A public television program that promised to reveal the “secret of Houdini’s success” was disappointing. The narrator explained in detail how the great magician got out of a box, but the program did not account for how Houdini became the most successful magician who ever thought outside of the box.
The secrets of success are best understood as general principles applicable to all sorts of occupations. If we knew and applied the principles of Houdini’s success to our own businesses, we who feel boxed in or chained to our desks would be better equipped to escape to the realization of our ideals. It is with that in mind that we inquire further into the secrets of Houdini’s success.
First of all, any rags-to-riches story must progress from poor circumstances. Some time before Houdini was Houdini he was born on April 6, 1874 in Appleton, Wisconsin, and named Erich Weiss, son of Reverend Doctor (Rabbi) Mayer Samuel Weiss. Rabbi Weiss was a victim of age discrimination: he was fired from his $750 position in favor of a younger man. He removed his impoverished family to Milwaukee, where circumstances were hopefully more opportune.
Although adversity has been the leading motive for obtaining many a great fortune, most of us would rather not quit our pathetic jobs, give up our meager holdings and pass through the eye of a needle to obtain the Promised Land. We would rather hold on to what little we have than risk it at roulette. Perhaps we would better off to begin with nothing at all, but that remains to be seen: we would like to have some starting capital. Despite the rewards promised to those who have faith and who work their fingers to the bone, only a few people are graced by fickle Lady Fortune with fame and fortune; or, if you prefer, only select few are chosen in advance to succeed in the end no matter what they do in the interim. By this we do not mean to discount the general principles of success or our ability to apply them rightly in our own circumstances; we mean to say that a little bit of luck, or providence, if you please, goes a long ways towards success, sometimes even farther than intelligence and hard work. Notwithstanding the best-laid plans, people tend to fall into our fates, so we had better be prepared to take advantage of the accidents if advantage is to be had in them.
Take advantage of what works. Erich Weiss was somehow bound to take advantage of fortuitous events instead of letting them pass him by unheeded. He made his first appearance before an audience at nine years of age, as a contortionist and trapeze performer billed as “Ehrich, The Prince of the Air.” “Ehrich” was a bit too much for a first name, so he soon shortened it to “Eric.” Of course Eric was dirt poor and gravitated towards trades in need of willing hands. He worked as a photographer, cutter, driller, and locksmith. The latter trade gave him occasion to try his hand at picking locks, a pursuit that would become his claim to fame: A prisoner in the police station nearby had gotten hold of some keys and had managed to break one off in his handcuff. Eric was brought in to cut the cuffs off; alas, the hacksaw blade broke, so he picked the lock instead, and would soon be picking locks around the world.
Find good friends and models and take risks. Eric like other young men had his like-minded pals. For example, an amateur magician by the name of Joseph Rinn, and his partner, Jack Hayman, who enjoyed reading the memoirs of the French wizard, Robert-Houdin. Eric then idolized Houdin; one day he turned to Joseph and said, “I’ve made up my mind, Joe, to quit my job and become a professional magician under the name Harry Houdini.” Harry Houdini, after becoming his own kind of magician, eventually renounced Houdin – a guru once said that the disciple eats his master and sits on his mat. But Houdini adhered to his good wife and partner Beatrice (Bessie) Rahner, whom he married in 1894 – The Amazing Houdinis were inseparable.
Discover your trade secrets, the principles of your success, wherever you can find them, and apply them dramatically elsewhere. Houdini was earning some money as an actor and had made his way to St. Louis, where he happened to formulate his famous Packing Box Escape. In need of firewood, he found a discarded packing box on the street and proceeded to take it apart noiselessly so as not to attract the attention of the police. Not bad, but further innovation was needed for shows: sneak thin cutting pliers into the box; cut a few nails; swivel the slats aside and get out—assistants could replace the removed nails. He first presented the astonishing packing box mystery in Germany. A tip: If the feat is easily performed, pretend it is very difficult to accomplish to increase its impact on the audience,
Nice guys may finish last, but you can still be kind. Keep the secrets of your trade to yourself when possible, or limit them to a select group. Houdini carefully guarded such secrets of the trade. And while leading the Society of America Magicians, he curbed competition; some say, to his own advantage. Like most of us, if the truth were know, he could be volatile, cruel and mean at times, and he could be kind and generous as well. Houdini’s hobby was collecting curios of the magic business; he purchased a valuable collection from Henry Evans Evanion, a conjurer whom he had had found impoverished in London, and provided him with an annuity until Evanion died in 1905. Of course the collection is invaluable today, and the Houdini poster in your attic may be worth a pretty penny or two.
Do your best to make yourself available for lucky breaks. Houdini got a big break in March of 1899, when Martin Beck, famous booker for the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit, strolled into a small St. Paul hall where Houdini was performing, approached him at the end of the performance and asked him if he could escape from any sort of manacles. To which Houdini responded, “None exist from which I cannot escape.”
Do some grandstanding if you can get away with it, especially if stunts are your business. Innovate, and then focus on what obtains the best results. Houdini amazed Europeans with his stunts, escaping from cuffs, chains, prisoner-boxes, and jails. The police in Cologne, Germany figured he was a fraud and said so. Houdini sued the police department for slander and won his case in court, escaping from the manacles especially designed by the police.
Houdini’s other public stunts included escaping from a straightjacket; from a locked milk can filled with water and locked inside an airtight case; from an operating table on which physicians had strapped him down; from a Sangwar Punishment Frame to which three Chinese men had roped and chained him; from soaked sheets in which nurses had wrapped him; from a solid leather, copper-riveted punishment suit put on him by special sergeants to the U.S Marine Corps. And in the Fall of 1912, Houdini introduced his Chinese Water Torture Cell or Upside Down Escape. And then he rapidly eliminated most of his other escapes, keeping, for one, his successful overboard-box innovation, the Submerged Box Feat: Houdini had had himself lowered in an iron-weighted box into New York Bay before a huge crowd. The claim that he was the first to escape from an overboard box was controversial. By the way, Osiris, the Egyptian god of death and resurrection, was nailed into a box further sealed with molten lead and cast into the Nile. Ironically, after Houdini’s untimely death on Halloween 1926 (now National Magic Day), his remains were taken to New York in the metal casket in which he had undergone a live underwater burial in New York’s Hotel Shelton pool.
Unseen techniques help create grand illusions. Indeed, frustrated supernaturalists may actually believe the cosmos is a grand magic show or illusion; Hindu fakirs may think the tricksters themselves are tricked into tricking. Houdini was a confident conman by trade, a master of deceit, but he was no cheat. He practiced his art simply to amuse and entertain audiences, not to make complete fools of them. Above all he wanted the truth. For instance, an Egyptian fakir, one Rahman Bey, claimed that he was able to survive being submerged in water for one hour because he put himself into a trance. Houdini seemingly disproved the claim by having himself buried in an airtight casket under water for one hour and thirty-one minutes, breathing easily to conserve oxygen. He had an alarm bell and a telephone just in case; skeptics opined that he had oxygen and carbon dioxide secreted in the alarm bell apparatus. In any case, everyone knew Houdini’s magic was just a trick, yet he did it so well that it was difficult to believe that his tricks were tricks.
We know that Houdini was sorely offended by spiritualists who preyed on grieving people who wanted to contact their beloved ones on the Other Side; he went out of his way to expose the frauds, making that part of his show. Not that Houdini was faithless as far as the supernatural life was concerned: he sorely wanted to make contact with his departed mother, thus he took an inordinate interest in the subject; his disappointment undoubtedly led to his campaign against the charlatans. Still, he left the door open in case of his own death, so that his wife might get word of his existence on the Other Side; but she did not, and she abandoned her public séances to that purpose after the tenth anniversary of his death. Perhaps Houdini reflected on the fate of Sisyphus – who eternally rolls that rock up to the top of the hellish hill just to have it roll back down again – and decided not to try to handcuff and thereby cheat Death of further customers.
Train yourself to succeed, conquer your fear: “When I am nailed securely within a weighted packing case and thrown into the sea, or when I am buried alive under six feet of earth, it is necessary to preserve absolute serenity of spirit. I have to work with great delicacy and lightning speed. If I grow panicky, I am lost. If something goes wrong, if there is some little accident or mishap, some slight miscalculation, I am lost unless all my faculties are working on high, free from mental strain or tension. The public sees only the thrill of the accomplished trick. They have no conception of the tortuous preliminary self-training necessary to conquer fear.”