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The Secret Life of Houdini

fortean_times_1071_13Just finished William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s recent Houdini biography. It’s a pretty fascinating read, but then it’d take some effort to tell Houdini’s life story and NOT make it interesting.

As suggested in the subtitle, Houdini was “America’s First Superhero,” and maybe the closest we’ll ever get to the real thing. Strong, agile, practically fearless and brilliantly inventive, Houdini even had “super powers” like a photographic memory and the ability to untie knots with his toes or hold his breath for over three minutes and postpone hypothermia while removing manacles in the icy waters of various rivers and lakes. Through ingenious devices and artful stagecraft, he even convinced many he could dematerialize himself to escape crates, cans, bags, etc., and as the authors point out, towards the end of his life, he even adopted a superhero-like crusade; ridding society of the petty crooks and con artists who made up the Spiritualist movement.

Kalush and Sloman also make the argument that Houdini was a superSPY, using his cover as a traveling performer to gather intelligence on the police and military forces of foreign powers and transmitting reports back to the American Secret Service. The scenario has some logic to it, and it’s well argued, but ultimately there’s not enough hard evidence here to be convincing, and for the last half of the book this theme is pretty much dropped altogether. It is interesting, though, to learn how Houdini built his own “secret service” network of spies and informants in his battle against fake mediums. It’s heavily implied here that this work led directly to Houdini’s death (ie: murder), but again there’s no proof of that, and likely never will be.

Whatever. Personally I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the Houdini legend is that people are still telling his story 80+ years after his death, still coming up with new facts and theories, still debating what did or didn’t happen. It seems a fitting legacy for the Master Mystifier that so many years later, he still leaves us guessing.

As a postscript, I just stumbled across a great site maintained by screenwriter and Houdini afficianado John Cox that tracks all the latest Houdini news. I’m adding it to my permanent links list, but you can also find it here.

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