Houdini was a great escapologist, but apparently his 'difficult demeanour' made his show hard to enjoy. Orson Welles described it as ‘awful stuff’, and other magicians apparently regarded his non-escape magic as laughable: ‘like watching a wrestler play the violin.’ However, he did take care to keep many of his secrets secret, including the one where he made an elephant disappear.
In 1918, he performed this stunt at the New York City Hippodrome and neither he nor Charles Morritt (who designed the trick) ever disclosed how it was done. Houdini said that ‘even the elephant does not know how it is done.’ The effect was that Jennie the elephant walked onto the stage and into a cabinet; the walls were immediately pulled back and Jennie had disappeared.
Various solutions have been proposed, ranging from the idea that Jennie was dropped into a swimming pool beneath the stage, to the assertion that she was an inflatable model that was rapidly deflated. Morritt was a specialist in mirror techniques, though so the explanation could run thus: Jennie was placed in a box that allowed a clear view only to people sitting in the middle of the auditorium. The front was then closed and a mirror dropped over her, angled so as to reflect the image of an empty box suspended overhead or placed in the wings.
This is not to trivialise the feat: as the conjuring expert Jim Steinmeyer says in his book Hiding the Elephant, a great deal of precision goes into making such illusions believable: ‘Houdini's vanishing elephant was the result of over 50 years of careful experiments by stage magicians in France, England and the States.’
Modern magicians continue to 'disappear' things. In 1983, magician David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in front of an audience on live TV.
Houdini performed stunts to inmates on death row.
Houdini could hold his breath underwater for three minutes.
Houdini also went by ‘Mysterious Harry’, ‘The Handcuff King’ and ‘Eric the Great.’
Starting in 1907, Houdini (Erich Weisz) took his escapology act around America, escaping from jails, handcuffs, chains and straitjackets, often while hanging from a rope. In the Chinese Water Torture Cell act he was suspended upside-down in a locked tank full of water; the escape involved holding his breath for more than three minutes. In order to give his audiences value for money, Houdini’s act lasted one hour. But, as it only ever took him a few moments to escape, he spent nearly all his theatrical career on stage behind a screen reading a book.
He could pick up pins with his eyelashes and thread a needle with his toes. In 1910, he became the first person to fly a plane solo in Australia without crashing.
In the 1920s, he took to exposing spiritualists and mediums, which brought him into public conflict with Arthur Conan Doyle, who took the view that Houdini was himself a powerful medium who was using his powers to 'block' other mediums.
Houdini and his wife had no children; they had an imaginary child who they referred to in letters as Mayer Samuel Houdini.
Houdini travelled with at least 15 pairs of handcuffs.
Houdini died when he was punched in the abdomen by a student, as a test of his claim that he could take any blow.
The traditional account says that he was caught unprepared, so the blow ruptured his appendix, but it is now thought that he must already have been suffering from undiagnosed appendicitis. However, suggestions that spiritualists murdered him have circulated ever since.
The greatest escape I ever made was from Appleton, Wisconsin.