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Straight Magic: Houdini and the Art of Illusion

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 2, 2013
pp. 99-120 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0040

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Houdini poses with his book The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, 1908, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

The eyes cannot be philosophically trusted, but in the meantime they can be entertained.

Charles Simic, "Birds of a Feather"

In 1916, when the French actress Sarah Bernhardt was on tour in America, Harry Houdini, a longtime fan, learned that they were both performing in Boston. The two celebrated performers met at her hotel, where he staged a private magic show. The next day she rode with him in his car to see one of his most popular stunts, an aerial straitjacket escape.

Strapped tightly into a straitjacket, Houdini was suspended by his ankles more than sixty feet in the air. Amid a crowd of thousands who clogged the sidewalks and streets for blocks, Bernhardt watched nervously as her new friend writhed and thrashed. His body became a blur of motion as he agonized on the brink of failure. His exaggerated movements and pained look wrung out every drop of suspense and made the time it took him to liberate himself seem much longer. He made a victorious upside-down salute to the crowd, proclaiming his triumph over fear and death. He let loose of the straitjacket. Empty arms outstretched and straps flapping, it floated down to onlookers below, who burst into uproarious applause. Once again, Houdini, the great escape artist, had defeated the odds.

Bernhardt, like Houdini, was work-driven and resilient, but ten years earlier she had injured her leg during a fall onstage and had recently had her leg amputated. She was beginning to feel mortal, though she continued her busy stage career with the use of a wooden leg. As they drove back to the hotel, Bernhardt leaned in and said to the magician, "Houdini, you are a wonderful human being. You must possess some extraordinary power to perform such marvels. Won't you use it to restore my limb for me?" She gazed at him expectantly. When he realized that she wasn't joking, his eyes filled with tears. He was exhausted by the escape—at forty-two these strenuous stunts were beginning to take their toll—but he was also touched by the frail woman sitting beside him. He assured her that such a thing was impossible. She pressed on: "But you do the impossible." He spoke to her softly but firmly: "Madame, you exaggerate my abilities."

Bernhardt was not the only one who was convinced that Houdini was masking his occult abilities under the guise of magic. Despite his continued denials, some spiritualists were certain that he possessed potent supernatural powers that allowed him to dematerialize and pass through solid substances, while others believed that he hypnotized his audiences. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the British author of Sherlock Holmes fame, who would become Houdini's nemesis in his war against spiritualism, claimed after the magician's death that Houdini had had powers he did not know about. Houdini's death-defying stunts seemed nothing short of miraculous; assistance from beyond was the only explanation.

Spiritualism, the belief that the dead communicate with the living, flourished in America and throughout Europe as early as the 1850s. In the United States it boasted over eleven million followers, most well educated and middle class, who wanted to abandon orthodox Christian churches while still maintaining their belief in the soul's existence after death. It also dispensed with original sin and atonement, final judgment and hell. Spiritualism, with its appearance of scientific methodologies and emphasis on firsthand experiences, seemed to provide rational, material proof of an afterlife—that no soul ever truly departed. It also allowed Victorians to cast off social constraints. For many it offered comfort after the considerable loss of life during World War I. During "domestic" séances, spirits gave participants permission to release suppressed emotion and sentimentality. In some instances, they were allowed quasi-sexual encounters. To opponents, spiritualism was a parade of fabricated physical phenomena of rapping and table tilting, floating instruments and slates chalked with messages from spirits.

Like spiritualism, Houdini's magic offered hope to the lost and the disenchanted and tapped into his audience's...

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