By JOAN HIGBEE
Last fall, 70 years after the death of Harry Houdini, the Library of Congress released a home page devoted to the legendary magician as part of its American Memory online collections.
Here, more than 140 high-resolution graphics and documents, derived from primary source materials in multiple Library collections, chronicle an extraordinary life. Those who visit the site (http://memory.loc.gov/) encounter Houdini through images and text masterminded by the illusionist as he effected his metamorphosis from unknown sideshow performer to international celebrity.
A formidable collector, Houdini willed his holdings on magic and spiritualism to the Library of Congress. The special relationship that he forged with the nation's library through this remarkable gift gives a person dimension to Houdini's return to the world stage via cyberspace.
The other major source for Houdini online is the McManus-Young Collection, also in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. John J. and Hanna McManus, and Morris N. and Chesley V. Young jointly presented their 20,000-item magic collection to the Library in 1955. The online Houdini site contains 143 photographs and 29 related items of memorabilia.
Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874. His family soon immigrated to the American Midwest, where his father became the first rabbi of a new congregation in Appleton, Wis. American immigration officials changed Weisz to Weiss. As a young man, known as Ehrich Weiss, the aspiring magician selected his own name and persona -- Houdini. He did this to establish his relationship to the father of modern magic -- the French 19th century master conjurer Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. A consummate showman, Robert-Houdin had brought magic from its historic venues of public fairs and private parlors to open performance on the stage. "A magician," he wrote, "is an actor playing the role of a magician."
Houdini began his career in dime museums, home to curiosity shows and unknown acts. He rose to fame in vaudeville and founded his own motion picture company, creating a legacy of daring escapes on film. In 1899 impresario Martin Beck employed Houdini to work for the Orpheum (vaudeville) Circuit, suggesting that the magician shed traditional conjuring in favor of what Houdini would later call "escapology." Becoming internationally famous for exploits that proved the impossible possible, he further established himself as a master of seance magic, exposing fraudulent mediums by replicating their illusions as part of his own show.
A person of many accomplishments, Houdini in 1910 was acclaimed as the first person to pilot a plane over Australia. The magic of early flight, he wrote, was in the "glorious thrill" of first adventure, and "not in minor modification, which is perpetual with any art."
The new Library of Congress digital Houdini Collection offers, as a special feature, a biographical chronology with embedded links to holdings and to hypertext. Visitors to the Web site who use this configuration to explore materials follow the great magician through six transformational periods.
1878 to 1898: From Hungary to America, the First Stage
This section begins with a postcard written by the future "Genius of Escape Who Will Startle and Amaze" when he ran away from home at the age of 12. It presents pages from the Bible of his father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, and includes a photograph of the mother he adored, Cecilia Steiner Weiss. This was a time of poverty, hardship, great family love and determination. Images from these early years show a resolute young man adapting to a country radically different from his parents' homeland. They depict him working to develop the physical stamina, dexterity, showmanship and persona that would take him from the bottom of performance venues to the top of the vaudeville stage.
At his side emerges a figure of intelligence and spirit, his wife, Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner Houdini. Also present during his early youth is the brother who would follow him into magic, Theodore Hardeen, born Ferencz Deszo Weisz on March 4, 1876 (images of Houdini's wife and brother are available from the Web site). Already evident are the influence of Robert-Houdin and reports on the techniques and deceptions of fraudulent spiritualism.
1899-1907: Vaudeville and Fame
The year 1899 was a turn in the life of Houdini: Martin Beck persuaded the struggling performer to put aside traditional magic, such as card tricks, and to concentrate on escapes. Now the "King of Handcuffs" came to the fore. Images present the Houdini family on the brink of prosperity and document the magician's emergence in Europe as a star. Letterheads, photographs and a vibrant poster from the Berlin Wintergarten give graphic evidence of an intense, creative life.
Returning to New York City, Houdini bought a brownstone house in the German section of Harlem. When, on Jan. 7, 1906, he escaped from the Washington, D.C., jail cell that had once held Charles Guiteau -- the assassin of President Garfield -- the magician's reputation as both a jail-breaker and Handcuff King was assured. Now an established performer, he could reflect on the history of magic and undertake his own publications. He also prepared himself to do submersion escapes.
1908-1918: The World Stage
In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, an attack upon his former hero and, on a nobler level, a sweeping history of magic. The Web site features a 1908 portrait of Houdini holding a copy of the book, of which he was very proud. The Unmasking included references to spiritualism that he subsequently explored in A Magician Among the Spirits. Houdini developed and performed the "Milk Can Escape," the "Weed Tire Grip Chain Escape," manacled bridge jumps and the "Upside-Down Water Torture Cell Escape"; all these feats can be viewed online. In his spare time he positioned himself as a pioneer aviator and made his flight over Australia; a photo shows the trophy he received in 1910. Houdini performed his largest stage illusion in 1918, vanishing Jenny the elephant at New York's Hippodrome. Always ready to embellish a sensation, he claimed that she weighed 10,000 pounds. The online photo shows Houdini, arms outstretched, standing below the elephant as it rears on its hind legs.
1919-1922: Silent Film
Beatrice and Harry Houdini celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in 1919. A portrait of the formal event at the Alexandria Hotel features the Houdinis, resplendently garbed, seated in front of a long table where their equally resplendent guests had gathered.
One year later, Funk and Wagnall's New Dictionary turned the name Houdini into a verb, Houdinize, which means "to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds or the like, as by wriggling out." Houdini's letterhead, seen on the Web site, proudly proclaims this fact.
During this period, Houdini began to star in silent films. First there was "The Master Mystery"; then "The Grim Game." In 1921 the magician founded the Houdini Picture Corp. Its first film was "The Man from Beyond."
1920-1926: Mediums and Magic
Houdini's formal education was slight; his self education immense. The magician had a great love of books and of research and built a formidable personal library. When, in the 1920s, he strode into the public arena to confront fraudulent mediums, he proceeded from a home lined with books and manuscripts about their methods of deception. Visitors to the online collection can view a July 31, 1925, letter in which Houdini describes his extensive library of letters and documents related to spiritualism. His attacks stemmed from both shameless self-promotion and sincere commitment to the public good. Photographs in the digital Houdini Collection show his exposures of a rich panoply of psychic fraud: slate writing, spirit photographs, fingerprinting a spirit and trumpet mediums, who would transmit voices through the musical instrument. Articles and images present Houdini's greatest challenge -- Mina Crandon, the medium known as Margery. A woman who fooled one established academic mind after another, she found her greatest champion in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini was never able to expose her as an outright fraud, but he did block her progress.
1926: Change of Venues
Houdini died of peritonitis on Oct. 31, 1926, in Detroit. Reports of his death showed that the man of mystery could never be reduced to "facts" or captured by linear text. Newspapers throughout the country carried the news of his death. Two examples, available online, are an article from the San Francisco Chronicle, "Death Claims Balk in Battle to Break Shackles of Grim Reaper," and another from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, "Houdini Keeps His Secrets: Tricks Go to Grave with Magician."
Nevil Maskelyne, the early-20th century theoretician of magic wrote that the characteristic of any magic feat is that something or somebody is caused to pass mysteriously from one place or condition to another. The magician's audience, Mas-kelyne said, "is interested in witnessing events which have no relation to common experience and are engendered by a being who possesses a power far beyond their own."
Performance magic as an art requires that the ability and mental attitude of the magician be equal to the expectations of this audience.
Houdini's were. But he always insisted upon the purely human nature of his art. He gleaned ideas for performance tricks from mediums. Through replication, he also exposed as fraudulent the field of seance magic. He emphasized the responsibility of magicians to acknowledge that magic is a purely human skill and to expose mediums who claimed their illusions were the result of contact with the world beyond. The Houdini Collection in cyberspace is derived from his legacy of imagination, curiosity and devotion to magic as a performing art.
Joan Higbee, who is the editor of the online Houdini database, is a reference specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.