Quick, think of a famous magician.
Dimes to donuts, you just thought of Harry Houdini.
Though it’s been almost a century since his death, Houdini still occupies a prime place in the cultural imagination, and my guest explains why in his book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, and for us today on the show. His name is Joe Posnanski, and we begin our conversation with Houdini’s childhood — how he mythologized it and carved a path out for himself from his desire to not be like his father. We then discuss Houdini’s early days as a magician, the trick he honed that helped make his name, and the outsized importance of that name in his fame and legacy. We then explore how escape artistry became Houdini’s calling card and why it resonated so much with the public. We get into the way Houdini brought an athlete’s physicality and mindset to his performances, and how the difference between magic and escape artistry can be described as the difference between the impossible and the amazing. From there we turn to the fact that Houdini was, and wasn’t, interested in money, his insatiable ambition and drive for fame, and how even the turn he took later in life towards debunking spiritualism kept him in the public eye. We end our conversation with why some modern magicians downplay Houdini’s talents, while he yet remains an enduring cultural icon amongst the public.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What led Joe, a sportswriter, to write a bio about Houdini
- What was Houdini’s childhood like?
- The state of magic when Houdini was getting into the industry
- Where the name came from
- Was there an early act that cemented Houdini’s future as a magician?
- The difference between magic and escape artistry
- Why is escape is so fascinating
- The athletic prowess and mindset of Houdini
- Harry’s relentless ambition and what really drove him
- Joe’s favorite Houdini tricks
- Houdini’s debunking of spiritualism
- What was it that really killed Houdini?
- His lasting influence on magic and how he became an archetype
- Why does Houdini still captivate us today?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Babe Ruth and the World He Made
- A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World
- Lessons in Manliness From Harry Houdini
- Cool Uncle Tricks
- Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick
- Robert-Houdin, the father of magic
- The Crazy, Forgotten Story of America’s First Fitness Influencer
- Houdini in chains
- Water Torture Cell trick
- Houdini’s greatest handcuff challenge
- The Baseball 100
Connect With Joe
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Quick, think of a famous magician. Dimes to donuts, you just thought of Harry Houdini. Though it’s been almost a century since his death, Houdini still occupies a prime place in the cultural imagination, and my guest today explains why in his book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. His name is Joe Posnanski, and we begin our conversation with Houdini’s childhood, how he mythologized it and carved a path out for himself from his desire to not be like his father. We then discuss Houdini’s early days as a magician, the trick he honed that helped make his name, and the outsized importance of that name in his fame and legacy. We then explore how escape artistry became Houdini’s calling card, and why it resonated so much with the public.
We get into the way Houdini brought an athlete’s physicality and mindset to his performances and how the difference between magic and escape artistry can be described as the difference between the impossible and the amazing. From there, we turn to the fact that Houdini was, and wasn’t, interested in money, his insatiable ambition and drive for fame, and how the turn he took later in life towards debunking spiritualism kept him in the public eye. We end our conversation with why some modern magicians downplay Houdini’s talent, while he yet remains an enduring cultural icon amongst the public. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/houdini.
Alright. Joe Posnanski, welcome to the show.
Joe Posnanski: Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a sports writer, but you’ve also written a biography of Harry Houdini and his impact on our culture. What led a sports writer to write a biography about this famous magician?
Joe Posnanski: So it’s a good question, one that I ask myself all the time. I think for me, it began, as many things do, with sports. I was approached about writing a book about Babe Ruth. I had done… I think this was my fifth book, and my previous four were all sports books. And there was sort of this feeling that maybe I should try to take on this big biography, that this was maybe the next step for me. And so I was approached about doing this book about Babe Ruth. And I had to say, it did not interest me at all. I just felt like that was well-covered ground. And there was another book in the works at the time, by a friend of mine, Jane Leavy. So it wasn’t something that interested me, but I still thought about it. And I thought, well, if I did do a Babe Ruth book, what would it be about? And what interests me about Ruth, it ended up being the same exact thing that interests me about Harry Houdini. It is that he’s still with us in so many ways, that people still think about him, talk about him. He’s considered the greatest of all time by many people. I’m talking about Babe Ruth.
And so that interests me. Why is that? We don’t really feel that way about many things from the 1920s, many people from the 1920s and so I kind of came up with this thought in my mind about wonder, and how much we crave it, even in today’s time. And I thought, I’d like to write that book, that book sounds interesting to me. But I don’t think Ruth is the right guy to do it. And I’ve been sort of this very behind-the-scenes magic fan for many years. And I thought, you know, this book should be about Harry Houdini. Who better represents my thoughts here on somebody who survives, thrives a 100 years or so after his death, people still talk about him, people still know him, people still consider him the greatest. And he’s just in the news every day in some form or another. And so I thought, that’s the story I wanna tell, if I can tell the story about Harry Houdini, and why we still care about him.
Brett McKay: Alright. So Houdini is obviously a character that’s larger than life. He’s become a metaphor, almost, for lots of different things.
Joe Posnanski: Sure.
Brett McKay: So it’s kind of hard to unpack like, okay, what’s the real Harry Houdini? Right? What’s the story, what’s the myth, and what is the actual Harry Houdini? So let’s talk about his childhood… What do we know about Houdini’s childhood? And were there glimpses, when he was a boy, that he would become this icon in western culture?
Joe Posnanski: It’s really hard to say because so much of what we know about his childhood, we only learned after the fact, it was not the childhood he ever talked about. Harry Houdini was insistent on never being really associated with the character that he was, before he named himself Harry Houdini, right? He was Erik Weisz, that was his birth name. He came to America when he was 4 years old. He was brought over, ended up in Appleton, Wisconsin. His father was the first Rabbi at the temple in Appleton, before losing his job. And his childhood is essentially very, very bleak. It’s a family that had no money, that was really running away from people collecting rent, and food for entire… His entire childhood, essentially. He ran away from home when he was 12, and he worked very, very hard to cover up that part of his life. He wanted Harry Houdini to be this larger than life character, like you say, and that was very important to him from the very start.
So he created this mythology about Houdini, who was born in America, who had this mystical ability to escape from things, even as a boy who stole his mother’s apple cake when he was just barely a toddler. Even though she locked it up, he figured out how to get into the lock. And these were the myths that he told about himself again, and again, and again. And so there are stories about him being interested in becoming an entertainer, he worked for a brief time with a circus. He probably ran away from home at 12 to join this circus. So it seems like there was definitely this idea of performing in front of people, was something that I think was always with him. But I don’t know that we could really look at his childhood, if we see his true childhood, and see what he was going to become. He definitely created the person that is Harry Houdini.
Brett McKay: And something that I thought was interesting, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they finally figured out he wasn’t born in Appleton, Wisconsin, that he was born in Budapest.
Joe Posnanski: That’s right.
Brett McKay: That’s how pervasive the myth was. He was able to convince so many people that he was like… Well, it’s true though. Harry Houdini was born in Appleton, Wisconsin. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest.
Joe Posnanski: That’s right. No, that’s exactly… You said it exactly right. It’s interesting, there were really… It was not something people felt like they even needed to check, right? Who would lie about where they were born, and why would you? Especially once you achieve the international worldwide fame of Harry Houdini, what difference does it make? But for Houdini it was so important that when you trace back his life, you trace back to this all-American boy, this all-American childhood. He was not ashamed of the family being poor. He would talk about that some, but he never talked about being born… Being an immigrant. He never talked about not having this sort of American childhood that people could recognize, that was so important to him. And you’re right, for many, many years, there was actually… As I write about in the book, in the 1970s, there was a committee put together by a magic organization that spent a year looking into him. They called it he Houdini Birthplace Committee, and they literally spent a year looking into where Harry Houdini was born, finding insurance papers, and wills and all these other things to fully say that he was born in Budapest and not born in the United States. And that’s 50 years after his death, so it was pervasive and it was really important to Houdini to make it that way.
Brett McKay: Let’s put Houdini on the therapist couch and talk about the influence his father and mother had on him throughout his life. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Joe Posnanski: Sure, sure. We are playing a little bit of therapist and Houdini has always intrigued therapists, particularly because of the very, very close relationship he had with his mother, which was even in his time, very famous. He would call his mother his sweetheart and the most important woman in the world to him, even after he had been married to Bess for many years. That’s pretty well-covered ground. It is no question that Houdini basically wanted to create his success in large part to support his mother, to make his mother proud, to achieve these things that he felt like his father never did for her. And so that is interesting, but I’ve always been, at least since writing this book, I’ve been at least as interested in what his father’s impact was. His father, as I mentioned, was a rabbi and was the first rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin. So there was some success there, but it was really fleeting. And he spent the rest of his life after he was let go trying to find work, and he was very unsuccessful. He tried to be various things. He tried to be many things as a rabbi. He tried to do all kinds of… He sold… Tried to sell Jewish books, and various other things, but also worked in factories.
He was always this kind of a drifter when it came to trying to find work. And I don’t know that it was anything other than bad luck, bad timing, being in the wrong place. I don’t know that it was something that related to him not having the ambition. It just seemed like he was defeated by life. And for me, that is really interesting when you look at Houdini, because Houdini, as he grew older, came to represent, in my mind the exact opposite of his father. He always found work, and he always was fighting for money, and he always was pushing to support his mother. And he was always, I think afraid of becoming in any way, shape or form what his father was. And so I’ve always thought, even though he would say very respectful things about his father, he would talk about how his father was the smartest person he ever knew, and the greatest writer he’d ever knew, and all these other things, I think the way he lived his life is pretty direct as opposition to the way his father had lived.
Brett McKay: That’s an archetypical story then in a lot of… You see that in a lot of famous great men. They’re just basically trying to be the opposite of their dad. Well, Houdini, he ran away to the circus, had a pension for being an entertainer. When did he first start practicing magic? And then I guess maybe it’d be useful to talk about, what was the state of magic when Houdini started to get into the business?
Joe Posnanski: Well, there were magicians. Obviously, this was long, long, long before television or radio or movies or anything. So these were magicians who would go from town to town and perform, some of them on very small stages. There were a few fairly big stage magicians. As best we can tell, it was in New York that Houdini started to get interested in magic. And this was after he ran away from home, perhaps tried to join the circus. We don’t know exactly what the running away from home thing was about. Even Houdini would say that he didn’t even remember exactly what his motivations were, but after running away from home, he ended up in New York and his father joined him there. And he worked in a factory that created neckties. And that was really when it seems like he fell in love with magic, probably through the reading of a book by the guy who would end up being his hero and also in many ways, his nemesis, Robert-Houdin, who is even now widely called the father of magic. And Robert-Houdin was this magician, he was gone by the time that Houdini was reading his autobiography, but he was this very, very famous stage magician who to this day gets credit for so many things that magicians still do, dressing up in evening clothes, tuxedos, that kind of thing.
Creating various kinds of stage magic, and Houdini read this biography, and it clearly did have an enormous impact on his life. And he was probably at that point interested enough in magic that he was doing a few things. He had a friend within the necktie factory who also liked magic. And after they read the book, both of them read this autobiography, they decided to create a magic act that they would try to make a living doing magic in small shows in various places, and because… I’m sure we’ll come back to the name, but they named themselves after Robert-Houdin. They thought it was pronounced Houdin. They added an I to the end of his name, thinking that I would make… There are different reasons that have been given for why they added the I. Some said it’s because they wanted to make it sound exotic and some thought, an I in Italian means it’s somebody you wanna be like, and they called themselves The Houdini Brothers, and of course, his name was Erik Weisz, they called him Ehrich, so he changed that, Americanized that to Harry, and that’s how he became Harry Houdini.
Brett McKay: And the name is interesting because Houdini, it’s… Something about the name, it’s like you always remember it, like it’s hard to forget. What do you think is going on there?
Joe Posnanski: It’s just the perfect magic name. I don’t think a couple of kids at the time fully appreciated it. I think the name is a very, very big part of the success that he would have. It really is an unforgettable name, there’s something mystical about it, something exotic and foreign, a little bit about it, but yet it’s not like you see it and have trouble pronouncing it or anything, it’s always there. And I think it was a big part of… And as the years would go on, he would fight for the name a little bit, he actually had to tear away the name from his friend, who might have been the one who actually came up with it. They actually had a big fight over the name, and then other people would start using some version of that name, people who were imitators of Houdini would call themselves various other things that sounded like Houdini. And so the name was just always a very, very big part of who he was, and I do think that you look back at some of these incredible magicians of the time who were probably just as popular as he was, but something about their names just doesn’t quite carry through the years, the way the name Houdini does.
Brett McKay: So he started this act with his buddy, they were The Houdini Brothers, did they… Was there an act that put them on the map and kinda put Harry Houdini on the path to becoming who he is today?
Joe Posnanski: Well, the answer is yes and no. They were not very successful, and soon, the friend left because they were not successful, and then Houdini’s own brother joined the act, his friend’s brother joined the act and eventually Bess, who even before she ended up being his wife joined the act. So numerous different people tried to be The Houdini Brothers or The Houdini Act, or later on, it was just Harry Houdini and assistant, whatever the case may be. But with the act itself, it was not very successful, but there were already signs of it becoming successful and signs of Houdini… What Houdini would become as the years went on, and my favorite of those was this one act that he called Metamorphosis. And Metamorphosis was… It could be fairly easy explained, somebody is essentially tied up and put all sorts of handcuffs and rope and tied up and locked up, and at the beginning, this was Houdini’s assistant who was tied up, but as the act went on, Houdini realized that he needed to be the one who was tied up, which is obviously a very big part of what Houdini would become.
But he would get tied up and then they would put him inside of a giant bag with a drawstring at the top, they would tie the drawstring… Sometimes Houdini would wear… Would ask somebody in the crowd to wear… If he could wear his jacket, so he would put on a stranger’s jacket before getting tied up, and then they would put this bag with the tied-up Houdini inside of a chest, a magic chest, they would lock that chest on many different sides, obviously always showing that there was no possible way to escape, and then the assistant, originally, his friend, later his wife would say to the crowd, okay, watch the effect. It’s gonna happen fast, it’s gonna happen in the count of three. And she would count, One, two, and she would lift up this curtain that they had, and then Houdini would say, “Three” and pull down the curtain and he was out. And of course, this was a very fun act, but the best part of it was that at that point, they would then unlock the chest, which of course took time to do all of this, and then they would pull down the bag and there would be his wife in all the ropes, in all the handcuffs, wearing the stranger’s jacket.
So that was Metamorphosis, and it was not necessarily a new act, it really borrowed from a lot of different things that had already been out there, but they made it new. He made it new. He made it… Because it was so fast and it was so shocking to see on the count of three, there’s Harry Houdini already out of this chest, the speed of it was such a big part of it, and people liked it, and he did get some very good reviews for it, but it really did not lead to success, it just led him on the path that eventually led him to success.
Brett McKay: So that prefigures… That trick, Metamorphosis, prefigures what he became famous for, and that was being an escape artist. And I think people, they often associate escape artistry with magic because Houdini was considered a magician, but they’re kind of separate genres. So first, how did he make that transition from magic to escape artistry, and what was his first escape trick?
Joe Posnanski: Well, he always blended the two, particularly in his younger days, he wanted to be a magician, he didn’t necessarily… Later on, he would say, oh, magicians are a dime a dozen, but escape artists are… They’re rare… This rare thing. But that’s not how he wanted to be, and really all of his life, he was utterly fascinated with magic and by magic, we’re talking about card tricks, we’re talking about illusions, we’re talking about levitation or making something appear or disappear. He was always in love with those sorts of things and would do magic throughout his life. And you know, there might have been a little resentment later in life, not certainly when he was at the top of his game, but later in life that people didn’t appreciate him as a magician, as much as they appreciated him as an escape artist. But he always had this escape part of his act, and when he was very young, he came upon this idea of going whatever town he was in, and these were usually at that time, very, very small towns, most of them in the Northeast, he would… Before the show, he would go to the local jail and ask them to allow him… To put him in handcuffs and put him in a jail cell and see if he could escape.
And he would try to bring reporters out there, and this was… I’ve said many times, this is long before social media, so this was the original Instagram, this was the original Snapchat, where you’re essentially trying to reach out to lots and lots of people through some sort of… Really, I think kind of a TikTok stunt. This is what he tried to do, trying to escape from these jails and they let him do it, not everybody, but a lot of these places were intrigued enough by the idea that they let him do it. He was always successful, at least in the early days, and so that was a big part of his act, and it was separate from the magic that he was doing, but he saw it all as one thing in those days. Later, after many years of failure for him, he came to realize that as much as he loved the magic, it was really the escape artistry that was his calling card, and that was the thing that was gonna make him world famous.
Brett McKay: Why do you think the escape artistry was so appealing? Why were people drawn to it? Why did it become such a huge phenomenon?
Joe Posnanski: I think there… At different stages of his career, I think the reason is a little bit different. I think early on, the notion of escape to this day is so powerful in our minds, this is… I know we’ll get to this point of the answer to my question, which is, why does Houdini still last? Why do we still care about him? And I think the reason… One of those reasons is that we’re just as fascinated by impossible escapes now as we ever were, and you can see that proof every single day when you look at a newspaper somewhere in the world, there is a dog that gets out of the yard and nobody knows why, or there is a person who escapes from prison and nobody knows how, and those people inevitably are called Houdini in the papers. In my world of sports, Houdini is constantly being used for a quarterback who gets out of an impossible situation or a pitcher who gets out of a bases-loaded jam, we call them Houdini and so I think that infatuation that we have, that fascination that we have with escape was always a big part for him. Later, he was also cheating death, so it was this combination, not only of escape, which was the thing that really drove his early success, and later it was him being under water, him being in a dangerous place, getting buried alive, this was… Suddenly this thing became about cheating death, and that took him to an entirely different level.
Brett McKay: And the other thing too, I thought was interesting, the distinction between magic and escape artistry, magic it’s supposed to look effortless, painless, but Houdini realized what people wanna see is physical struggle, and he made his acts… He was very physical, and I think it ties in with your sports writing, he was almost an athletic event. He was trying to show that he was really, really working hard, it wasn’t magic, it was like Houdini physically escaping from this stuff.
Joe Posnanski: No, that’s 100% right. I found so many sports analogies. He was an athlete when he was young, he was a boxer, he was a swimmer, he was a runner, had life been different for him, he might have gone into an athletic path, so he was an athlete and I believe… And maybe… I’ve talked to people in magic about this, and some of them have said, that’s just the sports writer in you talking, but I believe that so much of what made Houdini successful was this athletic… Not just the athletic prowess that he had, but this athletic mindset that he had. The earliest… Once Houdini became famous… So this really happened right at the turn of the century, 1899, 1900, once he went to Europe, this is when he became famous and for five to 10 years of his fame, his most famous elements of his magic were challenges, people would challenge him to get out of something that they created, whether it was handcuffs they invented, or a box that they built, or an envelope, a football, every single night, he would take on these challenges and he would always escape, he would always win.
And that this was the act, this was at the heart of it, and it was a different show every night because it was a different challenge every night, that feels like sports to me, that feels like, hey, I’m the World Heavyweight Champion, come out any night and try to beat me. And so I really do feel that so much of the escape stuff, particularly the stuff when he was accepting challenges really is directly related to sports. The other thing that you said, the original name of the book, at least in my mind, was The Amazing and the Impossible, that was what I was gonna call the book. Nobody liked it, ’cause it doesn’t have Houdini’s name in, it doesn’t really make sense if you don’t know the context, but it comes from a quote from a magician who we were talking, and I said to him something about Houdini and he said, you know Houdini was not a magician, he was an escape artist, exactly like what you said. And I said, well, what’s the difference? And he said, well, magic is doing the impossible. There is no possible way that you can make even the smallest version, you can make that coin disappear, you can make that card show up in my pocket, even the simplest, it’s impossible, and what Houdini did was not impossible, it was escaping from these different challenges, but it wasn’t impossible, it was different.
And I said, well, I guess that’s true, but look, this guy escaped from… They would throw him in the water, inside of caskets and bury him alive and do all of these other things, that feels pretty impossible. And he said, no, that’s the difference. That’s amazing, but it’s not impossible. And I think that’s the difference between this escape thing that Houdini made world famous and magic, is that it’s amazing what Houdini did when he did escapes, but you wouldn’t say it was impossible.
Brett McKay: Speaking to the athleticism of Houdini, the other picture in the book of him in a swimsuit, it’s a singlet basically, and chained up, and his legs are just huge, they’re just… It looks like he squats every day.
Joe Posnanski: Super muscular, he was a small man in height, but he was so powerful and so flexible in order to do many of these escapes, he had to… He had to get himself in these crazy positions, but he was very, very powerful. He used to go around… Speaking of challenges, he loved challenges of any kind, he would take on challenges, he used to have this one challenge where he would see somebody reading a mystery, and he would say, tell me… Read me a paragraph from three places in the book, and I’ll tell you who the murderer is, he lived for challenges, and one of the challenges was that he would go up to people and he would say, let’s see who has bigger biceps. This was a point of pride for him. So he was… He was absolutely a very, very powerful guy.
Brett McKay: And some of these challenges too, he would do naked, like he’d go to a jail and is like, I’ll strip from my clothes and you can search me and I’ll do this escape act in the buff, and even back then people were like, this is pretty weird. And even Houdini, he was kind of a prude, he wasn’t… But he was willing to do that.
Joe Posnanski: Well, it just shows you the ambition of Houdini… It came across the idea at one point, somebody had said, “Well, he’s just hiding keys.” I’m sure more than one person said that. He’s just hiding them. And he said, I’m not hiding them and I can prove it, I would do an escape naked, I’m absolutely… I am not hiding any keys, and at some point, the challenge came and he did it naked, and then he realized that this was something that… It’s weird, but there was a real power to him doing these escapes naked. So he went to a photo studio in St. Louis and took photos of himself in chains, this is the ones that people have undoubtedly seen, they’re some of the most famous photos in American pop culture history of him in chains basically just wearing just a bathing suit of some kind. He’s almost entirely naked. And this is what he would do, he would always say, okay, just strip me down, and because he knew that whatever his secrets were, they did not have anything to do with him hiding a key in a pocket or something like that. He had his own methods, and so he was willing to do whatever it was taken, and it was… He was not opposed… Even though he was a prude, he was not opposed to being a little bit scandalous if it meant getting a bigger audience.
Brett McKay: So he had a lot of famous escape acts, he had the… Just basically handcuffs. There’s a lot of handcuffs challenges that are really famous. What was his most famous escape act, and do we still know… Do we know how he did it?
Joe Posnanski: Well, there are a couple of escape acts that in my mind are the most famous. I think most people would tell you that the most famous escape for him was the water torture cell, which he invented, and essentially he would be taken by the ankles and be put in, strapped in, lifted up and dropped upside down into a tank filled with water, and then they would lock the top of it, and Houdini would escape from this water torture cell and that was his most famous. It is the one that you still see people do some version of today, and the answer is we kind of do know how he did it, I don’t really write about that, I do mention something in the book that might interest people about that, but we kinda know how he did it, but the one that interested me the most as I was writing about this book, is a very famous escape, it’s just a pure handcuff escape, but a very famous escape called The Mirror Cuffs, which was much more than 100 years ago, it was 1906 or 1904.
And essentially, these were handcuffs that were brought to him by the Daily Mirror, the newspaper in London, and they were supposedly built by this great locksmith who had spent five years trying to build the most inescapable handcuffs ever built, and it’s a very, very famous story about him wanting… Trying to refuse the challenge, but then of course, accepting it and going on stage, and him being on stage for essentially an hour and a half doing various different things, and he keeps coming out, he used to do all of his escapes behind a curtain or inside something he would call a little ghost house, he had a little place on stage so people couldn’t see him, and three or four times during this act, he came out and people cheered, but he wasn’t out of the cuffs, he came out once to ask for a pillow, and he came out once saying he needed lights, and anyway, it was a very involved escape, and eventually he gets out and the place goes absolutely crazy, and it might be the most famous escape in magic history, and that one is super cool because we don’t know how he did it. There are many, many people that have come up with theories about it, including me, but we don’t know for sure, and we never will know for sure, and Houdini himself never told anybody, or if he did, it was something that he told them to keep secret to the grave.
One of my favorite little stories about The Mirror Cuffs, which still exist, you can’t see them because David Copperfield has them in his museum in Las Vegas, which is not open to the public, but it is open to researchers. A few people have been there. I was there, I got to see it. It’s incredibly cool, but there’s a very famous story about them that his wife got The Mirror Cuffs after he was gone, and a magician came over and said, oh, they’re The Mirror Cuffs, can I open them? And she said, no, nobody ever opens them. They’re never to be opened. And so I’ve always loved that. That to me is really cool that there’s still this mystery from more than 100 years ago that still exists today.
Brett McKay: So one of the themes that you see throughout your book, and I think you did a good job capturing is the ambition of Harry Houdini and this guy he was making money hand over fist, and one of the most famous people in the world, but yet he lived a really modest lifestyle, people describe him as dressing like a bum, his taste in food were really simple. So if it wasn’t money, what was driving Houdini his entire life?
Joe Posnanski: Well, what’s interesting is he was interested in money, but not interested in it for money’s sake, he just wanted to be the highest paid, that was incredibly important, and he had terrible fights with promoters throughout his life because he felt like they were cheating him, they weren’t giving Houdini his fair due. So he wanted money, but he didn’t care for money, he wanted fame because that’s how it related to money, and so his ambition for fame was… It was utterly insatiable. There was no amount of fame that he could get that was enough, and not only that, there was no amount of fame he could reach where he didn’t have a constant and persistent fear that he was gonna lose it. This was his thing. And so when he had his money, he would spend so much of it on promoting himself, that was where so much of his money went. He also spent a lot of money on magic books, magic tricks. He was a tremendous collector, not only of magic, but mostly of magic, but also other things, he was always a scrap book keeper, it’s kind of an interesting elements of him as a little bit of an amateur historian, but most of the money he would spend, he would spend on making sure that he was even more famous next week.
And so he was constantly out there trying to get reporters to do more things about him, he was constantly creating new and scarier illusions to try to get more famous. He went into the movies very early on in the silent film stage to try to get more famous. I think that was his… Maybe it was, I was gonna say, I wouldn’t say that it’s the only thing, but maybe it was, he had a singular ambition for fame, and I don’t know… I guess there are people that we could think of that are like that now, but there’s no question that what he wanted was for everybody to not only know Harry Houdini but to respect him and admire him and think of him as the greatest in whatever field he was in.
Brett McKay: He did a lot to contribute to the celebrity culture that we have today. And this kind of ties into with the Babe Ruth connection, ’cause Babe Ruth, one of the reasons we know so much about him is that he had PR people who created this persona of the Babe, and Houdini did something similar, but he did it himself.
Joe Posnanski: That’s right. It’s really interesting because Babe Ruth did not really engineer his own fame, it was really the sports writers who did, and they did it because they loved the story, they loved the Babe, they loved the story and it made so much sense for them. They were out there trying to make a living as well, and people ate up Babe Ruth’s story, so that was a big part, but you’re right, with Houdini, it was all self-driven. As the years went on after his death, there have been many, many people who have picked up the… Picked up the banner, and of course, that’s a very big part of my book is writing about all of these people who have been fascinated by Houdini through the years, but when he was alive, that was him literally sending his clips to every newspaper in the country, making sure that he had advanced people in every town that would be able to tell him, how he was gonna break through in Boston or Washington or Philadelphia or New York or wherever he was going, and so, yeah, it was really self-driven for him.
Brett McKay: Something that happened later on in his career is he got into the business of debunking spiritualists. For those who aren’t familiar with spiritualism, can you give us a brief summary of the movement and then talk about Houdini’s involvement, ’cause he at one point, early on in his career he did… He dabbled in spiritualism.
Joe Posnanski: He did, he did. The Spiritualist movement is really fascinating, and there are many other books that I would recommend if people are interested in it, it’s very, very interesting. I give a very brief but hopefully interesting explainer of how spiritualism came about. It basically began with these sisters who claimed that they could talk to the spirit in their home, and they would do it through a series of knocks, where they would ask questions, and the spirit would respond with various knocks, and eventually they created a whole code and a way for the spirit to actually talk to them, and through these however many knocks they did or the pattern of the knocks, and this created quite a phenomenon, and this is well before Houdini, 20, 30, 40 years before he was even born. But this spiritualism is really what led directly to much of what Houdini did as an escape artist, which is a whole other element of this thing that’s kind of fun, is the idea of escaping from ropes and boxes and this sort of thing, actually began with spiritualism and shows that were not about escape, but more about trying to prove that spirits were with them when there was actually these people who had escaped from ropes and were actually doing the work themselves.
Anyway, this led to a huge movement, and obviously there has long been, and always will be, I suppose, this fascination of can we reach out to those we have lost? Can we reach out to the dead, and spiritualism was particularly powerful after traumatic tragic events, it was after World War I, which is when Houdini really was out there debunking and it had found a new life, it had found a new life, a big life after the Civil War, which is when it really started to become so big in America. So Houdini, when he was very young and a performer with his wife, he actually did a little bit of these seances where he would have claimed to be able to talk to these people’s dead relatives and asked them questions, and he… He was quite good at it because he would walk through cemeteries, and learn secrets, and talk to people in town, and find out things that he supposedly could never know. He was very good at that, but he hated it even from the very start, he felt like he was… This was… He was always fine with fooling people, he was always fine with convincing people something that wasn’t true, but it had to be to entertain, it had to be a positive thing.
And he felt like this was really taking advantage of people in pain, and so he really hated it. And then after his mother passed away through a long series of different things, it eventually led to him saying not only did he hate it and would never take part of it, but he felt like it was his responsibility to unmask all of these people, show how they did it, and prove that spiritualism did not exist and became a huge part of his show. It became a big part of his life. He actually spoke to Congress at one point about it. It was a very big part of the last few years of Harry Houdini.
Brett McKay: In typical Harry Houdini fashion, not only like… Yeah, he was definitely righteous about it, like he definitely was sincere about it, but this also helped his fame and celebrity.
Joe Posnanski: Yeah, well, and that’s the interesting thing when you look at Houdini’s career. Whenever he needed something, so he could stick it back on top, he found it. And so when the escape act started to lose a little bit of the audience, he really created this idea of death and danger in his act. And when that started to fade a little bit, although that never fully faded, but when it started to fade a little bit, he really did not have the success he wanted in the movies, this spiritualism thing, I think you said it exactly right, I think it was very legitimate, it was not an act, he wasn’t doing it just to be famous, but it did make him famous again, and there’s no question, he liked playing that up, so… Yeah, he was somebody who I think always did follow where his instincts took him, but those instincts also always took to putting him back on top in the entertainment world.
Brett McKay: Alright, so Houdini, I think people know how he dies, it’s sort of a myth or this sort of well-worn story. He… Take part in a challenge, some guys that I heard, you let anyone sock you in the stomach as hard as they can, and he gets punched in the stomach, wasn’t ready for it, and then a couple days later, he dies from the punch. Do we know if the punch is what did him in or was there some sort of underlying cause that the punch may have exacerbated?
Joe Posnanski: Yeah, I’m more on that line. I think he already had appendicitis and was already quite ill when the punch happened, but I do think it exacerbated it and yeah, it was really quickly afterward. And so when people say, did the punch kill him? My answer is sort of yes, but not because I think it created the peritonitis that eventually killed him. But I think he was so embarrassed by the fact that somebody’s punch could create pain that he simply refused to get treatment. If he had gotten treatment afterward, he would have, even in those days, with the medical knowledge they had then, they would have removed his appendix and he would have been okay. But he refused, he kept performing, and like you say, it was five, five, six days later, he was in Detroit and he was gone. So it was… I don’t think the punch itself created the thing that killed him, but I do think the punch was a very, very big part of his death.
Brett McKay: But how do you think the way he died, how did that influence his legacy?
Joe Posnanski: Well, there’s no question it had a huge influence. He died young, that’s always… That’s the James Dean theory, I think. Dying young is always going to sort of push the legacy. He died on Halloween, that’s… There’s something powerful about that. He died at a time when he was doing all of this spiritualism debunking, so death was so much a part of who he was anyway, and so it was… I think his death was a very, very big part of why he lived on. And to be the biggest part of why he lived on is because his wife, Bess, wouldn’t let him die. She basically spent the next 20 years after his death or more promoting Harry Houdini and eventually getting a movie made about him with Tony Curtis that gave him an all new life in the 1950s. So I think that’s the biggest reason. But yeah, dying in a weird way on Halloween when he was young and sort of still in his prime was definitely a big part of why he still matters.
Brett McKay: So in this book, you talked to magicians today, who all of them said at one point, like Houdini was the guy that got them into magic. They saw… They read a Houdini book when they were a kid, they saw a Houdini poster, and they were like, that’s what I’m gonna do. But all of them kind of concurred that Houdini wasn’t much a magician, he was okay. There were better magicians, but nonetheless, Houdini is still this archetypal magician. So how did this sort of okay magician become the archetypal magician?
Joe Posnanski: Well, I like what my friend, magician, Joshua J says. He said, “Is Bob Dylan the greatest performer, songwriter ever?” You could argue, maybe he is, you could argue maybe he isn’t. But there’s no question that the times were perfect for him. Coming up in the ’60s, exactly at that time in that world, when he could have that sort of stage was a big part of why Bob Dylan became something larger than life. And his argument is Houdini had the same thing, that he came along at exactly the right time, what he did, the escapes that he did made him… Had him stand out even at a time where there were better magicians, there was nobody who was Houdini, there was nobody who took up all the oxygen that Houdini did. And the way he spoke to people, the way his acts spoke to people was different. There were other people who were very famous magicians, but that’s what they were, and Houdini was not as easy to classify. So I think that’s a big part of it. The thing I find utterly fascinating and interesting is that so many of these magicians, exactly as you say, somewhere very, very early on in the process of them realizing that they were in love with this idea of creating magic, creating wonder, every one of them, just about, at some point, very early on, came upon Houdini because he is the most famous magician even now.
They came upon him, they came to understand him, and he was part of their journey into magic. Every one of them, I think, would say that somewhere along the way Houdini was there, but then as they get on in magic, they come to realize that laymen, which is what they call the rest of us, we’re the muggles, the ones that don’t know anything about magic. We all just think Houdini was the greatest everything. The average person thinks Houdini was the greatest magician because he’s the one magician you’ve heard of. So there’s a little resentment that comes along from this. There’s a resentment. So I got a lot of people in magic who said, oh, he was not only not a particularly good magician, he was a terrible magician. There are those that think he was actually a hack when it came to doing card tricks or doing various other illusions, and that he was not a magician at all, that he was a stuntman. And there’s a real resentment that builds up, and I think that’s just inevitable when you’re the biggest and you’re the most famous, and people just attach everything in magic to a certain person, the way that I think people do with magic and Houdini, I think that resentment is absolutely natural.
Brett McKay: And why do you think Houdini still captivates people today? And you talk… At beginning of the book, I love you just like count all the things that are named after Houdini in the popular culture. Why is that?
Joe Posnanski: Well, I think there are a bunch of different reasons, some that we’ve already gone over, the name and the way he died, and the fact that he was such a larger than life figure, the myth that he created, the way that we appreciate escape even now, and find ourselves enthralled by the idea of escape. But I think that there’s something that is sort of people… There are not a lot, there are… I don’t wanna say that it’s not a big community. There’s a community of people in America that love magic, but I think there are lots of people who like it, like magic. They’re not huge magic fans, but they’ll see magic on America’s Got Talent, or they’ll see a magician perform at their kid’s birthday party or something, and they’re like, this is fun. This is interesting and fun. And if you see a good magician, you don’t appreciate that really is an art form. At the highest levels, it’s an extraordinary art, but you don’t realize that. You’re just watching it. It’s just fun. It’s just fun stuff. And so, because I think so many people are drawn to that fun, Houdini’s the guy.
If you’re interested in magic, if you’re a kid and you’re interested in magic, the book in your school library is gonna be about Houdini. And the first person that somebody’s gonna say to you, you’re gonna say, oh, you know what? Magic is kind of cool. What’s the story with magic? They’re gonna be like, oh, well, let me tell you about Harry Houdini. He reached a level, I think, that makes him sort of synonymous with magic for so many people, and I know there are lots of people in magic who are not… They don’t love that. They wish that some of the other great magicians would get their say, and there are a lot of great magicians today, some that people know Penn and Teller and David Copperfield and David Blaine, and there are few that people know, and there are a bunch who are just extraordinary artists who do things that Houdini could never have dreamed of doing, who are completely or virtually unknown. And I think that that’s just sort of how it has to be. I think magic is something, it is a world all its own. But I think that for people who are just intrigued by it, who are just interested by it, which is kind of everybody or most people I know have at least some connection. Their uncle did magic tricks or something. They have some connection to magic, and for them it will always be Houdini. That’s just where Houdini placed himself.
Brett McKay: Well Joe, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Joe Posnanski: Well, the book they should be able to find everywhere, I hope. It’s called The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, and I think it is… You can get the paperback, you can get the hardcover, you can get the audio book, which is really good. I didn’t read it, so, it’s really good. As far as my work goes, I’ve got a book coming out this fall called The Baseball 100, whereas I went back to my world of sports and did a countdown of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players ever. It is a mammoth. It is 300,000 words. It is this mammoth book, as I tell the stories of these 100 players and hopefully tell the history of baseball through these 100 players. I’m online. I’m on Twitter at JPosnanski, and I’m a senior writer for The Athletic, so you can find me there as well. I’m around. I’m around, I think.
Brett McKay: Alright, well Joe Posnanski, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Joe Posnanski: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joe Posnanski. He’s the author of the book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, joeposnanski.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/Houdini where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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