Basia Lewandowska Cummings is currently completing her A levels and will be studying social anthropology at SOAS next year.

Now you see him...

© FPG/Getty Images

"Ehrich, Prince of Air", "The Handcuff King", "The Great Houdini!" – the master of glittering trickery had a penchant for reinvention. Born in Hungary in 1874, Ehrich Weiss moved with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin and later erased his roots and changed his birth certificate in favour of being "fully American" and to comply with his new celebrity. "Ehrich Weiss" was far too dowdily European for a rising star and so he renamed himself in homage to the great French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, being told to put an "i" after it, meaning to say "to be like".

Houdini first worked as an apprentice at a locksmith's, where he learned the intimate workings of the tool he was later to defy as the world's greatest escapologist. He was a cross-country runner, a trapeze artist, then in 1899 managed to break into the Vaudeville circuit, with a leg-up from Martin Beck, a theatre owner whom he met in a beer hall. He began travelling Europe and took to challenging local police – not before submitting himself to a full body search – to bind him in chains, locks and cuffs. In 1913, to outdo a growing number of imitators, he invented an act that would remain unparalleled: The Chinese Water Torture Cell. Bound in chains, suspended upside-down with his feet locked into a steel frame, Houdini would be submerged into a glass-and-iron cage filled to the brim with water. Within three minutes he would wriggle out of his chains and take a deep bow, wearing nothing but a little sodden pair of pants.

A real-life Superman, his fame spread internationally. Something about Houdini was intoxicating. America had liberated its people, yet simultaneously shackled them into a remorseless circuit of material production and consumption, chained to a market of apparent luxury and comfort. Houdini became a verb. In the 1920 edition of the Funk & Wagnall's dictionary, "Houdinize" meant "to release or extricate oneself (from confinement, bonds or the like) as by wriggling out". He represented, and still represents, the ultimate escape.

Where are the Houdinis of our time? David Blaine? There surely is a substantial qualitative gap. And most of it lies in how they perceive and hence portray themselves. In 1926, after being locked in an airtight bronze coffin for an hour and a half, a journalist asked Houdini, "Had it been rigged?" He replied, "There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie in a coffin and breathe quietly." The answers that spout from Blaine are far more ambiguous: "I will show you something that will transcend the mind." No thanks. Show me scantily clad handcuff acts, not a forty-day fast unpleasantly echoing some biblical sacrifice. And it seems the British public are with me on that; pelting him with eggs and cakes; some page-three models even flashed for his hungry pleasure. Comedian Marcus Brigstocke claimed his "Drowned Alive" act showed Blaine is "not special; not magic; just a moistened git."

Houdini did not shroud himself in a mystical, spiritual cloak, nor claim to be "transcending" anything. He was a sworn enemy and active investigator of the Spiritualist movement of the time, infiltrating seances in disguise and exposing them as a fraud, which brought him the lasting enmity of their followers like Arthur Conan Doyle. As a magician, he merely escaped, time and time again – reminding us that our freedom could be one of many illusions.

Houdini died on Hallowe'en night, 1926. His death has been subject to wild speculations, and his relatives are currently pressing for his body to be exhumed and the causes clarified. We will see. Part of me won't be surprised if it turns out he Houdinized himself out of his last stunt, and is escaping still.

Houdini, lowered into the East River, New York, in 1912, returned to the surface within one minute of the box sinking below the water © FPG/Getty Images



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