sees only the advantage to be gained by unlawful acts. He does not see the years of ignominy, the furtive hiding from the law, the shame of not being able to look his fellow-man in the face – no, nor the inevitable arrest, conviction, and punishment which ends it all in ninety-nine cases out of every one hundred.

According to Houdini, “great criminals” have had a uniform fate:

all of them have either died in the poorhouse or are yet counting the weary days in prison cells, divorced from wife, from children, and from all ties that human beings hold so dear.

Houdini described prisoners as disgraced and ruining their families with shame:

Disgraced, they are ruined for life, often ruining all their family. It is a terrible thing to have the finger of fate point at you with the remark, “His father is serving time for doing so and so,” or “Her brother is now in his sixteenth year, and comes out in five years.”^

While families of prisoners may be subject to social censure, the actual hardship of prisoners’ families primarily concerns loss of communication with the prisoner and lose of personal and material support from the prisoner. Disgrace, which primarily is public status in relation to elite (socially graceful) society, has little significance in most persons’ ordinary communication.

Houdini’s attempt to meet with a disgraced prisoner failed. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, Houdini noted:

Thanksgiving, 1905, during my engagement at Keith’s Theatre, I gave a performance for the prisoners in the country jail in Cleveland.

Held in the Cleveland Jail at that time was forger and swindler Cassie Chadwick, known as the “Duchess of Diamonds” and the “Queen of Ohio.” On March 10, 1905, after a trial that attracted enormous publicity, Chadwick was convicted of conspiracy to bankrupt the Citizen’s National Bank of Oberlin, Ohio. Posing as the illegitimate daughter of the business tycoon Andrew Carnegie, Chadwick had received a $800,000 loan from the Citizen’s National Bank and between $10 million and $20 million in total in loans from various banks. Houdini’s interest in entertaining the prisoners in Cleveland Jail probably was related to Chadwick’s presence there. Chadwick, however, balked:

Mrs. Chadwick was to be entertained in her cell; but fifteen minutes before I was to show her a few conjuring tricks, she changed her mood, gave the jailer an argument, and refused to allow any one near her cell.^

Houdini’s relation to criminals and prisoners was show business. Chadwick, who like Houdini was an expert in manipulating public perceptions, apparently decided not to allow Houdini to exploit her fame to create publicity for himself.

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.