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What happened to the secrets of Houdini?

Dear Cecil:

As a child, my parents supplied me with books in order to keep me out of mischief. One of my earliest heroes was Harry Houdini, the colorful escape artist. Countless summer days were spent daydreaming and conjecturing on the secrets behind Harry's slipperiness. But regardless of my conclusions, I felt secure in the belief that Harry's special knowledge would one day become public, due (I had heard) to a provision in his will that his secrets be revealed after the passage of a certain number of years. Has that date come and gone? If so, where can I get my hands on this info? I need it in case my brother's parole falls through.

D.T.D., Chicago

Cecil replies:

Houdini’s will must be second only to Jerry Mather’s Vietnam demise as the all-time great Rumor That Would Not Die. For years I’ve heard stories about manuscripts withering away in bank vaults, waiting for the fiftieth anniversary of Houdini’s death (which, by the way, was 1976) to be given to the world.

But stories, alas, are all they are. Houdini left most of his apparatus to his brother, who toured for a few years after Houdini’s death under the name “Hardeen.” Houdini’s will stipulated that all the tricks and manuscripts be burned after Hardeen’s death, but some of the material has survived in private collections.

Even so, none of Houdini’s plans for his more spectacular effects has ever come to light–apparently the sonofabitch took them with him. So we may never know–for sure–how Houdini escaped after being lashed to the arm of a windmill in Holland, or stuffed down the gut of a dead “sea monster” in Boston, or sealed in a giant envelope in Chicago (he got out without making a tear), or, my personal favorite, sewn up inside a giant football by the University of Pennsylvania varsity squad.

Houdini published several books and pamphlets on magic during his lifetime. I particularly recommend Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), a genuinely bizarre volume that gives the Straight Dope on such dubious entertainments as driving a steel spike through your cheek and setting your arm on fire. You’ll be the life of the party.

Some of Houdini’s shorter articles were collected in a Dover paperback, Houdini on Magic, edited by Walter B. Gibson. A few books purporting to “expose” Houdini have also been published, such as J.D. Cannell’s 1932 Secrets of Houdini, but these now seem to be wholly fraudulent.

There were two main schools of thought on Houdini’s escapes. One, pushed by Cannell and others, held that Houdini was a mere contortionist, who could expand his muscles while restraints were being placed on him, then later relax and slip out of his bonds.

The other explanation, which I mention here purely for its entertainment value, was offered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who claimed that Houdini was a full-fledged medium, performing his escapes with the help of the spirit world. How the spirit world felt about doing three-a-day vaudeville has not been recorded.

The plain truth, not surprisingly, seems to be that Houdini was merely an extraordinarily accomplished showman, who knew how to milk a few basic techniques of stage magic for all they were worth. Today, professional magicians say that most of Houdini’s tricks could be reproduced, but his performances could never be.

Cecil Adams

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