This Day in History – August 26th, 1907

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In 1907, famous escape artist Harry Houdini performed a series of escapes that involved him being handcuffed and jumping into water from a bridge, but on this day in 1907 he took it one step further and was bound by chains. It took him 57 seconds under the water to release himself from the chains.

houdiniHoudini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, and four years later arrived in America on July 3rd, 1878. In the United States his name was changed to Ehrich which was abbreviated to “Ehrie” or “Harry.” He began performing at the age of nine as a trapeze artist and called himself “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” His magic career began in 1891, at the age of 17, performing at sideshows and dime museums with mostly card tricks. His stage name of Harry Houdini was a combination of his heroes Harry Keller and  Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, but later in 1908 Houdini published a book that actually exposed Robert-Houdin as a fraud. 

Houdini himself was frequently accused of being a fake, but ironically he was far more of a skeptic than any of his critics. As President of the Society of American Magicians, he was keen to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists; he was also quick to sue anyone who pirated his escape stunts. Houdini actively went after “fake magicians” and especially spiritualists. In the 1920s, as a member of the Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities, he was on a quest to expose those who might fool scientists and academics. The cash prize was never successfully claimed, but Houdini managed to expose a number of charlatans, his first bing George Valentine, and his most famous being Mina “Margery” Crandon. These investigations are recorded in his book A Magician Among the Spirits.

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Unlike his cynical character Sherlock Holmes, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an avid believer in Spiritualism. Doyle and Houdini were once friends, but the mission to debunk mediums and spiritualist brought the friendship to an end and actually made them public enemies to each other. Doyle refused to believe Houdini’s findings, but actually managed to convince himself that Houdini was secretly a genuine medium capable of paranormal abilities that allowed the artist to perform his illusions.

Like many cynics, it seemed like Houdini’s quest was to actually find a real medium. He wanted to believe, but just found a series of fakes and liars, however, this did not deter him from searching. Houdini died on October 31st, 1926 of peritonitis, secondary to a ruptured appendix in Grace Hospital of Detroit. This a result of a series of punches to the stomach that he allowed college student J. Gordon Whitehead to deliver after a challenge to test Houdini’s ability to withstand the hits. Prior to his death, Houdini and his wife Bess agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message “Rosabelle believe.” 

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Houdini with his mother and wife Bess.

Bess held yearly séances on Halloween for ten years after Houdini’s death. She did claim to have contact through Arthur Ford in 1929 when Ford conveyed the secret code, but Bess later said the incident had been faked. In 1936, after a last unsuccessful séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, she put out the candle that she had kept burning beside a photograph of Houdini since his death. In 1943, Bess said that “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

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