Magicians make things disappear, then make them reappear. It’s their quintessential trick. Whether the trick involves rabbits, people, or themselves, magicians expend most of their time and effort playing “now you see it – now you don’t – now you see it again.” One might even say that the whole foundation of magic is based on this idea of one person’s control over the illusion of coming back after being gone.
Imagine, then, a master magician who has had something disappear from him and can’t make it reappear, no matter how hard he tries. The trick has been a failure, magic has been revealed as a sham, and reality has made a fool of those who believed in the illusion.
In a sense, this was the lot of one of the most famous magicians of the 20th century, Harry Houdini. Lauded for his abilities as an escape artist and illusionist, Houdini found that magic was no match for the hard truths of life. When his beloved mother died, he attempted again and again to reconnect with her supernaturally, but no matter how hard he wished for it, he could never bring her back. Houdini despaired to discover that in the end, the power of death was far stronger than the power of his love.
On the eve of Houdini's Halloween death, we take a look at the profound relationship he had with his mother.
A Mother’s Comfort
Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874, but he and his family left for America when Harry was only 4 years old. Although the family was large (Harry was the fourth of seven children), they were well taken care of by their father, Mayer Samuel Weisz, who was a rabbi, and their mother, Cecilia Steiner. The young Harry had a particularly close bond with his mother. Cecilia found that whenever Harry began to cry as an infant, she merely had to hold the child against her breast and he would immediately cease crying.
Although life in America began promisingly enough when the family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, Rabbi Weisz’s inability to speak English jeopardized his synagogue job there, and life became much more difficult. The family moved to the bigger city of Milwaukee, where Harry worked as a shoeshine and newspaper boy to bolster the family finances. School became an obstacle to employment, so Harry was forced to leave after the third grade. Desperate to earn money for the family, he even left home (at age 12!) to seek employment elsewhere, traveling to Missouri and Texas in search of a good job.
Despite his athletic prowess and youthful vigor, Harry never secured the good job he was looking for and at times found himself homeless. Missing his family terribly, particularly his dear mother, Houdini returned home. Home, however, had become New York City, where his father had found work as a tailor and Hebrew tutor. Houdini worked menial jobs to make ends meet, but an early interest in magic blossomed when he read The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, the autobiography of a French magician. He not only adopted the name of his hero, but he drafted one of his brothers for a magic act that he began to perform around the city in carnivals, dime museums, and beer halls.
The magic act was not a big moneymaker, but Houdini discovered that the stunt artists that he sometimes worked beside always drew crowds. Soon, Houdini tried his hand at escape tricks and found that he was quite good at them. He made a specialty of escaping from handcuffs. His reputation spread, and soon he was appearing before sold-out audiences in America and Europe, escaping from more and more complex handcuffs, including ones specifically engineered to baffle him.
During these rags-to-riches years, Houdini relied on his mother for support. She sent him frequent letters of encouragement, while he endeavored to send her postcards from wherever he was. Cecilia selected her son’s wardrobe, even after he was well-established, and when they were together, friends and relations would remark on their closeness. On occasion, Houdini would even sit in his mother’s lap to re-enact the story of the calming influence she had on him as a child. He prized her as his “angel upon earth.”
Since she had given birth to Harry somewhat late by 19th century standards (she was 33), Cecilia was already in her late 50s when Houdini finally broke through. His success had an immediate after-effect for his mother: He was able to take her away from household drudgery and make her comfortable. He bought a house in a gentrified area of Harlem with many foreign-born residents so his mother could speak to the neighbors (she never did learn English very well). By this time, Cecilia had been a widow for over ten years, as Houdini’s father had passed away in 1892. On his deathbed, Rabbi Weisz had made Houdini promise to take good care of his mother, and Houdini was living up to his promise.
By the time Houdini settled his mother in their new home in 1904, he had been married for almost as long as his mother had been widowed. His wife Wilhemina Beatrice Rhaner (known as “Bess”) had been a showgirl who replaced Houdini’s brother in his act as it transformed from a straight magic act into an escape artist act. As Houdini’s star rose, Bess stepped out of the spotlight, designing costumes for his stage shows and managing his calendar instead of performing. Houdini’s choice of wife no doubt surprised his mother since Bess was a practicing Catholic and his mother was staunchly Jewish, but they managed to inhabit the same household without too much conflict. In an inscribed photograph of the three of them together, Houdini identified his wife and mother as his “two sweethearts,” and it was hard to say which one of them Houdini cared for more. Most contemporary observers would have guessed his mother, who Houdini referred to as “the guiding beacon of my life.”
A Mournful Grave
At the height of his fame, Houdini treated his mother like a queen. He lavished her with gifts and enjoyed inviting her to his performances so he could show her off and brag about her to his audiences. Once, he treated her literally as if she were a queen. At a show in the Weisz’s old hometown of Budapest, Houdini planned an extravagant dinner and brought his mother over from America. He bought a dress that had been made for the Queen of England, had it tailored to his mother, and asked her to wear it. At the dinner party, “Queen Cecilia” received her guests while perched on a throne obtained for the occasion.
Cecilia entered her 70s in seemingly good health. However, while Houdini was performing in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1913, she had a severe stroke that felled her immediately and fatally. Houdini was conducting a press interview when someone handed him a cablegram. In those days, few people would go to the expense and trouble of sending a transatlantic cable unless the matter were urgent or the news was bad, and this one certainly contained bad news. Upon opening and reading the note, Houdini, a sturdy, powerful man known for risking death in performance after performance, promptly fainted away like a sickly invalid. Bystanders revived him, but Houdini was inconsolable; he sobbed uncontrollably, moaned for his mother, and broke all of his performing contracts to return to America as quickly as possible.
These were the days of transoceanic ship travel and it took Houdini nearly two miserable weeks to get home to his mother. In violation of Jewish tradition, Cecilia’s body was not buried immediately, and when Houdini arrived, he stayed near her body for every moment until burial. At the funeral, he placed his final gift to her, a pair of slippers she’d asked him to get her in Europe, in her coffin. Houdini grieved deeply, and for months, he only left the house to visit his mother’s grave twice daily – once during the day and once shortly after midnight, the time his mother passed away. Houdini would lie facedown on the grave, his arms spread out in an embrace of the dirt, talking disconsolately to the beloved mother he’d never said goodbye to. In an extreme version of the year-long Jewish mourning period of avelut, Houdini continued his graveyard pilgrimages for a full year after his mother’s death.
The Eternal Ache
Houdini’s wife Bess once remarked that her husband was never the same after his mother’s death. He became a sadder, more taciturn individual, and some of his stunts seemed unnecessarily reckless. This was the period when Houdini began hanging upside down from skyscrapers in straightjackets and nearly drowning himself in his “Chinese water torture” box. Audiences who admired Houdini’s daring little suspected the sadness that underlay his performances. In letters to his brother, Houdini wrote that “I can’t seem to get over it…my heart will always ache for our darling mother…my heart of hearts went with her.”
Cecilia remained a vivid presence in Houdini’s life. At night, he would sometimes wake up calling for her. He had all of the letters his mother had sent him over the years retyped and bound in a book that he would pore over incessantly, crying. (He saved the original letters, directing his relatives to use them as stuffing for the pillow in his own coffin when he died.) Houdini also found himself unable to dwell in the Harlem house he had shared with his wife and mother. The memories of his mother in the house were too overwhelming. Perhaps most bizarrely, but unsurprisingly, Houdini became a proselytizer for the Mother’s Day holiday, which was formally established in 1914. Following tradition, he sent red carnations to all of the living mothers he knew and white carnations for the graves of mothers who had gone. Presumably, his mother’s grave overflowed with the white flower.
An Undying Love
For some time, Houdini had shown an interest in spiritualism, a movement that asserted that it was possible for the living to communicate with the spirits of the dead through mediums. He had become interested in spiritualism very early in life, when his parents tried to contact his deceased brother Hermann. Although that effort was unsuccessful, Houdini did not dismiss the idea from his mind. After his father died, Houdini went to a medium to try to establish contact with him, but he was disappointed by the transparency of the medium’s spooky trappings. While wanting to believe it was possible, Houdini’s early years in sideshows and carnivals had made him aware that most mediums were frauds, and he was troubled that he, and bereaved people in general, were so often exploited by con-artists.
Still, Houdini craved contact with his mother, so he continued to seek out mediums that offered the possibility of allowing him to talk to her once again. However, the quest to find an honest medium inevitably turned Houdini into an anti-fraud crusader, and he went public with several books condemning the practices of charlatans. Perhaps the most hurtful instance of fraud involved his good friend Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife; on this occasion, Houdini was personally offended by the falseness of Mrs. Doyle’s séance, and the friendship between the two men was irreparably damaged.
Somehow, cynicism never completely overtook Houdini, and he continued to visit mediums until the end of his life, usually dressed in a disguise since his stance against spiritualists was so well-known. He always held out hope that one day he would communicate again with his “sainted mother,” whose spirit he never doubted would be an exalted one. Of course, it never came to pass, but the idea of maintaining contact with loved ones was so strong for Houdini that he arranged after-life code words for him and his wife in the event that one of them should die before the other. Bess took Houdini at his word – after he died of a ruptured appendix in 1926, she held séances for ten full years before giving up the ghost (so to speak). “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man” was her famous riposte to a reporter who inquired why she stopped.
History seems to be quiet on whether or not Cecilia Weisz’s letters actually served as Houdini’s pillow when he was buried, but it seems likely that Houdini’s wishes were carried out. The only surprise might be that the letters were not placed in Houdini’s suit coat breast pocket next to his heart, the place that Houdini’s mother occupied so fully during his lifetime.