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Unlocking the secrets of Houdini's enduring magic

By Laura Allsop (CNN)
  • Harry Houdini's infamous magic apparatus in New York exhibition
  • Houdini used everyday objects in his stunts but made them extraordinary
  • Exhibition includes diaries never seen by public before
  • Jeff Taylor, magic historian: "Truly, death was the ultimate escape for him"

(CNN) -- Though he died nearly a century ago, the legendary illusionist Harry Houdini remains one of the best-known magicians of all time.

His infamous escapes -- from straitjackets while suspended high in the air, and from coffins, locked trunks and outsize milk cans -- made him a household name across the world at the beginning of the 20th century.

"This is a guy that here it is, 85 years after his death, he is still as well known today -- everybody knows who Houdini was," said Jeff Taylor, director of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan.

Houdini's stunts and tricks relied heavily on "magic apparatus" or stage props, including the "Metamorphosis Trunk," his handcuffs and the"Water Torture Cell," among others.

"They weren't exotic props, for example the metamorphosis trunk is like a packing trunk or a steamer trunk that an immigrant community would have instant identification with," said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, curator of "Houdini: Art and Magic" at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Once the secret is revealed, it's not as compelling
--Brooke Kamin Rapaport, curator, Jewish Museum on Houdini's tricks

The exhibition, she said, shows many of these props and reveals how the Hungarian-American's incredible stunts were grounded in the everyday life of the common man.

Though Houdini's fans included rich and poor, to the immigrant communities he was not just an entertainer, he was a "superhero" and one of the first major celebrities of the new media age, said Rapaport.

"I think that people in immigrant communities would have looked on Houdini's feats in a very symbolic way; that they weren't just stunts but they were symbols because he symbolized to that community the ability to liberate oneself, that you could escape from oppression or constraints," she added.

Houdini was born Ehric Weiss in Budapest in 1874 and moved to America with his family as a child. He began performing tricks for a five-cent circus aged nine but it wasn't until 1899 that he was discovered by a vaudeville booking agent.

On view at the Jewish Museum are two diaries kept by Houdini, both of which are from private collections and have never been displayed publicly before.

One is from the period just before he became famous, in 1898, and one from 1916, after he had achieved fame for his astonishing escapes.

They include lowering himself into New York's East River in a crate wrapped in chains, from which he escaped and then swam to the surface, escaping from a glass-fronted box filled with water known as the "Water Torture Cell," into which he had been inserted upside down and manacled bridge jumps.

A skilful user of the new media of the time, Houdini made sure that his exploits were captured on camera and later on film. According to Taylor, his public stunts -- which attracted crowds of thousands -- were really a way of drumming up publicity for his shows.

And from 1919, Houdini moved into celluloid proper, producing and acting in silent films that usually featured elaborate escapes from assorted villains.

Also on view at the Jewish Museum are works of contemporary art that show the magician's enduring appeal to artists and contemporary culture.

Artist Jane Hammond presents a painting referencing Houdini's famous trick of pulling a string of needles out of his mouth.

Truly, death was the ultimate escape for him
--Jeff Taylor, Director, American Museum of Magic

"I think there are a lot of interesting consonances between art and magic, and you know artists want their art to be transformative and to be magical," she said.

Fans curious to find out how exactly Houdini managed these extraordinary feats will have to get their insights elsewhere.

Adhering to a strict "magician's code," the Jewish Museum will not reveal Houdini's secrets or allow visitors to look inside his props.

"Once the secret is revealed, it's not as compelling," said Rapaport.

"The objects don't hold that significance and that drama once we know how they're done," she added.

Despite his incredible physical strength, Houdini was not invincible and died on Halloween in 1926 from a ruptured appendix, thought have been caused by a student testing Houdini's famed ability to withstand any blow to the body.

"I think it came to a point where the audience expected that he would keep upping the ante," said Rapaport. "And he never disappointed, he really continued to do that throughout his career.

"It's always bigger and better with magicians," said Taylor.

In the end, he said, Houdini's greatest feat lay in his enduring popularity.

"Truly, death was the ultimate escape for him; the fact that he is still so well known this many years after his death, you know, there's not a lot of entertainers can say that," he said.

"Houdini: Art and Magic" travels to Los Angeles in the Spring, then San Francisco and finally to Madison, Wisconsin.