Amazement doesn't come easy in show business these days. With increasingly savvy audiences trained to dismiss the seemingly-unbelievable as a product of safety wires, stunt doubles and CGI trickery, it's easy now to forget that in the early 20th century, Harry Houdini was working without a net — and flaunting his fears with every death-defying trick he performed.
Houdini's bag of tricks was overflowing with dangerous escapes and terrifying feats that would make a modern-day insurance underwriter run screaming. Not that the master himself let that dissuade him. He took pride in his ability to look death in the face, smile, and then leap straight into its jaw.
To gear up for HISTORY's two-night miniseries on the life of the legendary performer, which airs this Monday, September 1 and Tuesday, September 2 at 9/8C, here's a quick primer on his most terrifying, impossible stunts, plus the unexpected challenge that finally did him in. When you're done reading, take your own leap into the comments and recount your own tales of facing fear and staring down death — even if you blinked.
In 1907, Houdini's Rochester, NY Bridge Jump was caught on film, making it one of his diciest escapes ever to be recorded. In the footage, a police officer handcuffs Houdini before he leaps from the bridge into a river, surfacing just a few breathless seconds later unshackled, unharmed, and as cool, calm and collected as someone who's just gone for a leisurely swim. Afterwards, the escape artist proved he was also a good son by giving a shout-out to his mom in his diary, writing "Ma saw me jump!"
Houdini used a variety of custom boxes to perform his signature box escape stunts: there were metal-rimmed boxes, transparent plate glass boxes, and even the Spanish Maiden, a body-conforming coffin inspired by the infamous Iron Maiden torture device. In one particularly hair-raising escape in New York City, Houdini's legs and arms were bound and he was locked inside a packing crate, which was then weighted with lead. A crowd estimated to be close to 100,000 gathered to watch the escape, crowding against the river's seawall as the portable prison was slowly lowered into the black water. A few minutes later, Houdini popped up and swam to shore. When the box was pulled up, it was intact and still locked. His fingers, however, were all prune-y.
According to Houdini himself, one of his nearest brushes with death went unobserved by the public. As part of a bet, he'd allowed himself to be chained up and buried six feet under—literally. "The knowledge that I was six feet under the sod gave me the first thrill of horror I had ever experienced," he said. A thrill, maybe, but it also sounds more like a rare instance in which he almost lost his cool. "The momentary scare, the irretrievable mistake of all daredevils, nearly cost me my life, for it caused me to waste a fraction of breath when every fraction was needed to pull through." On the verge of panic, Houdini reverted to his instincts, honed by years of training, and his innate courage. He fought his way to the sunlight, bursting from the dirt like a zombie. He never again undertook such a dangerous stunt. Well, not on purpose at least.
Considering his track record, it's ironic that Houdini's death came when he was when he was unshackled and on dry land. To this day, accounts differ on exactly what happened and, fittingly for someone who cultivated his own myth so carefully, legend sometimes trumps fact. But here are the basics:
On October 22nd, 1926, Houdini was attempting to demonstrate to a group of students his ability to withstand a blow to the stomach. One of the more unsporting lads caught him off-guard, punching him in the gut before he could prepare himself and most likely rupturing his appendix. Ever the tough-guy, Houdini ignored the pain and proceeded to perform that evening. By the time he made it to a doctor afterward, he was feverish and lethargic. Instead of agreeing to the recommended surgery, he insisted on performing one last time, only to realize that he was too sick to do it. His appendix was removed, but not soon enough: in an appropriately eerie twist of fate, he died on Halloween.
Nothing Houdini did was magic. If there was anything uncanny about his performances, it lay in his almost supernatural ability to move past fear. Could you do the same? In the comments, share what terrifies you most — whether that means rats, heights, or something more exotic — along with the times you've conquered them and the times they've reduced you to a quivering mess. Then watch HISTORY's two-night Houdini this Monday, September 1 and Tuesday, September 2 at 9/8C, to see how the legend himself would have scoffed at your wussiness.
Jonah Flicker is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY covering food, drink, music, film, and lifestyle.