Straightjackets, jail cells, coffins, and all sorts of chains, locks and shackles couldn't confine Harry Houdini. A master illusionist whose daring stunts remain legend eight decades after his death, Houdini was the first superstar of magic. But how much do we really know about him? The new History Channel movie "Houdini," airing over two nights Sept. 1 and 2 with Adrien Brody in the title role, explores his life and his psyche — and reveals how he accomplished some of his greatest tricks. We see Houdini hiding a key inside a false finger and making the long-silent Kremlin carillon ring for Czar Nicholas and his family by having an associate fire a rifle at the bell on cue.
But even more startling is the revelation that he worked undercover for many years, spying on royalty and political leaders of Europe for the American and British governments.
The book "The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero" by William Kalush and Larry Sloman goes deeper into Houdini's espionage adventures and divulges more "how he did it" secrets about his magic too. The book paints a comprehensive picture of the magician's colorful life. Some highlights:
1. Houdini employed several methods of escape from handcuffs, leg irons and jail cells. He'd hide a key or a lock pick under his foot or in his bushy hair with adhesive, in a hollowed-out compartment of a shoe, or rely on an accomplice who would palm the key in his hand, to be retrieved by Houdini when they shook hands.
2. If he could inspect a jail cell in advance, Houdini might plant his escape tool in a bar of soap or under a bench. Houdini similarly smuggled keys and picks into the boxes, milk cans, water tanks and other containers that confined him in his act, manipulating them with his teeth or specially designed extension rods.
3. Sometimes he would have the opportunity to use rigged handcuffs. The manacles would lock securely when held upright, but snap open when they were turned upside-down.
4. Houdini's access to heads of state and power players on his frequent trips to Europe, his fluency in German, and special abilities like subterfuge and sleight of hand made him an ideal candidate for espionage. Recruited by the British Secret Service, he passed along vital information he learned while performing for Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas of Russia.
5. Houdini took his stage name from magician Robert-Houdin, whose autobiography inspired him. Born in Hungary in 1874 as Erik Weisz (later changed at Ellis Island to Ehrich Weiss when his family emigrated to America), he performed as, Ehrich the Great early in his career.
6. Houdini was quite the athlete. He ran track, excelled at gymnastics and was an amateur boxer, all of which gave him the endurance, stamina and strength needed to perform difficult stunts.
7. An early aficionado of aviation, Houdini learned to pilot his own Voisin biplane and was the third person to fly across Australia in 1910.
8. In December 1914, Houdini was summoned to a private meeting at the White House with President Woodrow Wilson, who told him, "I envy your ability of escaping out of tight places. Sometimes I wish I were able to do the same."
(But Wilson couldn't evade the conflict raging in Europe. In April 1917, America declared war on Germany and joined World War I.)
9. During World War I, Houdini entertained troops and held classes for soldiers, demonstrating how to escape from ropes, handcuffs and shipwrecks.
10. Intrigued by spiritualism, Houdini included clairvoyant elements in his act and became fascinated by the idea of communicating with the dead after his beloved mother died. But his interest turned into indignation at mediums preying on the public and he made it his mission to discredit them, including Lady Jean Doyle, wife of his friend and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In an article Houdini wrote, "In the twenty-five years of my investigation and the hundreds of séances which I have attended, I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communications with the loved ones who have gone beyond."
11. Nevertheless, his wife Bess held on to the possibility. She continued to attend séances after his death, hoping to contact him.
12. Houdini made several movies that showed off his escape skills including "Terror Island," "The Man From Beyond," "Haldane of the Secret Service" and "The Master Mystery," in which he played an undercover agent for the justice department. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, dedicated posthumously.
13. Narrowly escaping death many times in his act, Houdini died in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926, from peritonitis due to a ruptured, infected appendix. The week before, he'd been punched in the stomach by a college student challenging the magician's much-boasted-about abdominal strength. The incident may have contributed to and aggravated his condition.
14. Houdini was the longest-serving president of the Society of American Magicians, from 1917-1926. Every year on the anniversary of his death, the organization holds a broken wand ceremony at his grave at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York.
15. A commemorative postage stamp depicting Houdini was issued in 2002. Price: 34 cents.
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