Late in the American 19th century, when re-invention was all the rage as destitute Europeans made their way to New York in search of new identities and new prospects, the idea of the self-made man was one that practically vibrated with possibilities. Fame, acclaim, an assortment of newly available trades, ingenuity, business acumen and even genius were just waiting to be seized, as though mere ambition and desire were enough to secure dreams, no matter how farfetched. Out of this entire generation of self-made men, few rivaled the Hungarian-born Jewish immigrant Erich Weisz when it came to fashioning a persona. He created a personality full of larger-than-life ticks, quirks and ego that ultimately became not only a bona fide identity, but a character, a brand signifying that marvelous sense of the spectacular that came to be associated with the him. Weisz was arguably the 20th century’s first multimedia hero.
The man that Erich Weisz became was Harry Houdini—magician and escape artist extraordinaire and pop culture renaissance man; a walking concept, really. Showman, scholar, aesthete, huckster, spiritualist debunker, athlete, contortionist, writer, Houdini was the sort of autodidact who believed that no realm lay beyond his mastery. And once mastered (or at least believed to be mastered) any pursuit was one in which the natural born careerist could stake out new glory for himself.
Everyone wanted in on the Houdini spectacle. In an entertainment world without CGI, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more compelling blend of the macabre, the deadly and the fantastic than what Houdini pushed on audiences all across the country. Unless you happened to witness a natural disaster, or the Titanic going down, or the horrors of the front, Houdini would have been your version of “a galaxy far, far away.” Escape from a straitjacket while dangling upside-down from a crane above a city street? It can be done. Or how about freeing oneself from a safe plunging to the bottom of a river? Mere trifles for the mighty Houdini. People loved this kind of showmanship in the same way we love watching presentations today like the crab fishing show The Deadliest Catch, one of the most successful reality shows of all time. Both flirt with legitimate danger, and both are underwritten by some kind of vague educational precept to assuage whatever voyeuristic guilt a viewer might have in watching a performance in which one of the participants might actually die.
Houdini was in his heyday from 1907 or so until his health, and his physique, started giving out in the early 1920s. Even then, however, Houdini was...