Unlocked | The Daily Star
12:01 AM, September 02, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:01 AM, September 02, 2014



He was one of the 20th century's most famous faces, who wowed the world with his sensational escape acts.

And now a new mini-series will reveal some of the secrets that made Harry Houdini the greatest illusionist and stunt performer ever.

It explores the master magician's life and his psyche and reveals how he accomplished some of his greatest tricks.

Among the revelations are that he worked undercover for many years for the American and British governments.

The claim is supported by the 2007 book, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

In it, the authors suggest Houdini spied on royalty and political leaders of Europe for years and fluency in German, and special abilities like subterfuge and sleight of hand made him an ideal candidate for espionage.

Recruited by the British Secret Service, he passed along vital information he learned while performing for Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas of Russia.

It is claimed he also worked for Scotland Yard, monitored Russian anarchists and chased counterfeiters for the US Secret Service.

Among the tricks explained are how Houdini hid a key to unlock a chain inside a false finger. Houdini employed several other methods of escape from handcuffs, leg irons and jail cells.

It is revealed he hide a key or a lock pick under his foot or in his bushy hair with adhesive to carry out some of his daring escapes.

He also used a hollowed-out compartment of a shoe, or an accomplice who would palm the key in his hand, to be retrieved by Houdini when they shook hands.

If he could inspect a jail cell in advance, Houdini might plant his escape tool in a bar of soap or under a bench.

Houdini similarly smuggled keys and picks into the boxes, milk cans, water tanks and other containers that confined him in his act, manipulating them with his teeth or specially designed extension rods.

Sometimes he would have the opportunity to use rigged handcuffs. The manacles would lock securely when held upright, but snap open when they were turned upside-down.

He was an accomplished athlete, excelling at gymnastics and was an amateur boxer, all of which gave him the endurance, stamina and strength needed to perform difficult stunts.

Born Ehrich Weiss, the son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini came to the US with his family at the age of four, passing through Ellis Island.

Early in his career, he performed as Ehrich the Great before taking his stage name Houdini from magician Robert-Houdin, whose autobiography inspired him.

As an early aficionado of aviation, Houdini learned to pilot his own Voisin biplane and was the third person to fly across Australia in 1910.

In 1913, he introduced his famous Chinese water torture cell, in which he was suspended upside down in a locked glass-and-steel cabinet full of water, holding his breath for more than three minutes, before emerging triumphant.

In December 1914, Houdini was famously summoned to a private meeting at the White House with President Woodrow Wilson, who told him, 'I envy your ability of escaping out of tight places. Sometimes I wish I were able to do the same.'

Then, during World War I, Houdini entertained troops and held classes for soldiers, demonstrating how to escape from ropes, handcuffs and shipwrecks.

He died in Detroit in 1926 of peritonitis due to a ruptured, infected appendix a week after being punched by a college student challenging the magician's much-boasted-about abdominal strength.

The incident may have contributed to and aggravated his condition.

The show, called Houdini, will air on the History Channel over two nights with Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody, 41, in the title role.


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