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THE NEW YORK TIMES August 16, 1959 Page VII, 7; Column 3


HOUDINI: The Man Who Walked Through Walls. By William Lindsay Gresham. Illustrated. 306 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Co. $4.50


Harry HoudiniAudiences found among the most dramatic stunts in Harry Houdini’s repertory his escape from leg irons and a mass of chains fastened tightly about him with padlocks. The obvious strength and weight of chains, glinting evilly in the stage lights, gave the routine its stunning effect. How, the audience wondered, did the chained man get free?

It was not, as Harry Houdini rated effort, a very difficult job. * * * Chains can often be slipped off. If the performer swells his chest and spreads his shoulders before being wound around and around with a single long chain, he can gain enough slack to wriggle out with the aid of hooks placed inside the [curtained-off] cabinet in which he works.

There is an alternative method, simple but very ingenious. Harry learned it from side-show strongmen who, with indispensable advance help, break chains by chest expansion. Before the performance, the end link of the chain is put in a vise and bent back and forth wit a wrench. The metal “tires” until one more heavy strain will snap it.

Perhaps because padlocks are familiar and forbidding objects, escape routines involving them almost always get across well. A huge lock on the chain seemed to the audience to make more hopeless Harry’s plight. But it did not much complicate his job.

Magic dealers had for a long time sold what the trade called “spirit locks”—padlocks of standard make that have been taken apart and rebuilt. They can be opened by a sharp rap, even by the insertion of a thin piece of wire in an inconspicuous hole.


“At the turn of the twentieth century there arose from the ranks of obscure music-hall magicians a man who captured the imagination of two continents and held the limelight firmly focused on himself for twenty years. He did it by hammering out a brand-new form of entertainment in which he acted out the dream of every man—escape from bonds by magic.”

Thus, William Lindsay Gresham begins his introduction of the great showman and illusionist, Harry Houdini (1874–1926). His fast-moving book is lively and entertaining, bringing Houdini more vividly to life than any of the numerous previous biographies. Although his previous writing has been in the field of fiction, Gresham creates his excitement with only one or two minor flights of imagination.

Today’s generation knows Houdini as a legend—but that was a distinction he achieved long before he died. Through daring escapes from the most incredible places—and under conditions that seemed to give him small chance of success—he electrified audiences and baffled authorities (he slipped out of the best police handcuffs, for example, including Scotland Yard’s). In the pre-radio era he was a vaudeville headliner, an “intimate of presidents, entertainer of kings.”

“At straight magic,” says the author, “he was often strangely inept. At his specialty he was magnificent. He was an expert underwater swimmer and high diver, a master lock-picker, a pioneer aviator, magical historian, movie stunt man, psychic investigator.”

Houdini knew that his popularity depended on publicity, and he elaborated his act constantly to get it. At one point, during his German tour, he set up “a stunt that would make all other performers with handcuffs look small. As a kid swimming in the East River he had always excelled at staying under water. Why not jump into the river, carefully manacled so that escape would make for sure-fire publicity, and come up free? *** Accordingly, Harry had himself loaded down with handcuffs, irons and chains. He plunged into the river and stayed down until the watching crowd was convinced he had drowned. The he bobbed up, tossing the long hair out of his eyes and shaking his head so he could get the water out of his ears and hear the crowd’s cheers.”

Houdini used the challenge effectively to build up publicity and incite audience participation—one of the most powerful gimmicks of showmanship. He dared anyone to bind, fetter, or confine him for long. “He triumphed over manacles and prison cells, the wet-sheet pack of insane asylums, webs of fish net, iron boxes bolted shut—anything and everything human ingenuity could provide in an attempt to hold him prisoner.”

How did he do it? The fact that the author is also an amateur magician helps materially when he takes the reader behind the scenes to let him in on the modus operandi of some of Houdini’s illusions and effects.

Mr. Gresham has a gift for clear exposition. Here are ways in which he describes some of Houdini’s modi operandi: “But while [the escape box] was in his dressing room, Houdini had time to knock out the nails holding one of the side boards at one end and replace them with nails that had been snipped off short. They would hold well enough to pass a quick inspection by the committee, but once inside with the drapes of his cabinet protecting him from profane gaze, one good smash with his elbow * * *.”

Also: “Once inside the [mail] bag and padlocked securely, Houdini lost no time in getting out his duplicate key.”

As Mr. Gresham writes at one point, “Houdini never left anything to chance.”

But Houdini brought to his acts great “know-how of challenge and suspense” and when he died he was mourned as “the most mysterious man of his time.” His rebirth in Mr. Gresham’s “Houdini” provides a delightful biographical show.

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