Houdini: How Did He Do It?

I would guess when many of you read the title of this post you would think that I was going to unveil the secrets of Houdini’s magic and escapes. This couldn’t be farther away from the direction I will be going here. What I’m asking is how did he mentally and physically maintain such a vigorous and strenuous lifestyle for over 25 years.

Let’s take for an example the program above as a for instance.  When Houdini was performing at the Sate Lake theater he was 48 years old. Sometime  before or as soon as Houdini started his run for the week in town, he would perform an outdoor escape to help promote the show. This would be a straitjacket escape as Houdini would hang from office building, an escape from a locked packing crate after being  thrown into a river,  or a manacled bridge jump etc. I’m sure many of the rivers that Houdini was cast into weren’t the healthiest places to be.

During this run, Houdini would perform four times a day. He probably made his first appearance of the day at 1PM and his final performance  was most-likely around 9:30 that evening. What kind of magic and escapes did Houdini do? Well, over the course of 25 years, it could have been the “Water Torture Cell” and the “East Indian Needle Trick”; you can add or subtract “The Milk Can”, the “Metamorphosis”,  and escapes from straitjackets, handcuffs or ropes. The act could expand or contract as needed. For the most part, the act was a physically demanding one.

Now for the middle of the week, how about a challenge? Challenges were performed to renew interest in the show or to maintain a steady stream of customers at the box office. Either way, it was added to Houdini’s workload for the week.

All of the above brings us back to, “How did Houdini do it all?” In a 25-30 year career, how many times did he escape from a straitjacket, either on stage or hanging upside down outside of a building? How many times did Houdini perform the “Milk Can”, the”Water Torture Cell”, the “Metamorphosis”, escapes and challenges etc.? My thoughts are that the count would in the multiple thousands. I don’t think ten thousand for a grand total of these escapes would be out of the question.

I would have to say Houdini’s fortitude has been overlooked, but must be added to the equation to what made him into a legend in his own lifetime. Most of us have some kind of fortitude, Houdini had so much more so.

6 Responses to “Houdini: How Did He Do It?”


  • Absolutely Kevin. Houdini would tell reporters or jot down somewhere that he had to figure out a way to earn a living that was less taxing on his body. I believe this was a factor in his decision to work in the film industry and “wriggle” out of strenuous escapes.

    You can see how old he looks in 1926. The years of hard labor took its toll on his face. His body took repeated hits. Early in his career he damaged a blood vessel in one of his kidneys from a heavy leather straitjacket that was fastened too tightly. He also sustained broken bones every now and then.

  • Ken Silverman told me he read in at least one entry(probably more)in Houdini’s diaries that Houdini wrote to the effect “The work is killing. Must find a better way”.

    I have to agree with the way he looked in 1926. One can definitely see the toll of his career took on him.

  • A long-time friend of Houdini’s was an acrobat named James Bard … Mr. Bard told me, and Bill Kalush confirmed, that Bard worked with Houdini to develop the athleticism, musculature, and contortion skills required for some of his escape effects and his fierce regimen of performance. James Bard is referenced frequently in the Kalush biography, “The Secret Life of Houdini”.

  • I imagine he lived with a fair amount of pain but it was so much about “mind over matter” for him. And unfortunately that was his undoing too in a way. Thanks for posting this!

  • Yes, Kevin. I was thinking about that diary entry where Houdini complained that his work was killing him. It might be in Silverman’s book Houdini!!!

    I also agree with Melbo that Houdini tolerated aches and pains as part of his job as an entertainer. In the end, he probably believed that his stomach pains would move on as another casualty of his focus and determination.

  • I agree with both of you. I think Houdini accepted or tolerated the pain as just part of his act.

    As Melbo states the tolerating the pain throughout his career,this is also what catapulted Houdini to the top of the entertainment world. Maybe, in his eye, he needed to accept these injuries continuously through his career to maintain his place at the top of show business.

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