Harry Houdini with his mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss, 1907.

He made his mother proud. But for all his achievements, he knew he was only an illusionist.

–Houdini, Opening number Ragtime: The Musical.

As we discussed in class on Tuesday Feb. 15th, Houdini is one of the many historical characters whose arc is truncated in McNally’s adaptation of Doctorow’s novel. In the musical, Houdini provides a spiritual figure and aspirational ideal for the Little Boy (“Warn the Duke!”) and Tateh (“Break those chains with all you possess!”) respectively. As a historical touchstone, like Henry Ford or Evelyn Nesbit, he grounds the story’s fictional characters in the specific time and place in which the story is set. In exchange for making him a touchstone, the musical simplifies the complex mind and character that motivated Houdini’s career.

A Few Biographical Details

The man who would become Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weisz on March 24, 1874, in Budapest, Hungary. His father was a religious teacher who immigrated to America soon after Ehrich’s birth. Once in the US, Mayer Weisz changed the family name to Weiss, obtained a position as a rabbi to a small Jewish congregation in Appleton, Wisconsin, and, in 1876, brought his second wife, Cecilia, and children to the new surroundings. Mayer’s tenure as rabbi was short-lived due to his relatively conservative views and, according to some sources, his inability speak English clearly and confidently despite his extensive education and intellect. After the loss of this job, the family moved first to Milwaukee, and everyone took whatever work could be found. At the age of nine, Houdini performs on a makeshift trapeze in a self-created neighborhood “circus,” calling himself “Ehrich, The Prince of the Air.”

Houdini with his wife Beatrice and his mother, 1907.

Eventually, the family settles in New York City with parents and children again taking menial jobs for scant wages. While the promise of America seems to slip away from his father’s grasp, Houdini and his brother develop a team act of magical skills in the tradition of their idol French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. By the time their father dies in 1892, the Houdini Brothers possess a solid reputation as steady performers in music halls, sideshows and amusement parks, especially New York’s Coney Island. Seven years later, Harry Houdini, now performing with his bride, Bess (a singer and dancer), would break into vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit and turn his away from “conjouring” to ever more daring tests of strength and endurance coupled with even more successful strategies for marketing his persona.

Houdini handcuffed, 1905.

The “King of Handcuffs” returned from his first European tour in 1905 with fame and an international reputation, and enough money to buy a Brownstone in Harlem for his wife and mother. He was particularly adept at building suspense over the possible failure of his feats.
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This daring, coupled with his selection of provocative sites and circumstances from which he would emerge triumphant, made him one of the biggest celebrities of the Vaudeville age. His quest to press the boundaries of his physical prowess would be the ultimate cause of his death. After a particularly grueling escape in Albany, NY his ankle had snapped while he was being hoisted upside down on a pulley. Refusing to slow his pace, Houdini continued on to a performance date in Canada. This was late October 1926. Backstage, a strapping McGill University student asked if he might be allowed to punch the legendary artist in the abdomen to see his strength tested up close. Not waiting for an answer, the student set upon the performer who seemed to accept the blows without external damage. The rest is best described by an NPR story from 2003, which recalled a biographer’s version of the magician’s ironic Halloween death date:

At that evening’s performance, Houdini retired to his couch during intermissions in a cold sweat. After the show, he was unable to dress himself. He completed his Montreal engagement the next evening, then with his assistants caught a late-night train to begin a run in Detroit.

On board, though, he experienced severe stomach pains. He managed in the morning to reach a Detroit hotel, but for a half hour he shook with chills. Still, he was determined to go on for opening night. At curtain time, his temperature was 104. When he left the stage after act one, he fell down. He revived, gave the rest of his show, and collapsed again.

The next afternoon, Oct. 25, Houdini’s appendix was removed at Grace Hospital. It had ruptured and produced peritonitis. Doctors gave him an experimental serum, and four days later operated again. But the sepsis had taken over his system.

“I can’t fight anymore,” he told his brother. He died at 1:26 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 31

Harry "handcuff" Houdini portrait, 1913.

Houdini was a leader amongst magicians and lent legitimacy to this field by publicly discussing some “tricks” of the trade and being willing to expose charlatans, especially spiritualists who he felt manipulated a gullible public with claims of psychic powers. Ironically, in the throes of grief over his mother’s death in 1913, Houdini himself expressed a desire to believe in the communication with the afterlife that spiritualism promised; however, his own skill at creating illusions meant few, if any, mediums could withstand his scrutiny. In Chapter 27 of the novel, Doctorow examines Houdini’s “turn” to spiritualism following his mother’s death.

Specifics important to Ragtime’s Houdini

Edgar Cayce, the model for Ragtime’s little boy, Edgar? 1910 portrait.

Apparently the initial advance Doctorow received for the book that would become Ragtime was for a story focused on “the sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), a contemporary of Houdini known for his successful, and supposedly unimpeachable, psychic readings and premonitions.

I can’t find direct evidence that Cayce and Houdini ever met (one web source asserted that Cayce did a psychic reading for Houdini that Houdini couldn’t debunk, but I couldn’t confirm that claim elsewhere). I also couldn’t find evidence that the Archduke’s assassination was one of Cayce’s many heralded premonitions. This information, however, reinforced by the fact that the “little boy” is named Edgar, lends more historical support for the boy’s premonitory connection to Houdini in both the novel and the musical.

Early in Act 1, the little boy shouts to an airplane flying over the New Rochelle House. The musical book indicates this is a plane flying an advertisement for a Houdini performance but the little boy cries out to it as if Houdini is himself at the controls. And he may well have been, in 1909, Houdini developed an interest in flying. He bought a plane and, in order to get to the airport faster, he also learned to drive a car. In March 1910 while living in Australia for a tour, Houdini made the first controlled, powered flight of an airplane in Australia, at Digger’s Rest in Victoria.

Houdini in the cockpit of the Voisin plane, 1910.

After setting this amazing record, rumor has it that he never flew a plane or drove a car again.

Image from 1926 NYTimes article about Houdini's library.

Something Houdini never gave up was collecting, amassing such an extensive collection that he had to hire a full time librarian to manage the materials. Chapter 11 in the novel, discusses the little boy’s penchant for collecting, mostly things discarded by other members of the New Rochelle family (including Younger Brother’s risqué, for the time, silhouettes and portraits of Evelyn Nesbit).