Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Secret Life of Houdini

(By William Kalush and Larry Sloman, from  The Far Eastern Freemason, 1st Quarter 2007, p 32-35)

      Harry Houdini, 32°, famous as a magician and escape artist, taught soldiers how to escape from restraints and sold $2 million in Liberty Bonds.

     "The reason people drown on a sinking vessel is because they lose all sense of direction."  The instructor said.
     Houdini looked out at the fresh faces of the young recruits and, for a fleeting second, reflected on what it was like when he was their age.  Life seemed so much simpler then, he thought, and for another fleeting second he envied their ability to be in a position to make the ultimate sacrifice - to give their lives for their country.  He would do everything in his power to make sure that eventually would never transpire.
     For their part, the Sammies, the appreciative name that the French gave the American soldiers, felt a mixture of apprehension and awe.  In weeks, they would be crossing the ocean to fight in France alongside their counterparts in the English and French armed services.  Basic training had been rigorous, but who could believe that it would have included a course on how to escape from a sinking torpedoed vessel given in a small room on the promenade floor of the enormous Hippodrome theater by none other than Harry Houdini?  They all wondered if they would be able to get his autograph at the end of the session.
     "The first rule when you find yourself underwater is; do not succumb to panic.  I can't stress that enough,"  Houdini lectured.  "Stay calm.  Use your eyes.  If visibility is clouded, slowly allow your body to rise up in the water until your hands come in cont(r)act with a deck, side, or the floor of the craft."
     Houdini picked up a length of rope.  "Now, I want to teach you the basic principles of extrication from entanglements of all kinds - whether from ropes, broken pipes, beams, or wreckages.  Can I have a volunteer, please?"
     Every arm in the room immediately shot up.
     When Houdini got through tying up the young soldier, he looked like a trussed turkey.
     "Now, I have restrained this young man in the same manner that I would use if I were to tie a medium to prevent him from being able to produce any physical manifestations in a seance room.  I would venture to say that he's not going anywhere."
     The Sammies all laughed.
     "The odds are that your captors will not go to such lengths," Houdini lectured.  "They might simply tie your hands beyond your back, but even such a simple restraint would be effective if you don't perform a subtle maneuver, which I shall show you, that will allow you to obtain some slack in the rope, and ultimately to free yourself from the bondage."
     Houdini walked over to the table and picked up a pair of handcuffs.
     "If your captors are particularly well equipped, they might have a pair of these German handcuffs as standard issue, in which case, your escape from their restraints would be harder, but not impossible," Houdini said.  "After I show you the rope escape, we will learn a few simple, effective techniques of defeating these German irons.  And then. . . ."
     He strolled over to the other side of the room, where a large iron cage had been set up.
     "This is a prison cage that has been fitted with typical German locks.  As you see, this particular one can accommodate up to three prisoners in the field, but there are variations that go twenty-two feet long and can haul a dozen or more men, each securely chained to the other.  As a measure of last resort, I will teach you a method to defeat the lock on the cage, so you can free yourself under cover of night."
     "Any questions so far?"
     Houdini looked out at his audience.  They seemed intimidated by the master magician.
     "I think our friend here has a question," Houdini said, glancing at the soldier that he had tied up so expertly.  "But he can't raise his hand."

     When the United States declared war against Germany on his birthday in 1917, Houdini immediately went into action.  For most of 1916, while on his vaudeville tour, Houdini, at his own expense, had been recruiting local magic clubs to join the SAM [Society of American Magicians] in an effort to revitalize what he felt was a moribund organization.  Working with Oscar Teale, an eccentric old ex-magician and Spiritualist exposer, another in a succession of father figures in Houdini's life, Houdini persuaded groups in Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City to come aboard.  Now, a day after was was declared, Houdini introduced a resolution at the Society of American Magician's meeting that was unanimously passed that "its members collectively and individually do hereby tender their loyalty to the President of the United States of America and express a desire to render such service to the country as may be within their province."  Teale dispatched the resolution via letter to President Wilson.
     Fellow magicians took up Houdini's call.  Archie Engel, a Washington D.C. magician, became a secret agent for the Treasury Department during the war.  Dr. Maximillian Toch, a chemist and New York City SAM member, was put in charge of the military's camouflage division and, working with other magicians, he developed the battleship gray formula used by the U.S. Navy.  Toch's chemical expertise was also used in devising ways to transmit secret messages.  Eventually a camouflage section of the Regular U.S. Army Engineers was formed and the SAM members from all over the country enlisted in it and shared their expertise for the war effort.  An amateur magician named Dr. Charles Mendelsohn, who was an expert cryptographer, was put in charge of deciphering German codes for the U.S. Military Intelligence Division.  Even before we entered the war, the Department of Justice hired a magician named Wilbur Weber to do counterintelligence on German spies who were operating in the Northwest.  He used his magic tour as a cover for his spying activities.

     In July [Houdini] embarked on a series of fund-raising benefits for the Red Cross, and then dashed from Camp to camp entertaining the troops.  And when Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo began to finance the U.S. war effort by issuing "Liberty Bonds," Houdini became one of his most determined fundraisers, in one case by literally selling the shirt of his back.  During a Hippodrome appearance, a man in the audience offered to buy $1,000 in bonds if the magician could get out of his shirt in thirty seconds.  By the time the audience countered six, Houdini was waving his torn shirt above his head.  "I'll buy another $1,000 bond if you will give me that shirt," the audience member screamed, and went home with his prize.  Within a year, Houdini had sold a million dollars' worth of bonds.  By some accounts, by war's end, the total reached two million dollars' worth.

     When Houdini performed at military camps, he made sure to include his "Money for Nothing" routine, where he seemingly materialized a succession of $5 gold pieces out of thin air.  Each coin produced was presented to a boy heading overseas.  In this manner, over time, Houdini personally gave away more than $7,000 (which today would be about $250,000).  The same year, he also contributed money to build a hospital ward that he dedicated to his mother.

     By June of 1918, a mere fourteen months after war was declared, Houdini had sacrificed more than $50,000 between lost salary and his own out-of-pocket expenditures in his ongoing war efforts.  In a letter to R.H. Burnside, the manager of the Hippodrome, he recounted his efforts that helped "buy ambulances" and raised funds for the Liberty Bond campaign.  "My heart is in this work, for it is not a question of 'Will we win' or 'Will we lose.'  We must win, and that is all there is to it." 

SCOTTISH RITE JOURNAL.  JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2007 (The Far Eastern Freemason. 1st Quarter 2007. p32-35)
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"It is only with the heart one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye." - Antoine De Saint-Exupery


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