The Secret Life of Houdini NPR coverage of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Secret Life of Houdini

The Secret Life of Houdini

The Making of America's First Superhero

by William Kalush and Larry Sloman

Hardcover, 592 pages, Pocket Books, List Price: $29.95 |


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The Secret Life of Houdini
The Making of America's First Superhero
William Kalush and Larry Sloman

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Book Summary

Draws on newly uncovered archives to reveal Houdini's secret work as a spy for the United States and England, his post-war efforts to expose the fraudulent activities of spiritualist mediums, and the plot organized by Arthur Conan Doyle to have him murdered.

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Excerpt: The Secret Life Of Houdini


The Oath

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!

All of a sudden the weight of the earth above him felt like a thousand tons. His body stiffened and for one quick second he smelled the acrid odor of death. And then, for the first time in his life, he screamed for help. But that just made it worse. There was no way they could hear him, and now he was squandering what little air and energy he had left. He started pawing at the dirt above him like a wild animal, scratching his hands and arms on the coarse soil. He had long abandoned his slow, steady rhythmic breathing and now he was operating on pure instinct, swallowing and inhaling as much soil as air in one last desperate attempt to escape.

On the ground, Collins put down his shovel and took out his watch. When it passed the ten-minute mark, he looked at Vickery with concern.

"If he's not up in thirty seconds, we better go get him," he said. Vickery nodded grimly. The clock slowly ticked off the requisite seconds, and then, just as Collins and Vickery grabbed their shovels and started to frantically dig, the earth suddenly burst open and expelled a bloody, battered, and filthy Houdini, grateful for that measure of fresh, cool, California air.

"Come, come. Push, push. It's almost over."

Anne Fleischmann was urging Cecilia Weisz on, alternately wiping her brow and giving her some ice chips to suck on. On March 24, 1874, the small room at RÁkosÁrok utca 1. sz. had been emptied, the three young boys sent out to play. Only a few neighbors were there as Anne expertly cradled the baby's head and turned it slightly to allow the shoulders to emerge. She gently grabbed the baby's chest as the rest of the bloody body was expelled from the womb.

"Another boy!" Anne said, expertly clipping the umbilical cord and swathing the child in a clean sheet. Then she presented little Erik to his mother, who immediately nestled him to her bosom, where her heartbeat seemed to have a soothing effect on the newborn. It was a sanctuary to which he would often return, that steady heartbeat and her warm caress, a place where the woes of the world could be forgotten.

Of course, a newborn meant another mouth to feed, and another warm body to share this typically small "room-and-kitchen" flat in the predominately Jewish section of Pest, part of the newly consolidated town of Budapest, Hungary. That made four sons now for Mayer Samuel Weisz, who had recently graduated law school. One could only assume that Mayer Samuel would make a very eloquent solicitor if the story of the courtship of his future wife was any indication.

Weisz had been a recent widower, his first wife having died during or shortly after giving birth to their son Armin. Perhaps to escape the memories, he moved from the Hungarian countryside to Budapest, a thriving, tolerant, cosmopolitan city destined to become one of the great showpieces of Europe. In Pest a friend of his, in obvious homage to his charisma, asked him to intervene for him in an affair of the heart. His friend was in love with a pretty young maiden, Cecilia Steiner, but he was too shy to make his intentions known to her. Mayer Samuel, who knew Cecilia's mother and her three daughters well, took on this assignment and called upon Cecilia at the small apartment that she shared with her family. Somewhere in the middle of his loquacious address, he realized that he was no proxy; he was expressing his own heartfelt sentiments. And Cecilia, moved, reciprocated. This verbal expression was followed with a formal written marriage proposal, a letter in which, according to family legend, Mayer Samuel documented his whole life history, "telling Her everything, so no one could ever come to Her and relate things."

They married in 1863 and by 1876 Mayer Samuel Weisz had set off for a new life in America. With Weisz already overseas, Cecilia and the five children sailed from Hamburg for New York on June 19, 1878. They traveled on the Frisia, a six-year-old 364-foot, three-and-a-half-thousand-ton steamship that was powered by a single screw propeller with its one smokestack supplemented by two masts. One could only imagine what memories the young boys had of this fateful trip to America. Armin, fifteen by now, was charged to help Cecilia mind the other boys for she had her hands full with little four-year-old Erik and the two-year-old Dezso. The family traveled in steerage. Cecilia's ticket cost $30 and that afforded her and her sons the privilege of being packed like cattle below the deck in a fetid, poorly lit and ventilated dormitory that held 620 people. Luckily, on this particular voyage the ship was less than half full, which allowed Cecilia to spread out over several cots instead of just one.

They arrived in New York on July 3 and were processed at the Castle Garden immigration building, where each of them received a new name. Since Cecilia didn't speak English, her responses to the officials were in German. So their names became English variants of German names. Armin became Herman, eight-year-old Natan just had an "h" added, six-year-old Gottfried Vilmos was dubbed William, Erik turned into Ehrich, and Ferencz Dezso was officially named Theo — later to be nicknamed Dash — and the family name became Weiss. Cecilia was reunited in New York with her mother and two sisters, who had emigrated earlier, but by September, the entire Weiss family was together again in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Appleton was a stark contrast to the cramped tenement buildings of New York. Only in existence for twenty-five years, it still had the feel in some ways of a frontier outpost. For the first three years of the Weisses' residence there, livestock were allowed to run free in the streets of the city. It took an additional year for a sewer system to be built and another year to get municipal water flowing (although the system was too primitive to be used above the ground floor of buildings). On the other hand, with a long established college, Lawrence University, a soon-to-open Opera House, and as a regular stop on the lecture circuit, there was a sense of culture that set Appleton apart from its sleepy farm-based small Midwestern town counterparts.

And for Mayer Samuel Weiss, it had one advantage. He was a friend of one of the town's most prominent businessmen. David Hammel was a clear example of the assimilationist spirit of many Eastern European Jews. He ran several businesses, including a lumberyard, a mill, and a wheat farm. But most of all, he was connected in local politics. Mayer Samuel Weiss came to Appleton with no knowledge of English but with a craving for respectability. Back home he had been a soap maker, but by the time they left the country he had taken law courses and was a practicing solicitor. But this was a different world, and when his friend Hammel told him that the town needed a rabbi, he didn't hesitate.

"Okay, that's me," said Mayer Samuel.

So he donned his robes and began conducting services in a makeshift temple, earning $750 a year. At first "the Hebrews of this city," as a local newspaper called them, seemed pleased with the services of their "able" rabbi and hoped that he would "remain permanently among us." His particular forte seemed to be wise words of counsel at milestone events like weddings and funerals. Even though he conducted all his ceremonies and homilies in German, his addresses commanded "the most profound respect."

Morality lessons weren't just reserved for the pulpit. When Ehrich was only five years old, his father noticed his son playing with some large iron spikes. Further inquiries disclosed that Ehrich had taken them from a local construction site where a bridge was being built.

"This is theft!" the rabbi thundered. "Theft cannot be tolerated, especially in this household, especially by the son of a rabbi."

Ehrich was ushered back to the scene of the crime, where he was forced to replace the spikes and confess his guilt to the foreman. He was a decent child, ready to learn from his mistakes and to accept the wisdom of his elders. And he certainly had a winning personality. When Ehrich was about seven, he happened upon his teacher on the streets of Appleton. She smiled and wished him "good morning," but the boy just mumbled in embarrassment. The teacher looked him square in his steel-blue eyes. "When a gentleman meets a lady, Ehrich, he should take off his hat and bow." With that he took off, sprinted around the block, timing it so he would meet her at the next corner, where, to her astonishment, he doffed his cap and bowed reverentially.

With its open spaces, parks, and woods, Appleton was the ideal playground for a young child, and it was here that Ehrich began to display an athletic prowess that would blossom later in his life. It started when he was barely seven and went to see a traveling street circus that was passing through Appleton. He tolerated the clowns and the acrobats, but he was positively enthralled by a man in tights who climbed twenty feet up into the air to a small platform, where he was about to walk across a taut wire that had been stretched between two poles. Keeping his center of gravity low by using a long curved pole, Jean Weitzman, Ehrich's instant hero, began to slowly walk across that wire. Ehrich held his breath as he realized that just one small misstep would send Weitzman to an almost certain death. The fact that a performer was risking his life right in front of him was both inconceivable and thrilling. Step by step, Weitzman navigated that wire, and when he made it to the far pole, the whole crowd cheered. But Ehrich was even more amazed when he saw Weitzman perform a routine where he suspended himself from the high wire by his teeth.

That afternoon Ehrich rushed home, scrounged up some rope, and tied it between two trees an appropriate distance apart. The first time he tried to balance on the rope, he fell to the ground so violently that he could barely get up again. But he persevered and soon was adept at walking the tightrope. His replication of hanging by the teeth was not quite as successful. He hadn't realized that Weitzman used a mouthpiece for that feat. "Out came a couple of front teeth," Houdini remembered, "but luckily they grew back again."

These early years in Appleton were, in retrospect, idyllic years for the Weisses. There were two new additions to the family, a boy Leopold, and finally, a girl named Gladys. In June of 1882, Mayer Samuel and his children embraced their new country by becoming citizens of the United States. Then disaster struck. Rabbi Weiss's congregation revolted, with a faction believing that he was too old and too antiquated in his ways for their tastes.

"One morning my father awoke to find himself thrown upon the world, his long locks of hair having silvered in service, with seven children to feed, without a position, and without any visible means of support," Houdini said. "We thereon moved to Milwaukee, Wis., where such hardships and hunger became our lot that the less said on the subject the better."

Settling in Milwaukee in December of 1882, the Weisses became almost nomadic; at least four addresses in four years suggested that they were keeping one step ahead of the rent collector. The boys were all put to work; Ehrich sold newspapers in front of the Plankington House and shined shoes. Some days his younger brother Theo would assist him. One day, the two boys accumulated more than $2, which Theo deposited in the pocket of his overcoat. They caught a ride home on a sled and on arrival discovered that Theo had lost the change. Cecilia was near tears, but Ehrich quickly conceived a plan to remedy the damage. He grabbed Theo and with his last nickel in hand, they went to a nearby florist shop. He bought a flower, went outside, and quickly sold it for a dime. They marched back to the florist shop and bought two flowers and this time both boys sold theirs for a dime. A few hours later they were back home with a fresh $2 in change, the fruits of the nine-year-old's resourcefulness.

Ehrich Weiss hadn't even made a dent in the heavy handcuffs when the hacksaw blade snapped in two — for the sixth time — which did not amuse the unusually large, repellently ugly man who had the misfortune of currently being fettered by those resilient manacles.

"You're lucky that blade didn't cut me up," the man snarled ominously.

Ehrich swallowed hard. He didn't want to show that he was scared, never wanted to do that, but he was. He didn't even know if it was possible to saw through the cuffs and he certainly didn't want to disappoint his boss, Mr. Hanauer. Ehrich had been a fixture at Hanauer's shop on Appleton Street since he was a little kid living around the corner. It wasn't the guns that Hanauer sold; those didn't really interest him. Ehrich was fascinated by the locks. He had always been intrigued by all types of locks and fasteners and hardware, practicing at home by opening the drawers, closets, and pantries of his house at will, using a small buttonhook. He had become notorious in Appleton as the boy who had unlocked all the doors to the shops on College Avenue one night. Now that he had turned eleven, and since things were so hard in Milwaukee, his parents had decided to send Ehrich back to Appleton to start a formal apprenticeship with Hanauer.

But this was baptism by fire. The sheriff had come into the shop one day, with a behemoth of a prisoner in tow. He was the scariest and ugliest person Ehrich had ever seen — sporting a bristly beard punctuated by a long, ominous-looking blue-white scar.

"John, for some unknown reason, the justice found this here feller innocent as charged, but my damn key broke off in the lock," the sheriff explained. "Think you can saw through this?"

Just as Hanauer started examining the cuffs, he realized it was lunch time. He called Ehrich aside.

"Ehrie, get a hacksaw and cut that handcuff off. I'm going out for a drink with the sheriff."

Hanauer was known to throw back a few beers at lunch, a daily ritual that usually took him fifty-five minutes, but with ten minutes left Ehrich still hadn't gotten the bracelets off.

The hacksaw was out of the question. He couldn't smash the cuffs off. In fact, he wasn't too comfortable about being in a store alone with this guy and a case full of handguns and derringers, even if he was handcuffed. Then, suddenly, he remembered his buttonhook. Ehrich had customized it over the years, and it had proved infallible in opening the occasional door or desk drawer. Why not use it on a handcuff lock? They were more sophisticated but maybe, just maybe . . .

But no, it was too big. Unperturbed, he fashioned another one out of piano wire. The giant man eyed him with suspicion.

He slowly inserted the pick into one of the cuff locks.

"Can you just look away for a second?" Ehrich asked politely. The last thing he wanted was for this guy to see how he was going to open the cuffs.

"Like hell I can," the giant said. And he almost stared a hole in the cuffs.

Ehrich had no choice. Fumbling from nerves, he awkwardly stuck his pick in the mechanism of the cuff. And, to both his and the prisoner's amazement, after about a minute, the cuff clicked open. It took him half the time to get the other cuff open.

To Ehrich's great relief, the sheriff and Hanauer entered the shop just then.

"Well, you're free to go. But if I was you, I'd put a little distance between myself and the great municipality of Appleton," the sheriff said.

The giant was too stunned to move. He picked up the cuffs and examined them. It was then that the other men realized that Ehrich hadn't sawed through them. He had figured out a way to defeat them.

Hanauer took the cuffs from the prisoner and gave them the once-over. He turned to his apprentice.

"That is good work, Ehrich," he said. "That is damned good work."

This trivial incident would change the whole course of Ehrich's life. "The very manner in which I then picked the lock of the handcuff contained the basic principle which I employed in opening handcuffs all over the world. Not with a duplicate key, which seems to have been the only way others had of duplicating my performance." But in doing so, Houdini gave his secret away to the prisoner. "He is the only person in the world beside my wife who knows how I open locks, and I have never heard from him since," he remembered.

Working in a locksmith's shop wasn't really in Ehrich's blood. He still idolized Weitzman, the high-wire wizard. So when Jack Hoeffler, an Appleton friend who was a few years older than him, decided to put on a five-cent circus, Ehrich convinced his mother to darn him long red woolen stockings to simulate the proper tights that professional acrobats wore. He was billed as "Ehrich, the Prince of the Air," and his act probably consisted of swinging from ropes and doing contortionist feats and acrobatic tumbling on an old field in the Sixth Ward that Hoeffler had located.

Houdini always marked the October 28, 1883 Jack Hoeffler 5-Cent Circus performance as his legitimate entrance into show business. He earned thirty-five cents. But more important, he was continuing to develop the skill sets that would serve him well in the future. By 1919, Houdini could look back on this sandlot performance as another turning point. "My training as a contortionist was, of course, the first step toward my present occupation of escaping from strait-jackets and chains, for it is chiefly through my ability to twist my body and dislocate my joints, together with abnormal expansion and contraction powers, which renders me independent of the tightest bonds. Thus, to any young man who has in mind a career similar to mine, I would say: 'First try bending over backward and picking up a pin with your teeth from the floor.' . . . That was my first stunt."

With the show business bug running through his veins, Ehrich "made a bolt for the door" and returned to his family in Milwaukee. It wasn't a far stretch for his interests to widen from gymnastics and acrobatics to magic. Young Ehrich was a voracious reader, thanks largely to the influence of his father, who had a most impressive library of theology books. He began by devouring the biblical tales and the Talmudic legends in the rabbi's collection, but the first book that he purchased himself was a ten-cent pamphlet, "pilfered from the pages of a magician named Hoffma[n]," that he found in a small bookshop in Appleton. Now back in Milwaukee, he began to frequent the public library, reading books at random, exploring the boundaries of his inquisitive mind.

Dr. Lynn was a magician and a good one. His thrice-daily shows at London's famous Egyptian Hall had captured the imagination of the British public. Lynn performed many of the then-standard effects — decapitation and restoration of a pigeon, spiritualistic table-rappings, rope ties, and aerial suspensions — but what set Dr. Lynn apart from his contemporaries was his marvelous stage patter. Lynn would crack deadpan jokes, tell long shaggy dog anecdotes, slyly insult volunteers from the audience, all the time diverting the audience's attention from the effect he was performing. After thus mystifying the crowd, he'd solemnly pronounce, "That's how it's done," which had become an instant catchphrase in England.

So when Dr. Lynn came to Milwaukee during a U.S. tour, Rabbi Weiss, cognizant of Ehrich's budding interest in magic, brought his twelve-year-old to the show. The effect that forever changed the young boy had the grandiose title of "Palingenesia."

Dr. Lynn solemnly announced that he was going to "cut somebody into pieces." At this, a somber-looking young man appeared onstage, carrying a large scimitar in his right hand and a black cloth over his left arm. He could have easily been mistaken for an executioner.

Dr. Lynn kept up a steady stream of patter, maintaining that he was working "strictly in the interests of science to expand our knowledge and to show that a man might be decapitated and then be as good as new, once his head is restored."

He turned and gestured to an assistant near the rear of the stage.

"Here is a young man who came with me from England. He isn't of much use, so I might as well cut him up."

An upright board with two thick cords hanging from hooks was set up at the back of the stage. A screen was pulled in front of the board and Dr. Lynn invited two volunteers to go behind the screen and watch him tie up his assistant. They did and then the screen was pulled aside and the audience saw the assistant facing them, standing with his back to the board, the two cords tied around his body. The two volunteers, at Lynn's urging, confirmed to the audience that they saw the man being tied up. And to suggest that this was no illusion, the trussed-up assistant stroked his mustache, moved his foot, and briefly spoke to the audience.

Then Dr. Lynn went into action. "What will you have?" he asked one young volunteer. "A wing, eh?" He poised his scimitar over the hapless assistant's left arm, and, as the ladies in the audience covered their eyes with their handkerchiefs, he lopped the whole arm off and carried it over to the seated young volunteer and placed it on his lap.

"And you?" He turned to the other volunteer. "What will you have? A leg, eh?" And he severed his assistant's left leg, again bloodlessly, and handed it to that volunteer.

"Now I'll cut off his head," he screamed and, throwing the black cloth over the victim's head, he slashed at the neck with his scimitar, and bundled it up into his black cloth. Now he advanced on the footlights.

"What lady desires the head?" he said mournfully.

There were no takers. He waited a second and then shrugged.

"Well then, I'll throw it away," he said and opened the cloth. It was empty. Back at the board, the headless torso, with his one good arm, pointed toward the doctor and then toward the vacant spot where his head had once resided.

Dr. Lynn moved back in front of the half-man. "He wants his head," the doctor said calmly and threw the black cloth over the torso. When he pulled it away, his assistant's head had been restored, and the man rubbed at his eyes as if he had been asleep.

Lynn tossed the arm and the leg into the enclosure and pulled the curtain back over it. "There, put yourself together."

He had just gotten the words out of his mouth when the man stepped out from behind the screen, wholly restored. And then the theater's curtain dropped.

Ehrich sat there, too numb to talk. Rabbi Weiss smiled at him.

"Did you enjoy that?" the rabbi wondered.

The two of them got up and started walking out of the theater. Ehrich had read about magic and even fantasized about what a real wizard could do, but this was different. This was real.

"I really thought that the man's arm, leg, and head were being cut off," he told his father, and he kept walking in silence, visions of magic dancing through his head.

It wasn't out of character for Rabbi Weiss to take his son to see a magician perform. He would often regale young Ehrich with stories of another great conjurer, whose elegant demeanor and brilliant showmanship had propelled him to such wealth and fame that his portrait still hangs on the wall of a national museum in Austria. The rabbi described his wondrous magic, but he also was able to relate to his son intimate details of the magician's life off the stage. And why not? His first marriage had made him the great Compars Herrmann's first cousin. Compars was the most famous magician of his time. He had performed at the White House, and presented his illusions before the royalty of almost every country in Europe. The idea of becoming a professional magician had not crystallized in young Ehrich's mind, although he did begin to perform simple magic on amateur nights at the old Litt Museum on Grand Avenue in Milwaukee. Developing his magical skills had to take a back-seat to helping his family through very difficult times. Rabbi Weiss could never get a full-time position with a congregation in Milwaukee, and his private "Hebrew school," which operated out of his home and probably consisted of tutoring a few youngsters, was a dismal failure. Cecilia was forced to repeatedly apply to the Hebrew Relief Society for such bare necessities as coal and cash for provisions.

Ehrich was always ready to help the family. His industriousness and maturity beyond his years were evidence of the strong work ethic that his parents had instilled in him. Years later, he would write to his friend Jim Bard and proudly recall a school song that had become a credo to him:

Keep working, tis wiser then waiting aside,

Or crying, or wailing and awaiting the tide.

In Lifes earnest battle those only prevail

Who daily march onward, and NEVER SAY FAIL

In December of 1885, the family suffered a horrific blow when Herman, Mayer Samuel's son from his first marriage, died in New York from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-two. Herman's death sent the rabbi into a tailspin. He became bedridden, sick with grief, but he was profoundly impressed when his eleven-year-old son Ehrich offered up his life savings of $10 to pay for his half brother's funeral.

The rabbi remained disconsolate for months. Ehrich was about to turn twelve and he felt that there were no opportunities for him in Milwaukee. He wanted to strike out in the world to seek his fortune, and then, of course, share it with his family. On the boy's birthday, his father called him to his bedside.

"My boy, I am poor in this world's goods, but rich in the wonderful woman God gave as my wife and your mother — rich also in the children we have brought into the world and raised to sturdy manhood," he said gently. He took a well-worn book of the Torah from his bed stand and handed it to Ehrich.

"Promise me, my boy, that after I am gone your dear Mother will never want for anything. Promise that you will make her declining days as carefree and comfortable as I have tried to make them."

Ehrich bowed his head and placed his hand on the holy book.

"I promise. With all my heart and soul," he said.

And with that promise on his twelfth birthday, a year before his Bar Mitzvah, Ehrich became a man.

He was gone before dawn, making sure not to wake anyone in the house. He had a small bag packed with the essential accoutrements of a twelve-year-old boy — some books, his lockpick, a deck of playing cards. He also carried his shoeshine kit to finance his trip into the wider world. Ehrich had heard the U.S. Cavalry was on their way westward, and it was a perfect opportunity for him to strike out from home and follow real-live soldiers, shining their black leather boots for spare change.

When the cavalry got to Delavan, Wisconsin, they encamped at the town armory. Curious to see "army life" firsthand, a young local boy named Al Flitcroft tiptoed up the steps of the armory building but was shocked when he got to the top of the stairs and found a bushy-haired, disheveled ragamuffin fast asleep on a pile of old burlap bags. Soon, the young hobo was awake and regaling Al with his tales of travel. When he mentioned that he was starving, Al suggested that they go back to his South Sixth Street house, where his mom could feed them.

The visitor introduced himself as "Harry White" (an indication that at least one Weiss knew how to assimilate in this country). Hannah Flitcroft, who had two sons of her own, was captivated by this charming, curly-headed little urchin, and she immediately began a makeover. He was fed, bathed, and his filthy, ragged trousers were washed and patched. The guest was shrewd enough to claim that the warm, soft bed that Mrs. Flitcroft tucked him into was the first one he could ever remember occupying.

The cavalry left town but at Mrs. Flitcroft's insistence, Harry (which was a logical variant of his nickname "Ehrie") stayed with the family and looked for work. Pickings were slim for a twelve-year-old then, so she suggested he try nearby Beloit. She packed a bag full of sandwiches and slipped him some money, and Harry hopped a freight train for the bigger city. After a few days of fruitless searching, and without funds, he walked the twenty-five miles back to Delavan. When Mrs. Flitcroft asked him if he had received a letter of encouragement that she had mailed to him care of General Delivery in Beloit, Harry left the next day, again on foot, and walked to Beloit and back, just to retrieve the first letter that anyone had ever sent him.

Harry would never forget the kindness that "old" Mrs. Flitcroft (to the young boy, the forty-five-year-old mother was ancient) had tendered to him. When he settled in New York about a year later and held down a paying job, he sent her a blouse that had a dollar bill tucked into each of its four pockets, with another single pinned to the front. He'd often send her beautiful presents from around the world and when, years later, he had returned from Europe and received word from Al that his mother was gravely ill, Harry and his wife rushed to Delavan to see Mrs. Flitcroft, who died shortly after his visit. Harry's love for his own mother spurred him to embrace motherhood in all its varieties.

While Harry set out to seek his fortune, Rabbi Weiss left his family behind and traveled east, looking for work. His dutiful heir apparent joined him there sometime in 1887. Ehrich and his father shared a room in Mrs. Leffler's boardinghouse at 244 East Seventy-ninth Street in Manhattan. The rabbi's meager income from tutoring Hebrew students was far from sufficient to bring his family to New York so Ehrich was compelled to get a job as a messenger boy. Apparently Harry believed that his oath to provide for his family wouldn't have to wait until Mayer Samuel's demise. By 1888 they had saved enough to rent their own second-floor cold-water flat in a tenement building at 227 East Seventy-fifth Street and reunite the family. Ehrich met them at Grand Central Station and escorted them to their new home.

Even though both Mayer Samuel and Cecilia were more comfortable in a large city, life was anything but easy. The first winter was a harsh one. They not only ran out of coal but the landlord was threatening eviction also, if the rent wasn't paid in a few days. Rabbi Weiss was distraught but helpless, pacing up and down the room, reduced to murmuring, "The Lord will provide. The Lord will provide." Not content to rely on divine intervention, Harry, realizing that the Christmas season had already put people in the holiday spirit, went to his messenger job the next day with a neatly printed sign pinned on his hat:

Christmas is coming,

Turkeys are fat,

Please drop a quarter

In the messenger boy's hat.

All day long, passersby read the message and laughed and deposited their silver into his hat. Before he got home, he hid the coins up his sleeves, behind his ears, in his shirt collar, everywhere he could find. When he walked in the door, he marched up to his mother.

"Shake me, I'm magic," he said.

She was dubious, but she complied, and the coins cascaded down from all parts of his body. The more she shook, the more money showered down, and the better her spirits. When the coins were all counted, there was almost enough to pay the rent.

Harry showed the same ingenuity when he temporarily found himself unemployed. Applying for a job at Richter's necktie company on Broadway, he saw a long line of hopefuls behind a sign that read: "Assistant Necktie Cutter Wanted." With brash confidence, he walked up and removed the sign.

"Thank you for coming, but I regret to inform you that this position has been filled," he said in his most officious manner.

After the applicants dispersed, Harry entered the building, sign in hand, and was immediately hired.

In New York, Harry expanded his athletic interests. Besides gymnastics, he began to box, and by the time he was seventeen, he was tough enough to compete for the 115-pound boxing championship of the Amateur Athletic Union, oftentimes a segue to a professional boxing career. Illness intervened and knocked him out of the finals, but he had already defeated the boy who would go on to win the medal. He also took up long-distance running, and when he was eighteen, he set a record for the run around Central Park. Around the same time, he defeated Sidney Thomas, an English champion, in a twenty-mile race. Thomas would later set world records for ten-, fifteen-, and twenty-mile races.

By 1890, thanks to the income from Harry and his brothers, the family was able to move to a larger apartment at 305 East Sixty-ninth Street. Harry continued to maintain an interest in magic in New York, but its practice, beyond card or coin magic, was severely limited by his lack of funds. He learned some coin effects from his brother Theo, who in turn had learned them from his boss, a photographer. In the spring of 1889, Jacob Hyman, a coworker at Richter's, discovered their shared enthusiasm for magic, and they began to practice together. Harry's technical knowledge was growing; his friends would be irritated at him when they would attend a magic performance and at the end of every effect, Harry would blurt out, "I know how he does that." They challenged him to go onstage and do them himself and he did, performing card and coin effects at neighborhood venues like Schillerbund Hall and for the Literary Society of the Young Men's Hebrew Association, where he billed himself as either "Ehrich Weiss" or "Eric the Great."

Then he found the book that changed his life and the entire art of magic, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjurer, Written by Himself.

He bought the book and that evening, after dinner, sat by his bed and read the life story of the man who had elevated magic to an art form.

Harry read on late into the night, identifying with this picaresque chronicle of a life in magic. Much like Harry would, Robert-Houdin became obsessed with reading about magic, and constantly worked on coin and card manipulations, even during his meals when he'd practice with one hand while eating soup with the other. Then after jumping off a train, delirious from a bout of food poisoning, Robert-Houdin was rescued by an old conjurer named Torrini, who initiated him into the magical arts. Harry soaked in Robert-Houdin's account of his wonderful exhibitions called the "SoirÉes Fantastiques" held at his own theater in Paris in 1845. Wine bottles poured any drink the audience would desire and in inexhaustible amounts. Orange trees grew and blossomed before the audience's eyes. A small, mechanical automaton of a baker would dart inside his store to fetch actual pastries. Robert-Houdin's son would be blindfolded yet still be able to identify objects in the possession of audience members, then, thanks to his father's discovery of a new property of ether, a quantity of the anesthetic would be inhaled by him until he was rendered so light-headed that he could actually be suspended horizontally in midair supported by only a cane.

Then there were the accounts of the royal entertainments. Harry was particularly taken with a demonstration before King Louis Philippe and his family at his palace at St. Cloud. Robert-Houdin began by borrowing several handkerchiefs from his audience. He bundled them into a small packet and placed them on the table in front of him. He then asked the royal assemblage to write on a slip of paper a destination where they would desire these handkerchiefs to be magically transported. The king would pick three of these slips at random and then choose the final destination for the bundle. He selected the three. The first locale was under one of the candelabras on the mantelpiece, which he rejected because it was too obvious a hiding place. The second was the dome of the Invalides, which was also rejected because it was much too far away for the entire group to go. The last slip suggested that the handkerchiefs be transported into the planter of the last orange tree on the right of the road leading to the chateau.

The king picked that last option and immediately dispatched guards to secure the spot. But it was too late. Robert-Houdin took the parcel containing the handkerchiefs and placed it under a bell of opaque glass. Then, waving his wand, he implored that the parcel should go directly where the king desired. He then raised the glass bell and the package was gone, replaced by a white turtledove. Louis Philippe then ordered one of his servants to open that last planter and bring back whatever might be there. The man returned shortly with a small rusted iron coffer. The king then mockingly inquired whether the handkerchiefs were in the box. Robert-Houdin replied that not only were they in the box but also had been there for sixty years.

When asked for proof of that wild assertion, Louis-Phillipe was told to open the box using the key, which was on a string affixed to the neck of the turtledove. When the box was opened, the first thing the monarch saw was a yellowed parchment. He read it aloud:

This day, the 6th of June, 1786, this iron box, containing six handkerchiefs, was placed among the roots of an orange tree by me, Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro, to serve in performing an act of magic, which will be executed on the same day sixty years hence before Louis Philippe of Orleans and his family.

Of course, when he opened the parcel within, it contained the handkerchiefs.

Cecilia woke up the next morning to a startling sight. Harry was sitting in the same position as the previous night, with his clothes still on, lost in the pages of that book he had brought home. "My interest in conjuring and magic and my enthusiasm for Robert-Houdin came into existence simultaneously. From the moment that I began to study the art, he became my guide and hero," he wrote later. "I accepted his writings as my text-book and my gospel. . . . To my unsophisticated mind, his 'Memoirs' gave to the profession a dignity worth attaining at the cost of earnest, life-long effort."

Harry began amassing what eventually would become one of the greatest libraries of magic ever assembled. In that library were Robert-Houdin's other books, where he presented his theories on the art of magic, theories that would have a great impact on Houdini. Robert-Houdin believed that a magician is not merely a juggler, or someone who does tricks. For him, a magician is an actor playing the part of a man who has supernatural powers. Further, that even though fundamentally what a performer says during his performance is a "tissue of lies," he has to believe it himself for it to be successful. Is it a coincidence that around this time, Harry began to study acting and debate at the Edwin Forrest Amateur Dramatic Association on Columbia Street?

It was certainly no coincidence how he chose his stage name. His friend and sometime partner in amateur performances, Jacob Hyman, told Harry that adding the letter "i" to a person's name in the French language means "like" that person. And since "I asked nothing more of life than to become in my profession 'like Robert-Houdin,'" the transformation was complete. Ehrich Weiss was now Harry Houdini.

On April 3, 1891, he gave notice at Richter's, but on the advice of his friend and fellow runner Joe Rinn, he got a letter from H. Richter, commending his two-and-a-half-year service, "cheerfully recommend[ing] him as an honest, industrious young man."

Harry and Jacob Hyman joined forces at first as "The Brothers Houdini." Their first show was in the fall of 1891, doing inexpensive magic effects (disappearing silks, appearing flowers) as well as card work and a trunk escape. The bookings were scarce. At times, Harry would play solo engagements. In the spring, Harry talked his way into a job at Huber's Museum on Fourteenth Street. Surrounded by circus sideshow acts, he did some card magic, but more important, he met George Dexter, an Australian magician who was managing Huber's. Dexter was what was known as an "inside talker," and his wonderful patter was displayed through his role of master of ceremonies. Just as important for Houdini, he was a master of rope-tie escapes, and he taught Harry the rudiments of the art.

The original Brothers Houdini didn't last. Harry and Jacob argued, and Hyman decided to dissolve the partnership. Jacob's brother Joe filled in for the few bookings that had already been contracted. Now Harry brought his brother Theo into the act. Theo had been working for Johnson and Co. and had saved $26 at the Citizen Savings Bank on the Bowery and was only too willing to invest that princely sum into the act.

With bookings few and far between, Harry took any available work. In October of 1892, he was performing at a downtown dime museum doing twenty shows a day. The admission, which included seeing all the other acts on the bill, was five cents. That particular day, he was on the barker's platform, pulling people into the show, when a little boy came rushing up to him.

"Hey, magician, go on home. Your father's dying," he yelled.

Rabbi Weiss had recently undergone an operation for cancer. He had returned home from the hospital, but his prognosis was grim. This was the news that Harry had dreaded to hear.

Dressed in his stage costume, he ran inside the building to the dressing room, threw on a robe, borrowed every penny he could to add to what change he had, and rushed out. He hailed a passing cab. The sound of the horse's hooves on the pavement paralleled the beating of his heart. It seemed like it took forever to travel the sixty blocks. Now he was running up the five floors to his apartment, three steps to a stride.

He burst through the door and went straight to his parents' room. His father was lying in bed, head propped up by a pillow, but his eyes were closed. He was emaciated and his skin had the pallor of impending death. Cecilia was sitting next to the bed, rocking and muttering in German. Every few seconds, she would look at her husband and start sobbing. Harry's brothers Nat, William, Theo, and Leopold were clustered around the bed, along with his little sister, Gladys, but they all looked helpless and lost.

It was clear to Rabbi Weiss that his son Ehrich, while not the eldest, was by far the most responsible, creative, and compassionate of his brood. It was Ehrich who he would charge with the responsibility of providing for the family and becoming the head of household.

Harry went straight to his father's side.

"Papa, Papa, it's Ehrich," he said.

His father slowly opened his eyes. He smiled wanly.

"My Ehrich," he said, his voice a weak, hoarse rasp.

Ehrich leaned over and kissed him. Underneath his beard, the rabbi's skin was cold and clammy.

A thousand thoughts cascaded through Harry's brain. He remembered seeing his father for the first time in the United States, realizing how much he had missed him those two years. And he remembered Appleton and his parents laughing and drinking coffee in the park and watching him and his brothers playing. Then he remembered his father's sudden dismissal and the toll it took on him. Papa never recovered from that incident, and in the eyes of the world, his father was a man out of time and place, but he knew better. No, Mayer Samuel never attained worldly goods, but he was never interested in them. He was a man of God, and he lived his life in strict accordance with the books that lined his cluttered bookshelves, filled with the sayings of the fathers. Ehrich sat for hours upon hours with his father, listening to him read the tales from the Talmud, and it was there that they both had attained a world of good. They learned about compassion and justice and charity and of the importance of doing the correct thing, even if it meant self-sacrifice. But these thoughts were eclipsed when his father leaned toward him and implored, "You must never forget your promise."

Ehrich nodded. And then Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss turned to his wife of twenty-eight years and held out his hand. Cecilia softly cradled his hand in hers, massaging it with small, delicate circular motions.

"Don't worry, Mamma," the rabbi said in a whisper that was almost inaudible. "Ehrie will pour gold in your apron someday."

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