Friday, October 4, 2013

Watch me pull a rabbit...

I'm not sure why but there were certain names that loomed large when I was a kid. Unfortunately, many of them were "bad guys" like the Red Baron, Billy the Kid, or Jesse James. It wasn't that I admired any of them (remember the episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Bobby has an unhealthy obsession with Jesse James?), but there was a strange fascination associated with such notorious characters. But I'm somewhat mystified as to why one particular name loomed equally large: Harry Houdini. I was never very interested in magic or magicians and yet my mind always associated him as "legendary" in a similar way. (On further reflection, I think my friend Aaron talked about him a lot.)

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman details his humble beginnings as Ehrich Weiss, the son of a rabbi, to his life as an international celebrity. He is best remembered as a famous escape artist (and his name is still associated with getting out of a tight situation), but even as a child he displayed an unusual talent for magic and picking locks. Early on he struggled to make a living with magic, however, and found a more receptive audience for tricks like mind-reading and ‘speaking with the dead’ in a traveling show. The authors tell how he'd visit local bars and cemeteries when he first entered a new town and gather information about people who might have recently died – information which he could use in his show that evening. Later in life he earnestly regretted that, and he worked to expose such charlatans.

Spiritualism was very popular at the time and enjoyed prominent supporters like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle and Houdini were actually quite good friends, and Doyle (among MANY others) actually believed Houdini had extraordinary or special powers. Houdini insisted that it was only sleight-of-hand, but Doyle thought Houdini was simply unaware of the true source of his power. Houdini's initial interest in Spiritualism was sincere because he desperately wanted to contact his deceased mother, but when he concluded it was all fake he made it a personal crusade to expose the Spiritualists, and some of his exploits were very funny. Apparently people visiting a spirit medium would usually sit in the dark holding hands while the spirits would communicate through a small trumpet (kind of like what a cheerleader might use, I think). Houdini would sneakily smear "lampblack" (which sounds like black shoe polish) on the mouthpiece of the trumpet, so that when they turned the lights back on the medium would have a black circle around his mouth. You can see why that might make the Spiritualists angry, and not only did it ruin his friendship with Sir Arthur but the authors speculate the Spiritualists had a hand in his death.

But Houdini was more than just a magician. He was an early devotee of flying, becoming the first person to achieve sustained flight in Australia, and he acted in motion pictures. The authors also offer evidence that Houdini may have been a spy for the American government while traveling in Europe. I first heard of this book in a radio interview with the author several years ago, although the possible spying activities weren't as prominent in the book as the interview might suggest. This claim has turned out to be rather controversial for some people, but to me it sounded plausible enough since I knew so little about him to begin with. But this has become one of those "favorite books” that I still think about now and then – especially when I see signs around my neighborhood for psychics and fortune tellers. (And just for the record: I do not think the Red Baron was a "bad guy" – he was actually a very decent guy who was just on the side of the enemy. Someday I’ll review the biography I read about him.)

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