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Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society

"Le doute n'est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde."


Master of Illusion: Houdini

SAPS looks at one of the most famous magicians in history.

Harry Houdini was not born with that fantastic of a name. His real name was Erich Weiss, and he was born in 1874. He adopted the name Houdini when he went into magic at age 17, after Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a famous magician of the times. While Houdini loved magic, and learned every trick he could, he was not much of a success for a long time. He was an escapist, a card manipulator, and an illusionist, and his greatest trick of all was swallowing dozens of needles and thread only to regurgitate it all, with the needles neatly threaded.

See a photo of the Indian Needle Mystery:

Houdini is best known for his escapist acts. He could get out of a strait jacket while suspended upside down above a crowd.

See a photo of the Strait Jacket Escape here:

He also had a "Challenge" with his audience members, who were allowed to produce any set of handcuffs, and Houdini would escape from them.

Houdini was a famous debunker. After the death of his mother, he became interested in mediumship. He used many stage appearances to duplicate the same effects that mediums used to make money. He could create ghostly apparitions, levitate tables, and reproduce "spirit murmurings". He spent the last thirteen years of his life exposing mediums as frauds. One can only suppose that he was under the impression that a good magic trick is entirely different from supposed psychic skills. One is for entertainment, and the other is a claim to cross the boundary of death to reunite grieving family members. This difference would eventually become important to another famous magician - James Randi.

Houdini died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. While he was on tour, he exhibited the first signs of appendicitis, and rather than miss doing shows, continued though he was in pain. His appendix was ruptured by a university student who was demonstrating Houdini's ability to take punches, and punched him in the stomach. A few days later, the infection had set in, and though Houdini was treated in the hospital he died on Halloween of 1926.


Indian Needle Mystery (Spoiler):

The Indian Needle Mystery was more of a honed skill than a trick. Rather than swallowing the needle and thread, Houdini kept it all in his mouth. He lined the needles up as though they were still in a packet, with all of the holes in a row, and threaded the string through with his tongue. Sort of like tying a cherry stem.

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