And now for my last trick

Posted on October 29, 2006 

And now for my last trick

His death-defying stunts made him an international man of mystery. But did Harry Houdini lead a life of even greater intrigue — as a secret agent?

Secrecy was such a fixture of Harry Houdini’s life, it should have been his middle name. We remember him now as the greatest escape artist who ever lived – a tough, squat Hungarian-born Jewish American who freed himself from everything from handcuffs, chains and straitjackets to coffins, iron maidens and torture racks – but he was basically an illusionist; a conjuror. While millions may have swallowed the myth that he achieved his escapes using nothing but brute strength, extreme plasticity and superhuman self-belief, in fact there was often something up his sleeve, so to speak – something he knew about and the audience didn’t. His equipment would be customised, rigged, interfered with. The myriad containers that imprisoned him would come apart in ingenious ways. To accomplish his famous escape from a big milk can full of water, for instance, he could simply remove the top section, whose ring of false rivets gave a convincing illusion of indestructibility. Even when he leapt shackled into the Mississippi, the Seine or Aberdeen harbour, there was something he wasn’t letting on about the ties that bound him, whether it be dodgy cuffs or concealed lock-picks.

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