- - Tuesday, February 4, 2020

When you think of great illusionists, Harry Houdini is at the top of the list. Few individuals in the world of magic have ever had his notoriety, built on the backs of relationships with newspapers, vaudeville acts and Hollywood studios. The mystique he exuded when he escaped from handcuffs, straitjackets and even a Chinese water torture cell created an aura of invincibility.

Nearly a century after his death, Houdini remains an enigma. More than 500 books have been written about him, and there are droves of photos, posters, documentaries, TV specials and stage plays. He also has legions of admirers, including Joe Posnanski, one of America’s great sports columnists. 

Mr. Posnanski’s new book, “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” is a departure from his exceptional work for Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and the Kansas City Star. He wants to understand why the legendary illusionist “still arouses wonder and imaginations.” What he begins to realize in his extensive research, travels and interviews is that “Houdini is always there, ready to be summoned. He is in headlines around the world every single day, a fact that would no doubt thrill the man endlessly.”

Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss, a Hungarian Jew whose family moved to the United States in 1878 when he was 4 years old. The origin of his unique escape ability goes back to his time as a locksmith’s apprentice in Milwaukee. A “hulking man” was brought for his handcuffs to be removed after a judge threw out his case, but the sheriff had lost the keys. As everyone attempted to get the handcuffs off, the 11-year-old Houdini experienced a “flash of light, the big bang moment.” He found some wire, shaped it in a particular fashion, twisted and turned it into the locks and opened them. As the formerly handcuffed man stared at him in surprise, Houdini said, “He is the only person who knows my secret.”

Is this story true? With Houdini, the lines of fact and fiction were often blurred. But it started him on an incredible magical journey.



He took his name from the great magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. His act was originally known as the Brothers Houdini, using friends like Jacob and Joe Hyman to fit the bill. His greatest inspiration was small-time magician Joe Godfrey, who Mr. Posnanski describes as “Houdini before Houdini” because his popular cabinet act performed in dime-store museums “was essentially a one-man presentation of what Houdini would turn into Metamorphosis.”

Houdini would also meet his wife, Bess Rahner, in 1894. It would be a “whirlwind courtship” that would be an “act of rebellion” against his Jewish parents (although his mother, Cecilia, accepted their relationship) and her Catholic parents. Nevertheless, the love and passion they had for one another conquered every obstacle in their path. They remained married until his untimely death.  

“The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” contains many intriguing interviews. 

Mr. Posnanski speaks with magician David Copperfield, who he believe is “nothing alike” to Houdini, and also “everything alike” to him. He asks magician Joshua Jay about the punch that may have accidentally killed Houdini in 1926, and is told, “I don’t think Houdini would be Houdini if he didn’t have the strange death.” He discovers that magicians Dick Brookz and Dorothy Dietrich were behind the mysterious “brand-new Houdini bust [that] appeared at the gravesite” in 2011. He sets out to find actor/Houdini authority Patrick Culliton, who has written several books about the illusionist that have “[a]ll the secrets. All the keys.”   

Then, of course, we take several peeks inside Houdini’s big bag of magic tricks. 

The most intriguing is the Mirror Cuffs. This happened in 1904, when Will A. Bennet, a “nondescript man” and reporter for London’s Daily Mirror, “wanted to defeat Houdini by finding a pair of inescapable handcuffs.” Mr. Posnanski believes it’s his “most fascinating escape,” and provides several competing theories behind it. 

One comes from magic dealer/book publisher Will Goldston. He guessed Houdini realized he was “overmatched,” caught his wife’s eye in the audience and she “pleaded” with Bennet to give her the key. Another comes from “mystery man” Joseph P. Wilson, who claimed the “whole thing, every bit of it, was an act” and Houdini “made the handcuffs himself.” Magician Doug Henning and locksmith Mick Hanzlik have their own ideas, too.

What does Mr. Posnanski think? I have to leave a little bit of mystery on the table, so read his fascinating book about Harry Houdini to find out before it disappears.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI

By Joe Posnanski

Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, $28, 336 pages

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