On the top floor of the History Museum at the Castle in Harry Houdini’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, there are seven large cardboard boxes locked away in a back room. Each is filled with documents and diary entries, letters, and articles and note cards about the legendary escape artist, who died in 1926. In my book, I call them “the Silverman Boxes.” They are the work of the great biographer Ken Silverman.
Silverman attempted an audacious magic trick of his own: He tried to write a true book about Harry Houdini. I’d argue no one had ever dared attempt that before. There had been many, many books written about Houdini by the mid-1990s, when Silverman took his shot. But all previous biographers were, in the end, commanded by Houdini.
You see, Houdini had spent a lifetime creating an all-but-impenetrable legend. He told so many lies, planted so many fake news stories, relied on so much misdirection, invented so many myths, and so meticulously guarded his own mysteries that it took researchers and magicians almost 50 years after his death merely to determine that he had not been born in America, as he claimed, but in Budapest, in 1874, one of seven children, whose father was a rabbi.
Harry Houdini spent a lifetime creating an all-but-impenetrable legend.
Silverman was a famously tenacious researcher—he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Cotton Mather, and along the way he developed a reputation for relentlessly chasing obscure facts and tiny details to the very ends of the earth. He had been a professional magician in high school (known as Ken Silvers!), and Houdini was his White Whale.
By the time Houdini!!! was published, in 1997, Silverman had gathered so much material that, in his own words, “the documentation for this biography makes a typescript of one hundred and fifty pages.” And most Houdini fans will tell you that Silverman’s book is the most thorough of any biography written on the magician.
Box of Tricks
But here’s what I learned going through the Silverman Boxes: even Ken Silverman could not hold Harry Houdini inside a box.
Houdini knew what he was doing: he wanted immortality. That was the big thing I learned. And, in a way, he got it. Houdini died more than 90 years ago, but he remains the most famous magician on earth. He was just a New York street urchin turned vaudeville performer who went from town to town and escaped from local jail cells, but he outlived the greatest achievers of his day. Ask a second-grader in Des Moines or a grandmother in Mumbai or a surgeon in Manchester. They know Houdini.
More than that, this man who freed himself from straitjackets and handcuffs still inspires wonder in our time. Whenever a prisoner escapes a jail cell or a politician gets out of a sticky scandal or a quarterback eludes a flock of tacklers or a dog slips out of a backyard, Houdini instantly comes to mind.
Ask a second-grader in Des Moines or a grandmother in Mumbai. They know Houdini.
How did he do it? That question was why I chose to write this book, and it led me to the most marvelous stories and riddles and thrills. It introduced me to so many wonderful people who still are altered and inspired by Harry Houdini.
One of my favorite adventures in the writing of the book was going through the Silverman Boxes. It was like watching a titanic struggle between the hunter, Silverman, who would stop at nothing to get at the truth, and the hunted, Houdini, who even from the grave sought to guard his deepest secrets.
Silverman did solve some puzzles, and he did pop dozens of myths, maybe some that you have heard. Houdini didn’t really get trapped under the ice and almost die. He didn’t really meet his beloved wife, Bess, after spilling acid on her dress during a show. He did not really learn how to escape from handcuffs as a boy when he mystically freed a large prisoner. He did not really die in the Chinese Water Torture Cell. On and on and on.
But, in the end, even Silverman could not pin down Houdini. “Impossible to tell how much of it, if any of it, can be believed,” Silverman wrote on a note card to himself. The boxes overflow with such notes and doubts. Silverman repeatedly complained that for every myth, there is a counter-myth; for every Houdini story, there is a hole; for every quote, there is a conflicting quote. He wondered if anything was real.
“HH’s greatest personal failing, his profound deceit,” Silverman finally admitted to himself, “was also his greatest professional strength.” In many ways, this was Houdini’s greatest escape.
Joe Posnanski is the author of five books and co-founder of Passions in America. Avid Reader Press will publish his new book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, on October 22