Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mount TBR #13

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Houdini: The Man Who Walked through Walls – William Lindsay Gresham, 1959

This biography tells of the life and time of the famous escape artist. Gresham writes in a lively style for the general reader. Sometimes Gresham overdoes the enthusiasm with the overuse of exclamation marks. And Gresham tells what’s going on inside Houdini’s head when there is little evidence that anybody knew what was going on in that active, sometimes overheated, brain. But the book is worth reading, as mentalist Max Maven deems it "the best of all the Houdini biographies."

Gresham makes clear that Houdini was a paragon of the American dream. Born in Budapest in 1874, he was taken at the age of four to Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father, Mayer Weiss, was appointed rabbi at the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. After his father lost his tenure, the family moved to New York City. The athletic Houdini was a track star in high school. With college out of the financial question for a family with six kids, he went to work cutting fabric in a necktie factor.

He was convinced he was made for better things so against his parents’ wishes he joined a circus and worked doing magic tricks on Coney Island.

Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, a singer and dancer in another Coney Island show. At first, she was part of the act, but they fell in love and married. This did not go over well with his parents or her Catholic mother. Houdini and Bess, however, made sure the women met and spent time together so they could get used to the situation. They even went to Europe on tour, paid for by Houdini and Bess. Houdini was extremely generous, helping out many in need of funds. And he always did that quietly, following his mother’s down to earth advice, “You don’t need a brass band to do a mitzvah.”

Houdini never claimed he used supernatural powers to free himself from sealed milk cans, prison cells, handcuffs, and straitjackets. He stood only 5’5″ and spoke in a comically high-pitched voice. But he made up for these with a winning smile and a manner that demanded attention and respect. Plus there was his sheer courage to do the stunts. On Youtube find video of him freeing himself from a straitjacket - in midair, shackled at the ankles, and suspended upside-down, high above a busy city street.

In the Twenties, he became active exposing spirit fakers. Gresham speculates that Houdini wanted to believe because he wanted contact with his deceased mother whose passing sent him into a long depression. When he realized the mediums were faking it by using tricks any magician knew, he was outraged enough so that his hard-charging character took up a crusade. In disguise he would break up séances and have the cops arrest the callous charlatans who exploited people’s grief. Gresham gives a fair overview of the Houdini contra Conan-Doyle argument, with the creator of Sherlock Holmes coming off sincere but credulous. In the summer of 1926, Houdini testified before the U.S. Congress against spiritualists who claimed to talk to the dead. Gresham’s account of how the pro-ghost faction confused the politicians reminds us that the forces of irrationality have hardly gone away but they still use the same arguments.

Houdini died on Halloween, 1926, from peritonitis due to a burst appendix, which was possibly caused from three punches to his abdomen nine days earlier. In the days before sulfa drugs were introduced in the 1930s, lots of deaths were caused by infection-induced inflammations.

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