Was Houdini a Spy?
In the late 1800s, a young Harry Houdini, though stunningly creative and clever, couldn’t make enough money to succeed at magic. Hungry and crestfallen, he was ready to give up his dream, until he walked into a Chicago police station and met a detective who would change his life. Immediately after this fateful encounter, he was catapulted into stardom, leaving cheap beer halls and dime museums for the big time of vaudeville stages. In one year, he had gone from literally eating rabbits for survival to making the equivalent of $45,000 a week. But then he left it all behind to travel abroad. Why would someone who had finally made it big, risk everything and leave behind lucrative contracts to travel to England with no real prospects? Within days of arriving, however, Houdini met with a prominent Scotland Yard Inspector and once again, his career took off. Did Houdini have a secret agenda that would make sense of these seemingly suicidal career moves?
This was just one of the questions that intrigued authors William Kalush and Larry Sloman. To find the answers they sought, they did an incredible amount of research. They read and reread all of the previous books on Houdini, and many from the magic field in general. They gathered a massive amount of source material—photocopied documents, Houdini’s personal scrapbooks (17,000 pages alone!), as well as his letters and correspondence. They electronically searched as many as 200 million newspaper articles, and millions of census and government records. Ultimately, they created a fully text-searchable database that now contains 700,000 pages of material on magic, with tens of thousands of references to Houdini.
Early on in their research, the authors discovered an interesting letter from a man in Scotland who was reporting to Houdini that there were rumors circulating that he was a spy! When they looked back at why Houdini suddenly succeeded in Chicago after having done substantially the same act for years in anonymity, they found some stunning connections. The particular Chicago detective that boosted Houdini’s career was a member of an exclusive club called the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), made up of law enforcement officials from around the world. Another member was the chief of the U.S. Secret Service. They eventually discovered that the Chief was also a magician, and he admitted to using magician as operatives. Perhaps this was the opportunity Houdini had needed.
Houdini’s first trip out to the west coast in 1899 may also have been his first mission for the United States Secret Service. The counterfeiting of silver dollars in the western portion of the country was a major problem for the Chief of the U.S. Secret Service John E. Wilkie in the spring of 1899, and it is known that Houdini had been receiving orientation on counterfeiting techniques around the same time.
The authors made contact with Andrew Cook—one of the worlds leading espionage experts—who dropped a bombshell by revealing that he was in possession of a diary of England’s top spymaster, Inspector William Melville of Scotland Yard. A close examination of the document revealed many entries that showed that Houdini was doing espionage for Melville abroad, as well as tutoring him in escape and lockpicking techniques.
Houdini made inroads into the top echelons of the German police and then sent back reports to Melville. In The Right Way to Do Wrong, he also admitted to serving as a liaison between in the IACP in the United States and the top German police brass.
Houdini’s magic was so mystifying that he was asked to become an advisor to Czar Nicholas’ court on three separate occasions.