Video: Houdini

“Don’t insult me by calling me a magician,” Harry Houdini once told reporters. “I am an escape artist.” Much has been written describing his extraordinary feats: how he freed himself from cunningly designed handcuffs and leg-irons; how he escaped from massive packing crates, office safes and bank vaults, the jail cells of notorious criminals and entire prisons, from strait-jackets, first on stage and then suspended upside down high above city streets. How he extricated himself from a special water-torture cell–even responding to brewers’ challenges, when it was filled with beer. How, wrapped with chains and ropes or locked inside a weighted box, he plunged into rivers and harbors and swam free. How, lashed against the open barrel of a cannon with a time fuse, he vowed to free himself or “be blown to Kingdom Come.” How he consented to be buried alive under six feet of earth and clawed his way back from the grave. Devotees of magic have long discussed how he performed such feats. Biographers have probed the personal issues that drove him to do so. Yet the most important question has been the most neglected: What is the larger significance of his career for American cultural history?

John Kasson, a native of Muncie, Indiana, graduated from Harvard and received his Doctorate in American Studies from Yale. Since 1971 he has taught History and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Kasson’s research has been primarily concerned with American cultural expression within a dynamic society. Several books have emerged from this work including: Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (1976); Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (1978); Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (1990); and Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (2001). Evaluating the Houdini book, one reviewer commented that the study “has wise and witty things to say that we—in our age of health clubs and body-building machines—need to understand about the social meanings of strength and the powerful body….This is page-turner of a book, with a surprise worth knowing on every beautifully written page.”