Renowned more for his death-defying escape acts than magical tricks of levitation, Harry Houdini was raised as a Master Mason on August 21,1923 in St. Cecile Lodge No. 568 in New York City.
Houdini was proud of his association with Masonry and also joined the Scottish Rite and the Shrine. Wanting to assist his Masonic brothers in need, Houdini gave a benefit magic performance for 4,000 attendees at the Valley of New York Scottish Rite Cathedral which raised thousands of dollars for charitable relief.
Born in the Austrian-Hungarian empire in 1874, Houdini’s future would bring him worldwide fame and fortune as the most famous magician of his time.
Young Ehrich Weisz, as he was born, immigrated to America at the age of four with his parents and brothers. The family first settled in Wisconsin where his father was a Rabbi before moving eastward to Milwaukee, finally settling in New York City.
Perhaps, the lights of Broadway inspired young Ehrich to set his sights on a career in show business as by the age nine he was part of a trapeze act and billed as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air".
Always looking for a new gimmick to keep him on the stage, he patiently taught himself sleight of hand moves and card tricks and found some work in theaters as “Harry Houdini: King of Cards”.
In order to expand his repertoire, Houdini began weaving an escape act into his performances and now marquees billed him as “Handcuff Houdini”.
Houdini joined the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit performing at theaters around the country. His escape acts became more daring and included the Chinese Water Torture Cell. This act had the magician tied up with his hands locked in handcuffs then suspended inside a tank filled with water – a seemingly impossible situation with no chance of escape. Audiences couldn’t get enough of how the magician managed to miraculously escape such a dire predicament and emerge unscathed.
Houdini’s escape tricks were a huge success not only in America but he was a featured performer on tours of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles. With each performance as he escaped from handcuffs, straitjackets, tanks of water, jails and from immense ropes and chains which bound him, audiences were thrilled at seeing the seemingly impossible.
Like many in the early 1900’s, Houdini was interested in the Spiritualist Movement and after his mother died, he even attempted to contact her spirit through séances with so-called psychic mediums.
However, Houdini soon came to believe that these mediums who claimed they could receive messages from beyond the grave were frauds who prayed upon the grief of those who had lost loved ones. As a magician, he realized that many of the spiritualists used sleight of hand tricks or innuendo to fool those seeking to contact a departed loved one.
Houdini was affronted by the concept of fake mediums making fortunes from convincing individuals to pay money to contact spirits or ghosts. He became a member of an organization which offered a cash reward to anyone who could prove that they held supernatural powers enabling them to receive messages from ghosts of those who had died.
Houdini took a break from touring with his magic act in 1924 to go on a lecture circuit warning the American public about the unscrupulous realm of psychic mediums. He even wrote a book, “A Magician Among the Spirits” which explained how mediums were using trickery and deceit to fool the public.
Houdini’s interest in debunking mediums and spiritualists was so keen that he and his wife Bess had supposedly created a plan that whichever one of them might pass away first, would reach out to contact the remaining spouse and use a code word to “prove” that he or she was, indeed, sending a message from the great beyond.
As fate would have it, Bess would outlive her husband as the magician passed away on Halloween of 1926. According to news accounts, Houdini had been confronted by a man who struck the magician who was relaxing on a couch in his dressing room. The blows ruptured his appendix and Houdini, always the consulate entertainer, went on to do his magic show despite rising pain and a high fever. The official cause of death was later given as peritonitis caused by the damage done to the appendix.
The great magician was laid to rest and his widow, always clinging to hope that her late husband would reach out to her from beyond the grave, continued to hold mystic séances each Halloween night for a decade after his untimely death.
Despite her belief in spirituality, Bess’ yearly séances never brought forth a message from Houdini nor a whisper of their secret code word.
Reportedly, after a decade of unsuccessfully being able to hear a message from the spirit of her husband, Bess Houdini abandoned séances and quipped, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”