Handcuff King. Escape Artist. International Superstar. Since his death eighty years ago, Harry Houdini's life has been chronicled in books, in film, and on television. Now, in this groundbreaking biography, renowned magic expert William Kalush and best-selling writer Larry Sloman team up to find the man behind the myth. Drawing from millions of pages of research, they describe in vivid detail the passions that drove Houdini to perform ever-more-dangerous feats, his secret life as a spy, and a pernicious plot to subvert his legacy.
After years of struggling on the dime museum circuit, Harry Houdini got a break that put him on the front page of a Chicago newspaper. He never looked back. Soon Houdini was performing for royalty, commanding vast sums, and exploring the new power of Hollywood to expand on his legend.
At a time when spy agencies frequently co-opted amateurs, Houdini went to London and developed a relationship with a man who would run MI-5. For the next several years, the world's most famous magician traveled to Germany and Russia and routinely reported his findings.
After World War I was successfully concluded, Houdini embarked on a battle of his own. He created a group of disguised field operatives to infiltrate the seamy world of fake spirit mediums. In doing so, Houdini triggered the wrath of fanatical Spiritualists, led by the esteemed British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Death threats became an everyday occurrence, but the group would pose an even greater danger to Houdini's legacy.
Rigorously researched, and as exciting as a good thriller, The Secret Life of Houdini traces the arc of the master magician's life from desperate poverty to worldwide legend, initiating the reader along the way into the arcane world of professional magic. In this remarkable book, Kalush and Sloman decode a life based on deception, providing an intimate and riveting portrayal of Houdini, the man and the legend.
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October 31, 2006
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Excerpt from The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush
The first shovel-load missed his torso and struck his neck, sending soil flying up his nostrils and into his mouth. He started choking and coughing.
"Sorry, boss," Collins said, looking down into the hole. "I guess the wind took it."
Stay calm. Conserve energy. Keep the heart rate down.
Collins and Vickery continued to fill the cavity with moist Santa Ana soil. They had been at this since a little past dawn and their arms were beginning to ache with fatigue. They could only imagine how he must feel. Subconsciously, they moved into a rhythm, one scraping his shovel into the mounds of dirt piled high around them, the other sending his payload straight down into the dank hole. Vickery thought of how his friends would react when he told them of Harry's latest stunt. Of course, that would have to wait until after it was performed. He'd never forget that oath of secrecy that he'd sworn and how seriously Harry seemed to take it.
Am I pushing myself too hard? I'm forty-one but I look fifty. I'm so gray.
Vickery began to admit to himself his concern. He had expected his boss to have no problem with the one- and even the two-foot "plantings," as he called them, and he didn't. But the four- and five-foot escapes seemed to really have taken something out of him. What if he hurt himself now, like the time he did in Buffalo? Ever since Harry had burst that blood vessel getting out of those chains, he was in such intense chronic pain he'd had to sleep with a pillow under his left kidney. Vickery never forgave himself for allowing those bastards to pull the chains so tight.
It's so much hotter down here. How can a few feet make such a difference? I'm starting to feel faint. Stay calm.
By now the dirt had almost completely covered Houdini's body. The shackles that held his ankles together were completely buried, and the content of two or three more shovelfuls would obscure the last traces of the handcuffs. He knew that his head would be covered next so he braced for the assault of the heavy soil, so as not to eat some again.
This would be so much easier if I did it in a coffin. We could gimmick a plank. I'd be able to disperse so much more soil using that instead of my bare hands. I'd be out in half the time.
As soon as he was completely covered by the soil, he began to go to work. Even though his assistants were still filling in the last of the grave, he swiftly slipped out of the cuffs, crouched into a fetal position, and began working on the leg irons. Within seconds, he was free of them too. Now all he had to do was work his way up against the loose earth, slowly, methodically, timing it so that he would be just below the ground when they had finished filling in the hole. Then he'd claw through the loose topsoil and literally escape the grave. But he didn't figure on panicking.
It wasn't the eerie darkness or the complete silence down there that horrified him; he had grown accustomed to that. It was the sudden realization that he was six feet underground -- the legal requirement for corpses -- that sent a chill up his spine.
What if I die here? What a field day they'd have in the papers. Houdini Digs His Own Grave. I'd be a laughingstock.
He gasped involuntarily. Now he began to claw and knee the soil without any concern that he'd get out before they had finished filling in the hole. But that momentary scare -- the irretrievable mistake of all daredevils -- had wasted a fraction of his breath, when every last fraction was needed to get out of the hole. Up above, Collins and Vickery and the others in the party had no idea of the drama that was unfolding four feet below them.
No! This can't be! Out! Get out! GET OUT!