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TitleHoudini's Secrets
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ideals. It is with that in mind that we inquire further into the
secrets of Houdini’s success.

First of all, any rags-to-riches story must progress from
poor circumstances. Some time before Houdini was Houdini
he was born on April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin, and
named Erich Weiss, son of Reverend Doctor (Rabbi) Mayer
Samuel Weiss. Rabbi Weiss was a victim of age
discrimination: he was fired from his $750 position in favor of
a younger man. He removed his impoverished family to
Milwaukee, where circumstances were hopefully more

Although adversity has been the leading motive for
obtaining many a great fortune, most of us would rather not
quit our pathetic jobs, give up our meager holdings and pass
through the eye of a needle to obtain the Promised Land. We
would rather hold on to what little we have than risk it at
roulette. Perhaps we would better off to begin with nothing
at all, but that remains to be seen: we would like to have
some starting capital. Despite the rewards promised to those
who have faith and who work their fingers to the bone, only
a few people are graced by fickle Lady Fortune with fame
and fortune; or, if you prefer, only select few are chosen in
advance to succeed in the end no matter what they do in the
interim. By this we do not mean to discount the general
principles of success or our ability to apply them rightly in
our own circumstances; we mean to say that a little bit of
luck, or providence, if you please, goes a long ways towards
success, sometimes even farther than intelligence and hard
work. Notwithstanding the best-laid plans, people tend to fall
into our fates, so we had better be prepared to take
advantage of the accidents if advantage is to be had in

Take advantage of what works. Erich Weiss was
somehow bound to take advantage of fortuitous events
instead of letting them pass him by unheeded. He made his
first appearance before an audience at nine years of age, as
a contortionist and trapeze performer billed as “Ehrich, The
Prince of the Air.” “Ehrich” was a bit too much for a first
name, so he soon shortened it to “Eric.” Of course Eric was

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dirt poor and gravitated towards trades in need of willing
hands. He worked as a photographer, cutter, driller, and
locksmith. The latter trade gave him occasion to try his hand
at picking locks, a pursuit that would become his claim to
fame: A prisoner in the police station nearby had gotten hold
of some keys and had managed to break one off in his
handcuff. Eric was brought in to cut the cuffs off; alas, the
hacksaw blade broke, so he picked the lock instead, and
would soon be picking locks around the world.

Find good friends and models and take risks. Eric like
other young men had his like-minded pals. For example, an
amateur magician by the name of Joseph Rinn, and his
partner, Jack Hayman, who enjoyed reading the memoirs of
the French wizard, Robert-Houdin. Eric then idolized Houdin;
one day he turned to Joseph and said, “I’ve made up my
mind, Joe, to quit my job and become a professional
magician under the name Harry Houdini.” Harry Houdini,
after becoming his own kind of magician, eventually
renounced Houdin – a guru once said that the disciple eats
his master and sits on his mat. But Houdini adhered to his
good wife and partner Beatrice (Bessie) Rahner, whom he
married in 1894 – The Amazing Houdinis were inseparable.

Discover your trade secrets, the principles of your
success, wherever you can find them, and apply them
dramatically elsewhere. Houdini was earning some money as
an actor and had made his way to St. Louis, where he
happened to formulate his famous Packing Box Escape. In
need of firewood, he found a discarded packing box on the
street and proceeded to take it apart noiselessly so as not to
attract the attention of the police. Not bad, but further
innovation was needed for shows: sneak thin cutting pliers
into the box; cut a few nails; swivel the slats aside and get
out—assistants could replace the removed nails. He first
presented the astonishing packing box mystery in Germany.
A tip: If the feat is easily performed, pretend it is very
difficult to accomplish to increase its impact on the

Nice guys may finish last, but you can still be kind.
Keep the secrets of your trade to yourself when possible, or

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limit them to a select group. Houdini carefully guarded such
secrets of the trade. And while leading the Society of
America Magicians, he curbed competition; some say, to his
own advantage. Like most of us, if the truth were know, he
could be volatile, cruel and mean at times, and he could be
kind and generous as well. Houdini’s hobby was collecting
curios of the magic business; he purchased a valuable
collection from Henry Evans Evanion, a conjurer whom he
had had found impoverished in London, and provided him
with an annuity until Evanion died in 1905. Of course the
collection is invaluable today, and the Houdini poster in your
attic may be worth a pretty penny or two.

Do your best to make yourself available for lucky
breaks. Houdini got a big break in March of 1899, when
Martin Beck, famous booker for the Orpheum Vaudeville
circuit, strolled into a small St. Paul hall where Houdini was
performing, approached him at the end of the performance
and asked him if he could escape from any sort of manacles.
To which Houdini responded, “None exist from which I
cannot escape.”

Do some grandstanding if you can get away with it,
especially if stunts are your business. Innovate, and then
focus on what obtains the best results. Houdini amazed
Europeans with his stunts, escaping from cuffs, chains,
prisoner-boxes, and jails. The police in Cologne, Germany
figured he was a fraud and said so. Houdini sued the police
department for slander and won his case in court, escaping
from the manacles especially designed by the police.

Houdini’s other public stunts included escaping from a
straightjacket; from a locked milk can filled with water and
locked inside an airtight case; from an operating table on
which physicians had strapped him down; from a Sangwar
Punishment Frame to which three Chinese men had roped
and chained him; from soaked sheets in which nurses had
wrapped him; from a solid leather, copper-riveted
punishment suit put on him by special sergeants to the U.S
Marine Corps. And in the Fall of 1912, Houdini introduced his
Chinese Water Torture Cell or Upside Down Escape. And then
he rapidly eliminated most of his other escapes, keeping, for

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one, his successful overboard-box innovation, the
Submerged Box Feat: Houdini had had himself lowered in an
iron-weighted box into New York Bay before a huge crowd.
The claim that he was the first to escape from an overboard
box was controversial. By the way, Osiris, the Egyptian god
of death and resurrection, was nailed into a box further
sealed with molten lead and cast into the Nile. Ironically,
after Houdini’s untimely death on Halloween 1926 (now
National Magic Day), his remains were taken to New York in
the metal casket in which he had undergone a live
underwater burial in New York’s Hotel Shelton pool.

Unseen techniques help create grand illusions. Indeed,
frustrated supernaturalists may actually believe the cosmos
is a grand magic show or illusion; Hindu fakirs may think the
tricksters themselves are tricked into tricking. Houdini was a
confident conman by trade, a master of deceit, but he was
no cheat. He practiced his art simply to amuse and entertain
audiences, not to make complete fools of them. Above all he
wanted the truth. For instance, an Egyptian fakir, one
Rahman Bey, claimed that he was able to survive being
submerged in water for one hour because he put himself into
a trance. Houdini seemingly disproved the claim by having
himself buried in an airtight casket under water for one hour
and thirty-one minutes, breathing easily to conserve oxygen.
He had an alarm bell and a telephone just in case; skeptics
opined that he had oxygen and carbon dioxide secreted in
the alarm bell apparatus. In any case, everyone knew
Houdini’s magic was just a trick, yet he did it so well that it
was difficult to believe that his tricks were tricks.

We know that Houdini was sorely offended by
spiritualists who preyed on grieving people who wanted to
contact their beloved ones on the Other Side; he went out of
his way to expose the frauds, making that part of his show.
Not that Houdini was faithless as far as the supernatural life
was concerned: he sorely wanted to make contact with his
departed mother, thus he took an inordinate interest in the
subject; his disappointment undoubtedly led to his campaign
against the charlatans. Still, he left the door open in case of
his own death, so that his wife might get word of his

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