Houdini, King of Handcuffs

Legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini married Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner on June 22, 1894. When they met, she was performing as one of the Floral Sisters at the Sea Beach Palace, in West Brighton Beach, New York; he was a virtually unknown magician. Partners in work and life for the next thirty-two years, the Houdinis never attempted escape from the bonds of matrimony.

“Houdini: houdinize, vt. To release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds, or the like, as by wiggling out.”

Funk and Wagnall’s New Dictionary as quoted on Houdini Letterhead. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Harry and Beatrice Houdini in Nice, France, full-length portrait, standing, facing front. 1913. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Born in Budapest, Hungary, as Ehrich Weisz in 1874, the future Houdini emigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin, when he was just a few years old. His father had been hired as the rabbi of a Jewish congregation there, but the job lasted only a few years. As the family struggled to make ends meet young Erich Weiss, as his name was now spelled, held a variety of low-skilled jobs and ran away from home at least once. Many stories, some of them fanciful, surround the early days of his performing career. In about 1890, in New York City, he adopted the name Harry Houdini as part of a Houdini Brothers magic act. The name was chosen to invoke the reputation of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic. In his solo performances as a magician, Houdini appeared in amusement parks, sideshows, and vaudeville. He also began to augment his act with handcuff tricks.

In the early years of their marriage, with Beatrice as his assistant, Houdini advertised that he had “escaped out of more handcuffs, manacles, and leg shackles than any other human being living.” By 1899, the “King of Handcuffs” had dropped magic from his act and left for a European tour, where he was acclaimed as a brilliant “escapologist.”

Houdini and the Water Torture Cell. ca. 1913. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

In 1904, Houdini returned to America triumphant. Over the next fifteen years, he perfected a series of amazing acts including extricating himself from the jail cell of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, escaping from a water-filled milk can, and performing his world famous water torture cell routine. By the 1910s, he returned to magic and was soon embraced as a master magician as well as a brilliant escape artist. In 1918, hundreds gasped as Houdini made a 10,000-pound elephant disappear on the brightly lit stage of New York City’s Hippodrome Theater.

During the 1920s, Houdini dabbled in film, but primarily devoted himself to exposing fraudulent mediums—a campaign that resulted in a highly-publicized conflict with mystery writer and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ever the performer and self-promoter, Houdini brought his anti-spiritualist crusade to the stage. With hundreds watching, he revealed the techniques mediums used to “communicate” with the dead, and he authored a book, A Magician Among the Spirits, in 1924.

Wealthy and world famous, Beatrice and Harry Houdini celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in 1914 on board the S.S. Imperator of the Hamburg-America Line. Fellow passenger Theodore Roosevelt was so amazed by Houdini’s shipboard performance that he invited Houdini to meet his grandchildren. Five years later, the couple celebrated their silver anniversary with a formal dinner party at the Alexandria Hotel. Their marriage held strong until Houdini’s sudden death on Halloween, October 31, 1926. The “Genius of Escape” was just fifty-two years old.

The world-famous self-liberator Houdini will escape from the water torture cell, Cardiff, Wales. 1913. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Houdini at the Wintergarten, Berlin. 1903. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book Selections. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Houdini, “the genius of escape,” on the Orpheum Circuit. 1923. McManus-Young Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

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Bull Moose Party Born

On the evening of June 22, 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt asked his supporters to leave the floor of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Republican progressives reconvened in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and endorsed the formation of a national progressive party. When formally launched later that summer, the new Progressive Party chose Roosevelt as its presidential nominee. Questioned by reporters, Roosevelt said he felt as strong as a “bull moose.” Thenceforth known as the “Bull Moose Party,” the Progressives promised to increase federal regulation and protect the welfare of ordinary people.

Theodore Roosevelt… Rockwood Photo Co., cFeb. 24, 1903. Prints & Photographs Division

Roosevelt maintained that President William Howard Taft had allowed fraudulent seating of delegates in order to capture the presidential nomination from progressive forces within the party. However, the rift between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party was apparent even before Roosevelt left office. Roosevelt’s support of government regulation, his groundbreaking efforts in conservation and consumer protection, and his willingness to work with organized labor alienated pro-business party members. When Roosevelt tapped Taft as his successor in 1908, he had assumed that Taft would continue to support his agenda. Although Taft’s record suggested a leader sympathetic to reform, the former jurist’s quiet demeanor and attention to the letter of the law irritated Roosevelt and disappointed Republican progressives.

President Taft Speaking at Manassas Court House. November 10, 1911. Prints & Photographs Division

Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912—in a presidential campaign that was bitterly fought and easily won. With the Republican Party divided, progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson captured the presidency handily. Although he failed to become chief executive again, Roosevelt succeeded in his vendetta against Taft who received just twenty-three percent of the popular vote compared to Roosevelt’s twenty-seven percent.

Despite an impressive showing in 1912, the Bull Moose Party failed to establish itself as a viable third party. Still active on the state level, Progressives did not put forward a presidential candidate again until Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette‘s run in 1924.

Satirizing presidents and presidential hopefuls is an American tradition.

I discovered the Bull Moose Party.
I alone discovered the Moose—
and it would have been a great party
if the people hadn’t discovered the Bull…
But you must admit that the Bull Moose Party during its short but eventful life served this country well.
If it wasn’t for us and mostly me—you wouldn’t have Woodrow Wilson as your president to-day.
Suppose I hadn’t taken the stand I did in Chicago!
Where would we be now?
I had no feeling against Mr. Taft.
He’s a brilliant man—honorable—the highest type of intellectual American but he had one unpardonable fault—he wouldn’t do a damn thing I said.

My Policies. Part 3. Aaron Hoffman [with added material by Lew Dockstader]. 1915. p. 6-7. Rare Book Selections. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

The first decades of the twentieth century were marked by unprecedented efforts at social and governmental reform.

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