Popular Novelist's Own Story
Were Houdini's Feats
by Sax Rohmer
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Houdini was one of the most
fascinating characters I have ever known.
Nor iron bars a cage---
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
Professional illusionists sometimes speak disparagingly of his
technique in certain respects. No man could ever disparage his supreme showmanship.
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 Shepheards 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Long queues were lined up outside the theatre, so that any idea
of entering appeared to be vain. Nevertheless we entered.
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
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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!
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
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 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
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 Houdinis 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
The packing case, so far as skilled scrutiny could show
was in precisely the same state as when Houdini had been nailed inside it.
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
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