NEW YORK — Eighty years after his death, the name Harry Houdini remains synonymous with escape under the most dire circumstances. But Houdini, the immigrants’ son whose death-defying career made him one of the world’s biggest stars, was more than a mere entertainer.
A new biography of the legendary performer suggests that Houdini worked as a spy for Scotland Yard, monitored Russian anarchists and chased counterfeiters for the U.S. Secret Service — all before he was possibly murdered.
“The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero” will be released on Halloween — the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death at age 52. Chasing new information on the elusive superstar eventually led authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman to create a database of more than 700,000 pages.
“There’s no way in the world we could have done this book without it,” said Sloman of the huge electronic index. “It would have taken 30 years — maybe.”
The biography lays out a scenario where Houdini, using his career as cover, managed to travel the United States and the world while collecting information for law enforcement. The authors made the link after reviewing a journal belonging to William Melville, a British spy master who mentioned Houdini several times.
Melville, while at Scotland Yard in the early 20th century, helped launch Houdini’s European career by allowing the performer to demonstrate his escape skills. Houdini, at a demonstration arranged by Melville, slipped free from a pair of Scotland Yard handcuffs as an audition for a London theater owner.
The book suggests that Melville’s compliance was part of a quid pro quo in which Houdini worked as a spy. A similar situation occurred in Chicago, where Houdini’s career took off after a publicity stunt aided by a local police lieutenant, the book said.
“Finding the Melville diary -- we knew there was a connection, we knew there was something there,” said Kalush. “But finding that diary solidified a lot of other things.”
Teller: Authors on right track
No less a Houdini enthusiast than Teller -- the mute half of Penn and Teller, and one of the legendary performer’s spiritual descendants -- felt the link between the escape artist and the authorities was no leap.
“Law enforcement is about bureaucracy and cronyism,” Teller said. “So they’re going to let some entertainer walk in and escape from their jail cells? That suggests to me that (the authors) are on the right track.”
Houdini was a relentless self-promoter in the style of P.T. Barnum, although he didn’t play his audience for suckers. The biography recounts one 1902 escape, in Blackburn, England, where Houdini refused to surrender despite the use of plugged locks that made his freedom almost impossible.
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After two hours, Houdini escaped to a standing ovation. The next day his arms were “hideously blue and swollen, with large chunks of flesh torn out,” the book recounts. Because of the way the chains and rigged locks were fastened, Houdini “had no choice but to tear out the chunks of his flesh to get free.”
Houdini’s renown was such that he was known around the world by a single name long before Sting or Madonna.
“We know Houdini was a hero,” said Sloman. “He could get out of anything -- which was a myth, of course.”
Kalush said the myth eventually overshadowed the man. “It’s part of us: He’s a human, I’m a human, he can beat anything, so maybe I can beat some things,” Kalush said.
The biography’s other hook is the suggestion that Houdini’s relentless debunking of the Spiritualist movement, whose proponents included “Sherlock Holmes” author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, led to his death. The group believed they could contact the dead; Houdini believed they were frauds.
Houdini, at the turn of the century, joined his wife Bess --“The Celebrated Clairvoyant” -- in presenting a trumped-up act in which he worked as the barker and she as the medium. But Houdini eventually crossed over to the other side, exposing phony mediums much as he’d once exposed copycat escape artists.
“I like the way that Houdini comes off as a real tough guy, which is no doubt true,” said Teller. “He’s not afraid to show up at somebody else’s performance and scream, ‘This is my act you’re doing. Why don’t you try this trick?’
“That’s a rough and tumble thing you’ll never see a modern magician do.”
The authors recount a pair of October 1926 incidents in which Houdini was viciously punched in the stomach, once by a college student in his dressing room and later by a stranger in a hotel lobby.
Houdini -- the book suggests the Spiritualists may have arranged the attacks -- died days later in Room 401 at Grace Hospital in Detroit. His aura of invincibility seemed over. But as the authors discovered, it still lives on today.
“He’s compelling because of that myth, that he could not be restrained by anything,” said Sloman. “The more successful he was, the more he became a symbol of the lone man resisting authority.”
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