[Book Review] "Houdini on Magic" by Harry Houdini

by lsusr9 min read29th Sep 20211 comment

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Houdini on Magic is a collection of the writings of Harry Houdini. It mostly covers three things.

  1. Houdini's greatest tricks. (Mostly escapes.)
  2. Houdini's work discrediting spiritualists. Spiritualists are people who pretend to talk to the dead. These aren't well-meaning but over-zealous Tarot card readers. Spiritualists knowingly used magic tricks to make it seem like ghosts were moving tables and making noises.
  3. Some magic tricks you can do yourself.

The do-it-yourself magic trick section is mediocre. If you want to read an introductory book on magic tricks the book to read is The Amateur Magician's Handbook by Henry Hay. YouTube is even better.

Was Houdini's work discrediting spiritualists important? Maybe? I'm not sure if they were actually important or if combating spiritualists was one of two[1] times in history magicians ever mattered.

I know what you're really reading this book review for.

Lockpicking

Houdini explains lockpicks and skeleton keys. His lockpicks look nothing like modern lockpicks (he uses no rakes) but I bet that's just because lock and lockpicking technology has advanced. Houdini's skeleton keys are obsolete. We have different tools to accomplish the same task.

Houdini claims crooks "resort to the quicker and easier method of forcing the doors with heavy chisels." I believe this. Lockpicking is slow and frustrating. The regulars I've seen at lockpicking meetup are all nerds. An obvious burglar showed up exactly once and it a funny experience. (We don't gatekeep!) We were happy to show him how to pick locks but he lacked the patience for it. Even security professionals avoid lockpicking when they can because lockpicking is so slow

Houdini doesn't have anything to say about the importance of using spring steel to make your lockpicks. Looking at his lockpicks, I think I can deduce why. Those picks were big and chunky, presumably because he used them to pick crude locks. Spring steel wasn't necessary for most (perhaps all) of his tools. Primitive manufacturing made their lockpicks worse but it also made their locks worse.

[T]he majority of locks used in England were of such a nature that at the present date they would be called "jokes."

According to the lockpicker who taught me, European locks have improved. However, the majority of home locks in the United States are easy to pick. That said, I would be astonished if average locks today are anywhere near as bad as the typical lock of Houdini's time.

You can…easily open [handcuffs] by giving it a sharp blow with the keyhole downwards. Strike the cuff where the hinge and keyhole are on the heel of your shoe or against the floor, and it will spring open.

Modern handcuffs aren't that awful.

Fake Locks

Fake locks are so prevalent among magicians today that the idea of using real locks is a joke. Houdini doesn't have much to say about fake locks but he does mention how he modified a one to make them easy to escape from. Mostly he mostly discusses how he escaped from locks in courtrooms to show how he can pick locks in controlled conditions.

Straitjacket Escape

The first escape in Houdini on Magic is a straitjacket escape.

The first step necessary to free yourself is to place the elbow, which has the continuous band under the opposite elbow, on some solid foundation, and by sheer strength, to exert sufficient force at the elbow so as to force it gradually toward the head, and by further persistent straining, you eventually force the head under the lower arm, which results in bringing both of the encased arms in front of the body. (It is very important that these instructions be followed closely step by step; and when placing the arms across the chest, sufficient care must be observed simply to place one arm on top of the other and to not have them interlocked.)

Once having freed your arms to such an extent as to get them in front of your body, you can now undo the buckles of the straps of the cuffs with your teeth, after which you open the buckles at the back with your hands which are still encased in the canvas sleeves, and then you remove the straitjacket from your body.

Harry Houdini makes a big deal about how he uses real straitjackets.

There are various kinds of straitjacket made from different materials, some being entirely made of leather; and, of course, the more inflexible the material, the more difficult is your release and the longer the time required.

I'm not sure about the inflexibility. The straitjackets I know of are all made out of inflexible canvas but it's plausible things might've been different in 1901. The rest of Houdini's claims are all true.

Houdini's explanation leaves out three important facts.

  1. Magicians' straitjackets usually lack a crotch strap whereas modern mental asylums' straitjackets do have crotch straps. Houdini doesn't mention one in his description. His article even includes two pictures of him in a straitjacket. There is no crotch strap in his version of the escape. Is that because crotch straps weren't added until later or because he's using a gimmicked[1:1] straitjacket? I'm not sure. It's possible to escape from a straitjacket even with a crotch strap so I'm guessing they just weren't added until later. I will give Houdini the benefit of the doubt and assume straitjackets have crotch straps now because he popularized how to escape from a straitjacket without crotch straps.
  2. Magicians' straitjackets usually have a metal loop inside one of the sleeves which you can use to grab a little bit of extra slack. Again, this likely wasn't invented yet in Houdini's time because it's not strictly necessary.
  3. The most important trick to escaping from a straitjacket doesn't happen when you take it off. While the straitjacket is being put on, you inflate your chest and push your arms out to get as much slack as you can. It's this slack which lets you perform the procedure Houdini explains. If you fail to get enough slack while the straitjacket is put on then the escape is impossible. (The metal loop is a tool for helping you getting slack.)

Audiences don't insist on checking whether you have enough slack. I performed straitjacket escapes with a straightjacket several sizes too large. (This wasn't intentional. I just bought it on eBay.) Nobody ever heckled me for it.

As far as I can tell, Houdini doesn't lie in his explanation of how to escape from a straitjacket. He misdirects the reader by systematically omitting critical information.

The Paper Bag Escape

This is among my favorite magic tricks there is.

An escape from a paper bag, as from the pasteboard box, is convincing because the item used is too simple and easily examined to be faked in any way. It has the same element of mystery in its presentation and has taken its place among the most puzzling escapes.

The bag must be made of stiff, strong paper and must be large enough to hold you comfortably so that after you are inside it, you can raise your hands above your head with ease, this being very important to the success of the escape as will be seen later….

In presenting the escape, call attention to the fact that you are not going to destroy the bag but will escape from same leaving it intact. You also emphasize that only one bag is used, this bag being on display in the theatre lobby or at present in the possession of the committee. To prove that only one bag is used, you take the bag immediately after the committee has brought it on the stage and allow members of the audience to write their names on it or make secret marks that they will be able to identify later.

Be careful not to have the any of these too near the top of the bag, for a reason that will be later evident. This point is easily handled by telling people that the upper part of the bag is reserved for seals (provided by you) which the committee will place upon the bag for final identification.

You come back on the stage, allowing yourself to be [fake] handcuffed, and then enter the bag feet first. The bag is tied with cord which is wound about the neck of the bag a given number of times. Sealing wax is then placed upon the knots and marked with the seals of the committee. These seals may also be affixed upon the bag itself.

A curtain is drawn around you. You escape from the bag in 5-10 minutes. You open the curtain. The bag is shown intact. Houdini explains how it is done.

See if you can figure out how it's done. You may secretly may conceal tools on your person. (Spoilers are allowed in the comments, provided you use spoiler tags or an alternate obfuscation like rot13.)

Disappointing Tricks

Magic works because magicians are willing to spend more time than you can possibly imagine practicing something stupid.

―Penn Jillette

Harry Houdini explains how to escape from a paper bag because it is clever and cool. Harry Houdini misleads the reader about how to escape from a straitjacket because the real answer is disappointing. Most magic tricks' explanations are disappointing. You won't find those in Houdini's books.

One of Houdini's escapes was from an bank vault. You won't find it in Houdini's book. It's in Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell[2]. It was shipped to the stage the day before the performance and returned to the bank the day after.

Houdini strips down naked. He shakes the hand of several volunteers who check that he has nothing on his person. Houdini shakes their hands and thanks them for helping. He enters the vault. A curtain is drawn around the vault. The audience listens to a band play music. Ages later, the curtain is opened. Houdini is outside the vault.

How'd he do it?

The night before the performance Houdini and his team remove the internal mechanism of the vault. The night after the performance Houdini and his team reinstall the mechanism. The last volunteer to shake Houdini's hand is a confederate. He palms a tool to Houdini to open the sabotaged lock.

Houdini's method of drawing your attention to real non-gimmicked escapes isn't just to make magic cooler. It's also a technique of misdirection.

When I do magic, I like to start by doing a trick with a real tools. The audience learns to accept that everything's real. Then I switch to gimmicked tools and blow their minds because they believe everything's un-gimmicked.

Now that I've told you this, maybe I'll do it the other way around.


  1. The word "gimmick" refers to something that looks real but is actually fake or altered. For example, a bowling ball that has been hollowed out to be lightweight would be called a "gimmicked bowling ball". ↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Actually, I discovered it in Sorceror's Apprentice by Tahir Shah which references Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell. ↩︎

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Indeed: there are two basic trucks that explain every Illusion:

  1. The performer spent way more time than you expect (to Fool Penn and Teller, one performer used confederates to get Penn to sign all 52 cards in a deck, one at a time over months so he could then produce the matching "signed" card in an impossible place)

  2. There is more space (in the box/behind the table/in the straightjacket) than it looks like from the outside.