An illusionist and escapologist, Harry Houdini may have been the most famous magician of all time. But what’s not as well known is his contribution to U.S. efforts during World War I. Houdini was passionate about supporting the troops and did everything he could to help them. And this included sharing the secrets behind some of his escape tricks.
WWI began in 1914, though the U.S. didn’t join the conflict militarily until April 1917. And for his part, Houdini was eager to help his country win the fight. So he put his normal performance schedule to one side so he could put his skills as a magician to use. Not only that, he encouraged his fellow magicians to do the same. Indeed, he may not have been a soldier, but he made an important contribution to the war effort nonetheless.
Houdini didn’t just entertain the troops, though that was part of his work. His efforts were far-reaching – indeed, he did everything from raising money through selling Liberty Bonds to teaching soldiers techniques for escape and survival. He was determined to do all he could to guarantee victory and to ensure other magicians also played their part.
According to biographer William Kalush, Houdini said, “My heart is in this work, for it is not a question of, ‘Will we lose.’ We must win, and that is all there is to it.” That was the argument he made to convince his manager R.H. Burnside that his war work was worthwhile. For over a year, he traveled between theaters and military camps to teach and inspire soldiers and their families. Furthermore, he even performed for free.
Meanwhile, the life of Houdini was almost as fantastical as one of his tricks. It took him through three names and two countries as a man whose father had been a soap maker, a lawyer and a rabbi, who made himself into one of the most famous magicians of all time. Even his tragically early death was far from ordinary.
The man who would become Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in March 1874. He was one of the seven children of Mayer Samuel and Cecilia. They’d married in 1863 and already had three sons before Houdini arrived. And for their part, the family lived in the Jewish section of Budapest, Hungary.
Houdini’s father Mayer Samuel had been a soap maker, but he later qualified as lawyer. In 1876 he traveled to the U.S. in search of a better life – and Cecilia and the children followed in 1878. They sailed from Hamburg to New York, where Erik would experience his first name change – he became Ehrich Weiss.
Cecilia couldn’t speak English, so when she first spoke to the U.S. immigration officials, she addressed them in German. The family also changed their German names into the English variants. Meanwhile, they had relatives in New York, but they didn’t stay for long, soon moving on to Appleton, Wisconsin.
Appleton was a new and growing town – and on the advice of a friend, Mayer Samuel decided to change careers again. He became a rabbi to serve the growing needs of the increasing population. His sermons, conducted in German, were respected and he taught his children strict moral codes.
When he was five, Houdini stole some iron spikes from a construction site so he could play with them. When his father found out, he was furious and forced the future magician to return the spikes and apologize to the foreman. Despite this unfortunate incident, for all intents and purposes Houdini was a good child and was eager to learn from his elders.
At the age of seven, Houdini saw a travelling circus and witnessed the thrilling, death-defying performance of a tightrope walker. It helped inspire him to challenge himself to participate the most dangerous and physically demanding stunts. At the age of 12, he ran off to join the circus, though he’d return to his family before too long.
Meanwhile, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin is often considered the father of modern conjuring. Indeed, it was he who pioneered many of the techniques associated with magicians today. He was also an inspirational figure to a young Houdini. Then in the 1890s he began his magical career and he looked to Houdin when choosing his stage name – and from there, Harry Houdini was born.
Houdini was known as a loyal and generous man. He married his wife, Wilhemina Beatrice Rahner, when he was 19 and they stayed together until he died. He also cared for his mother in his own home until her death. And during his whole career, Houdini stuck with just one agent when he was in the U.S. and one when he was in Europe.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just family who saw Houdini’s generosity. He was an enthusiastic advocate of magic around the world, encouraging others to take up the vocation. He even encouraged his younger brother’s magic act, despite it putting the two of them in competition. Indeed, his loyalty and generosity extended to his adopted country. And when the U.S. needed him in WWI, he was willing to do anything to help.
In 1902 Houdini founded the Society of American Magicians (SAM) – and it remains the oldest magical league in the world. For its part, the organization was created to popularise magic and support magicians, while keeping the secrets behind their tricks a mystery. Houdini would be president of SAM for nine years from 1917.
Then when the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, Houdini promptly introduced a resolution that SAM should help the war effort. It read, “The members collectively and individually do hereby tender their loyalty to the President of the United States of America and express desire to render such service to the country as may be within their province.”
The resolution passed and was sent to President Woodrow Wilson and Houdini’s fellow magicians began their work. For example, Dr Maximilian Toch of New York took charge of the U.S. Camouflage Division, while Dr Charles Mendelsohn worked in the cryptography department. Elsewhere, another magician, Archie Engel of New York, joined the Treasury as a secret agent.
Furthermore, all of these SAM members supported a project that painted the ships of the U.S. Navy gray. Houdini himself, however, had another role to play. His years as an escapologist meant he was perfectly placed to teach the troops how to free themselves if captured. And his fame and reputation ensured that soldiers were eager to listen to him.
Houdini also hosted a series of sessions at the Hippodrome in New York, in the same building where he would later vanish an elephant in front of 5,000 eager fans. Part of the course was a lesson on what to do if trapped on a torpedoed ship. The magician apparently told the audience at the establishment, “The reason people drown on a sinking vessel is because they lose all sense of direction.”
Indeed, some of Houdini’s tricks had involved being trapped underwater and needing to escape. Subsequently, he taught his students not to panic in the water, suggesting instead that they allow themselves to float slowly upwards until touching the ship again. After explaining the theory, it was time for a demonstration – and nearly every man was eager to volunteer.
And Houdini knew how to make his soldier students laugh. According to his biographer William Kalush, when his volunteer was thoroughly tied up, he told the group, “I would venture to say that this gentleman is not going anywhere.” But it wasn’t over yet – Houdini still had to teach how to escape from a pair of German handcuffs. Luckily, picking his way out of them was one of his specialities.
Meanwhile, the early part of his performing career had been difficult for Houdini. He had thought about opening a magic school because his stage career was unsuccessful. But his fortunes changed after theatrical empresario Martin Beck arranged a tour and Europe and the U.S. and offered him some sage advice. He suggested Houdini focus on escapes as part of his act. And before long, he was known as the “King of Handcuffs” because of this trick.
Houdini had developed a long-standing relationship with law enforcement. Even when he was a boy, he’d helped a local officer when a prisoner needed unshackling. When he was an adult he had regularly escaped from handcuffs and prisons as part of his act. And now he was teaching U.S. soldiers to do the same.
As he taught the troops, it soon became apparent that Houdini’s work was too important to be a side-line. So he cancelled his normal performance schedule, allowing him to dedicate all his time to the war effort. But this didn’t mean not putting on shows. Indeed, entertaining both the troops and the families left at home was an important part of his role.
Meanwhile, one particularly impressive trick that Houdini performed during the war period took place in the NYC Hippodrome in front of 5,000 people in January 1918. There, he made an adult Asian elephant called Jennie disappear. Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins, but can still be up to 11 feet in height and six tons in weight.
Houdini also made major contributions to fundraising for the war. When William McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, began to issue war bonds, Houdini became one of their most successful sellers. And at one show, an audience member promised to buy $1,000 worth of bonds. All Houdini needed to do was escape out of his own shirt in under 30 seconds.
And when Houdini succeeded freeing himself from his own shirt, the man didn’t just buy the promised bonds, he also spent another $1,000 to buy the garment itself. Indeed, Houdini had literally given the shirt of his back to the war effort. Elsewhere, within his first year of selling Liberty Bonds, Houdini had raised over $1 million.
Furthermore, the financial contributions of Houdini weren’t just limited to war bonds. One of his favourite tricks was making $5 gold coins disappear. And after he did this, he would then give the coins to the troops heading to Europe.
Incredibly, the $7,000 of gold coins that Houdini donated would be worth $130,000 today. He also gave up the $50,000 he could have received if he’d done his normal work for a year. Indeed, though Houdini was too old to participate in the conflict directly, there’s no doubt as to the contribution he made.
Houdini had always been ambitious – that was obvious from how he started his career at the age of just 12. And he didn’t just invent his own magic tricks. He also wrote books and movie scripts, and even won an award for being the first man to fly a plane in Australia. Meanwhile, his film work was marked with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Then in 1919 Houdini appeared on screen for the first time. “The Master Mystery” was a silent adventure serial. Somewhat appropriately, the magician played a secret agent with incredible escape skills. After making two more movies, Houdini even founded his own film studio, though it was short-lived. And after losing a good portion of his own money, he quit the film industry in 1923.
Meanwhile, Houdini had no patience for those who used magic as a form of cheating. He even received death threats because of his dedication to exposing fraud in gamblers and spiritualists. He also felt quite protective of his “challenge” trick, which was the one thing he didn’t like to share with other magicians.
Houdini’s dedication to exposing fraud even extended to his idol, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. And in 1908 Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. In it, he accused the latter of being a fake who stole other magicians tricks, or as he phrased it “[those] who waxed great on the brainwork of others.”
Houdini even offered a $10,000 reward to any psychic who could pull off a trick that could not be rationally explained, but no one was ever successful. Then in 1926 he testified before Congress in support of a new bill being debated that would have outlawed making money from fake fortune telling. However, in the end the legislation did not pass.
Meanwhile, Houdini wasn’t the only magician in the family. His younger brother Theo, known by his stage name “Hardeen” also worked in the trade and was partnered with his sibling in the latter’s early years. The two even faked a rivalry and it was Hardeen who invented his brother’s popular trick of escaping from a straitjacket on stage. He also inherited much of Houdini’s equipment after his sibling’s death and was still making use of it until the 1940s.
And even after death, Houdini’s generosity continued to help the magicians who followed him. He left a significant amount of money to the magic organization SAM in his will, as well as donating his library of supernatural texts to both the University of Texas and the Library of Congress.
And like his life, Houdini’s death after a performance in Montreal on October 22, 1926, is full of mystery. The magician was known to be able to withstand hard punches to his stomach, so a university student hit him hard there several times without warning. And for the rest of the day, Houdini was in agonizing pain.
Houdini’s last performance was in Detroit, but he barely made it through the show and subsequently collapsed straight afterwards. Then a few days later, on Halloween, Houdini died – aged only 52. According to the official report, his appendix had ruptured and lead to peritonitis.
Houdini had survived so many death-defying stunts, his sudden demise was bound to raise questions. For example, some claimed that the spiritualists he had criticized in the past may have poisoned him. Indeed, they had allegedly sent death threats to him before. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people attended Houdini’s funeral in New York City.
Despite Houdini’s doubts about spiritualism and psychics, the magician had promised his wife Bess to try and contact her from beyond the grave. He even established a number of codes so she would know it was him. She spent the next ten years trying to reach him, without success. Amazingly, until today fans of Houdini still try to hold séances to try and communicate with him every Halloween, on the anniversary of his death.