mortality and the triumph of life


Harry Houdini’s escape trunk stands in the Jewish Museum like a coffin. “Embedded in Houdini’s ventures were competing ambitions,” says the wall text in the museum’s new “Houdini: Art and Magic” exhibition, “he simultaneously courted mortality and the triumph of life.” There’s a lot of metaphor in a trunk: adventure, travel, excitement, secrets. Houdini turned his trunk into a symbol of resurrection. Houdini’s audiences couldn’t know what tricks went on inside that trunk after he had allowed himself to be locked in and the curtain was closed. But some part of them believed that when Harry Houdini burst free, undefeated and smiling, he had shaken hands with the Grim Reaper and spat in his eye. Harry Houdini met death and came back to tell the tale. There are many things to say about Harry Houdini, and one is that he really loved his mother. Her death in 1913 devastated him. As anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows, the hardest thing may be the unbearable, suffocating absence. Houdini wanted little more than to hear just one word from his mother again and, in his grief, started to think it was possible. In Houdini’s day, a Spiritualist movement had taken hold in America and Europe, led by self-appointed mediums who convinced a grieving public they could conjure the dead. The Spiritualists held séance sideshows and passed around double-exposure photographs to show ghostly beings lurking about.

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