|By Brett Weiss
Arguably the most famous magician who ever lived, Harry Houdini is thoroughly engrained in the conscience of the American public – so much so that his last name has become synonymous with someone who pulls a vanishing act. Consider the following lyrics from Tony Carey’s 1984 pop hit, A Fine, Fine Day:
Then one day Sonny stopped comin’ around
Heard he’d gotten himself into a little trouble out in town
Sometime after that he finally disappeared for good
Then he pulled that ol’ Houdini
Like we always knew he would
Born into poverty as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Houdini migrated to America in 1878 with his mother and brothers. There they joined his father, Rabbi Mayer Weisz, who had gone to the United States in 1876 and gotten a job as Rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton, Wis.
In keeping with the laws and customs of the time, the Weisz family surname was Americanized to “Weiss.” An immigration clerk changed Erik to “Ehrich,” but his friends began calling him “Ehrie,” which at some point morphed into “Harry.” The name “Houdini” was derived from French illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a highly influential magician whom Houdini greatly admired.
In 1891, Houdini teamed up with a friend to become “The Brothers Houdini,” performing for various carnival, fair and circus audiences. However, Houdini began honing his craft long before that. “He performed small magic tricks and athletic feats for friends in the neighborhood as ’Erich – The Prince of the Air’ beginning when he was only 9-years old,” historian and collector Arthur Moses wrote in Houdini Speaks Out (2007, Xlibris).
Morris, who also authored the Houdini Periodical Biliography (2006, H&R Magic Books), is the world’s foremost bibliographer on the subject, archiving and cataloging more than 1,500 Houdini-related books and more than 1,400 Houdini-related periodicals at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.
If you were doing research or needed to see a particular book,” Morris said, “you could go to about a hundred libraries around the world, or you could come here.”
In addition to an assortment of Houdini biographies, various issues of Magic magazine, and different pamphlets from actual Houdini performances (pamphlets ranging in value from $150 to $3,500 each), Morris’ collection contains children’s books, foreign editions, novels starring Houdini as a character, advanced reader copies, textbooks, collections of H.P. Lovecraft short stories (Houdini is listed as a collaborator on Imprisoned with the Pharaohs, which originally appeared in an issue of Weird Tales) and much more.
Morris still scans the magazine aisles and bookstores on a regular basis, looking for mention of the famed escape artist. “There are still two to four books published about Houdini every year,” he said.
Like many hardcore collectors, Morris began his fascination with his subject of choice as a child. “I read a book on Houdini when I was in seventh grade,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was bored and in the library. I grabbed a book off the shelf just to thumb through it, but I sat there and read the whole thing. And that was it. When I lecture young people today, I tell them that you never know what you’ll do today or next week that seems so mundane, but that will affect you for the rest of your life. I never would’ve dreamed I would have all this stuff.”
Morris admires Houdini for his bravery, showmanship and daring. “He was amazing,” Morris said. “People would challenge Houdini, and he would accept. They would tie him in ropes, throw him over bridges, hang him upside down in straitjackets, and build wooden crates around him. Postal workers had him escape from a regulation leather U.S. mail bag. He met every challenge without fail, and, as far as I know, he never turned a challenge down. He was fearless.”
At only 5-feet, 4-inches tall, Houdini was as small as his legend is large. “He had something of a little man’s complex,” Morris said, explaining, at least in part, Houdini’s obsession with proving himself time and time again. “He had a lot of bravado. It was always ’me,’ ’me,’ ’me.’ He didn’t like sharing the spotlight with other magicians, but he earned that right.”
The master magician did indeed love the spotlight, but there was one notable exception. “Houdini always wanted photographers and writers around him when he did his stunts,” Morris said. “But when it came to helping people (Houdini donated money and goods to children’s charities, and he helped widows of magicians with various expenses), he would keep quiet about it. His motto was, ’When you do a good deed, you don’t take a brass band.’”
Most everyone knows Houdini was a magician, daredevil and escape artist, but he was also an aviator, inventor, author, businessman, collector (he owned the world’s largest private collection of Lincoln letters), silent movie screen actor and noted skeptic. “Houdini had an interesting relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories), who had lost a son in World War I,” Morris said. “Doyle believed that you could speak to the dead, and Houdini wanted to believe it was possible so he could talk to his deceased mother.”
In Houdini Speaks Out, Morris explains the birth of Houdini’s skepticism regarding spiritual mediums, “Sir Arthur’s Wife, Lady Doyle, professing the ability to contact Mrs. Weiss, conducted a séance to reach her. Known as an ’automatic writer,’ Lady Doyle wrote down spiritual messages on paper when put into a trance. Placed in a hypnotic state, she inscribed 15 pages, which Cecilia Weiss allegedly conveyed … Houdini could hardly be more disappointed … the words of his mother written in English, a language she barely spoke, let alone wrote … the symbol of a religious cross was marked on the first page, a gesture he felt his Jewish mother would never have made.”
The phony séance altered the course of Houdini’s career (not to mention his relationship with Conan Doyle). In addition to performing such trademark stunts as slipping out of handcuffs, shrugging off straitjackets, and escaping from his famed Chinese Water Torture Cell, Houdini began debunking spiritualists. He would attend séances in disguise, foil the respective medium’s bogus act, rid himself of said disguise, and then brazenly proclaim, “I am Houdini! And you are a fraud!”
A lover of books, Houdini was also friends with Walter B. Gibson, a magician and writer who, under the pen name of Maxwell Grant, wrote more than 300 novel-length stories starring the pulp fiction character, The Shadow, who Gibson helped develop. Gibson authored several books on Houdini, including the recently released Houdini’s Escapes and Magic, which reprints two classic works: Houdini’s Escapes and Houdini’s Magic.
A new book like Houdini’s Escapes is a breeze to acquire via websites such as amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, but Morris has gone to great lengths to secure some of the older, rarer volumes pertaining to his favorite illusionist. To help track down a couple of rare foreign editions, for example, he’s gone so far as to contact the U.S. embassies in Hungary and Greece. “When it comes to collecting, you don’t give up,” he said. “It’s all about persistence.”
As with most collectors, there are still plenty of items Morris has yet to track down. “There’s a Chinese book from 1930 that I’d love to have,” he said, “but it’s so obscure that the chances of finding it are virtually zero. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up.”