“I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That's what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the 'human fly' who scales the walls of the same building.”

The Hungarian-born escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini forged himself into a national treasure by nature of his death-defying escapes and fantastic showmanship. His early performances involved escapes from a pair of handcuffs, though his later endeavors escalated. His signature performance was the suspended escape from a Chinese water torture cell, and he nearly died in an escape in which he was buried alive without a casket. Across the board, Houdini was a man of many talents:

  • Escape artist
  • Illusionist
  • Aviator
  • Spy

Throughout his life, Houdini worked hard to protect his secrets on stage, but there are fascinating tidbits regarding his life off stage.

He was a renowned debunker

Harry Houdini in a suit, sitting for a photo
Credit: Public Domain

Houdini’s renowned stage presence brought him fans from every walk of life. One such fan was the British author of "Sherlock Holmes", Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini and Doyle shared a fascination with the mystical. They were both preoccupied with spiritualists and mediums. However, they were also opposed in their convictions on the matter. Houdini was a staunch skeptic and spent much of his time off-stage debunking mediums. Doyle, in spite of his staunch rationalism, was a true believer in the séance.

For a time, they remained in close correspondence as friends with spirited debates. However, things came to a head when Houdini attended a séance in which Jean Leckie, Doyle’s second wife, channeled the spirit of Houdini’s mother. Leckie produced several pages of writing in fluent English, signed with a cross, after which, Houdini pointed out that his mother was Hungarian and Jewish.

The disappearing son act

Harry and Beatrice Houdini in Nice, France, 1913
Credit: Everett Historical/ Shutterstock

Houdini married his wife Beatrice within two weeks of having met her. She accompanied him on stage as his assistant throughout the rest of his career, throughout which they shared a deep romantic connection documented in hundreds of love letters. However, they never had children.

Some speculate that Houdini was rendered sterile by repeated x-ray radiation received during his brother’s training as a technician, but sterility was no match for the world’s greatest illusionist. Harry and Beatrice simply resolved to invent an imaginary child, Mayer Samuel Houdini, who they wrote about at length in their many letters. The fictional Mayer S. Houdini eventually went on to become president of the United States.

He's a postage icon

A stamp printed in the U.S. in 2002 shows Harry Houdini with his arms crossed
Credit: PictureLake/ iStock

The U.S. postal service released a commemorative stamp of Harry Houdini in 2002, but this was no ordinary stamp. Houdini’s commemorative stamp is part of the “hidden indicia” program that includes stamps designed to be viewed with a decoder lens that was once supplied by the Post Office. When placed under the lens, Houdini’s portrait appears in chains.

Houdini and the whale

Houdini in chains
Credit: Bain News Service/ Public Domain

One of Houdini’s strangest and most vaguely biblical tricks came about in 1911 in Boston. A group of businessmen challenged Houdini to escape from the belly of a giant sea monster. The beast weighed 1,500 pounds, though it’s unclear, according to record, what the monster was. Descriptions varied wildly. Houdini accepted the challenge and wound up handcuffed, shackled, and plopped into the innards of a marine carcass. He escaped from the creature 15 minutes later but admitted that the fumes of chemicals used to preserve the sea creature nearly led to his suffocation.

Freedom from chains

A deck of cards, dice, chains and thimbles in sepia tone
Credit: AngeloDeVal/ iStock

Houdini’s life was one marked by romance, enthusiasm, and constant curiosity. He pursued his passions without fear and lived free in the world as a visionary.