5X5 Episode 98

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5X5 Episode 98
Harry Houdini
30th December 2010

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5X5 97 5X5 99
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Show Notes

Harry Houdini[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about Erik Weisz, or as he is more commonly known, Harry Houdini. Houdini is the most famous, I think, magician to have ever lived. Everyone knows who Harry Houdini was. He is a Hungarian-born American magician, an escape artist, and he is also well known within the skeptical movement as a famous skeptic. And in fact, he started the tradition of famous magicians also being popular skeptics.

E: Yeah, he was born in Hungary, but Houdini and his family emigrated to The United States in the 1880s and they eventually found their way to New York City. Erik was a natural athlete growing up, he used to run cross-country races and was a trapeze artist at a very young age. He found he had an affinity for card tricks and simple sleight-of-hand magic and he started doing small tricks in parlours and roadside circus shows. But, his big break came in 1899 when he was recognised as being a highly talented escape artist.

B: Yeah, Houdini's manager, Martin Beck, was actually the person to advise him to focus on escape tricks because he was very impressed with his ability to get out of handcuffs. This led quickly to tours around the world where he challenged local police officers to handcuff him. He was actually called "The Handcuff King" back then and he even revealed his methods of how he did some of these escapes in some of his writing he did to his magical brotherhood. And he used probably three main methods to get out of his handcuffs: One was just the proper force. He had a deep knowledge of handcuffs in general and exactly how much force and how to apply it to get out of a lot of them. He also used shoe laces. I'm not sure in what way they helped him, but they apparently came in handy. Also, as a lot of people know now, he would regurgitate lock picks and keys at will, which is an interesting ability. Now this led to escapes from prisons and straight-jackets, and chains, and ropes, etc. Houdini actually had to put these escapes behind him, though, once his audiences started dwindling and imitators started popping up. So he had to up the ante and he did this by making the escapes much more death-defying. This included escapes from things like locked water-filled milk cans and perhaps his most famous escape, the Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he was suspended upside down and lowered into a locked steel and glass cabinet requiring him to hold his breath for about three minutes before escaping. It's notable that Houdini never said or advertised that spirits helped him with his escapes like other magicians such as the Davenport Brothers. Houdini never claimed any supernatural assistance at all, although his ads did sometimes show that he was de-materialising to get through these objects.

R: Houdini had a really strong relationship with his mother, and when she died he became obsessed with the supernatural. He began looking into psychics who claimed they could reach out to the dead in an attempt to connect with his dead mother. And what he found people who were using magic tricks in the same way that Houdini used magic and it really angered him and at that point he sort of switched focus a bit and he became an outspoken critic of psychic mediums. He was even a member of a Scientific American committee that investigated a very well-known psychic medium called Marjorie. Her real name being Mina Crandon. And it made big news at the time. Scientific American was offerring a price kind of similar to James Randi's Million Dollar Prize to anybody who could demonstrate that they had psychic abilities. The team found that Mina had no such psychic abilities, although that in itself could fill a whole other podcast. He continued throughout his life exposing spiritualists and mediums and this actually cost him the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is the author of the Sherlock Holmes series of books. A lot of people think of Holmes as being very logic-based, but it may surprise them to find out that his creator was anything but. Conan Doyle sort of created Holmes almost as an insufferable, logical man, as opposed to Conan Doyle, who thought that there actually was something to the supernatural, to ghosts and the afterlife and fairies and things like that. Conan Doyle was one of the people that really popularised the Conanly Fairies. But Houdini started speaking out against spiritualists and this really annoyed Conan Doyle. It wasn't just his belief that spiritualists were real but his wife was a person who claimed to have psychic abilities, and after Houdini pretty much debunked Conan Doyle's wife, the friendship was pretty much at an end.

J: There are a few stories about Harry Houdin's death. Some people speculate that one of the causes of his death was that he was punched in the stomach by a college student, which they thought may have ruptured his appendix. But that's not true. He was punched but that wasn't the thing that killed him. Houdini actually died of a condition called peritonitis, which is the lining of your abdomen swelling to the point where it can kill you. And back in the day during Houdini's time, that was a huge problem to have; it's serious today, but back then it absolutely killed people when they got it. So, a couple of facts: one is Houdini was suffering from appendicitis but it wasn't the thing that killed him. Basically what happened was Houdini was getting more and more sick; he went to a show, it was his last show on October 24th, 1926, and at the time he started the show he had a 104 fever. He was reported as passing out during the show; he was later revived and finished the show but afterwards they brought him to the hospital and on October 31st, at age 52, unfortunately Harry died from his illness. Now something kind of strange happened after he died. There's a lot of speculation here, but basically, his wife was conducting seances for ten years after he died to try to contact Harry. And I guess that the two of them had spoken about this and the rumour is that Harry had promised his wife that he was going to try to contact her from the grave. So for ten years, on Halloween, she had a seance, and after ten years, she announced that her last hope has gone and that she doesn't believe that Harry can come back and contact her or that anyone could. But what has happened since then is that people would conduct this seance kind of as a tradition and for fun. After all these years people still do this.

S: Right. Houdini basically set that up as like the final test because, by that point, he was a firm skeptic of the spiritual movement that was going on at the time and he didn't believe that people could contact spirits and so it was essentially his own personal test, like, "hey, if this is real, I'll come back. We'll set it up."

R: And he had given Bess a secret word so that she would know that the spiritualist who actually manages to get his ghost through was really him and not just the spiritualist performing magic tricks. And no one within Bess's lifetime was ever able to come up with the word.

S: Right, and it is interesting that Harry Houdini really became the prototype for the magician skeptic. He essentially figured out that the spiritualists of the time who were doing seances were using escapist tricks that he wasusing on stage in order to convince people that they were performing some paranormal or spiritualist act. This is still going on today and we see in magicians like James Randi and Penn and Teller and Banacek and others; they know that the frauds and the psychics and the mediums and the spiritualists are using tricks, because they know all the tricks and I think that it's interesting that that tradition had really carried on so strongly; the notion of magicians investigating and debunking those who are using their craft in order to really deceive people rather than just do entertainment. We do have to remember that Harry Houdini was the one who started it all.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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