world history 15 Tales of Supremely Fearless and Totally Bizarre Houdini Exploits  

Jacob Shelton
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Decades after Harry Houdini's death, magic fans and plebs alike are fascinated by the life of one of the world's great entertainers. Born Erik Weisz in Hungary, Houdini made a career out of doing weird sh*t and getting paid for it (before people knew that was a thing you could do). Madman Harry Houdini buried himself multiple times, even though he almost killed himself on his first attempt, and was the first person to fly over Australian soil (as the pilot, not a passenger). There are hella crazy Houdini stories in this buckwild world of ours; some revolve around weird concepts for illusions, others involve him pissing his friends off. He’s definitely not Tom Hanks.

Some of the most awesome Houdini facts center on his search for truth in everything he did. Harry "Badass" Houdini was not a guy to half-ass things. If he was going to chase down so-called mystics and expose them as frauds, he canceled shows, wrangeld a panel of scientists, and debunked you with fury. There are so many tales of badass Houdini exploits, you should just read them for yourselves. Keep in mind, Houdini was a tough cookie - you shouldn’t try any of his feats of endurance or pissy note writing. 

He Starred in Four Movies & Holds the Distinction of First Man to Fight a Robot on Film

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If you thought Houdini was ahead of his time before, get a load of this: he was the first person to fight a robot on film. 

Houdini had a long affair with film, too deep and passionate to be a fling, neither as committed nor enduring as marriage. He starred in two Hollywood pictures, produced and starred in two more films in New York, and founded a film lab before turning his back on the industry. In The Master Mystery (1920),  Houdini played Quentin Locke, a Justice Department agent who got into a fist fight with Q the Automaton.  

Who else was fighting robots in that era? As Chaka Khan would say, "ain't nobody." 

He Wrote a Book with Instructions on Slipping Handcuffs and Breaking Out of Prison

He Wrote a Book with Instructi... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 15 Tales of Supremely Fearless and Totally Bizarre Houdini Exploits
Photo: Famous Players - Lasky Corporation/Public Domain

If you were a cop in turn-of-the-century New York City, the last thing you wanted was Harry Houdini publishing a book explaining how to slip handcuffs, escape prison, and do all manner of bad guyery. In 1906, Houdini released The Right Way to Do Wrong, which detailed his criminal exploits, including breaking out of police stations, and contained  stories of some of the men he met in prison. To make sure readers didn't misconstrue the purpose of his book, Houdini included a message: "IT DOES NOT PAY TO LEAD A DISHONEST LIFE, and to those who read this book, although it will inform them 'The Right Way to Do Wrong,' all I have to say is one word and that is 'DON’T.'”

He Gave Silent Film Legend Buster Keaton His Famous Stage Name

He Gave Silent Film Legend Bus... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 15 Tales of Supremely Fearless and Totally Bizarre Houdini Exploits
Photo: Metro Pictures/Public Domain

Houdini supplied the stage name Buster Keaton used his entire life. In 1895, when Keaton was just six months old, and named Joseph Frank Keaton, he fell down a flight of stairs in his family home. Houdini happened to be hanging out with Keaton's family that night (they were vaudville performers), and picked up baby Buster, who was completely fine, despite his tumble down the steps. He noted Keaton could really take a "buster," or a fall, and from then on, the future film star was known as Buster Keaton.  

He Was the First Person to Fly Over Australian Soil and the First Person Filmed Flying

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Photo: statelibraryofnsw/Flickr

Houdini seems like the kind of guy who would get really into something for a week or two before dropping it to move onto building realistic skeletons or whatever. In 1909, he got so into aviation, bought a French Voisin biplane for $5,000, hired a mechanic, and taught himself to fly. After a minor crash, he dusted himself off and flew around Germany for a few minutes, in front of 100 some odd spectators. A year later, he became the first person to fly over Australian soil, where he buzzed around for almost eight minutes. He filmed that flight, in doing so becoming the first person to ever be recorded flying. After that, he stuck the plane in storage in England and never flew again. 

He Died Because He Refused to Cancel a Performance, Despite Having Appendicitis

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Photo: Photographer Unknown/Public Domain

You've probably heard Houdini was punched to death, but that's not the full story. In 1926, he was punched in the gut a few times by a man named J. Gordon Whitehead, but he didn't just keel over and die. The story goes something like this:

Whitehead approached Houdini, asking for permission to punch him, as Houdini previously stated he could withstand any fist to the abdomen. Whitehead got permission and hammered Houdini, who was in a reclined position, before he could prepare for the hit. Despite excruciating pain, he went ahead with his show that night (he was already running a fever and had a broken ankle). 

The next day, Houdini was in awful condition. A physician examined him before a performance and told him he had acute appendicitis that required immediate surgery, but Houdini said, "nah." After the show, he went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed (it had burst by the time he finally sought treatment, maybe because of Whitehead's punch). He died one week later. 

He Almost Died Burying Himself Alive Then Did It Again Trying to Perfect the Trick

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Photo: Photographer Unknown/No Known Copyright Restrictions

Of all the "magic" tricks and feats of endurance Houdini performed, he must have really liked burying himself alive, because even though he failed (read: almost killed himself) his first attempt to do so in front of a group of people in 1915, he kept trying to perform the trick.

For whatever reason, Houdini was fascinated with the idea of being buried alive before an audience. After his first attempt, he was chained in a coffin and submerged in a swimming pool, where he stayed for 90 minutes (the coffin was watertight; he used controlled breathing to avoid suffocation). This was done quite publicly in New York City, and apparently done again a few months later in Worcester, MA. 

Still, that wasn't good enough for Houdini, so he devised away to be buried alive on stage, using a glass vault and glass coffin, so the audience could see everything until he was completely covered in a ton of sand. According to the common narrative, he was going to perform this escape in 1926, but died before he could. However, a letter unearthed in 2014, allegedly written by Houdini to fellow magician James S. Harto, attests he performed the feat in September '26, under the name Mystery of the Sphinx. 

He Taught American Soldiers to Escape German Handcuffs During WWI

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Photo: Photographer Unknown/Public Domain

When World War I broke out, Houdini didn't lock himself up in a milk jug until the battle ended. Instead, he decided to stump for the military. He helped sell war bonds and went to Europe to show American soldiers how to escape German handcuffs. On the homefront, Houdini performed reviews to boost morale, including one called "Cheer Up" and another during which he manifested an eagle named Abraham Lincoln from an American flag.  

He Debunked Fraudulent Mediums He Felt Were Taking Advantage of People

He Debunked Fraudulent Mediums... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 15 Tales of Supremely Fearless and Totally Bizarre Houdini Exploits
Photo: Photographer Unknown/Public Domain

Everyone needs a hobby. Houdini's was traveling around the US debunking mediums who insisted they could contact people in the afterlife. He went so far as to cancel shows in order to put mediums on blast who he felt were taking advantage of people. He sometimes brought the editor of Scientific America and a panel scientists with him, to publicize the fraudulent psychic. 

In 1924, Houdini traveled to Boston to meet Mina "Margery" Crandon and prove she was full of sh*t. Crandon, a beautiful and charming woman, made a name for herself channeling the spirit of her brother, a crass jackass who threw random objects at people (including a megaphone, for whatever reason), spoke in a thundering voice, and was able to pass on messages from the dead. In the post-war (Wold War I), post-Spanish flu epidemic America, many yeared to talk to departed love ones. 

The day of the séance, Houdini tightly bandaged one of his legs to make his skin especially sensitive. He suspected he, as a guest of honor, would be seated next to Crandon, and hoped he could use his leg to feel the movements of her body, in order to figure out how she was hoodwinking people. The move paid off, as Houdini, in the dark of the seance, felt Crandon using her leg to pull objects from under her chair to wing them around the room, a ploy to convince customers a ghost was among them. 

Houdini went to a second séance Margery held and caught her "levitating" a table by wearing it on her head. Later, when describing her malarkey, he said it was "The slickest ruse I ever detected."