The following is the ninth installment of the "Pipe Dreams" series of articles which later were "paraphrased or quoted" in Master of Villainy. The original, non-fiction article appeared in the Empire News, Manchester, England on March 27, 1938.


Pipe Dreams

Popular Novelist's Own Story

Were Houdini's Feats
Supernatural?

by Sax Rohmer

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage---
     RICHARD LOVELACE.

     Houdini was one of the most fascinating characters I have ever known.
     His death was a blow to me, although intervals of many months, sometimes of a whole year, elapsed between our meetings.
     He for his part would maintain contact by sending newspaper cuttings from all over the world dealing with his extraordinary exploits: perhaps a picture showing him suspended head downwards from a flag-staff some thirty-five or more floors above the streets of New York, or a paragraph announcing that he had accepted a challenge to escape from the strongroom of a bank.
     Characteristic comments would be scribbled in the margin: "This is really a tough job" or "It looks hard to most people, but you would say: 'Now show me something.'"
     Within his own territory Harry Houdini reigned as undisputed king.
     Professional illusionists sometimes speak disparagingly of his technique in certain respects. No man could ever disparage his supreme showmanship.

Conan  Doyle’s
Belief

     No professional magician within living memory has excited so much controversy. His latter years were largely devoted to the exposure of fake mediums and others who battened upon the credulous.
     Spiritualism in some of its aspects he would have liked to stamp out, and I know of nothing more curious -- in fact or fiction -- than the friendship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
     Shortly after Houdini's death Conan Doyle published an article in which he made the extraordinary accusation against his former friend that

Houdini employed occult powers in some of his performances and, whilst fully aware of the truth of their claims, persecuted Spiritualists

     Sir Arthur and I exchanged a slightly acid correspondence on this subject. I regretted it the last time I saw the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
     This was on the terrace of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, and already the shadow of the end rested upon that fine, kindly old face.
     As a doctor, Doyle had no illusions about his own symptoms.
     It is in such a case that a medical man requires greater courage than a layman. The layman is always buoyed up with the hope that his advisers may be mistaken. The physician knows there is no mistake.

Deep  in  the
Occult

     Conan Doyle was by no means alone in believing that Houdini employed supernatural powers in some of his illusions and despite many a book describing in detail with diagrams and other illustrations exactly how these illusions were performed, in the face of facts presented by my friend, Will Goldston, president of the Magician's Club (who actually made some of the apparatus used by Houdini), I must confess that whilst I discredit entirely the supernatural theory held by Sir Arthur, I am by no means convinced that the means employed were not super-normal.
     That Houdini, who was the son of a Rabbi -- indeed, of a line of Rabbis -- had delved deeply into occultism all over the world is common ground.
     He had a library on the subject which in certain respects was unique. The librarian whom he employed on the occasion of my last visit (he was an old Englishman) informed me that the completion of the catalogue alone would occupy him for another three years -- if he lived to complete it!
     Houdini knew all the tricks of the Indian fakirs --of most of them.
     He could remain under water for three minutes.
     Although of small stature he was remarkably powerful -- he could wield an axe with any woodsman.
     He had developed muscles usually neglected by European athletes, for in certain respects Houdini was purely Oriental.
     He understood the art of breathing -- an art is unknown to the West.
     He could pick up a pin with his toes. He could hold a needle between his lips and thread it with his tongue.

     Houdini used either hand with equal facility. He could apparently see in the dark, judging from certain experiences I had with him.
     There was no lock of any kind which he had failed to open, using no visible implements.
     In short, his equipment was such that for any illusionist to dream of taking his place would be vain dream indeed.
     Those further gifts with which Conan Doyle and others have endowed him were suggested to me on several occasions when I found myself his company.

Through  the
Crowds

     As an illustration of what I mean: One afternoon in New York he called for me and insisted, although I was very busy, that I must go to see a new picture theatre then recently opened and to hear the fine orchestra which was playing there.
     I suggested a taxi, but: "We can walk it quicker," said Houdini. Beyond any shadow of doubt he was right.
     If we had discarded our material bodies and become spirits we could not have proceeded more swiftly through the dense crowds upon the sidewalks of New York.
     But when we came to Times Square, which we had to cross, I had an experience which today remains unique.
     We crossed it against the traffic lights!
     Houdini firmly grasping my left arm we darted across that wide, terror-laden space, missing speedy cars by fractions of an inch, diving behind others, pausing momentarily, dodging forward again, and finally reaching the opposite side of the Square.
     Afterwards I likened this extraordinary transit to swimming the rapids of Niagara. I should think the odds against success are about the same.
     But stranger things -- although things not so perilous --were to come.
     Long queues were lined up outside the theatre, so that any idea of entering appeared to be vain. Nevertheless we entered.

Without  a
Challenge

     One so well known as Houdini could quite easily have obtained seats by means of merely sending a message to the management. Nothing of the kind occurred, however.
     No one seemed to recognise him.
     Attendants, fighting with the throng in file before the box-office, never so much as glanced in our direction. We walked in and walked up the stairs to the circle. No one challenged us -- no one asked us for our tickets - - no one asked for Houdinis card!
     Apparently no one saw us.

     We walked into the circle. Houdini glanced about for a moment and then, again grasping my arm, led me to two unoccupied seats adjoining the centre gangway in the second row.
     He drew my attention to the architectural characteristics of the building, and we listened to the orchestra. Admittedly it was a good orchestra.
     "We don't want to see the picture," he said, "we are going on somewhere else."
     And standing up just as the picture commenced, we went out as we had cone in, unchallenged and apparently unseen!

Mysterious
Entrances

     During this particular visit to New York I was staying in an old hotel now demolished, the regulations of which were so severe that for any human being other than a resident to gain access to one of the apartments unannounced was, I should have supposed, nearly impossible.
     The routine was this: The 'phone would ring and someone in the reception office would say,
     "Mr. Smith to see you. Is he to come up?" Upon your reply -- Yes or No - - the immediate destiny of Mr. Smith depended.
     Yet at all hours of the day and night, indeed as late as 3 A.M., Harry Houdini, without even the preliminary of a knock, would open the door of my apartment and walk in!
     At first these visitations startled me. Soon I grew used to them.
     But they excited my curiosity so intensely that on certain occasions I went to the trouble of making enquiries.
     I questioned everybody from the floor clerk and the liftmen down to those members of the staff on duty in the reception office and vestibule; the outside porters were paraded.
     All of then were prepared to swear that Houdini had neither come in nor gone out!
     That period in New York of which I am thinking was one I am never likely to forget.
     Houdini, if he did not save my sanity, certainly saved my professional reputation, for I found myself in a difficult position.
     Up to this time I had held a theory that the best way to write a mystery story of the "Who did it?" type was for the author to be as mystified as the reader. In other words, my method was this:
     I would stage a murder under conditions which seemed to preclude any human agency.
     Every possible outlet for the murderer would be securely sealed. It would be, in short, the perfect crime.
     At this stage I would introduce my investigator and I would approach the problem from the point of view of this character: I mean that I would examine any clue which I myself had left and, working on from that point, would seek the solution.
     Obviously, if the author does not know the criminal, the reader has small chance of discovering him!
     I was under contract to an American magazine to write a serial story by a certain date; the character of this story was not specified otherwise than that it should be "a mystery story."
     When the time came to tackle the job, I approached it in this spirit of ignorance.

Left  Without
A  Clue

     At the outset I caused a celebrated medical consultant, retired, to be murdered at his own dinner table under circumstances which pointed to death from natural causes.
     By every means at my command during the early stages of the story I eliminated any possibility of human agency. The result was dramatic and very puzzling.
     Then, having introduced my investigator, by name Paul Harley, I assumed his duties and looked about for clues pointing to a criminal.
     I could find none!
     It is unlikely that I shall forget the night when the fact dawned upon me that the mystery I had created was not susceptible of solution. I had defeated myself.

     I had smoked several ounces of tobacco -- and had drunk more than half a bottle of Jamaica run -- when at the hour of 4 A.M., I ceremoniously tore up the typescript which lay upon my desk, and went to bed.
     Next morning I commenced another serial altogether.
     As I have explained, no synopsis of the proposed story had been submitted to the New York editor; therefore I was at liberty to write anything I pleased.
     My second attempt ran so smoothly that I completed it (about 80,000 words) in a month; this still remains my record.
     I had just revised the last chapter when the blow fell...
     The agent who acted for me at this time had left for America a few days before the tragic truth dawned upon me -- that the mystery of the first story was impenetrable. On completion of the second I cabled him, giving date of delivery of manuscript. I received a three-page cablegram in reply (and he was born in Aberdeen) revealing the ghastly facts.
     Unknown to me he had taken a copy of the opening chapters, totalling some 30,000 words, with him and had delivered them to the New York magazine. And the magazine had commenced publication!
     My immediate presence in New York was demanded. One installment had already appeared; a second was about to follow. Only three were in hand.
     Under these dreadful conditions I sailed for America on a fast ship, preoccupied the whole way over with my notes, reviewing the problem from every conceivable angle, starting from the beginning and working up to the point where Paul Harley took over the case.
     When I reached New York no solution of the mystery had presented itself.
     Joseph Coll, whose pen drawings remain unchallenged to this day, had been commissioned to illustrate. I found my hotel room decorated with beautiful originals by this master of black and white.
     Prohibition was rife, but a miniature cellar had been installed in my apartment -- a dictaphone -- a typewriter -- every aid to literary production of which the anxious editorial staff could think.
     I set to work feverishly.
     One discovery I had made in this maddening problem: the alteration of a single line of dialogue in Chapter Three would have given me a clue... But Chapter Three had already been published!
     It was necessary for me to adopt a rigorous routine: I must produce a minimum of 1200 words a day, and never sleep until those 1200 words had been written.
     I lived the life of a hermit attired in pyjamas and dressing gown: smoking - smoking - smoking, and writing - writing - writing.
     Nevertheless, a time came when I was only a fortnight behind publication.
     I produced another installment, but it served merely to plunge me deeper in the mud as far as the solution was concerned.
     The printers began to catch up on me. At one point I reached a stage where I was turning out copy page by page from my apartment to a team of messengers connecting with the printing press!

The  Wizard’s
Way  Out

     At this point, enter Houdini...
     If I was worried about my contract, and Heaven knows I was -- the reputation of one of the leading magazines in the United States was wholly in my keeping -- Harry Houdini was deeply concerned about me.
     He insisted upon certain hours of relaxation, almost literally carrying me from the building at times.
     He took me to meet interesting people. He made parties to amuse me.
     I ate Thanksgiving dinner at his hospitable board in the old house which harboured the wonderful library. I wore a tweed suit over pyjamas, for he would take no refusal.
     I suppose in fact that I was fairly near the cracking point when Houdini offered me the solution of the mystery!
     Unannounced, he appeared one night when I was pacing the floor on the verge of desperation. The door opened, and he was there!
     He carried a copy of the magazine in which that installment including chapter Three had appeared.
     I had not told him of the piece of dialogue which, had it never been printed, would have enabled me to save the situation; in the circumstances I had thought that to do so would be useless.
     But he had read every line of the story, approaching it as he would have approached a problem of escape from a locked box.
     Now he opened the pages and pointed to a sentence which he had underlined.
     He had found it for himself!
     "The character who said that has been dropped out," he remarked. "Bring him back, and have Paul Harley tax him on that statement. Think of a reason why he lied -- make him change the words... and you're saved!"
     It was true! By means of this simple device -- or it seemed simple when Houdini pointed it out -- of forcing one character to admit that he had lied, my difficulties vanished like smoke!

Imprisoned
in  Crate

     To make real Harry Houdini's amazing showmanship to those who may never have seen him perform (although it seems incredible, I realise that he has been dead for ten years) I will describe a "challenge night," for which occasion he made me a present of a stage box. His generosity not only of mind but of spirit set him apart in a selfish world.
     The challenge which he had accepted came from a firm of packing-case makers.
     On my arrival I was shown at the side of the stage a formidably powerful crate, perhaps three feet square, made of three-quarter inch oak and of a strength and solidity safely to have carried a heavy casting from one side of the earth to the other.
     The makers of this perfect crate -- carpenters, joiners, foreman, and works manager were present.
     When in due course the crate was carried on to the stage, they certified to a man that it was of their manufacture. All remained on the stage throughout.
     Houdini got into the crate, coiling himself up so that the lid could be attached. Carpenters under the foreman's direction hammered the lid on with two-inch wire nails. I doubt if any box ever contained more nails. Houdini had caused four air holes to be bored before he entered.
     Now, the lid being nailed on and very effectively nailed, he poked a finger through one holes and the finger was solemnly shaken by the foreman carpenter.
     The crate was now roped up, and the ropes were knotted securely.
     This being admitted and passed by everyone present a small screen or tent was lowered over captive and crate.
     Nothing could be seen. The mystery of Houdini’s routine was hidden from us. But after an interval of five or six minutes, during which the band played) the tent was thrown aside …
     Houdini, dramatically dishevelled, stepped out.
     A burst of applause greeted his appearance. This certainly was remarkable enough under the circumstances. But greater mystery was to follow.
     The carpenters and other members of the committee rushing eagerly forward, it now became apparent every knot was intact, and that every nail was in place!
     The packing case, so far as skilled scrutiny could show – was in precisely the same state as when Houdini had been nailed inside it.

Bewildering
Escape

     One has to appreciate the difference between an escape from a trick box designed for the purpose and one from a piece of solid carpentry such as I have described, and constructed with the opposite purpose -- to prevent escape -- to appreciate the peculiar genius of Harry Houdini.
     Small wonder that Conan Doyle accused him of possessing supernatural powers!
     I relate this escape from a packing-case exactly as I saw it. No doubt the president of the Magicians Club, if you become a member, would explain how it can be done.
     But even if he did so, I have no hesitation in saying that neither you nor any other man alive today could do it as Houdini did it.
     With the death of Harry Houdini the world lost the last of those men of genius who devoted their lives to mystifying and delighting their contemporaries.
     Houdini did more than this. He faced professional disaster, scandal, and abuse in his endeavours to destroy those imposters who, employing elementary methods known to every professional magician, wrought upon bereavement.
     Such impostors roused him to fierce anger. The blindness of their dupes more than once resulted in charges of duplicity against my old friend. Which I know and shall ever be prepared to maintain were false and vicious.
     Mrs. Houdini has now publicly declared that the code known only to herself and her husband (by means of which they arranged should it be possible in the next life, to communicate with one another) has failed to come through.
     This is to be expected even in the case of one for whom "stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."
     Houdini, the master illusionist, was the enemy of impostors. He was one of the greatest showmen the stage ever known. And he was my friend.

_________

NEXT WEEK: COASTWISE LIGHTS

An analysis of this article reveals all may not be as it seems.

Note: The above transcription retains the newspaper column formatting and use of bold facing of the original. The  transcription in The Rohmer Review, No. 5, August, 1970,  is slightly reformatted into longer paragraphs and has some clarifying material inserted.

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Copyright 2000 Lawrence Knapp. All rights reserved.

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