Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery (2005) - full transcript

A look back at the life of Harry Houdini, including an auction of his most prized trick props and possessions.

No locks could hold
him, no tomb could keep him,

no audience could resist him.

He was Harry Houdini, the
greatest magician and escape

artist of all time, taking his
audience on a heart stopping

ride with his superhuman
stunts and death defying feats.

More than just a vaudeville
magician with a bag of parlor

tricks, Houdini was an outsized personality

the likes of which the
world had never seen.

Brashly challenging his audience to find

a restraint, any restraint,
that could hold him.

Nothing could hold Harry Houdini,

and no one knew how he did it.

Now nearly 80 years after his death,

a one of a kind public auction
of Houdini's magic memorabilia

offers the faithful and the curious

a glimpse of the secrets he left behind.

-== [ www.OpenSubtitles.com ] ==-

Hi, I'm Lance Burton.

Welcome to my theater at
the Monte Carlo Casino

in Las Vegas.

As a kid, I couldn't get
enough of Harry Houdini and all

his great escapes and daring stunts.

Over the next two hours, we
will explore the remarkable life

of this Hungarian immigrant, who
rose from poverty at the turn

of the 20th century to become
a cultural sensation the likes

of which the world had never seen.

What a story it is, and what
a legacy he left behind.

Nobody can tell you who
the president was in 1926.

Nobody can tell you what
news was happening in 1926,

or what happened 3/4 of a century ago,

but mention to any schoolchild
who is the greatest magician,

and they'll all say Houdini.

We all stand on the
shoulders of the giants that

come before us.

Houdini's stock in trade was escapes.

He could get out of anything.

He starts getting out of jails
all over the United States,

jails in Europe, sometimes
he does it naked it

so that people can see that he's not

hiding any keys or anything.

He starts getting out
of handcuffs, leg irons.

And his escapes electrified audiences.

When Houdini was on stage,
you could hear a pin drop.

He could make an audience do
anything he wanted the audience

to do.

I think America was bound up.

America felt restrained, felt
jailed to a certain degree,

and he was the guy that could
get out of any handcuffs,

any jail cell.

There were no limits and it allowed people

to kind of fantasize and dream.

I think the big appeal was
just doing the impossible.

I mean, doing something that
really couldn't have been done.

He certainly played for huge audiences.

His outdoor straight jackets
brought maybe 100,000 people

to watch him.

The very idea of doing it upside down

is completely wacky.

I mean, who would have thought to do that?

Hang yourself upside down.

He would be hanging by his ankles,

hanging from, I don't know,
a flagpole, a derrick,

something stuck out of a
window on the 10th floor

of a skyscraper.

And then he would wriggle
and wriggle and wriggle,

and if you were in the crowd, you could

watch him shaking like an eel.

Watching Houdini, this small guy,

who came up from absolutely nothing,

be there in the middle of
the streets of Washington DC

hanging off the Treasury Building

and liberating himself and
flinging his arms wide.

That can't help but give
you just the gut sensation

of liberation and freedom.

Houdini put himself at peril.

It was the hallmark of his act.

The famous milk can escape
actually entombed him in water

for seemingly impossible lengths of time.

Houdini would be in the milk can

under water for what, two
minutes, three minutes.

Meanwhile, the audience was mesmerized just

looking at the curtain.

But perhaps his most horrifying stunt

was his most famous, the
Chinese water torture.

The torture cell was a
murder device, you know?

I mean, it's like who would
come out of that alive?

So it's more than just
torture, it's execution.

The water torture cell, the milk can,

the straight jackets, the
hundreds of handcuffs.

When Harry Houdini died in
1926, his magic collection

was left in the hands of
his brother Theo Hardeen.

According to Houdini's
will, these treasures

of magic history were to be
destroyed upon his brother's

death obliterating for all
time the secrets of Houdini's

great escapes.

Instead, they were passed
to Sydney H. Radner, once

the young protege of Houdini's brother.

For more than 60 years,
Radner has steadfastly

held onto those secrets.

Now, for the first time, he will release

this priceless collection in
the great Houdini auction.

Hundreds of collectors
gather at the Liberace Museum

in Las Vegas to bid on Houdini's legacy.

What price will they pay
for a chance to unlock

the secrets of the most
legendary magician of them all,

Harry Houdini?

Strait-jacket, 372.

$5,000, I got for it.
$7,500 I got for it.

$10,000 now is enough?
$12,000, yes or no? $12,000.

I got $12,500.

And one $12,500.



He's in. $13,500 you're going
to make it now. $13,500?

You've got to give him $13,500.

Going to make it now. $13,500.

35! $13,500.

Sell it to James' bidder at $13,500.

Number 902.


Thanks for bidding.

Long before he was Harry Houdini,

legendary magician, he was
Erik Weisz, the third child

in a sprawling family of
six boys and a baby sister.

He was born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary

to Cecilia and Meyer Weisz,
and came with his family

to the new world at age four.

His father, a rabbi, had
been given a congregation

in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Four years later, Rabbi
Weisz was dismissed.

The congregation
apparently didn't like him,

partly it seems because he used
a lot of German in his speech.

Erik and his family
were plunged into poverty

as his father searched for work.

Houdini later said in an interview,

we had four addresses in three years.

He said, such hardships
became our lot that I really

don't want to talk about
it, and he actually wept.

The Weisz's moved to New York in 1888

to an East side tenement.

Erik took odd jobs to help the family.

Erik Weisz went out in
his messenger boy outfit,

and he made a sign for the hat.

put a dime in the messenger boy's hat.

And he came back with a lot of money,

and he hit it all over his clothes.

And he said to his mother, shake me.

And she shook him and the
money fell down to the floor,

and he said, see, I'm magic.

He was introduced to
magic by the traveling circuses

that came through town.

He became obsessed with how
these illusions were performed.

In his spare time, he lifted
weights to build his physique

and worked to develop acrobatic skills.

By the time he was about 14, he

was reading every book he could
get his hands on about magic.

To earn money for his
family, Erik worked as a cutter

in a necktie factory.

He was about 15 years old, and
the boy who worked next to him

was about 18.

I'm reading this book by a
magician named Robert Houdin.

The French born conjurer

Robert Houdin revolutionized
magic in the mid 1800s

and inspired a new breed of magician.

What Robert Houdin did was that he took

magic out of the realm
of the kind of ephemeral

perhaps spiritual perhaps
religious, and he said,

there are scientific reasons
for why this is going on.

Robert Houdin said that magic
was going to be a performance.

It was in a theater and it had
a scientific basis behind it.

And his idea was never
forget I'm not a magician,

but I'm an actor playing a magician.

Erik thought that the name
Robert Houdin was pronounced

Robert Houdeen, and he said to Jacob,

I want to be just like Robert Houdin.

And Jacob said, well, you know,
if you add an I to Houdin that

would mean like Houdin in French.




Harry came from a corruption
of his real name Erik.

As a boy, Erik, he was
called by his friends Ehri,

and that easily enough,
naturally enough, became Harry.

Houdini partnered
with his friend Jacob calling

themselves the Brothers Houdini.

They picked up work in
circuses and sideshows,

but they needed something
to set them apart,

something that would amaze
audiences, something that would

bring them success.

And so they created an act
they called Metamorphosis.

They closed the act with
Harry having his hands tied

and then being tied in a
sack, and then the sack

is locked in a box.

And they pull a cabinet around
it, and in the count of 1,

2, 3, they change places.

So now Harry is out of
the box and the box is all

tied up and locked and they untie the box,

and they unlock the box,
and they open it up.

And there's the bag, and
the bag is still tied.

And they untie the bag,
and there is Jacob Hyman

and his hands are tied.

So that was their big effect.

It was called the metamorphosis.

As Houdini was finally
finding some success on stage,

off stage he faced a devastating blow.

His 63-year-old father was dying of cancer.

He promised his father on
his father's death bed he would

take care of Mom for the rest of
his life, and he certainly did.

The Brothers Houdini,
now with Harry's real brother

Hardeen, took to the road
making money to send home,

but it wasn't long before
another woman entered his life.

Harry met a girl named Beatrice Rahner,

and she was doing a song and dance act.

Rosabelle, I think, was the song

that she was singing with
the sister act she was

in before Houdini met
her, and so that song had

this sort of very romantic quality to them.

There was a maiden
sweet Rosabelle, the fairest

of all that I know.

All the beauties of heaven
and the riches here below.

They fell in love at first sight,

and I believe that Harry
Houdini and Beatrice Rahner were

married 21 days after
they met, June 22, 1894.

He was 20, Bess was just 18.

They traveled together working
circuses and dime shows

for little pay.

For entertainers, playing
the dime museum circuit

was the first or last stop.

Houdini started off in the
lowest rungs of show business

when he was in his late
teens, so-called dime museums,

which were sometimes called freak shows.

You would have people coming through

to see something amazing,
to see something wonderful,

whatever that might be,
and that can be all the way

from any sort of freaks to things found

at the ends of the Earth, to
performances that people would

put on.

Among the entertainers was Harry Houdini,

performing 9 to 14 shows a day
with the tiny and nimble Bess.

Metamorphosis was their signature act,

and Houdini was constantly
refining it, switching starting

positions with Bess, or tying his hands

to make it harder to escape.

But when he began inviting
audience members to restrain

him in handcuffs, he
discovered a novel twist

that would launch him from the dime museums

onto the world stage.

Harry Houdini was traveling from town

to town performing his signature
handcuff, rope, and trunk


Enlisting spectators from
the audience and members

of the local police, he
challenged them to lock him

in their best cuffs.

In a few moments, he would escape.

The bold stunt made headlines
wherever he went and launched

Houdini from the lowly
dime museums and circuses

to the vaudeville stage.

He was in St. Paul, Minnesota,
and a show business legend,

the producer Martin Beck,
happened to see his act.

Vaudeville tycoon
Martin Beck controlled a chain

of theaters that extended from
Chicago to the Pacific coast.

He said, you know, I think
you're a rotten showman.

You do all this stuff with the pigeons

and the rabbits and all this
little magic and nobody cares.

The handcuff thing you
do and that box trick you

and your wife do, now if you
just concentrated on that,

I could make you a headliner.

Beck made good on his promise.

It was 1899 and Houdini was 25.

His life was about to change.

No more small town one night stands.

Next stop, vaudeville,
Chicago, Kansas City, Denver,

and San Francisco.

Vaudeville was now a new
form of really basically middle

class entertainment.

It was something that
was just for the masses

rather than people who are sophisticated,

and that would be a group of
entertainers, 10, 12 at a time,

different acts would come to
a town and do their shtick.

There would be a singer,
a dancer, a dog act.

You'd have trained rats and cats.

You'd have a guy who got out
with like a big inflatable

rubber owl and would
squeeze it so that he'd

like to play the Star
Spangled banner that way.

Vaudeville made a
wonderful platform for magic.

Houdini's act fit in perfectly.

Houdini immediately became
a great hit in vaudeville.

After I think only maybe two years,

he was the highest paid
entertainer in vaudeville.

He was getting more money than anyone else.

I think about $1,500 a week.

He could name his own venue.

There were times where
he played the Hippodrome.

There'd be 6,000 people there, and he did

walk with whoever he wanted to.

Houdini fed off the applause

from the packed houses, and
as Martin Beck predicted,

his new handcuff trick was the big draw.

He would challenge people
to bring their own handcuffs.

I want police handcuffs.

I want antique handcuffs.

Bring me whatever you
have, and he would escape.

He escaped from the
most complicated handcuffs

in the world.

Some of them had double,
triple locks on them.

They were as complicated as safes.

He would be put in 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6 pairs of handcuffs

on his wrists and then
they'd put some manacles

on his ankles, and then they'd
handcuff the ankle manacles

to the wrist cuffs.

And then he would go into a little cabinet,

and while he was in the cabinet,
he would talk to the audience.

And in varying lengths of time,
it could be a few seconds,

it could be hours, he would
come out, and he would be free.

These are rare Rankin
white metal with patina,

non-adjustable half-moon handcuffs,

and you'll say $2,500?

$2,500, you going to make it now?

You're going to make it now
$3,500 in the net. $4,000.

Thank you, sir.

Sold at $4,000, sir.

Have a lot of fun with those.

Houdini never revealed
the secret of his handcuff

escapes, but the mystery
begins to unravel looking

at the hundreds of keys
and lock picks on display

at the auction.

Theories abound about how Houdini

came by his knowledge of locks.

There are stories that he
apprenticed with a locksmith,

or that he learned at a tool and die shop.

This much is known.

Houdini had a masterful understanding

of the interior of locks.

The secret in getting
out of handcuffs and locks

is knowing what they look like inside.

You have to be able to visualize
the inside of the lock just

to know what you're doing in there.

Houdini knew what they looked like inside,

and how they operated the
way that, gee, I don't know,

a batter or something knows
screwballs and fastballs,

can recognize a lot of different pitches.

The fact that he got
out of handcuffs was real.

There was nothing fake about it.

The fake was where did he hide the key?

Among Houdini's effects when he

died was a pouch, his
leather pouches numbered,

must be 30, 40, 50 of them.

Some people believe that he used
the pouches as a filing system

for his lock picks, so that
any kind of lock that presented

itself, he would be able
to get to the kind of pick

that he needed.

How did he know that if some
police sergeant put on him

a certain kind of cuff he needed
this particular pick to get out

of it?

He was able to know and he
was able to somehow probably

suggest it to his assistants
or to somebody what

his system was.

When Houdini was a
kid, he lost a few teeth.

He was trying to do an act
known as the Iron Mouth Act.

That's where you have a
special contraption that

fits inside your mouth
and it kind of form fits,

and the circus performer hangs from that,

and they spin around, and
they do all this stuff.

And he was a little boy and he thought

all you did was clamp your
teeth on a rope and hang on,

and so he lost a few teeth.

And so he did have a dental plate,

and he would take out this plate and it

had a secret compartment,
and that that was his secret.

Houdini learned exercises
by which he could swallow

say a small ball or a small
egg or something like that

and bring it up again.

Some people think that he
later used that to swallow

and to bring up keys.

The lock pick collection.

And, Ivan, how many dollars for those?

And what's your pleasure for it and go,

and a $5,000 bidding go.

$5,000. $7,500?

$10,000 now.

It's only money.

$13,000 we got. $14,000.

You've got to give him $14,000.


$15,000 here and
now. $15,000 where?

Any more than $14,000?
$14,000 for it.

Hammer's coming down.

Internet's out.

You own it, sir. $14,000.

But while Houdini
may have had ingenious methods

of hiding and using lock picks,
he had other methods of escape.

When you got eight or nine people coming up

with different handcuffs or leg irons,

and you take the handcuffs that
you can get out of the easiest,

and you have them put them on your wrist.

And the ones you can get
out of the next easiest

right next to them, and so on.

But the ones you would have difficulty with

are further up your arm.

After you get the easy ones off, the others

can be slid off because
they're up higher on your arm.

He said, I'm short.

He said, I use them.

I use everything I have.

Houdini's legs were kind of bowed

as if he had had rickets
when he was a baby.

And when they would tie ropes
or chains around his legs,

he would have his legs perfectly
straight, which was bowed.

But after they had finished tying him up,

then he squeezes them together
and the ropes go slack.

As Houdini's reputation grew,

he grew even more daring,
performing even more difficult

and thrilling escapes.

He wants to escape from
every form of imprisonment,

from jails, which he does
many times, jails in Boston,

jails all over the United States.

He starts to know a lot of
sheriffs and police sergeants,

and he keeps lists of the
police all over the world.

In July of 1899, Houdini

created a provocative
twist for his jail escape.

He allowed himself to be
locked behind bars wearing just

a loincloth, as if to prove
he wasn't hiding anything.

Somehow he gets out of the jail cell,

then he takes every prisoner
out of every other jail cell,

and puts them all in different jail cells

and recovers his clothes
from yet another jail cell,

and makes it out of the cell
block and out of the prison.

There's probably something
a little racy about the fact

that Houdini did most of that in the nude.

By spring of 1900, Houdini was again

ready for something new.

His manager Martin Beck
hired an international agent

to book Houdini into
the big European cities.

He billed himself as the King
of Handcuffs and set sail

for London.

He arrived to discover not a
single show had been booked

and no one knew who he was.

But Houdini was resourceful, and when

the manager of the Alhambra Theater in tow,

he marched into the local
office of Scotland Yard.

Here is this instinctive showman,

and he went on down to Scotland Yard,

and they introduced themselves
to Superintendent Melville.

And Superintendent Melville took
a pair of British handcuffs,

and he locked Houdini's arms
around a pillar, and said,

we'll be back for you
in an hour, young man.

This is what we do to Americans
who come over here and get

into trouble.

And Houdini stepped away from the pillar,

the cuffs were opened in his hand,

and he said, I'll go with you.

This is how we Americans get free.

Houdini was instantly booked

for a week at the Alhambra.

His show was extended
and then held over again.

During the next five years, Houdini

toured Britain and the continent,

escaping from jail cells during the day

and playing to packed houses at night.

Pretty good, he wrote
for dime museum Harry.

From Houdini's great tour of Europe one

escape stands above all the rest.

I have in my collection the mirror cuffs,

which are a very, very
famous set of handcuffs.

He was challenged to escape from
these handcuffs that took years

to make.

It had 13 tumblers, pins they
call them in that kind of lock,

and the lock was shaped like
a letter B. So the bar is here

and his hands are like this,
and this guy locks Houdini

in the cuffs, and Houdini
said, I have been locked

in a pair of handcuffs, which
it has taken a British mechanic

five years to make.

I do not know whether I can escape or not,

but I can assure you I'm going to try.

With that, Houdini
slipped behind his curtain

and began working on setting himself free.

He didn't appear for 5
minutes, 10 minutes, 15

minutes, 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the audience was mesmerized just

looking at the curtain.

And finally, after 25 minutes, he

came out and asked for a glass of water.

He asked the guy to take the handcuffs off

because his coat was
cramping his movements,

and the guy said, Mr. Houdini,
I can't unlock these cuffs

for you.

This is a challenge, and so
Houdini then gets a penknife

out of his waistcoat pocket.

And he pulls his frock
coat up over his head

and he slices it to ribbons
and cuts it off his body,

and goes back into his
little house to work.

All eyes in the packed house

were on the motionless curtain.

Minutes, then an hour ticked
by as Houdini worked his cuffs.

After he worked on them for a while,

his wife Bess came out on the
stage and gave him a kiss,

and some people believe that
she passed the key or the pick

to him when they kissed.


Then, the orchestra began
playing a stirring march.

Houdini had been in the
cabinet exactly one hour

and 7 minutes by this time.

All right, and just as we're
getting to the last few bars

of the stirring march, bum bum pa bump.

He comes out with the
cuffs off, and these people

have been looking at
the cabinet for the most

part for an hour and 10
minutes and they went crazy.

I mean, I think at the
moment that he came out

with those cuffs off they
were ready to walk out.

They had reached their breaking
point, but he knew that.

And he comes out with
the super cuff defeated,

and the paper reported the
men stood on their chairs

and the women waved their handkerchiefs,

and strangers hugged each other.

I mean, it sounds like the
night that Ali beat Foreman.

Was the curtain hiding a trick,

was something hidden in the
passionate kiss between husband

and wife?

Surprisingly, no one asked.

Houdini had the audience
just where he wanted them,

in the palms of his magical hands.

Will Rogers told this wonderful story.

He said, I was working
with Houdini at a theater,

and Houdini had been challenged
by the local chief of police

to get out of this
special pair of handcuffs.

Well, he has the handcuffs locked on,

and he goes into his little cabinet,

and the orchestra plays.

And every once in a while
Houdini would come out,

and he'd look at the handcuffs in the light

and he'd study them, then he
go back into his little house.

And Will says, what he was really doing

was sizing up that audience.

Nobody could ever do
that better than Houdini.

Well, anyway, it was about
an hour and 10 minutes

and finally Houdini came
out, and he had the cuffs off

and the audience went crazy.

And Will had been waiting
offstage with his horse

to do his roping act.

He said, I might as well have rode my horse

back to the stable as rode it
out there on that stage for all

they cared.

Wherever he went,
Houdini electrified audiences,

but his biggest and most
daring stunts lay just ahead.

Between 1890 and 1920, 12 million people

poured into the US from
every corner of the globe

seeking a better life.

But in cities like New York,
they found crowded tenements

and dangerous or dead end jobs.

They dreamed of escape, and
Houdini, the escape artist,

became a symbol of liberation.

Back in those days, everyone needed

to escape from their problems.

It was kind of not the
greatest time in the world,

and he was this guy that
could do everything.

Could get out of any jail
cell, get out of any handcuffs,

would meet the challenge.

So the idea of that, the
whole symbol of that, I think,

was quite brilliant and quite great.

Any spectacle that engages and captures

the imagination of people says something

to them about themselves.

I mean, it holds up a giant
mirror, and it reverberates.

Having liberated himself from
every kind of handcuff and jail

cell, Houdini sought new
challenges for his escape act.

Houdini was in Halifax,
Nova Scotia in 1896,

and he visited an insane asylum.

And he observed a patient trying
to get out of the straitjacket.

And he decided that, gee, that would be

great to use as a performance.

The buckled and belted restraint

bound a man like a mummy.

And in 1899, this straitjacket escape

became the highlight of
Houdini's vaudeville act.

He'd go into his little cabinet

and come out 15 minutes
later looking pretty terrible

with his collar all askew.

But people began to think
that maybe there was a trap

door there, and then assistant
came out of the trap door

and helped him.

the stunt, suggested an
even more dramatic way

to perform the escape.

He said you'll get better results with it

in full view of the audience.

The audience could see
him struggling to get out

of the straitjacket instead of
struggling privately inside.

The challenge to a straitjacket

is mostly to make it
interesting to get out of.

Because getting out of a straitjacket

is little more than sort of wiggling a lot.

Showmanship played
a big role in this routine.

Let's put it this way, you know,

he made it look harder
than it sometimes was.

But that's good.

That's part of showmanship.

You had to feel the sweat,
you had to feel the blood,

you had to feel the idea that
whatever he was doing on stage

in order to entertain you, he
was going to get out even if it

almost killed him.

When you saw the evidence on the other side

with his collar frayed
and literally blood coming

from his palm sometimes, and
stumbling and unable to talk,

you felt like this was a guy
who had given you your money's


With worldwide success
came a new set of problems.

By the time he played
at Los Angeles in 1907,

they'd had 50 imitators doing his act,

and he has a very, very
difficult time bringing

in the people.

worth a $5 bill to me,
and this was killing him.

Houdini knew he needed
an escape that would be too

terrifying to imitate.

He drew his inspiration
from his most intense fear.

Houdini nearly drowned swimming

in the Fox River near
Appleton, where he grew up.

Many of his greatest feats have
to do with escaping from water,

and possibly the need
to keep showing himself

that he was able to escape death.

The trick was risky
and would require a great deal

of practice.

Houdini had an oversized bathtub

where he could lie under
the water and stretch out.

Houdini practiced holding his breath,

covering himself with water, and
seeing how long he could stay


I think he managed to do it for 3 minutes.

Houdini was 33 years old when he introduced

the first of his great
water stunts in 1907.

He called it the Milk Can
Escape and proclaimed it

the best I have ever invented.

In this footage from the
1950s television program

"You Asked For It," magician Leo Herby

reenacts Houdini's famous milk can escape.

You'd see in the middle
of the stage a milk can,

the lid would be attached
to the top of the milk can

by several locks, and usually Houdini

had members of the
audience bring the locks.

The locks were not in any way gimmicked.

It was large, but he was a small man,

and the can looked small beside him.

And when it was filled with water

and he squeezed in with water pouring

over the sides of the top, he barely

seemed to be able to
squeeze his body into it.

His genius for theatrics

was as much a part of the act.

Houdini would put a big clock on the stage

so the audience could see how
long he had been underwater.

He would have himself lowered
in, and he would squeeze in,

and before he submerged his head,

he would tell the audience, I'm
going to test the audience's

ability to hold its breath for 1 minute.

So the audience could feel
what he was experiencing

down there when they let out their breath

or had to take their next breath.

They would know that that's
the point that they would die

if they were in the tank.

and they lock handcuffs on his hands

and he plunges under the water again.

They pour water over his head so
it's filled up to the very top.

They put the top on, and
they padlock the padlocks,

and they pull the cabinet around it.

You'll be sitting there and it would

get to be a minute, a
minute and 15 seconds, 20,

and if you were holding your breath,

Houdini would be in the milk can

under water for 2 minutes,
3 minutes, whatever it was.

And then suddenly you'd hear splash, clang,

and the assistants would
take away the screen,

and Houdini would be all wet and panting,

and the floor would be filled
with water that had overflowed

as he got out of the milk can.

And the milk can would still be
locked with the padlocks on it.

Of course, there was a trick to the escape.

After all, Houdini designed the can,

but the stunt was very real.

He was submerged in water.

It's very scary to do.

I mean, you really are in
the damn thing underwater

for some time, and it's very frightening.

OK, and the milk can.

Can I have how many dollars
for it? $5,000 I got for it.

$7,500 you got to make it not.

And $7,500.

Any oneThank you.

$10,000 I've got for
it. $12,500 and $15,000.

$15,000, $17,500? $20,000 you've
got to make it now $20,000.

Got to give him $20,
$20,000. $22,500.

And $25,000.

$25,000, and $27,500.

You got to make it 27 and 1/2.

You got to give him 27 and
1/2, yes or no? $30,000.

32 and 1/2.

Any more than $30,000?

You're all done at $30,000 for it.

Oh, $32,500.

You won't want to lose it.


37 and a 1/2, yes or no?

37 and a 1/2 you got to give.

All in and all out.

Any more than 35?

You're all done at
$35,000 for the milk can?

No contents, just the can.

He gets it, $35,000.

Houdini's most sensational escape

took the fear of entombment
one step further.

Privately, he referred
to it as the upside down,

but publicly called it
the Chinese water torture.

Houdini had this odd interest
in torture among the Chinese.

I mean, he had these
kind of snuff photographs

of Chinese men and women being tortured.

I suppose that partly was behind
his Chinese water torture cell.

1912, 1913, he comes up with
this water torture cell, which

is beyond the milk can because
we can see him underwater,

and it's just such a
biblical situation of live,

birth, death.

The tank stood only 5 and 1/2 feet tall

with a glass front to show
that nothing was hidden.

He'd be sitting on the floor,
and they put these stocks

around him, and then they pulled him

up over the top of the water torture cell,

and at the signal, he would
go down into the water torture

You cou

His hair would be sort of swimming around

and his mouth would be bubbling.

The torture cell presented

and possibly death.

The tension grew as the
transfixed audience watched

Houdini flailing in the water.

It looked as if there were
no possibility of escape.

He would be suspended
upside down in a tank of water

with no ability to curl up to get air

from the top of the tank.

Houdini set up everything
with the classic ingredient

of theater, which is conflict.

He had a man standing by with an ax

supposedly to break the glass in the event

that he hadn't succeeded
in escaping in time.

Houdini promised his audience

that he honestly and positively
did not expect anything

to happen, but then ominously
warned that accidents will

happen and when least expected.

All of this is really wonderfully hokey,

because after all, Houdini
built the water torture cell

for himself.

provided it is pretty ludicrous,
and yet, when you're there

in the scene, those things start to matter.

Those things start to add up.

You start to go along with the
fantasy of a guy standing there

with an ax ready to break the glass.

Well, maybe there is a risk
that he couldn't possibly

get out in time.

The audience bought into it.

People would panic and leave the theater.

Thousands watched Houdini
flaunt danger wondering

if this time, before their eyes,
the invincible escape artist

might finally fail.

It's not surprising that he would

go for the scariest possible stuff.

The joy of art is being able
to be in the jaws of death

without any risk.

When you're on a roller coaster, you

feel when you're at the
top of the roller coaster

like you're about to die.

And simultaneously you know
you're not about to die.

That's the greatest feeling in the world.

That's what art is about.

And that's what Houdini
was able to give us.

Take a look, guys.

It was the first year
that Houdini introduced

the water torture cell, and,
Ivan, how many dollars for it?

$2,500 all over
the house. $3,000.

I got $3,500 and $5,000,
and $6,000, and $7,000.

Back to you.

Anyone 65? $7,000 in time.

And 75 I got for it. $8,000
now and we're at $8,000.

I got 85.

Going to make it 85.

You got to give it $9,000.

You got to give it $9,000 now.

9, I got 95.

You going to make it now 95.

And $10,000?

Your money, yes or no?


I've gotten $10,500 you got to give.

Any more than $10,000?

Don't lose it for that.

Anyone, $10,000?

$10,000 for it, and
that is in, that is out.

All in and all out.

Sold at $10,000.

Thanks for bidding.

Great piece.

Bid number?


Thank you.

Who was this extraordinary man

with the insatiable need
for risk and near-death


What's so great about Houdini
is you're simultaneously

cheering for him to win and
cheering for him to lose.

You always had this double edge, because I

believe he was probably an
irritating little bastard.

He was somebody who knew
what he wanted, went after it,

and had this terrier-like
kind of, perhaps bulldog-like,

perhaps pitbull-like way of
going after things until he had


But if Houdini had
a challenging personality,

he was also beloved by those who knew him.

Houdini was one of the
kindest, most thoughtful men

I've ever known in my life, and I've

known an awful lot of people.

Everyone who met Harry Houdini remarked

on the intensity in his eyes.

He appeared supremely confident
and afraid of nothing.

He had survived the challenges
of poverty and hard times

and had become a superstar of his day,

but he still wasn't satisfied.

His obsessive pursuit of more
challenges and higher stakes

was putting him on a perilous path.

What more could he do to
top his last performance?

It seemed no restraint, lock, or chain

could hold Harry Houdini.

He boasted, in fact, that there was

nothing that could hold him.

Houdini's greatest invention, I suppose,

was what he called the challenge act.

In effect, he challenged
anybody to put him in anything

or hold him in any way,
and he would get out of it.

The results were that people put
him in extraordinary situations

and handcuffed him, tied him to a ladder,

put him in the belly of a very large fish

that he then was supposed to get out of.

Put him in a bank vault, put him
in an Iron Maiden torture cell.

377 is the Iron Maiden, and I have $20,000

to start here in a proxy, and
$25,000 now, and we're $25,000.

$30,000. $35,000.

I got35.

$40,000 way in
the back. $45,000?

Yes or no, Gary, it's
your bidder at $45,000.

He's in. $50,000 now. $50,000.

$50,000, thank you. $55,000.

You got to give him $55,000.


55, and $60,000.

$60,000 is going to make it.


Go ahead. $60,000.


Is he in?

65, $70,000.



Sold at $65,000 to your bidder, Gary.


But were Houdini's challenges truly the act

of a fearless escape artist
or were they a cunning stunt

crafted by a man who had
learned to work the system?

By piecing together old clippings,

word patterns emerge and
key phrases reappear.

Clearly, Houdini was more
than a passive participant

in these memorable escapes.

Houdini was a master
manipulator at suggestion.

Houdini was touring the
Pierce Arrow plant in Buffalo,

New York when his show
was playing in Buffalo,

and he saw the guys putting
together packing boxes.

He said, hey, I've got an idea.

Why don't you guys in
the shipping department

challenge me to get out of a packing box?

Make it any way you want to.

So he leaves with them
thinking is their idea.

If the challenges set
for Houdini seemed impossible,

the methods for escape sometimes
seemed cunningly simple.

There was a university
professor that gave his physics

class the challenge of
how did Houdini escape

from a regulation mailbag?

And all the kids worked on
it, and they all had guesses

and they all had ideas,
and some of the ideas

were pretty clever.

But the idea is you've got a
bag that carries government mail

and it closes with a kind
of a belt that then locks,

you know, a padlock goes through a hasp.

So how did Houdini get out?

Well, none of them got it right.

But how he got out was he
had the key to the padlock

on a very long string and he stuck it out

through the narrow opening
at the top of the bag,

and then he felt the key on the other side.

And he got the lock from the other side,

and he monkeyed around
until he got it open.

That's very simple.

These stunts were a brilliant ploy

to drum up publicity.

Houdini was a skilled self
promoter and a master of hype.

I'm not sure that he was the
greatest magician or inventor

of magic in the world, probably not.

But I think he was probably
the best marketer, for sure.

Houdini was the first
person to really understand

that if you did something off
stage that was amazing that got

people talking about you, it
would get them in the theater.

If I go to a police station and
say to them your cells cannot

hold me, and he could actually
burst out of the cells,

then people would talk about that.

You have to remember that back then there

was no TV, no internet.

You know, your legend became
bigger just by word of mouth.

He knew how to use newspapers

to his own advantage.

All Houdini ever had
to say to any publisher

or any editor was give me a reporter,

I'll give you a story because
they knew he always would.

He lays the groundwork
for much of what comes later

in spectacle, in news stories,
in all kinds of things,

and in particular, he lays the
groundwork for a certain kind

of self invented celebrity that
can be whatever he or she wants

to be and can live very, very large.

Houdini's promotional
campaigns extended far

beyond the traditional press.

When Houdini would appear in a town,

he would publicize himself
the way a circus would.

I bought a little picture
of Houdini's advertising guys

walking along a snowy street with signs,

a whole line of signs,
that said Houdini this way.

He hired a bunch of bald
guys to sit in a cafe each

with a letter of Houdini on his head,

and they held down their
heads and spelled out Houdini.

Houdini's most
spectacular promotional stunts

were his outdoor escapes.

He was 33 when he introduced
the manacled bridge escape.

For this trick, he trained
hard swimming distances

and disciplining himself to hold his breath

and endure freezing water.

It's a very, very dangerous stunt.

He would just get on a bridge high up,

he had leg irons on and
handcuffs on, and jump off.

And 30 seconds later, he'd
break through the water holding

the handcuffs and the leg irons
in his hand above his head


The risky jumps
didn't always go as he planned.

Once in Atlantic City, he hit his head

on the bottom of the beach
there when he jumped off

a pier handcuffed.

I think also in the Mississippi,
the current was very, very

strong, and started
pulling him down and under,

and he barely was able to really get out.

With this wildly popular stunt,

Houdini was again dogged
by rivals stealing his act.

Some of them just used gimmicked handcuffs

that were so really poorly made
that their trouble when they

did a bridge jump or something
was keeping them from falling


The constant imitation by hack magicians

enraged Houdini.

As flattering as it is, I
mean, when you're the innovator

and everybody's stealing your act,

you're fighting for your life.

These rivalries can be very serious.

They say it should be flattering.

It's not the biggest form of flattery.

It's the biggest form of thievery.

Houdini's personal mantra

was do others before they do you,

and he did with a kind of malicious glee.

Famous incident and an escape artist

in Germany, who did a challenge
handcuff, which Houdini did,

challenging anyone there
to bring handcuffs,

and he would get out of it.

The fact that he was really
stealing Houdini's challenge

act drove Houdini crazy.

So he went to the theater
where this guy was performing,

and when the guy said, I challenge anyone

in the audience to put me in handcuffs,

Houdini came up with handcuffs
he was sure this guy could not

possibly get out of, and handcuffed him.

And the guy struggled on
stage for half an hour or so.

Couldn't get out at all, and Houdini then

got back on the stage,
and said to the audience,

you see, he stole things
from the great Houdini

and now he is reduced to nothing.

One lifelong rival was
his loving brother Dash, known

to the rest of the world as Hardeen.

They would go town to town
and compete with one another,

but the public would not
know that they were brothers.

Of the five brothers, Houdini and Harden

were the closest sharing this
common passion for magic.

I remember my mom telling
me when they would go over

on an afternoon, my grandfather and Houdini

would be rolling coins in their fingers

just to keep their fingers
nimble, supple, and practicing.

And they would spend hours practicing.

But they'd also steal each other's thunder.

When Houdini and Hardeen both
appeared in Tacoma, Washington,

and Houdini went to do his
straitjacket escape hanging

from one of the public buildings,

Hardeen decided that was a
good time to pass playbills

out advertising Hardeen.

So the public watching the show
thought Hardeen was up there.

I can only say that they didn't
talk for a couple of weeks

after that.

Even in the face of competition,

Harry Houdini was redefining
magic and the art of self


He compulsively looked for new
adventure and bigger headlines,

and in the rapidly changing world,

Houdini would set his
sights on new challenges

far from the live stage.

The beginning of the 20th century

was a time of rapid
transformation in the United


Thomas Edison, the Wright
brothers, and US Steel

were permanently changing the world,

and Harry Houdini was not
one to get left behind.

If innovation and technology
were the new wave,

Houdini was going to grab
his share of the spotlight.

Houdini is very much
a 20th century magician.

So much of his fame depended
on the city, the skyscraper,

and airplanes, which he learned how to fly.

He was a very modern kind of personality.

Houdini saw his first
airplane in 1909, six years

after the Wright brothers
first successful flight.

All around him, courageous
pilots were making headlines.

On a tour in Europe in
1910, 36-year-old Houdini

paid $5,000 for a French made
biplane and hired a mechanic

to teach him to fly.

Crating the plane for passage to Australia,

he was determined to make
some history himself.

Houdini wanted to be the first person

to fly in Australia because that
was the only continent where

nobody had ever flown.

While performing
his magic act in Melbourne,

Houdini would take off after his
show for a nearby army parade

field to attempt piloting his plane.

There was criteria by that time.

then you had to perform some maneuvers,

including the figure eight.

You had to fly a pattern, and you had

to make a successful landing.

Houdini was faced with bad weather

and mechanical problems.

On one attempt, Houdini managed to lift off

several feet in the air, but
the plane nosed to the ground

and broke the propeller.

And then he faced something much worse,

a rival competing for the record.

About a day before Houdini was able to get

into the air in Australia,
a fellow flew a monoplane

and apparently had a successful
flight during which he met most

of that criteria.

But he did it in the predawn
and only a few neighbors

saw him take off, whereas
Houdini, a day later, had

the newsreels there, and there
was just all of this coverage.

Generally speaking, the Australians

give him the credit for making
the first successful airplane

flight on the continent of Australia,

Houdini understood
the value of getting his stunts

on newsreels thinking
film would be his best

bet to achieve immortality.

He first shows up in the
movies as early as 1901.

Pathe Newsreels got a
shot of him diving off

the wall of the Paris Morgans in the Seine.

Then in 1908, he does a short film,

and he does an escape from
being tied to a chair.

In 1916, after a long
fascination with the motion

picture camera, he formed
a film development company.

He buys a patent from Germany
that will allow motion picture

film to be developed overnight.

There was no such thing as
dailies in American film,

so he tried to bring that to America.

It was a failed business venture.

He somehow gave the
impression that it didn't matter

how badly you shot it, he would
be able to develop it fine

and that was never true.

But in 1918, at age 44,

a different kind of Hollywood opportunity

came his way, this time
in front of the camera.

He got an offer from a producer BA Rolfe

to star in a 15 chapter serial,
but he does this 15 chapter

serial, and it's a worldwide hit.

The success of this
serial, "The Master Mystery,"

led to leading roles in Hollywood.

It landed him in a new world entirely,

and he got to know people like Chaplin,

and he met a lot of the stars.

You see him posed with starlets
and the important actresses.

His most remarkable film, "The Grim Game,"

was shot in 1919 and dubbed the
greatest thrill picture ever


It was filled with his
usual heart stopping stunts,

but its most memorable moment
didn't even feature Houdini.

Houdini's on the wings of
a biplane and another plane

passes underneath it and Houdini
lowers himself from the biplane

to the plane underneath.

I mean, that's a really
great bit of moviemaking.

Turns out though that it
really wasn't Houdini.

It was a stuntman named Robert Kennedy.

A gust of wind blows the lower
plane into the upper plane.

There's footage of it,
and they can't untangle,

and they start spinning
down toward the ground.

And eventually, just as they're
getting down to ground level,

they separate and they
both make safe landings.

Houdini's stunt double
crash landed and was dragged

through a bean field, roughed up but alive.

Houdini appropriated the story
into his act offering $1,000

to anyone who could prove
the scene wasn't real.

He failed to mention that
while the stunt was real,

it didn't actually feature him.

But time came during one performance

when there was someone in the
audience who knew the truth.

He called for a committee
to put him in a straitjacket

or something, and among the
people who came up on stage

was the pilot of one of the planes.

Now, the pilot of that plane
could have blown him out

of the water.

Houdini barely missed a beat.

He recognized him, put his
arm around the pilot's shoulder,

walked him to the footlights,
and said, ladies and gentlemen,

this is the man who saved my life.

And the pilot kept Houdini's secret.

Houdini followed up "The Grim
Game" with "Terror Island,"

which pitted Houdini
against hundreds of spear

waving natives.

Audiences found "Terror Island"
overly melodramatic and even


All righty, right here.

Two "Terror Island," Very cool.

What are we going to start there at $500.

Then go.

$600, $600, $650
now. $650, $700?

$700. $750 to you,
sir. $800 now.

$800 now.

Now $900.

$950 to you, sir.

$1,000 now. $1,000
now. $950, $1,000.

$1,100. $1,100. $1,100.


12 to bid now. $1,100. $1,200.



Bid of 13.

14. $1,500.

15, $1,600.



16, now $1,700.

16, now $1,700.

Any advance on 16 with $1,700?

Sold $1,600.



There you go right there.

Houdini made a few
other films, but none of them

were successful.

Houdini's charisma on stage didn't

seem to translate to film.

He wasn't a very good leading man.

He had not that much interest
in the leading ladies.

He was very awkward.

The fight scenes he was quite good at,

and there are a couple of
excerpts where you see him

undoing restraints with his
toes where he's fantastic,

but he wasn't able to master the medium.

Houdini recognized films
were very dangerous for him

because if you perform a miracle,

the audience always suspects camera magic.

Houdini was in touch
with all that was changing

in the American culture, but
he was a man of contradiction.

While his interests were thoroughly modern,

his values were deeply traditional.

He was a loving family man
and was absolutely devoted

to his wife Bess.

Every anniversary they would
have some kind of sentimental

picture taking back at Coney
Island where they were married.

One of the best things
I've ever seen in my life

is a portrait of him and Bess, very old.

And it was signed Harry Handcuff
Houdini in matrimony, the one

set of shackles he does not wish to escape.

If Bess was the love of his life,

then his mother Cecilia
was his rock of Gibraltar.

When Houdini did his
first bridge jump, which

was from a bridge in New
Jersey, he wrote in his diary

not about the success of the jump,

but he wrote Ma saw me
jump, exclamation point.

And I think his mother often
figured as his audience

in his head, that he was always
sort of performing for her.

This a photograph of him
with his arm around his wife

Bess and another arm around his mother,

and he calls them my two girlfriends.

In July 1913, Houdini set sail

for a command performance
before the King of Sweden.

His mother called to him from
the dock asking him to bring

her a pair of woolen slippers.

Days later, she suffered a stroke

and died before he could return.

It took him completely apart.

He lost all of his energy.

He kept on performing
because that's what you do,

you keep performing.

Stark reminders of Houdini's great loss

are seen in the letters from
Sydney Radner's collection.

I bought one letter that I
was very much in love with.

It's the first letter that
Houdini sent his brother

on his brand new stationery,
which had a black border

because his mother had died.

Dash, it's tough.

I can't seem to get over it.

Sometimes I feel all right,
but when a calm moment arrives,

I'm as bad as ever.

Time heals all wounds but a long time

will have to pass before it
will heal the terrible blow.

Houdini called it the
shock from which he could not


The enormous pain of his mother's death

would propel him into the most
bizarre act of his career.

The second great act of Houdini's career

came with the end of
World War I and took him

from the entertainment
pages to the front page.

It all began with a 60-year-old
religious movement called

Spiritualism that professed
to use seances and spirit

mediums to contact the dead.

People who had lost sons,
husbands, daughters, and loved

ones in the war were interested
in trying to contact them.

With all the great technological advances

at the turn of the century,
raising spirits of lost loved

ones was sold not only
as possible but based

in real science.

the inside of your skeleton,
why not talk to the dead?

When we look at that right now,
we think, oh my God, how naive.

But no.

People are torn between
the old modalities of living

and the new world with
technology and cities

and factories and cars, and this is making

people question their religion.

Do I believe in religion?

Do I believe in science?

Isn't there some way I can believe in both?

Spiritualism gives you that answer.

Sort of.

to the beyond conducted
seances in which they summoned

supernatural phenomena to demonstrate

the presence of real spirits.

Spirits of the dead would come back

some time as luminous presences,
sometimes as voices, sometimes

they would touch the people sitting

around the seance table.

The mediums would go to great lengths

to prove there were spirits in the room.

Candlesticks would levitate,
ghostly images and objects

would appear.

substance called ectoplasm.

Houdini knew better.

He recognized their magicians tricks.

He saw around him these spiritualists

performing effects where they
were obviously, to Houdini,

getting out of the cuffs,
getting out of the ropes,

getting out of the binds that hold them.

There was a book called
"Revelations of a Spirit

Medium" that was sort of a Bible to him

and that had a lot of that,
you know, being tied up

and escaping and getting back
in before the lights came on.

And of course, we see
that in the Metamorphosis.

He gets out of a rope tie, his
wife gets into the rope tie.

Throughout his career, Houdini

was wary of the spiritualists.

Distancing his acts of illusion
from their supernatural claims,

which he knew used some of the same tricks.

But in 1922, an incident
involving his friend Sir Arthur

Conan Doyle, author of the
Sherlock Holmes novels,

launched him into action.

Arthur Conan Doyle lost a
son in the First World War,

killed in action, and he went to see

a medium who produced his son.

The son came into the room and
kissed him on the forehead.

Houdini and Conan Doyle were friends,

yet this was something they
fought about all the time,

was whether the psychic
phenomena was real or not.

Conan Doyle even believed
that the way Houdini got out

of his Metamorphoses trunk,
escaped from the binds

and from the box was that he dematerialized

and re-materialized outside the box.

Lady Doyle was a spiritualist and did

what we call spirit writing.

And on one occasion in Atlantic City,

she offered to do the seance for Houdini.

She purported to bring
Houdini's mother back

and she made some fairly severe mistakes,

like writing in English
and putting a cross on it.

And since his mother didn't speak English

and was the wife of a rabbi,
these seem fairly inappropriate

things to do.

Houdini held his tongue with Lady Doyle,

but his fury had been unleashed.

The only voices he heard were the calling

to expose the so-called spirit mediums.

I do think that he felt very
acutely the grief of people who

had lost relatives and that did
make him resent very strongly

people who were exploiting that grief.

Houdini went to great
lengths against these mediums.

He would bust up seances.

He would come in with
local police sometimes

or he would come with reporters.

People were falsifying this evidence

and giving people the
wrong image of the world.

They were giving them bad
information about life.

They were taking away the precious memories

of dead people and replacing them

with silly prattling of little
voices in darkened rooms.

He despised these people
and was very zealous in trying

to expose them all.

Some of the mediums were
extremely clever though.

I mean, Houdini was very aware that he

was up against some
diabolically clever people.

There was one headline where he

had taken a reporter and a photographer

to this local medium's seance.

Well, in the dark, the medium was supposed

to have her hands being held
by the people on either side

of her, and they had their
feet resting on her feet

so that she couldn't move.

But he had the photographer take
a flash picture in the dark,

and there she was leaning backwards

with a megaphone up to her
lips making ghostly sounds.

Even the respected journal

"Scientific American" took
an interest in spiritualism.

"Scientific American Magazine,"

which was hardly naive, offered a prize

for any medium who could show definitely

kinds of psychic phenomena.

Houdini got on the committee and
exposed really all the mediums

who tried out for the prize.

who knew a lot about deception.

I mean, there's nobody in the world who

knew as much about deception.

You know, he kind of needed an adversary,

and they were made to order.

Mediums, who would allow
themselves to be tied and then

still produce a bouquet
of flowers on the table

from the other world,
Houdini would say, well,

let me tie you.

And he would tie the
medium and no more flowers.

I mean, once Houdini tied
somebody that was it.

Nobody was going to get out of it.

When he was playing Chicago,
he wasn't getting headlines

on the entertainment page.

He was getting front page headlines.

By 1923, Houdini's feud
with the spiritualist

had become so well publicized
that the spirit mediums were

on the lookout for his visits.

He needed to find a new way to expose them.

He had a detective
named Rose Mackenberg, who

would be in the next city and
she would be going to mediums.

And she would give them
this story, you know,

I want to hear from my
son, my son who passed on.

Well, she didn't have a
son, and then she would also

try to get herself ordained in
a local spiritualistic church.

Maybe you heard about that.

F. Raud, fraud.

And so now Houdini gets to town
and he's got a little dossier

on the phony mediums in town,
and he has an emissary present

them with tickets to the show.

And he said, Mr Houdini
intends to talk about you,

so they would arrive all fired up.

And they would also maybe arrive
thinking that they were going

to be able to defend themselves,
and Houdini would just

eat them alive.

Lot number 370, lobby
display, Jail for medium.

Who'll say $500.

Thank you. $500.

I have for it, and $750?

Going to make it now.

Got to give him $750.

We're now at $750.

Got to say it now. $750.

And $1 $800.


$1,100 on the net.

15 you got to give.

I'm at $1,100. $1,100 for it?

All in and all out, sold
for $1,100 to the net.

But proving low rent spirit mediums

were duping their believers
was easy for Houdini.

The ultimate test for him
and the Scientific American

Committee lay ahead, a respected woman

from Boston's high society
said to possess a psychic gift.

It seemed as if the
great Houdini had finally

met his match.

In 1924, an attractive society woman

married to one of Boston's
most respected surgeons

began holding seances free of charge.

Tables jumped, and the dead spoke out loud.

Houdini heard reports of
the mysterious Margery

and grabbed the first train to Boston.

Margery, the medium, was a Boston socialite

named Mina Crandon.

Her husband taught at the
Harvard Medical School, seemed

to be a very reputable person.

Unlike other mediums who
charged a lot of money

for their seances, Margery did not.

Most mediums demonstrated

either psychic or physical phenomena.

Margery produced both.

Guests to her evening soirees
witnessed flashing lights,

ectoplasm, levitation, and most
memorably her spirit voice.

She channeled her older
brother, who had died,

named Walter.

Walter was a rowdy presence

in the seance, ridiculing
guests with limericks

and witty putdowns.

He spoke through Margery
or as a disembodied voice.

The husband, Dr. Crandon,
and the circle of friends

took it all very seriously, and
they began to get attention.

Boston Society turned out

for Margery's seances, which
seemed provocative even

by today's standards.

She'd have to wear a kimono,
a female member of the group

would check her to make sure
that she wasn't carrying

anything on her person
underneath the kimono,

and it's all kind of scandalous.

It kind of reminds me
a little bit of Houdini,

stripping as bare as a radish
and being locked in a jail


The guests would assemble in a special room

and sit around a small table.

My great grandmother
would go into a trance,

and they would all be holding hands,

and she would have her feet bound

to the people next to her,
and various different types

of things would happen.

The table would move.

Things on the table would move.

And her hands are being held and her wrists

are taped to the arm chair and
they're controlling her legs,

and she produced a pigeon.

One of the things that's
kind of funny when you

is that she was really
very witty and very earthy.

You have her as Walter sort of
making fun of all the people

around the table and sort
of taking them down a notch,

or sort of playing with them.

She managed to fool a whole bunch of guys,

educated men that maybe
should have known better.

They weren't looking for parlor tricks.

They were looking for something
profound, and they found it.

The writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

and others were ready to award
Margery the $5,000 Scientific

American prize and the
credibility that went with it.

Houdini was determined to
debunk the so-called medium.

The "Scientific American" staff

wanted to believe that she was real,

wanted to give her the award.

Houdini was very distressed by this,

didn't believe she was real and
went on a crusade to the debunk


Margery's milieu was that
of the educated people,

and the Scientific
American crew that he went

and investigated with, these were all these

like terribly educated college professors.

And he was out to say, I may
just be a self-taught guy,

but you guys are the ones
who were the suckers.

And I think that chip was
always on his shoulder

and always driving him.

The tension was thick when

Houdini arrived for the first of
his five seances with Margery.

In the first, a bell box mysteriously rang

and the spirit tossed a
megaphone at his feet.

In the second, the table rocked
violently, knocking the bell

box to the floor.

Nothing, of course, fooled Houdini,

who after a lifetime of
manipulating escape apparatus

with his toes and mouth,
recognized a true parlor


Houdini made his case to the
Scientific American committee

but Margery had the support of
many sophisticated and educated

Undeterred, people.

built that would allow
contact with other sitters

but would restrict her ability
to use her head or feet.

With her credibility on the line,

Margery agreed to the box.

One of the things that I
find the most interesting

is that there would be
these scientific discussions

of, well, to really prove this
beyond a shadow of a doubt,

what we need to see is X.
Well, she would then produce X

two days later.

Houdini had published a book showing

how although her legs would be tied up,

she was able to move the calf up and down,

to use her toes to do something.

She had used a free
hand to ease the megaphone

onto her head like a dunce cap, and then

jerked her head so it would
fly off in Houdini's direction.

Her way of making the table
levitate in the darkness

was that she had a long and flexible neck,

and while people were
holding her arms and legs,

she was able to get her neck way down

onto the ledge of the table and lift it up

on the back of her head.

In early 1925, Houdini
took his battle to the people.

He staged a showdown
in front of an audience

offering $10,000 to Margery to
prove her paranormal abilities.

Margery never appeared, so
he entertained the audience

with demonstrations of her
alleged psychic skills.

Lot number 369 is a large
lobby display, the $10,000


Thank you, Jimmy.


15,000. $20,000 now.

$20,000, going to make it now.

20, got to give him 20.

You got 25.


Now $30,000.


$40,000 I got here.
$45,000 I got there.

$50,000 if you want it at $50,000.

All in, all out.

Any more at $45,000?


Thank you, sir, for
your bidding. $45,000.

I definitely don't think
that it was something

that she meant to unleash.

I think it was something that so
many people got involved with,

and so many people had such
high stakes in that it became

its own beast.

In time, Houdini's battle with Margery

faded, but his battle with spiritualism

took him all the way to Washington DC.

In 1926, Houdini appeared
before Senate and the House

subcommittees to testify on behalf

of an anti-fortunetelling bill.

Hundreds of angry spiritualists turned out

and the hearings nearly turned into a riot

when Houdini called
mediums mental degenerates.

When he was testifying before Congress

against the spiritualists,
he was asked whether indeed,

the things he did on stage were actually

done by psychic powers.

And Houdini's response to this was just

simultaneously so honest and so self

promoting that it makes me proud.

He said, some of the spiritualists

say that I'm psychic.

I'm not.

Everything I do is by natural means,

but I do tricks that nobody can figure out.

That was always a big thing for Houdini.

I mean, that there were no
supernatural powers in him

or in any other magician or human being,

that everything could be explained.

There was no supernatural.

The protection of freedom of speech

prevented the anti-fortunetelling bill

from passage, but Houdini's
persistent campaign

against spiritualism had
damaged the movement.

He was still not ready to
step out of the spotlight.

He had one last great act
up his magician's sleeve.

After 26 years of
breathtaking escapes on city

streets and in vaudeville
halls around the world,

Houdini made his bid for
class and respectability

opening a three act extravaganza
on the Great White Way, New

York City's Broadway, playing
alongside shows by George

Bernard Shaw and Henri Gibson.

What mattered to Houdini very, very much

was that it played on Broadway.

Houdini always longed for real
theatrical respectability.

He saw himself as part of the theater.

For this kind of wonderful
return to magic that

he has at the end of his career.

The show covered the
entire span of Houdini's life

in magic.

Houdini's last season, he was
doing a show that was basically

all him.

The first part he did magic tricks.

Houdini was a great historian of magic.

A lot of the tricks that he did
were tricks that had been made

famous by earlier magicians and
he was sort of paying homage

to his predecessors.

Houdini opened his Broadway show in 1926.

Dorothy Young, at the age of
17, was his youngest stage


Houdini would bring me out
in this little burlap slave

costume with my hands tied behind me,

and Houdini said, she's
been a naughty girl.

We have to tie her up.

So I stood at the pole, he
tied me with ropes from here

to my ankles.

And he would say, now
we'll put her in darkness,

and the curtain would drop to the floor.

And the minute it would drop to the floor,

I would come out in a beautiful
butterfly costume on my toes.

The second act would feature

of his great escapes.

But the real highlight was
an expose of spiritualism.

He called it do spirits return?

He would talk about spiritualism,

and he would engage in debates
with mediums, who had been

given free tickets to the show.

He would sit on the stage with a table,

have a person in the audience come up,

and they would do the seance.

He would be handling things
underneath with his feet

underneath the table and doing switches.

The audience would see what was going on.

I was told by people who
saw that full evening show

that the third part of
the show where he debated

with the mediums and baited the mediums

was worth the price of admission.

I mean, it was just terrific.

So here we are 26 years
after he becomes a star,

and he's still got a
way to grab an audience.

That show was the dream of his life.

OK, 368, large lobby display right there.

Ivan, how much for that one there?

He'll say $20,000 I have for it.

$25,000 is going to make it
now. $25,000 you've got to give.

25 I have, and 27 and a
half going to make it now.

27 and 1/2.

I got $30,000.

32 and 1/2 you got to give him.

32 and 1/2, yes or no?

Any more than $30,000?

You're all done at $30,000 for it?

32 and a 1/2.

32 and 1/2.

I got...


40,000 to you.

I need $40,000.

$40,000 I got for it.

You got 41.

It's still yours at 41.

$41,000, in or out.

He's out at $40,000.

It goes to your bidder,
Gary, here at $40,000.

You got it.


But even in triumph, Houdini still

loved a challenge, and
he found it in and up

and coming magician named Rahmin Bey.

Not long before Houdini died,
and it may have contributed

to his early demise, there
was this Egyptian mystic named

Rahmin Bey, and Rahmin Bey
was getting a lot of attention

around New York, and he was being booked

to play some of the society parties,

and he was getting theater bookings.

And he was doing publicity stunts that

were very much like the
sorts of things Houdini did,

and he had himself placed in a metal coffin

and held underwater for an hour.

And he said that he accomplished
this by putting himself

into a trance.

Houdini didn't believe
in the power of Rahmin Bey's


He had done many of the same stunts

and had exposed those
tricks in his writing.

He offered to duplicate the
underwater stunt without going

into Bey's so-called trance.

He had an identical coffin made,

scientists had said there
was enough air for about

five minutes.

Well, that's how much good air
there was, but by staying calm,

he managed to live on the bad air.

But Houdini was not in the same shape

as he was 20 years earlier.

At 50 minutes, he was
having trouble breathing.

The temperature inside the
coffin rose above 99 degrees.

At an hour and 28 minutes, he began

seeing yellow lights, a sign
of severe oxygen deprivation.

He stayed in it for an hour and 31 minutes,

beat the guy's time by 31 minutes.

He triumphed, but had Houdini finally taken

a death defying stunt too far?

When he came out of the box, he looked bad.

Being in a soldered coffin underwater

for an hour and a half, I
mean, very, very risky stuff.

Following the underwater coffin stunt,

Houdini took his Broadway show on the road.

He was slowing down,
but was looking forward

to playing legitimate theaters.

After a few engagements on the East Coast,

Houdini arrived in Montreal
on October 18, 1926

for a three day engagement.

He had lectured earlier in
the week at McGill College

and some college students came by

to visit him between the
matinee and evening show.

So he was lying on the little
couch in his dressing room,

and one of the boys, a fellow
named Sam Smilovitz was doing

some sketches of him.

And then another boy
came in named Whitehead.

According to legend, Houdini had always

bragged that he could withstand
any blow to the abdomen.

The 6 foot 1" Whitehead challenged

the 52-year-old illusionist.

Houdini got up from the
lounge where he was resting

and said, go ahead, you can
punch me as hard as you want.

The guy hits him in the stomach.

Wow, it's really hard.

He hits him again and again
and again, because after all,

Houdini is a tough
guy. is Superman.

He didn't give him a
chance to flex his muscles.

Houdini took three
to four hard painful punches.

Doctors at the time said the
blows caused his appendix

to rupture.

Later, experts, medical experts

think that Houdini was
suffering from appendicitis

during his tour.

That the appendix would not have
ruptured unless it had already

been inflamed.

And as sick as he was
and in agonizing as was he

went on that night.

He got through the show that night

and another magician Max Malini
and Max's teenage son Ozzie

saw Houdini to the train.

And as he was getting on the train,

Houdini said to Max Malini, who he'd

known for most of his life.

He said, I led a college kid
punch me in the stomach today

and he caught me wrong,
and it's killing me.

By the time he got to
Detroit, the appendix had really


He has got a monumental staph infection

of the peritoneal cavity, and
there are no sulfa drugs then.

There's absolutely nothing
that can save him at this time.

So he gets to Detroit on
Sunday, and they've got a doctor

waiting to see him at the show.

The doctor comes down to the theater

and has Houdini stretch
out in a prop room floor,

and he feels his lower abdomen.

He says, you've got an appendicitis.

You've got to go to the hospital right now.

And Houdini gave him the classic line,

no, those people are here to see me.

Houdini took to the stage

with a temperature of 104.

He collapsed after the first act,

was revived, finished the
show, and collapsed again.

There were some magicians in the audience.

One guy had only seen Houdini once before,

and he was with a friend who'd
seen Houdini eight times.

And all through the show, the friend who'd

seen Houdini eight times, was
saying there's something wrong.

The fellow who had only
seen Houdini once before

thought it was a good show.

Houdini refused to go to the hospital.

It wasn't till 4 o'clock in the morning

that his New York doctor
persuaded him to go to Grace

Hospital, and they operated on him,

and they gave him eight hours to live.

Oh, and he was in agony.


But he didn't die immediately.

He should have been dead, but
because he was so powerful,

he was such a strong man,
he lived for seven days.

A relative of his, who was a doctor,

came in and was praising Houdini's career,

and Houdini said back to him, everything

that I do is more or less as a fake.

You're the one who really does things.

That's real heroism, and
I think ultimately Houdini

was aware of that and sort of made

that clear in this deathbed sort of scene.

He said, I'm going to lick this.

I'm going to lick it, and
then finally, after a week,

he said, it's finished.

That's what he said.

It's finished.

That's it.

Houdini died on October 31, 1926.

He was only 52 years old.

He had been a performer
for most of his life

and in the spotlight for
more than half of it,

but even after his death his
fans wouldn't forget him.

Throughout his career, Houdini
had cheated death nightly

and before adoring audiences.

His fans were not about to forsake him.

For nearly 80 years, his followers

have gathered on the
anniversary of his death

on Halloween of all days
to try and raise his ghost.

We'll all place our hands on the table

in the position of mediums.

We ask you to come through now.

Come through in the show
business capital of the world.

Prove once and for all that you can break

through the veil of death.

Show that it is possible.

In death, as in
life, Houdini drew huge crowds.

Thousands attended his
funeral in Times Square

on November 4, 1926.

He was buried beside his beloved
mother in Queens, New York.

As he instructed, her letters to him

were bundled together and
placed beneath his head.

Across America, newspapers led
with the story of his passing.

Headlines proclaimed tricks
go to grave with magician,

but his secrets were very
much alive and in the hands

of his brother Hardeen, who
performed Houdini's escapes

for years to come.

His wife Bess had her own way
of keeping his memory alive.

During his years debunking psychics,

Houdini had warned Bess
that spirit mediums would

try to raise his ghost.

To protect against this fraud, Bess

was to conduct seances of her own armed

with special codes which
they arranged between them

before his death.

It was a letter from Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle to him,

and he circled 10 words in this
letter, put them in an envelope

and had a code made up of
10 words, which I carry

in my pocket, and those
10 words plus the words

inside this envelope were to be
the message that he would bring

back if he could come back.

Bess held seances every Halloween,

the anniversary of Houdini's passing.

On the 10th anniversary of Houdini's death,

she held a seance in
the Knickerbocker Hotel

on the rooftop.

There was a worldwide radio broadcast.

The seance in Los Angeles was
Bessie and her manager Edward


Edward Saint wan an old carny man,

and he really makes a pitch.

Speak, Harry.

Speak through the trumpet.

Open the handcuffs, Harry.

Ring the bell.

And he goes on like that and
really gives it the college

try, and he doesn't
manage to contact Houdini.

And Bessie said, my last hope is gone.

10 years is long enough
to wait for any man.

For 10 years, the light
has burned faithfully

in the Houdini shrine.

And with that,
Bess laid her Houdini seances

to rest.

But other magicians picked
up where she left off.

Sidney Radner, a protege of
Houdini's brother Hardeen,

began doing seances in the
1930s and has continued them

to this day.

Each year, Mr. Radner
gathers top magicians,

like Penn Jillette and his partner Teller,

to the official Houdini seance.

An inner circle of Houdini enthusiasts

conduct the yearly event
according to the safeguards

devised by Houdini and Bess decades ago.

They haven't gotten it right yet.

They are a room full of skeptics,

yet every one of them got
started in magic because they

wanted to believe, and every one of them

would love to hear from
Houdini on this night.

Would he finally answer them?

Please, come through tonight.

Prove it can be done.

This is your one chance to pull
the greatest stunt of all time.

Make the table vibrate if you can do that.

All of us that are in the magic
world were influenced by you.

You took magic to a greater place

that it had ever been before.

Shall we all chant when I count to three?

Harry come back.

1, 2, 3.

Harry come back.

Harry come back.

Harry come back.

Well, my friends, I think
we have to admit something

that on every seance people
have had to sadly conclude,

including the widow of Harry
Houdini, Bess, who very sadly

said at the Knickerbocker
Hotel many, many years ago,

Harry isn't coming back.

Switch off the light.

It isn't going to happen.

For the whole set.

How much for the whole set?

The collectors at this auction

are also trying to hold on to
memories of the great Houdini.

Houdini was a collector as well.

He collected everything
about the history of magic,

and then anything associated with it.

He built one of the great
theater libraries in the world.

I mean, it's supposedly the
third largest theater library


I think that's now at Harvard
in the Harvard Library.

His house got quite
cluttered before he died.

I mean, he had everything.

To an extent, it was because
he was doing research,

but any collector knows that research

is a sort of a handy excuse
for having a lot of stuff

around you.

It is interesting that he,
a collector his whole life,

has now engendered this auction of effects.

It's kind of a big, weird full circle.

900 your way, young man.

There we go.

Ladies and gentlemen,
the water torture cell.

This is the most famous trick.

There is a museum.

It's going to go on permanent display

or in someone's private collection,

that much I'll guarantee.

First caller $200,000 for it.

250, got to make it in 250.

Got to give him 250.

Got to make it now.

I have 250, Gary.

275 we're going to make it now.


275, if you're interested.

275 if he wants it.

It's at 250.

275 you got to make it now.

275 you've got to give.


And 285 we're going to make it now.

285 you got to give.

285 I got.

Now it's $300,000, who wants it?

It's $300,000 now.

Anyone 285?

It's $300,000 you got to give.

You want it at 300?

Yes or no?


$300,000 I have for it.

$300,000 I have.

I have $300,000.

Any more than $300,000?


It's sold at $300,000.

It's sold at $300,000.

The great Houdini auction

was a tremendous success.

More than 450 lots sold totaling
over $1.1 million in bids

from magicians and collectors
all over the world.

David Copperfield walked away
with some of the biggest items.

If Houdini walked into this room now,

he would feel like amazing,
like he was home again.

His awards are over there.

His baby shoes over there.

His first magic wand.

His most famous escapes, the milk

can, the water torture cell,
the Iron Maiden, strait-jacket,

substitution trunk, even his
keys, so it's pretty good.

For nearly 80 years, magicians

have tried to recapture his magic

and unlock the secrets of
his incomparable career.

Tonight I'd like to present
Houdini's most famous escape,

the Houdini strait-jacket escape.

This is the trick he did the
longest throughout his career.

This is the trick that made Houdini famous.

Now to do this, I'm going to
need a little bit of help,

and we have with us
tonight Mr. Sid Radner.

Sid, how are you?

Fine, thank you.

How are you?

Thank you very much.

Now, Sid, the jacket goes
on like a normal jacket

only backwards.

And if you can just help pull
that up onto my shoulders.

There you go.

Now, Sid, you'll notice up
here on my left shoulder,

there's a bucket, and on my right shoulder,

there's a strap.

Place that strap right into the buckle.

And that's it.

Buckle it right in just like
a belt. Just start at the top

and work your way down to
the bottom of the jacket.

Now the straight jacket was originally

designed to restrain the criminally insane.

How are you doing there, Sid?

Get Fine.


Now, Sid, you'll notice
there's an extra buckle down

at the bottom of the jacket.

You see that?

You see that strap between my legs?

Don't grab.

Last come the arms.

They cross in the front.

Sid, there's a strap right
there on this sleeve,

and there's a buckle on that sleeve.

Go ahead and put that strap
right into the buckle.

I want you to make this one as
tight as you possibly can, OK?

I don't think Houdini himself
could have done a better job.


You've seen the buckling in process.

Now comes the hard part
escaping from the straitjacket.

And as I do this I'm going
to explain exactly what I'm

doing every step of the way.

If you ever find yourself
in this predicament,

you'll know what to do.

The first step is to force one
of your arms up over your head.

They say Houdini could actually
dislocate both of his shoulders

to do this.

I don't know if that's true,
but it sure would help.

The next step is to work
on the buckles in the back.

The Houdini straight jacket.

Nothing could hold
Harry Houdini, whether slipping

free from his Chinese water torture cell

or breaking loose from a steamer trunk

dropped in the Potomac River, he faced his,

and by extension, society's
greatest fears and triumphed.

Harry Houdini inspired
generations of magicians,

including me.

As Bess Houdini once said, every magician

knows where the trap door lies.

The magic was in this man's personality.

I'm Lance Burton for The History Channel.

Thanks for watching.