Was Houdini a Superman?

“Ehrich Weiss was born into poverty and cast into the world with an inadequate education and a great burden. This flawed mortal struggled, schemed, and persevered, transforming himself into Harry Houdini, America’s first international sensation by creating the idea that he could beat any possible restraint. The idea was so powerful that he became mythic—a superman that would submit to no human authority.” –from THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI

He escaped from handcuffs, safes, and the notorious Black Maria, the Russian carette used to transport dangerous prisoners to Siberia. He jumped off bridges into rivers and bays, shackled. He was locked into a can filled with water (and later beer and milk) and freed himself. He devised an especially ingenious torture, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, where he was bound by the ankles and thrust head first into a small water-filled enclosure that was then locked. He escaped before a certain drowning death. He created the most ingenious outdoor publicity stunt ever, a harrowing upside down escape from a straitjacket while suspended hundreds of feet in the air.

Houdini’s relentless publicity seeking and his innate understanding of what was believable combined to push his name into the language. As early as 1899 the word Houdini began to be used synonymously with escape. Newspapers referred to escaped criminals as Houdinis or as “doing a Houdini.” By 1917, the guardians of the language noticed that cartoonists, lexicographers, preachers, the Literary Digest, and even a U.S. congressman were using Houdini’s name as a comparison for other people’s activities in elusion.

Houdini was the most popular entertainer of his age, and no one yet has filled his shoes as a magician. Fifty years after his death his name was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. When Googled today, his name comes up with 5,150,000 references. Harry Houdini may have been dead for 80 years, but his myth remains young and vital.

“The years of Houdini’s challenges created a cumulative effect that became the myth of the Superman. Houdini could get out of anything, he could defeat any device thrown at him. He was more than a man, he was a Superman. And every member of his audience both rooted for him and basked in his reflected glory. He was better than us, but in the end, he was one of us.” –from THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI

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