Houdini Master of Magic

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Potter & Potter. 

Harry Houdini was handcuffed, shackled around his ankles and lifted into a wooden regulation coffin.  The lid was screwed into place and the curtain on stage closed around the casket. 

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.
— Harry Houdini

Time passed. The curtain reopened and there stood Houdini in front of his Boston audience clothes disheveled, collar and tie gone, shirt ripped open, frizzy hair dusted with wood shavings and panting like a nervous dog.  The cuffs and manacles were still inside the sealed coffin.

smiled at the audience and applause flooded the room.  Silk top hats jiggled in the air in his honor. It took him 66 ½ minutes to escape.

“I was very tired after it was all over and the worry was as bad as the work,” he said.  “All the time I was in there I was thinking of death.” 

Some of his greatest challenges happened in front of Boston audiences and this 1907 trick was no exception.

“Coffin affair a great big success,” Houdini wrote in his diary.  “Created more talk than anything I have ever done in Boston.”

What is it about someone who re-enacts over and over his own death-defying captivity and in some cases entombment?  What’s the fascination?

Maybe for Harry Houdini, the most famous magician in the world, the exact moment of escape was the moment he felt most alive. 

"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." Houdini said.  

His flirtation with death kept spectators at the edge of their seats which is exactly where Houdini wanted them.  They became part of the drama. 

Houdini could be America’s first superhero.

The daredevil started out as a vaudeville magician and then specialized in escapes.  He was the short, muscular, obsessed guy who beat the odds through a compulsive drive to succeed.  He was obsessed with his mother.

“If God ever permitted an angel to walk the earth in human form, it was my mother,” he said.  His obsession with exposing fake mediums was fueled by finding a real medium who could put him in touch with her.

Houdini billed his vaudeville act as “The Impossible Possible.”  Born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874, he came to Appleton, Wisconsin as a child in his mother’s arms.  His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss was Appleton’s first rabbi.

During the early-20th century people didn’t think of Houdini as a magician at all.  He was an escape artist.  He was the guy who got out of jail, swam to the surface after being nailed in a box and tossed into the river.  He was the showman who wriggled out of a straight jacket while dangling upside-down from a building. Tricks like this made Houdini famous. 

In the end, he was a mythic figure who refused to be confined.  

Handcuff King, escape artist and most famous entertainer of his era, Houdini’s life has been immortalized in books, film and television. 

On April 27, 2019, The Magic collection of Ray Goulet, Boston magic shop and museum owner and collector went on the block at Potter & Auctions.

Here are some current values from the auction.

Harry Houdini

Cinema Trade Card; 4 ½ inches by 3 inches;  $180.

Souvenir Tour Program; pictures Houdini staring at a viewer; 1925;  $330.

Key; from his collection; together with photo; 14 ½ inches by 21 inches;  $1,020.  

Stanhope Lens Viewer; miniature telescope; reveals grouping of Houdini images; French; circa 1911; 1 ½ inches long;  $1,140. 

Key and signed playing card; Houdini owned; framed in shadowbox with later handcuffs and photo;  $2,400.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

Eric Sloane's Nostalgic Renderings

Eric Sloane's Nostalgic Renderings

Abolitionist John Brown Revisited

Abolitionist John Brown Revisited