Have you ever played the favorite ice-breaker known as “Two truths and one lie?” The basic rules are: Tell the group three things about yourself, but include two things that are true and one that is a lie. This can be a challenge if a player has led an unconventional life, because people will have a hard time sorting the truth from the lies.
This is true for the notorious figure Harry Houdini. He led a life so spectacular that this game could be extremely challenging–many of his life’s accomplishments sound so preposterous that they could all be lies! See if you can tell the truths from the lie in the following sentences (remember, there are TWO truths and only one lie).
1. One of Harry Houdini’s most famous illusions was a trick starring a 4,000+ pound elephant named Jenny, who disappeared on stage in front of an audience.
2. In World War I, Harry Houdini arranged with the Secretary of War to teach American recruits how to escape from sinking vessels and German handcuffs.
3. Harry Houdini was best known for inventing the “Chinese finger trap” that has stymied children for over a century, trapping their fingers when they try to pull them apart.
Can you tell which of these is the lie? Houdini did complete some “impossible” illusions, AND invented many types of equipment for his illusions, so it would be tempting to think that those two are the truths. You would be right—for #1, but in actuality the lie is #3.
#1: The vanishing elephant trick
For Houdini, bigger was always better. There is no better example of this mentality than the vanishing elephant illusion. He procured an elephant named Jenny, who was rumored to be the daughter of P.T. Barnum’s circus elephant Jumbo.
Jenny weighed between four thousand and ten thousand pounds. Houdini made her disappear onstage during an eight-minute act in which the elephant appeared onstage, gave Houdini an elephant kiss, and was concealed briefly behind a screen. When the screen was lifted two seconds later, Jenny had disappeared.
Houdini purchased the international rights for this trick from its inventor, a British magician named Charles Morritt. This trick made huge news even though in actuality, only a small section of the audience in the huge Hippodrome theatre was actually positioned such that they could see the elephant and her disappearance. Houdini’s showmanship and reputation, however, was such that the trick still became hugely famous, and Houdini maintained the satisfaction of staying on top of the world of magic. The illusion is still talked about today.
#2: Harry Houdini’s war efforts
Houdini had spent the earlier part of the century travelling the world and he found great popularity in Germany, which was an authoritarian state at the time. Houdini spoke the language, thanks to his father who had spoken it at home in his youth. He even took his mother overseas to Germany and was wildly popular there.
As WWI got into full swing in 1918, however, Houdini downplayed his German connections and threw himself into the American war effort. He signed up for the draft but was not selected due to his age at the time (he was over 40). When he realized he was not going to be able to fight, he arranged with the Secretary of War to teach American recruits how to escape from sinking vessels and German handcuffs, and how to survive for longer underwater. The practical value of these lessons was probably minimal, but Houdini felt proud of his contributions to the war effort. Notably, this was one of the only instances in which Houdini volunteered to share his secret escape techniques, reflecting a real desire to help the American effort.
For six months in 1918, Houdini performed twice a day in a patriotic show called “Cheer Up” at the Hippodrome Theater in New York City. “Cheer Up” featured re-enactments of famous American historical moments and figures and music by John Philip Sousa. During “Cheer Up,” Houdini performed the Vanishing Elephant Trick and a form of his Underwater Box Escape. He also continued to give performances at military compounds. He created a group known as the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association, which raised money for American troops. Houdini was president of the Association.
Houdini also was a major organizer of a major benefit for the wartime hospital fund, and planned to perform a trick in which he seemed to catch a marked bullet fired from a gun. Fortunately, a friend and mentor admonished him not to take on the dangerous trick, which had recently taken the life of a magician friend of Houdini’s, and Houdini agreed to do another trick instead.
#3: Houdini’s inventive mind
Houdini may not have invented Chinese handcuffs, but he certainly did use his inventive mind to benefit humanity in addition to creating a new paradigm for magicians and illusionists in the early 20th century. He believed that illusionists could make people safer in other areas, even writing about the contributions of fire-eaters to fire safety:
In our own times the art of defending the hands and face, and indeed the whole body, from the action of heated iron and intense fire, has been applied to the nobler purpose of saving human life, and rescuing property from the flames.
In this same vein, he hoped that his investigations into survival under water and in airtight spaces could be used by divers, miners, and others employed in dangerous occupations. He designed a diving suit that he believed would save the lives of divers because it allowed them to exit the suit quickly in case of emergency.
The legacy of Harry Houdini
Harry Houdini led an unconventional life, from humble beginnings to widespread fame. His image and name was known throughout the world, and a dictionary of the time even published an edition with the word “houdinize,” meaning to escape or to wriggle out of confinement or restraint. Houdini’s legend, however, is not without its detractors. Many magicians in Houdini’s time and now have criticized Houdini’s massive ego and his willingness to expose other magicians and to stretch the truth in order to stay on top of the magic world.
In the magic community, Houdini was known as a fantastic egomaniac who believed that he was a deity among magicians and conjurers and who loved to talk about himself. Houdini’s writing of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Conjurers” lends support to this opinion, as Houdini spoke only of his own contributions to magic without mentioning a single other magician.
I think you can agree that with a personality like Houdini’s, it’s almost impossible to play “Two truths and one lie” because his life was full of outrageous stunts, extensive travel, and unusual twists and turns. He is truly a memorable figure in history!