Houdini Lives! (Or at Least He Does in Scranton, PA)

Houdini worked at becoming the greatest escapologist in history.

My youngest son has long been fascinated with magic, so last summer I decided it might be interesting to take the family on a day trip to somewhere with a magical theme. I'd seen a brochure for a museum that seemed to fit the bill, so we packed everybody into the car one day and headed up the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Scranton: a four hour trip.

The brochure was for the Houdini Museum. Now if you are not sure who Houdini was, don't feel too bad. He died over eighty years ago. When he was alive, however, he was probably the biggest, and certainly the most well paid, entertainer of his era. He didn't sing or dance and what little acting he did was a sideline. What Houdini did, however, and did well, was magic. His specialty was dangerous escape stunts.

Ehrich Weiss

Born in Hungaria in 1874 under the name Ehrich Weiss, Houdini moved with his parents to Appleton, Wisconsin, when he was four years old. According to his autobiography he started his show business career at age ten as a trapeze artist, under the moniker: "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air." By 1894 he was working as a professional magician, having taken the name Houdini in honor of the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Within a few years Houdini realized that the most popular part of his act was his escape from handcuffs and he decided to concentrate on becoming the greatest escapologist that ever lived. It isn't hard to argue that he succeeded.

Houdini was particularly known for dangerous acts involving water. The first of these was the "milk can" escape. Houdini would have himself locked in an oversized milk can overflowing with water with the idea that he would have only the time he could hold his breath to get free, or die.

Houdini's most famous trick was probably the dangerous Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Later, after many other magicians had copied the milk can trick, Houdini invented The Chinese Water Torture Cell which he took pains to have copyrighted so competitors couldn't steal his idea. His feet were placed in stocks and he was hung upside-down then lowered into the cell which was filled with water. The front of the cell was glass so the audience could see him in the giant tank for at least the first part of the trick as he started his escape.

Spiritualism, the supposed communication with the dead through a sensitive person (known as a medium) was popular in this era and Houdini also spent much of his time exposing psychic frauds. His understanding of the use of magical illusion help him debunk spiritual cheats where scientists often failed. Despite this opposition to spiritualism, however, Houdini managed to maintain a friendship for many years with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, a noted spiritualist and author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan-Doyle was so amazed by Houdini's tricks that he was convinced the magician could dematerialize himself and reappear somewhere else at will.

The Scranton Connection

I had pictured the Houdini Museum as sort of a modern building in a little park-like area with perhaps a huge picture of the master of magic out front. Instead, the directions seemed to take us into a residential section of Scranto, one of the older, less maintained sections to boot. The address was 1433 North Main Ave. We checked each block as it went by 1200…1300…1400…1500. Oops, we must have missed it. I turned the car around and when back. About mid-block we saw it. A large, older house converted to a business. There was indeed a portrait of Houdini painted at the second floor level, but with most of the building's original windows boarded over, the place tended to look more like a liquor store at the ground level than a museum. My wife took one look at the place and seemed doubtful, the kind of look I know that means "…you dragged us three hours up the turnpike for this?"

The interior of the Houdini Museum.

A sign out front directed us to park in back. I pulled around the block then behind the building via a rear street, well, really an alley, and into the rear parking lot, which admittedly appeared more like somebody's back yard. My wife seemed more doubtful than ever. Despite this we lined up at the rear entrance to wait the ten minutes or so for the museum to open. While we were standing there listening to a tinny speaker play music from the 1920's, another family lined up behind us. That made me feel a lot better. At least my wife couldn't claim I was the only father to drag his family here…

The door opened right on time and a woman took our money, than started a tour of the house. The building was certainly full of Houdini memorabilia - posters, props, personal items owned by Houdini. They even had one of the milk cans Houdini used for his escape act. The tour guide invited the group to hold their breath as she talked about the can to see if any of us could match Houdini's ability. He was reputed to be able to hold his breath for over four minutes. I am a man of few skills, but one thing I excel in is holding my breath. After a good two minutes plus - fifteen seconds longer than any one else in the group - I finally gave in, unable to equal Houdini's performance. Still, for having the best lung capacity in the tour group I won a prize: a fingernail file emblazoned with the museum's slogan Houdini Lives! I treasure it even today.

With the museum tour over we were ushered into a room at the front of the house that had been converted to a small theater. Our guide now changed to a man with a mustache that introduced himself as Dick Brooks. Mr. Brooks showed us some video about the museum and gave us its history. You might wonder what connection Scranton has with Houdini. After all he was born in Hungaria and spent his early years in Appleton, Wisconsin (later, Houdini - in a feat of legerdemain worthy of such a magician - would mysteriously change his birthplace to Appleton). Appleton has a Houdini historical center, which makes sense, but where is the connection with Scranton? Well, Houdini did play Scranton on several occasions, but the museum location stems not from the master magician so much as from one of his fans. Brooks' father followed Houdini's career closely acquiring any props, letters and posters associated with him that he could. The museum was founded upon this collection.

Houdini enclosed in a overflowing milkcan. Was this the one in the Scranton Museum?

The third part of the Houdini experience was a show performed live on stage. Our tour guide from earlier magically transformed herself into Dorothy Dietrich, a nationally-known illusionist. Dietrich, along with Brooks, heads up the museum and performs there on a regular basis. Dietrich (like Houdini) is noted for tackling potentially-dangerous tricks like catching a bullet in her teeth and dangling from a burning rope while escaping from a straight jacket. Dietrich did neither of these at the museum that day - thank goodness - but did do an impressive show of legerdemain my family and I enjoyed.

For the final portion of the day Brooks returned under the guise of Bravo the Great! to demonstrate some of the tricks available in the museum's shop. Brooks is a magician of some note himself and for a number of years he and Dietrich ran New York City's Magic Towne House before setting up the Houdini Museum.

Mysterious Death

Houdini died under mysterious circumstances. The story has it that McGill University student, J. Gordon Whitehead, went to Houdini backstage asking if it was true that Houdini could take any blow to the stomach. Houdini said it was and Whitehead punched him three times before the magician had time to prepare. Two days later, at the Garrick theater in Detroit, Michigan, on October 24, 1926, Houdini did his last performance and was hospitalized after the show with a ruptured appendix. He died a week later on Halloween. For many years Whitehead was blamed for his death, but modern medical analysis suggests that Houdini's appendix problem preceded the attack, but one has to wonder if the pain from the blows masked the appendicitis.

Did Spiritualists Kill Houdini?

There has long been a rumor that Houdini didn't die of a ruptured appendix, but was poisoned by some spiritualists in revenge for the frauds he was exposing. While there seems little hard evidence to support this, in 2007 George Hardeen, whose grandfather was Houdini's brother, filed papers with the court to have the magician's remains exhumed and tested. Hardeen admits that even if something is found there is little that can be done eighty years later "except set the record straight."

"It's a curiosity to me, just as it is to anyone else" he said.

Always fearful that psychic frauds would claim they had heard from Houdini beyond the grave, he had worked out a secret code with his wife. Though a séance was held each year on Halloween night following his death, no coded messages were ever received from Houdini. After a decade his wife announced that "ten years is long enough to wait for any man" and discontinued the yearly affair, though other magicians , including Dietrich and Brooks at the museum, still keep alive the tradition of holding a Halloween séance in remembrance of Houdini.

The Scranton museum's collection is one of the few places where actual props used by the master magician can still be seen by the public. Houdini willed most of his materials to his brother,Theodore Hardeen, who was also a magician, so Hardeen could continue to use them with the understanding that they would be "burned and destroyed" upon the brother's death, therefore concealing Houdini's secrets forever. Hardeen, however, decided to sell them to collector Sidney H. Radner instead. Some of the best pieces from Radner's collection were displayed at a Houdini Museum at Niagara Falls until a mysterious fire in 1995 destroyed most of the props. One can only wonder if this was the master magician finally reaching out from beyond the grave to have his will fulfilled…

Currently, admission to the Scranton museum is $12.99 for adults, $9.99 for children. For that you get hours of entertainment and a very worthwhile afternoon. There is something special about seeing people doing what they love and it is obvious that Dietrich and Brooks love magic and being caretakers of the Houdini collection. It makes the museum more than just a building filled with old props. It makes it a building filled with, well...magic.


Copyright 2007 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.