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Harry Houdini | The Master of Escape

Aug 1, 2023
Weird World
-
22
minutes

He was a daring magician who captivated the world with his audacious stunts and thrilling escape acts.

In this episode, we delve into the magical life of Harry Houdini and the theories behind his remarkable tricks.

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Transcript

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape. 

[00:00:29] He was, by many people’s standards, the most daring magician in the world, and invented modern magic.

[00:00:37] And his story is fascinating. It involves magic, underwater escapes, elephants, locks, a keen eye for publicity, a crusade against spiritualism and more.

[00:00:51] So, let’s not waste a minute, and get right into the story of Harry Houdini.

[00:01:00] On January 7th, 1918, at the Hippodrome theatre in New York City, the audience waited with bated breath.

[00:01:10] On stage stood a short, stocky man wearing a formal black suit.

[00:01:17] Behind him was a wooden box, a box that he had told his audience was eight feet square, less than one metre squared. 

[00:01:28] The box was raised off the ground, with a ramp leading up to it, so the audience could see that there were no hidden doors below.

[00:01:37] And next to him was Jennie. Jennie was not his petite assistant. She was a five-tonne elephant almost two and a half metres tall.

[00:01:52] The man had proudly declared that he could make the elephant disappear into thin air, vanish from sight.

[00:02:01] The man reached into a bag, taking out blocks of sugar and feeding them to the elephant, leading her up the ramp into the box.

[00:02:12] After several minutes, he had succeeded at coaxing the elephant inside the box. The man slammed the door behind him, and a group of 30 strong men spun the box around, turning it on itself. 

[00:02:29] Several minutes went by, and then the door was opened. The anxious audience looked inside. The elephant was gone, it had vanished into thin air.

[00:02:43] And to this very day, nobody knows for sure what happened, but keep listening until the very end of the episode and I’ll tell you some of the theories about how he did it.

[00:02:56] The man’s name was, of course, Harry Houdini, the father of modern magic, the Master of Escape, and by many people’s standards the most impressive magician in the world.

[00:03:08] But Houdini, as you’ll learn, was much more than just a magician.

[00:03:14] He was born in modern day Hungary, in 1874, but his parents came to America when the young Harry was only four years old. 

[00:03:24] I should say his real name wasn’t actually “Harry”, it wasn’t even “Houdini” - this was a stage name, a name that he gave himself after the famous French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, someone who Houdini would model himself on.

[00:03:42] I’ll continue to call him Houdini or Harry, for sake of ease, but he was born Erich Weisz, with his parents changing his name to the more American-sounding “Erik Weiss” shortly after arriving in the United States.

[00:03:58] When he was growing up, his family was very poor, and the young Houdini was forced to work to help put food on the table. And from an early age, he showed an interest and talent for performing - first circus tricks and acrobatics, and then basic magic tricks. 

[00:04:19] He was also incredibly athletic, and excelled at sports. Given the physical nature of many of his tricks, and the strength that was required to complete them, this would be something that would come in very useful later on.

[00:04:38] His career as a performer started when he was a mere nine years old, when he did trapeze tricks, circus tricks, and when he was a teenager he would go on to perform magic tricks with playing cards, teaming up with his brother Theodore to form “The Brothers Houdini”.

[00:04:56] By all accounts, he was a half-decent card magician, and could do some quite impressive magic tricks, but he was far from great. What’s more, these jobs paid terribly, and he would hardly make enough money to survive. 

[00:05:15] While he was working as a magician with his brother, the pair met a young woman called Bess. It was Theodore who initially showed interest in Bess, and the pair were romantically involved for a while, but it didn’t take long for Bess’s attentions to switch to Erik, or rather, Harry Houdini.

[00:05:38] Not only did she fall in love with Houdini, with the pair marrying in 1894, but she also replaced his brother as Houdini’s assistant. “The Brothers Houdini” were no longer; they were replaced by simply “The Houdinis”, an act consisting of Harry Houdini and his new wife, Bess.

[00:05:59] The pair would continue their tour of low-budget shows, and it wouldn’t be until five years later, in 1899, that they got their big break.

[00:06:11] A theatre manager had heard about one of Houdini’s new tricks, where he escaped from handcuffs, and told him that he could offer him a long and reasonably well-paid contract.

[00:06:23] Houdini took the job, and before long he was one of the most in-demand magicians in the country.

[00:06:31] So, what tricks did he actually do, and why was he so successful?

[00:06:37] At this point, his signature trick involved handcuffs, the metal lockable rings that are placed around the wrists of suspected criminals to prevent them from moving their arms.

[00:06:50] Someone would place handcuffs on Houdini, and he would magically escape from the handcuffs.

[00:06:58] This is at a very basic level, and was not in itself unique. There were other magicians who could do this, normally by using fake or adapted handcuffs that made removing them easy, or by not properly locking them, or all manner of tricks.

[00:07:17] Houdini’s genius was to turn the entire escape into a spectacle, a public performance that really involved the audience.

[00:07:28] Instead of coming on stage and escaping from a pair of handcuffs that he had brought with him, he would encourage the audience to bring their own handcuffs and their own locks, which he would then escape from. Not only did this make the tricks, the stunts, all the more real, but it encouraged people to come to the shows because they would want to test him with their own locks. 

[00:07:55] When his tour arrived at a new town he would proudly challenge the local police, saying that he would give $100 to anyone who could produce a pair of handcuffs that Houdini could not escape from.

[00:08:10] His fame continued to grow, with people flocking to his shows to see how he could escape from…seemingly anything.

[00:08:20] His first big public test would come in 1904, when the British newspaper The Daily Mirror had arranged a special series of shows for him in London’s Hippodrome.

[00:08:33] As per usual, people had brought their own locks and handcuffs to the shows, and Houdini had escaped from all of them without major problems.

[00:08:43] But then it came time for the main event.

[00:08:48] In preparation for the event, the newspaper had commissioned a special pair of handcuffs to be made by a lockmaker. These handcuffs, so The Daily Mirror reported, had taken five years to make, and would be impossible to escape from. 

[00:09:05] Or to quote the maker of the handcuffs, no mortal man could escape from them. 

[00:09:12] But was Harry Houdini a normal “mortal” man? That was the question…

[00:09:19] Houdini was led on stage and shown the handcuffs

[00:09:24] Ever the showman, he refused to attempt the trick not once, not twice, but three times, saying it was impossible. On the fourth time he agreed to try, telling the audience “I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best.”

[00:09:45] He was put in the handcuffs, the lock fastened and the 15 centimetre key removed. He retreated into a small box, which he called his “ghost house”, to try to escape from the cuffs.

[00:10:00] The band started playing, the clock ticking.

[00:10:05] Minutes went by, with no sign of Houdini. Twenty two minutes later his face popped out, but the cuffs were still on. He needed to take a better look at them, he said, so he held them up to the light. 

[00:10:20] After thirty five minutes he emerged again, covered in sweat and visibly in distress, but only to complain that his knees were sore, and could he have a cushion to kneel on. 

[00:10:34] Shortly after he called out again to ask for the cuffs to be removed so that Houdini could take off his jacket. He was getting hot and uncomfortable, and he was wearing a large formal jacket. 

[00:10:48] The organisers refused, saying that removing the cuffs might give Houdini an idea about how to escape.

[00:10:57] Houdini then theatrically whipped out a knife from his pocket and proceeded to cut the jacket off. The crowd went wild, and Houdini went back into the box, only to emerge a few minutes later, free.

[00:11:15] He burst into tears, telling the crowd “I must say it was one of the hardest, but at the same time one of the fairest, tests I ever had.”

[00:11:25] How did he do it, you might ask? Well, to this day, again, nobody knows for sure. 

[00:11:32] There is the theory that somebody slipped him the key, but it was custom made, a reported 15 centimetres long, so it’s not exactly the kind of thing that he could have kept hidden in his hair or in his mouth.

[00:11:48] There’s also a theory that the entire stunt was pre-arranged, it was a fake stunt, organised and orchestrated by Houdini in conjunction with The Daily Mirror, so either it was a set-up from the start or when it became clear that Houdini was struggling, someone from the newspaper slipped him the key, as it would have been embarrassing had he failed to escape.

[00:12:13] It’s a secret to this day, but this was a one-off, a major spectacle. 

[00:12:19] How did he escape during the “normal” shows?

[00:12:23] As you heard earlier, Houdini’s genius was to allow anyone to present him with a lock or handcuffs and he would be able to escape from them. He couldn’t collude, pre-arrange, with everyone he met, so how did he escape from all of these different locks?

[00:12:43] Well, according to Houdini experts and fellow magicians, Houdini had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of different types of locks. He had done an apprenticeship with a locksmith when he was a boy, and had been studying locks ever since. He knew how they worked, how to manipulate them, and how to get out of them.

[00:13:08] For some locks, simply knowing how to knock them in the right place or move or shake them in the right way was sufficient to dislodge the internal mechanisms and break free.

[00:13:21] For others, Houdini would use a tiny piece of string to move the mechanism inside the lock.

[00:13:29] When this wasn’t possible, Houdini was able to recognise what kind of key would fit almost any kind of lock, so he could instruct his faithful wife and assistant, Bess, to go backstage, find the appropriate key in his large collection, and smuggle it to him in a glass of water, via a kiss, or in some secret way without the audience’s knowledge. This is, of course, what is believed; Houdini never revealed any of this. 

[00:14:01] If he had, the illusion would have been broken.

[00:14:05] And he was incredibly protective of his tricks, his escapes, and went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that he was the only one who could do them.

[00:14:17] On a practical level, this meant copyrighting them, meaning that he was legally the only person who could do them.

[00:14:25] Importantly, this is different to a patent. A patent, in case you didn’t know, requires you to produce public information about how something is made or done, whereas copyright doesn’t.

[00:14:39] Clearly, if your entire attraction is by disguising how something is done, patenting your invention is not the sort of thing you want to do.

[00:14:49] A quick aside, by the way, a side note, is that we have an entire episode on patents, and how they work. It’s number 159, and is quite an obscure but a fun one.

[00:15:02] Right, back to Houdini.

[00:15:05] After this amazing escape in London, his fame continued to grow. By this time, he was the most famous magician in the world, and was on a semi-permanent tour of Europe and the United States.

[00:15:20] And his tricks got even bigger. Making an elephant disappear, escaping from straitjackets, those jackets that are used to restrain prisoners, doing this upside down, underwater, and a combination of the two.

[00:15:37] He was not only an excellent magician, but he was also a talented self-publicist. He would stage escapes outside the windows of newspaper offices, so that he ensured journalists would write about him and their photographers wouldn’t have to travel to snap a picture of him. 

[00:15:56] He was also ruthless about competitors, and anyone who tried to copy or recreate his tricks would receive a heavy-handed letter from his lawyers.

[00:16:07] One other interesting fact about Houdini, which is perhaps surprising and isn’t as well known as his magic tricks, is his later crusade against “spiritualism”, the idea that you can communicate with the dead through things like Ouija boards and mediums.

[00:16:26] Houdini’s fame coincided with World War I, and in the immediate aftermath of this period there was an understandable interest from grieving parents, wives, brothers and sisters who wanted to communicate with loved ones killed on the battlefields of Europe.

[00:16:45] Spiritualism offered this possibility. Apart from, according to Houdini at least, it was a huge lie, a massive scam preying on the weak and vulnerable.

[00:16:59] Houdini went on something of a public crusade against spiritualism; he was a magician himself, he knew a trick when he saw one, and he accused spiritualists of profiting from misery. He would go to séances in disguise and expose spiritualist leaders when he saw them tricking their audience. He even wrote a book about it, and made it his mission to shine a light on this unscrupulous industry.

[00:17:30] And throughout the 1920s, he continued to perform, escaping from handcuffs, straightjackets, underwater boxes, and any kind of lock that his audience would present him with.

[00:17:44] This audience interaction would be the backbone of his career, it was a huge part of his appeal and popularity, but it would also be his undoing.

[00:17:56] One of the things that he had always boasted to his fans was that he had an iron stomach and could withstand a punch to the stomach from anyone. 

[00:18:08] Indeed, he would pose with famous boxers of the day, and allow anyone to hit him without seemingly causing any kind of real pain.

[00:18:18] In terms of how he did this, firstly, he was very strong and muscly, which was important, but he could also prepare himself by tensing his muscles and bending down slightly, thereby protecting himself and cushioning the blow.

[00:18:37] One day, however, when he was giving a lecture at McGill University in Montreal, a student came in and wanted to test Houdini’s “iron stomach” for himself. He drew his hand back and hit Houdini as hard as he could, apart from Houdini didn’t have time to prepare. 

[00:18:59] The blow landed, Houdini fell to the ground in agony, allegedly mumbling "That will do". He struggled on through the lecture, and then fell terribly ill on the train home. When he was eventually examined by doctors, they realised that the punch had ruptured his abdomen, and he died, perhaps appropriately for a magician, on Halloween, October 31st, of 1926.

[00:19:31] In terms of his legacy, practically all stage magicians since owe a debt to Houdini. 

[00:19:38] Grand escapologists like David Blaine and David Copperfield, or even people like Penn and Teller are continuing a tradition started by Harry Houdini.

[00:19:50] Everything about him was magical and theatrical, from the instantly memorable name to the showmanship of every performance, from the nature of his death to the fact that he was buried in a bronze coffin that had once been used in one of his tricks.

[00:20:08] Now, to conclude this episode, I promised that I’d tell you how he made that elephant disappear. 

[00:20:15] Well, nobody actually knows for sure, and Houdini took the secret to the grave with him, but most modern magicians believe that the elephant never actually left the box. 

[00:20:27] The box was a lot bigger than Houdini said it was, it just looked smaller given the fact that it was on a massive stage. There was a secret compartment in the box, small but large enough to hide an elephant, and because the lights were kept relatively low in the Hippodrome, and the angle was such that no audience member could see the entire way through the box, nobody could see that the elephant was still there, hidden away in a dark corner. 

[00:20:57] Houdini is once reported to have said “Anyone who believes in magic is a fool.”

[00:21:05] Who knows whether anyone in the audience really believed that Houdini had made the five-tonne elephant vanish by magic, but one thing is for certain: it must have been the most amazing spectacle.

[00:21:20] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape.

[00:21:27] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you’re a magic connoisseur or you’ve never heard the name of Harry Houdini before, well, I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:21:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:40] How much did you know about the life of Harry Houdini? 

[00:21:44] What do you think was his most impressive magic trick?

[00:21:47] Do you agree with the fact that he was the greatest magician of all time?

[00:21:51] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:03] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape. 

[00:00:29] He was, by many people’s standards, the most daring magician in the world, and invented modern magic.

[00:00:37] And his story is fascinating. It involves magic, underwater escapes, elephants, locks, a keen eye for publicity, a crusade against spiritualism and more.

[00:00:51] So, let’s not waste a minute, and get right into the story of Harry Houdini.

[00:01:00] On January 7th, 1918, at the Hippodrome theatre in New York City, the audience waited with bated breath.

[00:01:10] On stage stood a short, stocky man wearing a formal black suit.

[00:01:17] Behind him was a wooden box, a box that he had told his audience was eight feet square, less than one metre squared. 

[00:01:28] The box was raised off the ground, with a ramp leading up to it, so the audience could see that there were no hidden doors below.

[00:01:37] And next to him was Jennie. Jennie was not his petite assistant. She was a five-tonne elephant almost two and a half metres tall.

[00:01:52] The man had proudly declared that he could make the elephant disappear into thin air, vanish from sight.

[00:02:01] The man reached into a bag, taking out blocks of sugar and feeding them to the elephant, leading her up the ramp into the box.

[00:02:12] After several minutes, he had succeeded at coaxing the elephant inside the box. The man slammed the door behind him, and a group of 30 strong men spun the box around, turning it on itself. 

[00:02:29] Several minutes went by, and then the door was opened. The anxious audience looked inside. The elephant was gone, it had vanished into thin air.

[00:02:43] And to this very day, nobody knows for sure what happened, but keep listening until the very end of the episode and I’ll tell you some of the theories about how he did it.

[00:02:56] The man’s name was, of course, Harry Houdini, the father of modern magic, the Master of Escape, and by many people’s standards the most impressive magician in the world.

[00:03:08] But Houdini, as you’ll learn, was much more than just a magician.

[00:03:14] He was born in modern day Hungary, in 1874, but his parents came to America when the young Harry was only four years old. 

[00:03:24] I should say his real name wasn’t actually “Harry”, it wasn’t even “Houdini” - this was a stage name, a name that he gave himself after the famous French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, someone who Houdini would model himself on.

[00:03:42] I’ll continue to call him Houdini or Harry, for sake of ease, but he was born Erich Weisz, with his parents changing his name to the more American-sounding “Erik Weiss” shortly after arriving in the United States.

[00:03:58] When he was growing up, his family was very poor, and the young Houdini was forced to work to help put food on the table. And from an early age, he showed an interest and talent for performing - first circus tricks and acrobatics, and then basic magic tricks. 

[00:04:19] He was also incredibly athletic, and excelled at sports. Given the physical nature of many of his tricks, and the strength that was required to complete them, this would be something that would come in very useful later on.

[00:04:38] His career as a performer started when he was a mere nine years old, when he did trapeze tricks, circus tricks, and when he was a teenager he would go on to perform magic tricks with playing cards, teaming up with his brother Theodore to form “The Brothers Houdini”.

[00:04:56] By all accounts, he was a half-decent card magician, and could do some quite impressive magic tricks, but he was far from great. What’s more, these jobs paid terribly, and he would hardly make enough money to survive. 

[00:05:15] While he was working as a magician with his brother, the pair met a young woman called Bess. It was Theodore who initially showed interest in Bess, and the pair were romantically involved for a while, but it didn’t take long for Bess’s attentions to switch to Erik, or rather, Harry Houdini.

[00:05:38] Not only did she fall in love with Houdini, with the pair marrying in 1894, but she also replaced his brother as Houdini’s assistant. “The Brothers Houdini” were no longer; they were replaced by simply “The Houdinis”, an act consisting of Harry Houdini and his new wife, Bess.

[00:05:59] The pair would continue their tour of low-budget shows, and it wouldn’t be until five years later, in 1899, that they got their big break.

[00:06:11] A theatre manager had heard about one of Houdini’s new tricks, where he escaped from handcuffs, and told him that he could offer him a long and reasonably well-paid contract.

[00:06:23] Houdini took the job, and before long he was one of the most in-demand magicians in the country.

[00:06:31] So, what tricks did he actually do, and why was he so successful?

[00:06:37] At this point, his signature trick involved handcuffs, the metal lockable rings that are placed around the wrists of suspected criminals to prevent them from moving their arms.

[00:06:50] Someone would place handcuffs on Houdini, and he would magically escape from the handcuffs.

[00:06:58] This is at a very basic level, and was not in itself unique. There were other magicians who could do this, normally by using fake or adapted handcuffs that made removing them easy, or by not properly locking them, or all manner of tricks.

[00:07:17] Houdini’s genius was to turn the entire escape into a spectacle, a public performance that really involved the audience.

[00:07:28] Instead of coming on stage and escaping from a pair of handcuffs that he had brought with him, he would encourage the audience to bring their own handcuffs and their own locks, which he would then escape from. Not only did this make the tricks, the stunts, all the more real, but it encouraged people to come to the shows because they would want to test him with their own locks. 

[00:07:55] When his tour arrived at a new town he would proudly challenge the local police, saying that he would give $100 to anyone who could produce a pair of handcuffs that Houdini could not escape from.

[00:08:10] His fame continued to grow, with people flocking to his shows to see how he could escape from…seemingly anything.

[00:08:20] His first big public test would come in 1904, when the British newspaper The Daily Mirror had arranged a special series of shows for him in London’s Hippodrome.

[00:08:33] As per usual, people had brought their own locks and handcuffs to the shows, and Houdini had escaped from all of them without major problems.

[00:08:43] But then it came time for the main event.

[00:08:48] In preparation for the event, the newspaper had commissioned a special pair of handcuffs to be made by a lockmaker. These handcuffs, so The Daily Mirror reported, had taken five years to make, and would be impossible to escape from. 

[00:09:05] Or to quote the maker of the handcuffs, no mortal man could escape from them. 

[00:09:12] But was Harry Houdini a normal “mortal” man? That was the question…

[00:09:19] Houdini was led on stage and shown the handcuffs

[00:09:24] Ever the showman, he refused to attempt the trick not once, not twice, but three times, saying it was impossible. On the fourth time he agreed to try, telling the audience “I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best.”

[00:09:45] He was put in the handcuffs, the lock fastened and the 15 centimetre key removed. He retreated into a small box, which he called his “ghost house”, to try to escape from the cuffs.

[00:10:00] The band started playing, the clock ticking.

[00:10:05] Minutes went by, with no sign of Houdini. Twenty two minutes later his face popped out, but the cuffs were still on. He needed to take a better look at them, he said, so he held them up to the light. 

[00:10:20] After thirty five minutes he emerged again, covered in sweat and visibly in distress, but only to complain that his knees were sore, and could he have a cushion to kneel on. 

[00:10:34] Shortly after he called out again to ask for the cuffs to be removed so that Houdini could take off his jacket. He was getting hot and uncomfortable, and he was wearing a large formal jacket. 

[00:10:48] The organisers refused, saying that removing the cuffs might give Houdini an idea about how to escape.

[00:10:57] Houdini then theatrically whipped out a knife from his pocket and proceeded to cut the jacket off. The crowd went wild, and Houdini went back into the box, only to emerge a few minutes later, free.

[00:11:15] He burst into tears, telling the crowd “I must say it was one of the hardest, but at the same time one of the fairest, tests I ever had.”

[00:11:25] How did he do it, you might ask? Well, to this day, again, nobody knows for sure. 

[00:11:32] There is the theory that somebody slipped him the key, but it was custom made, a reported 15 centimetres long, so it’s not exactly the kind of thing that he could have kept hidden in his hair or in his mouth.

[00:11:48] There’s also a theory that the entire stunt was pre-arranged, it was a fake stunt, organised and orchestrated by Houdini in conjunction with The Daily Mirror, so either it was a set-up from the start or when it became clear that Houdini was struggling, someone from the newspaper slipped him the key, as it would have been embarrassing had he failed to escape.

[00:12:13] It’s a secret to this day, but this was a one-off, a major spectacle. 

[00:12:19] How did he escape during the “normal” shows?

[00:12:23] As you heard earlier, Houdini’s genius was to allow anyone to present him with a lock or handcuffs and he would be able to escape from them. He couldn’t collude, pre-arrange, with everyone he met, so how did he escape from all of these different locks?

[00:12:43] Well, according to Houdini experts and fellow magicians, Houdini had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of different types of locks. He had done an apprenticeship with a locksmith when he was a boy, and had been studying locks ever since. He knew how they worked, how to manipulate them, and how to get out of them.

[00:13:08] For some locks, simply knowing how to knock them in the right place or move or shake them in the right way was sufficient to dislodge the internal mechanisms and break free.

[00:13:21] For others, Houdini would use a tiny piece of string to move the mechanism inside the lock.

[00:13:29] When this wasn’t possible, Houdini was able to recognise what kind of key would fit almost any kind of lock, so he could instruct his faithful wife and assistant, Bess, to go backstage, find the appropriate key in his large collection, and smuggle it to him in a glass of water, via a kiss, or in some secret way without the audience’s knowledge. This is, of course, what is believed; Houdini never revealed any of this. 

[00:14:01] If he had, the illusion would have been broken.

[00:14:05] And he was incredibly protective of his tricks, his escapes, and went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that he was the only one who could do them.

[00:14:17] On a practical level, this meant copyrighting them, meaning that he was legally the only person who could do them.

[00:14:25] Importantly, this is different to a patent. A patent, in case you didn’t know, requires you to produce public information about how something is made or done, whereas copyright doesn’t.

[00:14:39] Clearly, if your entire attraction is by disguising how something is done, patenting your invention is not the sort of thing you want to do.

[00:14:49] A quick aside, by the way, a side note, is that we have an entire episode on patents, and how they work. It’s number 159, and is quite an obscure but a fun one.

[00:15:02] Right, back to Houdini.

[00:15:05] After this amazing escape in London, his fame continued to grow. By this time, he was the most famous magician in the world, and was on a semi-permanent tour of Europe and the United States.

[00:15:20] And his tricks got even bigger. Making an elephant disappear, escaping from straitjackets, those jackets that are used to restrain prisoners, doing this upside down, underwater, and a combination of the two.

[00:15:37] He was not only an excellent magician, but he was also a talented self-publicist. He would stage escapes outside the windows of newspaper offices, so that he ensured journalists would write about him and their photographers wouldn’t have to travel to snap a picture of him. 

[00:15:56] He was also ruthless about competitors, and anyone who tried to copy or recreate his tricks would receive a heavy-handed letter from his lawyers.

[00:16:07] One other interesting fact about Houdini, which is perhaps surprising and isn’t as well known as his magic tricks, is his later crusade against “spiritualism”, the idea that you can communicate with the dead through things like Ouija boards and mediums.

[00:16:26] Houdini’s fame coincided with World War I, and in the immediate aftermath of this period there was an understandable interest from grieving parents, wives, brothers and sisters who wanted to communicate with loved ones killed on the battlefields of Europe.

[00:16:45] Spiritualism offered this possibility. Apart from, according to Houdini at least, it was a huge lie, a massive scam preying on the weak and vulnerable.

[00:16:59] Houdini went on something of a public crusade against spiritualism; he was a magician himself, he knew a trick when he saw one, and he accused spiritualists of profiting from misery. He would go to séances in disguise and expose spiritualist leaders when he saw them tricking their audience. He even wrote a book about it, and made it his mission to shine a light on this unscrupulous industry.

[00:17:30] And throughout the 1920s, he continued to perform, escaping from handcuffs, straightjackets, underwater boxes, and any kind of lock that his audience would present him with.

[00:17:44] This audience interaction would be the backbone of his career, it was a huge part of his appeal and popularity, but it would also be his undoing.

[00:17:56] One of the things that he had always boasted to his fans was that he had an iron stomach and could withstand a punch to the stomach from anyone. 

[00:18:08] Indeed, he would pose with famous boxers of the day, and allow anyone to hit him without seemingly causing any kind of real pain.

[00:18:18] In terms of how he did this, firstly, he was very strong and muscly, which was important, but he could also prepare himself by tensing his muscles and bending down slightly, thereby protecting himself and cushioning the blow.

[00:18:37] One day, however, when he was giving a lecture at McGill University in Montreal, a student came in and wanted to test Houdini’s “iron stomach” for himself. He drew his hand back and hit Houdini as hard as he could, apart from Houdini didn’t have time to prepare. 

[00:18:59] The blow landed, Houdini fell to the ground in agony, allegedly mumbling "That will do". He struggled on through the lecture, and then fell terribly ill on the train home. When he was eventually examined by doctors, they realised that the punch had ruptured his abdomen, and he died, perhaps appropriately for a magician, on Halloween, October 31st, of 1926.

[00:19:31] In terms of his legacy, practically all stage magicians since owe a debt to Houdini. 

[00:19:38] Grand escapologists like David Blaine and David Copperfield, or even people like Penn and Teller are continuing a tradition started by Harry Houdini.

[00:19:50] Everything about him was magical and theatrical, from the instantly memorable name to the showmanship of every performance, from the nature of his death to the fact that he was buried in a bronze coffin that had once been used in one of his tricks.

[00:20:08] Now, to conclude this episode, I promised that I’d tell you how he made that elephant disappear. 

[00:20:15] Well, nobody actually knows for sure, and Houdini took the secret to the grave with him, but most modern magicians believe that the elephant never actually left the box. 

[00:20:27] The box was a lot bigger than Houdini said it was, it just looked smaller given the fact that it was on a massive stage. There was a secret compartment in the box, small but large enough to hide an elephant, and because the lights were kept relatively low in the Hippodrome, and the angle was such that no audience member could see the entire way through the box, nobody could see that the elephant was still there, hidden away in a dark corner. 

[00:20:57] Houdini is once reported to have said “Anyone who believes in magic is a fool.”

[00:21:05] Who knows whether anyone in the audience really believed that Houdini had made the five-tonne elephant vanish by magic, but one thing is for certain: it must have been the most amazing spectacle.

[00:21:20] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape.

[00:21:27] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you’re a magic connoisseur or you’ve never heard the name of Harry Houdini before, well, I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:21:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:40] How much did you know about the life of Harry Houdini? 

[00:21:44] What do you think was his most impressive magic trick?

[00:21:47] Do you agree with the fact that he was the greatest magician of all time?

[00:21:51] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:03] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape. 

[00:00:29] He was, by many people’s standards, the most daring magician in the world, and invented modern magic.

[00:00:37] And his story is fascinating. It involves magic, underwater escapes, elephants, locks, a keen eye for publicity, a crusade against spiritualism and more.

[00:00:51] So, let’s not waste a minute, and get right into the story of Harry Houdini.

[00:01:00] On January 7th, 1918, at the Hippodrome theatre in New York City, the audience waited with bated breath.

[00:01:10] On stage stood a short, stocky man wearing a formal black suit.

[00:01:17] Behind him was a wooden box, a box that he had told his audience was eight feet square, less than one metre squared. 

[00:01:28] The box was raised off the ground, with a ramp leading up to it, so the audience could see that there were no hidden doors below.

[00:01:37] And next to him was Jennie. Jennie was not his petite assistant. She was a five-tonne elephant almost two and a half metres tall.

[00:01:52] The man had proudly declared that he could make the elephant disappear into thin air, vanish from sight.

[00:02:01] The man reached into a bag, taking out blocks of sugar and feeding them to the elephant, leading her up the ramp into the box.

[00:02:12] After several minutes, he had succeeded at coaxing the elephant inside the box. The man slammed the door behind him, and a group of 30 strong men spun the box around, turning it on itself. 

[00:02:29] Several minutes went by, and then the door was opened. The anxious audience looked inside. The elephant was gone, it had vanished into thin air.

[00:02:43] And to this very day, nobody knows for sure what happened, but keep listening until the very end of the episode and I’ll tell you some of the theories about how he did it.

[00:02:56] The man’s name was, of course, Harry Houdini, the father of modern magic, the Master of Escape, and by many people’s standards the most impressive magician in the world.

[00:03:08] But Houdini, as you’ll learn, was much more than just a magician.

[00:03:14] He was born in modern day Hungary, in 1874, but his parents came to America when the young Harry was only four years old. 

[00:03:24] I should say his real name wasn’t actually “Harry”, it wasn’t even “Houdini” - this was a stage name, a name that he gave himself after the famous French magician, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, someone who Houdini would model himself on.

[00:03:42] I’ll continue to call him Houdini or Harry, for sake of ease, but he was born Erich Weisz, with his parents changing his name to the more American-sounding “Erik Weiss” shortly after arriving in the United States.

[00:03:58] When he was growing up, his family was very poor, and the young Houdini was forced to work to help put food on the table. And from an early age, he showed an interest and talent for performing - first circus tricks and acrobatics, and then basic magic tricks. 

[00:04:19] He was also incredibly athletic, and excelled at sports. Given the physical nature of many of his tricks, and the strength that was required to complete them, this would be something that would come in very useful later on.

[00:04:38] His career as a performer started when he was a mere nine years old, when he did trapeze tricks, circus tricks, and when he was a teenager he would go on to perform magic tricks with playing cards, teaming up with his brother Theodore to form “The Brothers Houdini”.

[00:04:56] By all accounts, he was a half-decent card magician, and could do some quite impressive magic tricks, but he was far from great. What’s more, these jobs paid terribly, and he would hardly make enough money to survive. 

[00:05:15] While he was working as a magician with his brother, the pair met a young woman called Bess. It was Theodore who initially showed interest in Bess, and the pair were romantically involved for a while, but it didn’t take long for Bess’s attentions to switch to Erik, or rather, Harry Houdini.

[00:05:38] Not only did she fall in love with Houdini, with the pair marrying in 1894, but she also replaced his brother as Houdini’s assistant. “The Brothers Houdini” were no longer; they were replaced by simply “The Houdinis”, an act consisting of Harry Houdini and his new wife, Bess.

[00:05:59] The pair would continue their tour of low-budget shows, and it wouldn’t be until five years later, in 1899, that they got their big break.

[00:06:11] A theatre manager had heard about one of Houdini’s new tricks, where he escaped from handcuffs, and told him that he could offer him a long and reasonably well-paid contract.

[00:06:23] Houdini took the job, and before long he was one of the most in-demand magicians in the country.

[00:06:31] So, what tricks did he actually do, and why was he so successful?

[00:06:37] At this point, his signature trick involved handcuffs, the metal lockable rings that are placed around the wrists of suspected criminals to prevent them from moving their arms.

[00:06:50] Someone would place handcuffs on Houdini, and he would magically escape from the handcuffs.

[00:06:58] This is at a very basic level, and was not in itself unique. There were other magicians who could do this, normally by using fake or adapted handcuffs that made removing them easy, or by not properly locking them, or all manner of tricks.

[00:07:17] Houdini’s genius was to turn the entire escape into a spectacle, a public performance that really involved the audience.

[00:07:28] Instead of coming on stage and escaping from a pair of handcuffs that he had brought with him, he would encourage the audience to bring their own handcuffs and their own locks, which he would then escape from. Not only did this make the tricks, the stunts, all the more real, but it encouraged people to come to the shows because they would want to test him with their own locks. 

[00:07:55] When his tour arrived at a new town he would proudly challenge the local police, saying that he would give $100 to anyone who could produce a pair of handcuffs that Houdini could not escape from.

[00:08:10] His fame continued to grow, with people flocking to his shows to see how he could escape from…seemingly anything.

[00:08:20] His first big public test would come in 1904, when the British newspaper The Daily Mirror had arranged a special series of shows for him in London’s Hippodrome.

[00:08:33] As per usual, people had brought their own locks and handcuffs to the shows, and Houdini had escaped from all of them without major problems.

[00:08:43] But then it came time for the main event.

[00:08:48] In preparation for the event, the newspaper had commissioned a special pair of handcuffs to be made by a lockmaker. These handcuffs, so The Daily Mirror reported, had taken five years to make, and would be impossible to escape from. 

[00:09:05] Or to quote the maker of the handcuffs, no mortal man could escape from them. 

[00:09:12] But was Harry Houdini a normal “mortal” man? That was the question…

[00:09:19] Houdini was led on stage and shown the handcuffs

[00:09:24] Ever the showman, he refused to attempt the trick not once, not twice, but three times, saying it was impossible. On the fourth time he agreed to try, telling the audience “I do not know whether I am going to get out or not. But I can assure you I am going to try my best.”

[00:09:45] He was put in the handcuffs, the lock fastened and the 15 centimetre key removed. He retreated into a small box, which he called his “ghost house”, to try to escape from the cuffs.

[00:10:00] The band started playing, the clock ticking.

[00:10:05] Minutes went by, with no sign of Houdini. Twenty two minutes later his face popped out, but the cuffs were still on. He needed to take a better look at them, he said, so he held them up to the light. 

[00:10:20] After thirty five minutes he emerged again, covered in sweat and visibly in distress, but only to complain that his knees were sore, and could he have a cushion to kneel on. 

[00:10:34] Shortly after he called out again to ask for the cuffs to be removed so that Houdini could take off his jacket. He was getting hot and uncomfortable, and he was wearing a large formal jacket. 

[00:10:48] The organisers refused, saying that removing the cuffs might give Houdini an idea about how to escape.

[00:10:57] Houdini then theatrically whipped out a knife from his pocket and proceeded to cut the jacket off. The crowd went wild, and Houdini went back into the box, only to emerge a few minutes later, free.

[00:11:15] He burst into tears, telling the crowd “I must say it was one of the hardest, but at the same time one of the fairest, tests I ever had.”

[00:11:25] How did he do it, you might ask? Well, to this day, again, nobody knows for sure. 

[00:11:32] There is the theory that somebody slipped him the key, but it was custom made, a reported 15 centimetres long, so it’s not exactly the kind of thing that he could have kept hidden in his hair or in his mouth.

[00:11:48] There’s also a theory that the entire stunt was pre-arranged, it was a fake stunt, organised and orchestrated by Houdini in conjunction with The Daily Mirror, so either it was a set-up from the start or when it became clear that Houdini was struggling, someone from the newspaper slipped him the key, as it would have been embarrassing had he failed to escape.

[00:12:13] It’s a secret to this day, but this was a one-off, a major spectacle. 

[00:12:19] How did he escape during the “normal” shows?

[00:12:23] As you heard earlier, Houdini’s genius was to allow anyone to present him with a lock or handcuffs and he would be able to escape from them. He couldn’t collude, pre-arrange, with everyone he met, so how did he escape from all of these different locks?

[00:12:43] Well, according to Houdini experts and fellow magicians, Houdini had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of different types of locks. He had done an apprenticeship with a locksmith when he was a boy, and had been studying locks ever since. He knew how they worked, how to manipulate them, and how to get out of them.

[00:13:08] For some locks, simply knowing how to knock them in the right place or move or shake them in the right way was sufficient to dislodge the internal mechanisms and break free.

[00:13:21] For others, Houdini would use a tiny piece of string to move the mechanism inside the lock.

[00:13:29] When this wasn’t possible, Houdini was able to recognise what kind of key would fit almost any kind of lock, so he could instruct his faithful wife and assistant, Bess, to go backstage, find the appropriate key in his large collection, and smuggle it to him in a glass of water, via a kiss, or in some secret way without the audience’s knowledge. This is, of course, what is believed; Houdini never revealed any of this. 

[00:14:01] If he had, the illusion would have been broken.

[00:14:05] And he was incredibly protective of his tricks, his escapes, and went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that he was the only one who could do them.

[00:14:17] On a practical level, this meant copyrighting them, meaning that he was legally the only person who could do them.

[00:14:25] Importantly, this is different to a patent. A patent, in case you didn’t know, requires you to produce public information about how something is made or done, whereas copyright doesn’t.

[00:14:39] Clearly, if your entire attraction is by disguising how something is done, patenting your invention is not the sort of thing you want to do.

[00:14:49] A quick aside, by the way, a side note, is that we have an entire episode on patents, and how they work. It’s number 159, and is quite an obscure but a fun one.

[00:15:02] Right, back to Houdini.

[00:15:05] After this amazing escape in London, his fame continued to grow. By this time, he was the most famous magician in the world, and was on a semi-permanent tour of Europe and the United States.

[00:15:20] And his tricks got even bigger. Making an elephant disappear, escaping from straitjackets, those jackets that are used to restrain prisoners, doing this upside down, underwater, and a combination of the two.

[00:15:37] He was not only an excellent magician, but he was also a talented self-publicist. He would stage escapes outside the windows of newspaper offices, so that he ensured journalists would write about him and their photographers wouldn’t have to travel to snap a picture of him. 

[00:15:56] He was also ruthless about competitors, and anyone who tried to copy or recreate his tricks would receive a heavy-handed letter from his lawyers.

[00:16:07] One other interesting fact about Houdini, which is perhaps surprising and isn’t as well known as his magic tricks, is his later crusade against “spiritualism”, the idea that you can communicate with the dead through things like Ouija boards and mediums.

[00:16:26] Houdini’s fame coincided with World War I, and in the immediate aftermath of this period there was an understandable interest from grieving parents, wives, brothers and sisters who wanted to communicate with loved ones killed on the battlefields of Europe.

[00:16:45] Spiritualism offered this possibility. Apart from, according to Houdini at least, it was a huge lie, a massive scam preying on the weak and vulnerable.

[00:16:59] Houdini went on something of a public crusade against spiritualism; he was a magician himself, he knew a trick when he saw one, and he accused spiritualists of profiting from misery. He would go to séances in disguise and expose spiritualist leaders when he saw them tricking their audience. He even wrote a book about it, and made it his mission to shine a light on this unscrupulous industry.

[00:17:30] And throughout the 1920s, he continued to perform, escaping from handcuffs, straightjackets, underwater boxes, and any kind of lock that his audience would present him with.

[00:17:44] This audience interaction would be the backbone of his career, it was a huge part of his appeal and popularity, but it would also be his undoing.

[00:17:56] One of the things that he had always boasted to his fans was that he had an iron stomach and could withstand a punch to the stomach from anyone. 

[00:18:08] Indeed, he would pose with famous boxers of the day, and allow anyone to hit him without seemingly causing any kind of real pain.

[00:18:18] In terms of how he did this, firstly, he was very strong and muscly, which was important, but he could also prepare himself by tensing his muscles and bending down slightly, thereby protecting himself and cushioning the blow.

[00:18:37] One day, however, when he was giving a lecture at McGill University in Montreal, a student came in and wanted to test Houdini’s “iron stomach” for himself. He drew his hand back and hit Houdini as hard as he could, apart from Houdini didn’t have time to prepare. 

[00:18:59] The blow landed, Houdini fell to the ground in agony, allegedly mumbling "That will do". He struggled on through the lecture, and then fell terribly ill on the train home. When he was eventually examined by doctors, they realised that the punch had ruptured his abdomen, and he died, perhaps appropriately for a magician, on Halloween, October 31st, of 1926.

[00:19:31] In terms of his legacy, practically all stage magicians since owe a debt to Houdini. 

[00:19:38] Grand escapologists like David Blaine and David Copperfield, or even people like Penn and Teller are continuing a tradition started by Harry Houdini.

[00:19:50] Everything about him was magical and theatrical, from the instantly memorable name to the showmanship of every performance, from the nature of his death to the fact that he was buried in a bronze coffin that had once been used in one of his tricks.

[00:20:08] Now, to conclude this episode, I promised that I’d tell you how he made that elephant disappear. 

[00:20:15] Well, nobody actually knows for sure, and Houdini took the secret to the grave with him, but most modern magicians believe that the elephant never actually left the box. 

[00:20:27] The box was a lot bigger than Houdini said it was, it just looked smaller given the fact that it was on a massive stage. There was a secret compartment in the box, small but large enough to hide an elephant, and because the lights were kept relatively low in the Hippodrome, and the angle was such that no audience member could see the entire way through the box, nobody could see that the elephant was still there, hidden away in a dark corner. 

[00:20:57] Houdini is once reported to have said “Anyone who believes in magic is a fool.”

[00:21:05] Who knows whether anyone in the audience really believed that Houdini had made the five-tonne elephant vanish by magic, but one thing is for certain: it must have been the most amazing spectacle.

[00:21:20] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Harry Houdini, The Master of Escape.

[00:21:27] I hope it's been an interesting one, and whether you’re a magic connoisseur or you’ve never heard the name of Harry Houdini before, well, I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:21:37] As always, I would love to know what you thought about this episode. 

[00:21:40] How much did you know about the life of Harry Houdini? 

[00:21:44] What do you think was his most impressive magic trick?

[00:21:47] Do you agree with the fact that he was the greatest magician of all time?

[00:21:51] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:55] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:22:03] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:22:08] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]