“What struck both of us was that there were huge gaps in Houdini’s life story and some puzzling inconsistencies. So we embarked on a journey to discover the real man. Early on, we discovered an important connection that most biographers seemed to miss.”
From the Introduction to The Secret Life of Houdini, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, 2006
As noted earlier in this series, there is considerable debate over the question of whether Harry Houdini ever lived in the Laurel Canyon home known locally as the “Houdini House” (the History Channel’s Brad Meltzer’s Decoded recently aired an episode on Houdini that included a segment filmed at the site, which was unreservedly identified as the former Houdini estate; the series, however, doesn’t appear to be overly concerned with accuracy).
Even if Houdini did live in the home that now lies in ruins, his story would seem to have little relevance here. After all, Harry Houdini, widely considered to be the consummate entertainer of his era, reached the peak of his career long before there was a LaurelCanyon – before there was even that magical place known as Hollywood. What then is there to gain through an examination of the life of Harry Houdini? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
What are generally claimed to be the basic details of Harry Houdini’s life can be found in countless published biographies and web posts. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874, he was the fourth of seven children born to Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and the former Cecelia Steiner. The family later changed the spelling of their names and Houdini became Ehrich Weiss, known by friends and family as “Ehrie,” which ultimately became “Harry.” His stage surname was an homage to famed French magician Robert Houdin.
In mid-1878, Rabbi Meyer, with his five sons and pregnant wife in tow, set sail for America, arriving on July 3, 1878. The family first put down roots in Appleton, Wisconsin before later moving, in 1887, to New York City. Four years later, Houdini launched his career as a magician, at first performing basic card tricks. He had little success and at times would make ends meet by performing in circus freak shows.
In 1893, he met singer/dancer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, known as “Bess,” who would become both his wife and lifetime stage assistant. The pair though, performing as “The Houdinis,” continued to find success an elusive goal.
To say that Houdini’s fortunes changed in 1899 would be a bit of an understatement. As recounted by Kalush and Sloman, “Within months, he had gone from cheap beer halls and dime museums to the big-time – vaudeville. In one year’s time, he had gone from literally eating rabbits for survival to making what today would equal $45,000 a week.” After finally hitting it big, however, Houdini then did something rather inexplicable – he abruptly sailed off to England to begin a lengthy European tour.
Kalush and Sloman pose the obvious question: “Why would someone who had finally made it big risk everything and leave behind lucrative contracts to go to England with no real prospects in sight?” Why indeed? Such a move in those days would normally be an act of career suicide, but things worked out a little differently for Houdini; everywhere he went – first in England and then in Scotland, Holland, Germany, France and Russia – he was lauded by the press and quickly catapulted into the national limelight.
After a four-year absence, Houdini returned to the U.S. in 1904 and resumed his lucrative career. For many years, he was the highest-paid performer on the vaudeville circuit and he would frequently perform publicly to huge crowds in stunts that were sometimes arranged with corporate sponsors to promote their businesses. In 1912, he introduced what would become his most famed escape act, the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
In 1918, Houdini decided to try his luck with the fledgling new entertainment medium known as motion pictures, starring first in a multi-part serial and then in The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). It was during this time that he is said to have taken up residence in Laurel Canyon, at the corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue. Following that, he moved to New York and started up his own production company, the Houdini Picture Corporation, which released The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), after which Houdini gave up his less-than-successful film career.
For the last few years leading up to his death on October 31, 1926, Houdini primarily focused on debunking psychics and mediums, leading some to speculate that the spiritualist movement may have been behind his untimely demise. To this day, séances are regularly held around the world in attempts to contact the famed magician and escape artist.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Harry Houdini story as it is usually told. But telling stories as they are usually told is a rather boring pursuit, so we are, shockingly enough, going to take a slightly different approach to see if maybe there isn’t an entirely different story hidden in the obscure details of Houdini’s life, beginning with his sudden rise to fame after wallowing in obscurity for years.
As noted by Kalush and Sloman, “The young Houdini … couldn’t make enough money to succeed at magic. Hungry and crestfallen, he was ready to give up his dream, until he walked into a Chicago police station and met a detective who would change his life. Immediately after this fateful encounter, his picture graced the front page of a Chicago newspaper. That picture catapulted him to renown.” Within months, Houdini was arguably the most famed entertainer in the country.
That detective was John Wilkie, a major player in the formation of the International Association of Police Chiefs (founded in Chicago in 1893, at the outset of what has been dubbed the Decade of Regicide, which set the stage for World War I) and the ominously titled National Bureau of Identification, and ultimately the chief of the U.S. Secret Service, America’s premier intelligence operation during that era. It should probably be noted here that one of Houdini’s nephews, Louis Kraus, worked for the Treasury Department, overseer of Wilkie’s Secret Service.
Authors Kalush and Sloman are of the opinion that, “It was forward-thinking for the chief of America’s only intelligence operation to be using entertainers for covert activities in 1898.” Maybe so, but the authors duly note that such actions were not unprecedented; nearly four decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln had recruited an eighteen-year-old magician named Horatio G. Cooke to serve as a Civil War spy. Lincoln and Cooke were close enough that he was reportedly present at the president’s deathbed. Later, near the end of his life, Cooke became a close friend of Harry Houdini.
It could also be noted that an entertainer of a different variety, stage actor John Wilkes Booth, also appears to have served as an intelligence operative during the Civil War, so the practice of utilizing entertainers for covert operations clearly didn’t begin with Wilkie, who was himself a magician and a disciple of escape artist R. G. Herrmann. In addition to Houdini, Wilkie recruited other magicians as well, including Herrmann, Louis Leon, and heavyweight prizefighter/magician Bob Fitzsimmons.
Another of Houdini’s covert backers was Senator Chauncey Depew, an uncle of magician Ganson Depew and a former mentor to then-Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt (who would soon be catapulted into the presidency by the assassination of William McKinley, one of the final victims of the Decade of Regicide). Houdini would soon gain another hidden backer – William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the most visible law enforcement official in the UK. Melville would ultimately become the first chief of Britain’s MI-5.
As Kalush and Sloman discovered, “Within days of arriving in England, Houdini met with a prominent Scotland Yard inspector and once again, his career took off.” That inspector, of course, was Melville, whom Houdini secretly met with on June 14, 1900, five days after arriving on England’s shores. He had left the U.S. on May 30 using a passport issued just two days earlier – a passport that contained more than its fair share of anomalies.
The document listed his birthday as April 6, though his actual birthday is said to be March 24. It claimed that he was born in 1873, making him one year older than he actually was. Most curiously of all, the document indicated that Houdini was a native born citizen, though he most assuredly was not. He had been allowed to surrender his previous passport, issued to a naturalized citizen, in exchange for the officially-issued but clearly fraudulent passport that he used to tour Europe.
Given his background as both a magician and a Mason (by his own account), it goes without saying that secrecy, deception, and illusion were second-nature to Houdini. He also, as Sloman and Kalush noted, had the unusual “ability to interact with a country’s police officials and do demonstrations inside their jails,” and he was known to be rather proficient at the art of breaking-and-entering. Needless to say, these abilities would have served Houdini well in the world of espionage.
So too would many of the devices he boasted of inventing. According to Kalush and Sloman, “[Houdini] told the New York Herald that he invented rubber heels and cameras that work only once. The Boston Transcript reported that he invented ‘an envelope which cannot be unsealed by steam without bringing to light the word ‘opened’ and a wash which will remove printer’s ink from paper’ … In his own Conjurer’s Monthly, he touted the use of chloride of cobalt for sending invisible messages.”
A friend of Houdini’s, fellow magician Billy Robinson, was also well-versed in the tradecraft of the intelligence community. In his book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena, Robinson “detailed thirty-seven methods for secret writing [which] would play an important part in spy communication during World War I.” He also “detailed how to read other people’s letters without opening the envelopes by using alcohol to render them temporarily transparent,” and offered readers “subtle methods to share information while being closely scrutinized.”
Kalush and Sloman share what became of Robinson not long after penning the book: “Then, virtually overnight, he changed his name and appearance, left the country, and broke many of his connections. Years later, his only brother wouldn’t even be able to find him.” Robinson died in 1918 while performing a bullet catch trick that he had performed many times before. Houdini would write that “it seems as if there were something peculkar [sic] about the whole affair.”
In addition to possessing skills and knowledge that were ideally suited to the spook trade, Houdini also ran what could best be described as his own personal spy ring. In addition to an unknown number of fulltime confederates (mostly young women, including one of his nieces), “Houdini employed female operatives on an ad hoc basis when he came to town.” Probably the most important of these operatives was a young fellow magician named Amedeo Vacca, whose relationship with Houdini was unknown to virtually everyone throughout the escape artist’s life. So secret was the close relationship between the two that even Harry’s wife and brother, magician/confederate Hardeen, were unaware of it.
Houdini was a man for whom secrecy seems to have been something of an obsession. His home was said to be laced with secret passageways and hidden rooms, and his desk contained hidden compartments. There are indications that, while on the road, he would frequently maintain, for unknown purposes, a second hotel room in a different hotel. A man named Edward Saint (aka Charles David Myers), who was close to Bess, once claimed that Houdini “had safes and vaults in his home, and vaults in banks that his lawyers had access to; but one secret, now made public for the first time, is the fact that Houdini had one safety deposit vault in a bank or trust company in the East under some familiar name other than Houdini, and of which the secret location rested only in Houdini’s brain. In this vault was kept highly secret papers.” As far as is known, no one – not even Geraldo Rivera – has located that secret vault.
With his espionage tradecraft and dubious passport in tow, Houdini traveled to Germany in September 1900 after taking the British Isles by storm. As was the case in England and Scotland, the press immediately showered the visiting entertainer with accolades. There was one key difference in the press coverage though: “The newspaper accounts of Houdini’s demonstrations at German police stations portray him as a police consultant rather than a mere entertainer … For a vaudeville performer, Houdini seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time and have unprecedented access at the Berlin police station.”
As he had in the US and the British Isles, Houdini established some unusual connections for a stage performer. One associate of his in Germany was a chemist named Hans Goldschmidt, who a few years earlier had patented a incendiary compound known as thermite. “Houdini noted that he was in Berlin when Goldschmidt performed his first test on a safe. He didn’t explain why a stage escape artist would be at such a demonstration.” For the record, Houdini does not appear to have been in the vicinity of the thermite demonstration given in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001.
After performing to much acclaim in Germany, Houdini continued his pre-World War I tour by visiting France and Russia (the countries that Houdini visited on this unusual tour – Russia, Germany, France and Britain – had the curious distinction of being the major players in the soon-to-unfold Great War, but I’m sure that’s just a bizarre coincidence).
In Czarist Russia, “the magician had official permission to appear in any city in Russia, an extraordinary set of circumstances that bespeaks the close relationship between Superintendent Melville and the Okhrana, the imperial Russian secret police.” Houdini’s Russian tour was booked by a guy named Harry Day, “a mysterious expatriate American who changed his name and met Houdini in London around the same time as Houdini’s first meeting with Melville … [Day] eventually became a member of Parliament and did overseas espionage for the British government.” For many years thereafter, the shadowy Day would handle Houdini’s European bookings.
Following the lengthy tour of pre-war Europe, Houdini returned to America with much press fanfare. One of his most high-profile stunts upon his return was escaping from the heavily fortified Cell #2 at the United States Jail in Washington, DC. The cell had famously housed Charles Julius Guiteau, convicted assassin of President James Garfield, prior to Guiteau’s hanging at the facility on June 30, 1882. Guiteau, who, like his father, was closely affiliated with a religious cult known as the Oneida Community, shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, after having learned how to use a handgun just a few weeks earlier. He claimed to be acting on orders from God.
The gunshot wounds inflicted by Guiteau were not fatal. Garfield died nearly three months later, on September 19, 1881, from infections resulting from (probably deliberately) poor medical care. According to Wikipedia, “Of the four presidential assassins, Guiteau lived longer than any after his victim’s death (nine months).” Given that Lee Harvey Oswald survived JFK by just two days and Leon Czolgosz survived William McKinley by just fifty-three days, this would be a true statement were it not for the fact that there is compelling evidence suggesting that John Wilkes Booth lived for several decades after the death of Abraham Lincoln. And then, of course, there is the question of whether these four men – Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz and Oswald – were the actual presidential assassins.
But here, I suppose, I have digressed (yes, I am officially bringing that word back out of retirement).
Houdini, needless to say, succeeded in escaping from Guiteau’s former cell – and also rearranged all the prisoners residing on the jail’s fabled ‘murderer’s row.’ To do so, of course, he would have needed a master key, which someone clearly provided to him. But why? Such were the perks provided an entertainer who appeared to be “working as an agent for U.S. government agencies, international police associations, and a special branch of Scotland Yard.”
A couple years after his escape from the US Jail, there was a curious incident at the Houdini household. On October 25, 1907, an intruder made a concerted effort to kill the performer, slashing at the sleeping figure more than 100 times with a razor. Harry Houdini, however, was not home at the time. The victim of the attack was his brother Leopold, who closely resembled Harry. Household servant Frank Thomas was arrested and charged with the attack, though there was scant evidence linking him to the crime and no known motive. Indeed, Thomas had arrived the next morning for work seemingly unaware the attack had taken place.
Had Houdini been home at the time, there might have been a different outcome, given that some reports contend that the escape artist carried a handgun at all times. Remarkably, Houdini was able to keep his name out of all press accounts of the crime and trial despite the fact that the attack occurred at his home, he appears to have been the intended victim, and the alleged assailant was his own servant.
On November 26, 1909, Houdini became the first man to successfully fly a powered craft on the Australian continent. He cheerfully dispatched publicity photos featuring him in a plane surrounded by German soldiers – a move he would soon regret when those German soldiers found themselves on the opposite side of the battlefields of World War I. Following America’s entry into the war, Houdini would attempt to destroy all photographs documenting his training of German pilots.
The magician’s first flight, and all his subsequent Australian flights, were arranged by Lieutenant George Taylor of the Australian Intelligence Corps. Curiously, despite Houdini’s avid early interest in aviation, he did not, as far as is know, ever fly again after leaving Australia.
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In other news, it appears that, while Lookout Mountain Laboratory has been out of business for many years, the spirit of the clandestine film studio is still very much alive and well, as evidenced by the ‘Kony 2012’ video.