During this season of myth and mystery, the thoughts of many drift toward the eerie and strange. One of the most famous celebrities of the 20th century certainly had his feet firmly planted in that mind-set, so now would seem an ideal time to explore the history of Harry Houdini—the greatest magician who ever lived—as it relates to the Hub.
Hungarian native Harry Houdini, born in 1874, immigrated to the United States when he was still a young boy named Erik Weisz. After changing his name to his iconic moniker upon the launch of his magic career in 1891, the illusionist and escape artist became one of the most well-known attractions in the U.S. and Europe by the early 1900s. Despite this renown, he wasn’t above a little extra promotion, which he engaged in rather prominently on several occasions before mounting his act in Boston theaters. One involved Houdini, nearly naked and secured with manacles and leg irons, staging a breakout from a city jail cell before a local appearance in 1906. Another stunt in 1908 (pictured above) consisted of Houdini getting trussed up in shackles and being deposited in the Charles River from the Harvard Bridge. He escaped in less than a minute, to the delight of nearly 20,000 onlookers, including the mayors of both Cambridge and Boston. A plaque commemorating the event was attached to the spot from which he jumped in 1994 by the local chapter of the Society of American Magicians. In another infamous Beantown incident from 1911, Houdini escaped from a 1,600-pound “sea monster”—likely the corpse of a leatherback turtle that had washed up on the shores of Boston Harbor—at the urging of a group of local businessmen.
Houdini had other connections to Boston, as the city was the site of a magician’s “fraternity,” the founder of which sold escape acts to Houdini before he achieved greatness. He was a prominent debunker of mediums and a severe critic of Spiritualism, and even came to the Hub to discredit a famous psychic in 1924. His relationship with spirits and Halloween, however, was sealed elsewhere, when he died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit after suffering a ruptured appendix. Prior to this he had reportedly vowed to his wife that he would return, at least in spirit, escaping even death itself. As of this date, it would appear that was one boast he couldn’t fulfill.