(I know, you’re wondering if all I do is read. Not true! I work, too. Oh my, Opening Day can’t come fast enough for me so I’ll have something else to think about. Then spring, and with that maybe I’ll find a way to shed some of the heartbrokenishness that’s accumulated over the winter. Maybe.)
Some say that Houdini was a great escape artist, but not a great magician. Others argue that he was just as skilled as any other magician of his day. Undoubtedly he was a great entertainer. William Kalush and Larry Sloman, the authors of The Secret Life of Houdini (2006) would ask you to believe something else about Houdini—that he was a spy.
Houdini is one of those enduring names that people instantly recognize. Just as people who don’t know or care anything about sports still know that Babe Ruth had something to do with baseball, most people can connect Houdini with magic. There were other performers and magicians of the early 20th century who were popular and perhaps more accomplished than Houdini (Harry Kellar comes to mind) but they’ve long been forgotten. Houdini, though, is still here.
Kalush and Sloman want to add to the Houdini legend by introducing recently discovered material that connects Houdini to early Secret Service chief John Wilkie, and the first head of Britain’s MI-5 spy agency, William Melville. According to Kalush and Sloman, Houdini’s early career was floundering until he met Andy Rohan, a Chicago police officer. Rohan helped Houdini set up a performance at his station house, where Houdini performed several escapes in front of police officers, detectives, and members of the press. The event got Houdini much needed publicity and also established a valuable connection with Rohan, himself an amateur magician. Rohan helped provide entrée for Houdini to other police stations and chiefs around the country, where he performed similar publicity stunts. Rohan also introduced Houdini to Wilkie, another amateur magician. Wilkie had a history of using performers and magicians in Secret Service work, especially for tasks such as understanding counterfeiting, safecracking, and escapes. Kalush and Sloman aren’t completely clear on this, but they seem to imply that Wilkie connected Houdini with Melville. As a highly regarded performer, Houdini would be able to travel around Europe without suspicion and gather intelligence for Melville.
What Houdini exactly did for Britain or the U.S. as a spy is unclear; the authors point out that the spy agencies were in their early stages at the time and much of the communication between spies and spymasters was conducted orally. Written records were quickly destroyed. Houdini did perform all over Europe and spent a good deal of time in Germany and Russia. He had access to heads of state. He could observe armies and armaments. While it’s unlikely that Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas were carrying on discussions about building warships in front of a performer like Houdini, he could undoubtedly get a sense of the general temperament of the various courts.
This all seems very exciting, doesn’t it, the idea of Houdini as a spy! However, upon closer examination I don’t really think it’s that much. As previously noted, Wilkie had already been using performers to help him out in the U.S., and in fact, outright admitted in a 1908 Washington Post article that he recruited magicians. So Houdini was not only not the first, but in fact, one of many. Melville used magicians in his work, too, and also employed music hall performers as informants. During World War I, Houdini did aid the government by providing instruction for young American soldiers in subjects such as how to escape from the wreckage of torpedoed ships and how to break out of German-made handcuffs. Again, though, he was not the only one. A New York Times article discussed the U.S. government’s recruitment of magicians to help the war effort, resulting in the contributions of several magicians in areas such as cryptology, development of a type of invisible ink, and surveillance of possible German spies (I should mention that the authors refer to this New York Times article in the book’s text but the article isn’t cited in the book’s notes. Don’t worry, though, I hunted it down—it’s a 9/4/1917 article. Thank you, NY Times searchable archives!).
So the question is, I think, is it fair to call Houdini a spy? That he gathered some basic intelligence seems without question. But so did many others on a part-time, amateur basis. In WW II, Noel Coward did similar work for the British government due to his ability to move in high-level, international circles; Leslie Howard was also probably involved in some kind of intelligence work. The revelation that Houdini also provided intelligence for MI-5 is not, I think, an earthshaking one, but just another footnote in an already astounding life. To be honest, I suspect that Houdini’s police connections, provided by spymasters Wilkie and Melville, did more for his career than for the efforts of either intelligence agency.
And Houdini’s life was already pretty amazing. Most people are aware of Houdini’s famous escapes, but Kalush and Sloman do a fine job describing their complexity and the physical torture Houdini underwent during them; he may have had hidden keys and other tricks for breaking out of chains, boxes, and other containers, but that didn’t make the ropes any less tight and the irons any less sharp or heavy. The authors also cover Houdini’s foray into the world of aviation. An early adopter, he actually became the first person to fly an airplane in Australia! In general, Houdini always seemed willing to give new technologies a try. He made films of parts of his act as early as 1901, and his career as a film actor in the early 1920s (with results ranging from big hits to dismal flops) is also chronicled in detail by the authors. I guess all this type of curiosity is to be expected from a man who started out apprenticed to a locksmith.
Houdini had a virtual second career as a historian of magic and a debunker of false mediums and Spiritualists. He amassed a huge collection of theatrical and magic memorabilia and books and tried his hand at writing about magic. Some of these efforts fell flat; his attempt to write a history of magic turned into a mean-spirited diatribe against his original inspiration, the 19th century French magician Robert-Houdin (Houdini’s motivations and mistakes in this area are better discussed in Jim Steinmeyer’s excellent Hiding the Elephant than in Kalush and Sloman’s book). Houdini also wrote for magic and theater magazines, and his constant work with the Society of American Magicians shows his belief in his craft, the brotherhood of magicians, and the respect he felt they deserved for their skill.
Which brings us to debunking and Spiritualism. Houdini had an inside track on mediums and fakery as, early in his career, he and his wife had performed a spiritualist act. They did their work the same way as many other traveling mediums—they found out facts about people in the towns where they were performing and used those to make seemingly unknowable statements about those persons’ pasts, presents, and future. When a few of their predictions and descriptions of audience members’ lives hit too close to home, Houdini became uncomfortable with it and abandoned the act. He seemed to be genuinely disturbed by the idea that he could tell the eager audiences anything about their lives and their futures, that he could relay words from their beloved dead, and they would believe him. He felt that he was tampering with their lives and emotions in a way that was just morally wrong.
The Spiritualist movement was very popular in the late 1800s; the number of deaths in the Civil War undoubtedly contributed to people’s desperate willingness to believe in communication with the dead. Similarly, after World War I, Spiritualists also became headline news. People flocked to shows featuring mediums; those who could afford it paid considerable sums for private séances. Houdini went on a tireless crusade to unmask false mediums. He became friendly with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the leading proponents of Spiritualism, using Doyle to gain insight into Spiritualists, their techniques and beliefs. Doyle eagerly helped him out because he was convinced that Houdini was actually magic, with untapped medium abilities. Houdini performed various tricks typical of mediums for Doyle, explaining how they worked in an effort to show Doyle how silly it all was, but either comically or sadly, Doyle always walked away from these acts seeing only the parts that helped prove his theories about Houdini’s latent Spiritualist gifts. Kalush and Sloman’s account of Houdini’s anti-Spiritualist crusade focuses heavily on Houdini’s relationship with Doyle (who comes off as a bit of a nut) and Houdini’s zealous attempts to take down one medium in particular, a Boston woman who went by the name of Margery. Kalush and Sloman had access to previously undiscovered material held by Margery’s family and write about this episode with a great deal of detail. The most astonishing part of this story, though, is not the efforts of Houdini to prove Margery’s fakery or the way she fought back; it is the way people of the time seemingly wanted to believe in her more than him. Unfortunately, I think it would be the same way now.
Kalush and Sloman’s research is by far the most impressive part of this book. The material available to Kalush and Sloman—the new spy information, the material about Margery, Houdini’s own astounding life—should have made for a fantastic biography. However, I have two major, major problems with this book.
The first chapter opens with a conversation between two of Houdini’s assistants and Houdini as they prepare to practice an escape in which Houdini is buried alive. Here’s the problem. We know the authors weren’t there listening in on the conversation. We know they didn’t talk to any of the parties involved. The notes (and we’ll get to that issue later) reveal that this is based on two of Houdini’s own accounts of his preparations for this stunt, as published in Collier’s and Popular Science, about ten years after the events. But it’s not Houdini’s words that are quoted in this book—this is a dramatization of Houdini’s magazine stories, as rewritten by the authors. This book is supposed to be a biography, but re-imagined conversations and scenes such as this would be more appropriate in Houdini: the Novel. And that makes me really, really annoyed. I mean, I guess that the authors thought that this style would draw in readers and be easier to get into than quotes from primary sources, but I find it really creepy and distasteful. I’m genuinely bothered by the idea that the authors are putting forth their own words and thoughts as those of the real people involved—real people, who apparently, left their own words for us to read. Obviously, authors of nonfiction can describe a place or a scene or an event, but they shouldn’t do it as if they were there and are recounting it in real time (am I making sense? Is this clear? I might not be, I realize). Maybe I’m old-fashioned on this, maybe I’m being too hard on the authors’ probable good intentions, but if I want to read a story about someone or some event, then I’ll read a story; if I want to read a true account, then I want to get a real portrait of the person or time, with real documents from that time, real source material, and notes telling me where all that information is from. No coy fake conversations, no made up scenes; the writers may be enamored of their own dramatic skills, but in most cases the best words on the subject of a biography (especially one as entertaining as Houdini) are often the subject’s own words.
Now to the notes. In the introduction, the authors write that they have documentation for everything in this book. That’s great! Unfortunately, since they had so many notes, they decided not to include them in the book—they’re online at the publisher’s website. This is singularly unhelpful, unless you plan to read this book sitting next to a computer. I’ve gone through some of the notes after the fact, but don’t have time to essentially reread the book or mark up every page I have a question about when I’m reading it away from a computer. It’s really inconvenient.
There are a few other things that bother me with this book. The authors barely mention Harry Kellar for about 300 pages, then suddenly refer to him as a father figure and mentor for Houdini, without really explaining much about this relationship. They completely neglect an important meeting that Houdini had with an elderly Ira Davenport, one of the earliest and most successful mediums, during which Davenport revealed many of his tricks to Houdini. These are minor things, though; the real problem for me, that prevents this biography from being excellent instead of merely okay, is the recreated conversations. I just don’t think they belong in a biography.
Houdini put just as much energy into his fight against the Spiritualists as he ever put into his great escapes. His relentless efforts were not just because of the mediums’ deception and the way they played upon vulnerable emotions but because of, I suspect, his search for the real thing. Houdini deeply felt the loss of his own loved ones and desperately wished for a way to contact them after their deaths. Houdini hated the fake mediums and the Spiritualists but I think that’s because he so wanted to believe in them.
I have long harbored a desire to be a magician’s assistant, but alas! for obvious reasons I have so far failed. I’m not sure why I want to do this. I don’t believe in magic magic, but I do believe in great performances and being part of a magician act is, I suppose, a chance to be part of something spectacular—to float in the air, to be cut into pieces, to vanish…