From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

http://www.nysun.com/article/38654

Houdini Was a Covert Agent, New Book Claims

By GARY SHAPIRO – Staff Reporter of the Sun
August 28, 2006

The famed magician Harry Houdini guarded the secrets behind his
legendary escapes from handcuffs, chains, jails, milk cans, mailbags,
and water chambers. But the authors of a forthcoming book on Houdini
will be disclosing that he had another secret: his role as a spy. This
claim is already causing a stir in the magic community and will create
more buzz on October 31 – exactly 80 years after Houdini’s death at
age 52 – when William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s “The Secret Life of
Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero” rolls off the
presses.

The authors argue that intelligence agencies on both sides of the ocean
likely employed the Hungarian-born showman. The book notes that Houdini
canceled profitable contracts and abruptly headed to Europe in 1900,
and it surmises that he might have been spying in Germany, feeding
information to the Scotland Yard superintendent, William Melville.

Other claims in the forthcoming book, some of which were outlined in a
recent article in the Sunday Times of London, are that Houdini assisted
German police with information about wanted criminals, monitored
anarchists in Russia, and engaged in anti-counterfeiting activities for
the Secret Service.

“Some of it may be true,” an author and collector of Houdini material,
Arthur Moses, said, “but it’s hard to believe it’s all true.” He did
say what he has read of the book is meticulously researched and well
written.

A call to Mr. Kalush was referred to the publisher’s publicity
department, which declined any interviews until closer to the
publication date.

“I’ll believe anything that there’s evidence for,” a Houdini biographer
who is reserving judgment until he has read the book, Kenneth
Silverman, said. But he bristled at the suggestion that Houdini’s quick
rise to fame was partly assisted by police. The new book apparently
claims that there was a quid pro quo whereby detectives in Chicago
would promote Houdini if he taught them lock escapes and other skills.
To the contrary, Mr. Silverman maintained, “He owed his huge reputation
to the work he did on stage.”

The publisher of Genii magazine, Richard Kaufman, said Mr. Kalush had
viewed documents that appear to support the claim that Houdini, if not
actually a spy, helped the embryonic British intelligence service
gather information.

However, a historian at the Washington-based International Spy Museum,
Thomas Boghardt, who has not yet read the book, said British espionage
did not start in earnest until 1909. He also said William Melville, the
head of Scotland Yard, was principally involved in counterespionage in
England rather than spying abroad.

Throughout history, conjurors have engaged in espionage and police and
detective work. The French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
(1805-1871) – whose name the young Ehrich Weiss invoked when he
renamed himself Harry Houdini – worked as an envoy in Algeria and
helped quell an uprising by showing that indigenous Algerian magic
could not match French conjuring. During World War II, the illusionist
Joseph Dunninger (1892-1975) advised the U.S. Armed Forces on
camouflage techniques, the magic scholar Robert Reiss recalled. The
sleight-of-hand master John Scarne (1903-1985) also worked for the
American Army during the war, showing traveling soldiers how not to be
cheated at craps, gambling, and cards.

In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency hired the thaumaturge
John Mulholland (1898-1970) to write a pamphlet on sleight of hand to
help operatives administer other substances clandestinely – for
instance, by slipping drugs into people’s drinks. Defectors during the
Cold War were smuggled out of East Germany in cars that were built like
the magic boxes used in stage illusions. Magicians have also helped
security guards understand how sleight of hand can be used to steal
valuable items. More recently, a former acting director of central
intelligence, John McLaughlin, has performed magic in demonstrating to
intelligence officers how easily they can be fooled even after a
magician tells them he is going to fool them.

A professor of security management at John Jay College of Justice,
Robert McCrie, said there was a phase between roughly 1915 and the end
of the Cold War when celebrities liked to hobnob with spies and
international police. He also said that Houdini, as a world-famous
magician, had access to this world that most people did not have. But
the fact that Houdini might have passed along information to law
enforcement did not necessarily make him an operative. “It’s proper to
receive credit for trying to be helpful, but the police department can
thrive without him.”

One way that Houdini was helpful to law enforcement, Mr. McCrie said,
was by showing them that their restraints had limitations and could be
overcome.

A historian of American policing and a former Chicago commander of
detectives, Thomas Reppetto, said Houdini certainly knew police and had
a reason to travel. The claim that he was an agent for police “doesn’t
sound impossible. They could certainly have made use of him.”

But to call Houdini a secret agent “in the James Bond sense” might be
taking it a little far, a historian of magic, Richard Kohn, said. “He
may well have been an observer who passed along observations.” But he
also said Houdini was very impressed with himself.

The magician and paranormal debunker James Randi cautioned, “If Houdini
had been a spy, that would have gotten out. He never would have been
able to sit on it.” Mr. Randi said the story of Jasper Maskelyne
(1902-1973) – a magician whose skills at deception helped the British
defeat the Germans in North Africa during World War II – got out
quickly.

Don Stashower thinks Houdini makes a good private eye – but in
fiction. He has written three mystery novels featuring Houdini as a
detective. “The same skills that make him a good magician and escape
artist,” he said, “also made him an interesting person to cast as a
detective because he was naturally good at solving problems and
figuring out puzzles.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2278656.html

And Now For My Last Trick…

His death-defying stunts made him an international man of mystery. But
did Harry Houdini lead a life of even greater intrigue – as a secret
agent?

By Tony Barrell

Secrecy was such a fixture of Harry Houdini’s life, it should have
been his middle name. We remember him now as the greatest escape artist
who ever lived – a tough, squat Hungarian-born Jewish American who
freed himself from everything from handcuffs, chains and straitjackets
to coffins, iron maidens and torture racks – but he was basically an
illusionist; a conjuror. While millions may have swallowed the myth
that he achieved his escapes using nothing but brute strength, extreme
plasticity and superhuman self-belief, in fact there was often
something up his sleeve, so to speak – something he knew about and
the audience didn’t. His equipment would be customised, rigged,
interfered with. The myriad containers that imprisoned him would come
apart in ingenious ways. To accomplish his famous escape from a big
milk can full of water, for instance, he could simply remove the top
section, whose ring of false rivets gave a convincing illusion of
indestructibility. Even when he leapt shackled into the Mississippi,
the Seine or Aberdeen harbour, there was something he wasn’t letting
on about the ties that bound him, whether it be dodgy cuffs or
concealed lock-picks.

Enough secrets for one life, you might think. But now there are more
nails emerging from the strongbox that has preserved his reputation for
80 years since his death. Two American authors have suddenly announced
that Houdini was more than the world’s greatest showman. In their
forthcoming biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, William Kalush and
Larry Sloman say he was a secret agent; a spy. They suggest that he
gathered top-secret information in Germany when he performed there
before the first world war. They say he could have been involved in the
surveillance of anarchists in Russia. And they maintain that without
his services to international espionage, Harry Houdini may not have
become the star whose extraordinary exploits are still the stuff of
legend today.

By 1894, the year he turned 20, the struggling magician Ehrich Weiss
had a wife, a new act and a new name: Harry Houdini. He and his
beloved, Bess, joined an American travelling circus and performed as
the Houdinis, attracting limited attention with a magic act. But
Houdini still needed a lucky break – and it was a Minnesota beer hall
in 1899 that apparently served as the escapological equivalent of
Liverpool’s Cavern Club in 1961, where one Brian Epstein chanced upon
a performance by the Beatles. After Houdini made short work of some
cuffs brought to him by the impresario Martin Beck, Beck offered him a
headlining vaudeville gig and the princely fee of $60. A full contract
was to follow, with Houdini playing smart theatres in big cities from
Chicago to Los Angeles, and his fame suddenly began to grow.

According to Houdini’s latest biographers, William Kalush and Larry
Sloman, the steep fame curve that the showman enjoyed in the early
years of the 20th century wasn’t simply the result of ingenuity, hard
work and showbiz karma. They maintain that Houdini formed a secret pact
with top American detectives in Chicago, whereby they would help him
achieve stardom on the condition that the great escapist teach them the
tricks of his trade.

If this extraordinary claim is true, it provides a possible solution to
one of the many mini-mysteries within the enigma that was Harry
Houdini’s odd career. He would frequently turn up at police stations
to demonstrate dramatic escapes from handcuffs, manacles, straitjackets
and prison cells – all in the name of free publicity. “I defy the
police departments of the world to hold me,” he would boast. At best,
this behaviour was wasting police time; at worst, as he casually
chucked off the shackles designed to restrain the most psychopathic
criminals, he was advertising the inadequacy of police equipment. But,
of course, they would have to grin and bear it if they had been
instructed to indulge every whim of a covert police adviser. If a
performer such as David Blaine were to ask for this level of police
co-operation nowadays, would he receive it?

But Houdini’s new biographers go further. They say that Houdini was
probably employed by the intelligence services – on both sides of the
Atlantic. When Houdini sailed to Britain in 1900, at the midpoint of
his life, he met the Special Branch superintendent William Melville at
Scotland Yard, escaped from some regulation cuffs and passed on some
lock-picking secrets. Shortly afterwards, they claim, Melville became
head of the Britain’s secret service and recruited Houdini for
espionage work.

It was in the same year that Houdini pitched up in Germany, where he
captivated theatre audiences in Dresden and Berlin. This was a time
when diplomatic tensions were building: both Britain and America saw
Germany as a growing threat to the world order. There were real fears
in the US that the Germans were scheming to invade American waters and
seize colonies in Latin America. And not only was the German ruler,
Kaiser Wilhelm II, pushing ahead with a plan to increase the power of
the German navy, challenging Britannia’s maritime supremacy, but he
had supported the Boers fighting the British in South Africa.

One known spy who definitely was operational in Europe around this time
– and these were the days before the existence of the CIA, MI5 and
MI6 – was Sidney Reilly, on whom Ian Fleming modelled the character
of James Bond. Reilly posed as a German in the Netherlands to uncover
the truth about Dutch aid to the Boers. He may even have been the same
age as Houdini – one of the slippery spy’s possible birth dates is
March 24, 1874: the day Ehrich Weiss was born in Hungary.

According to Kalush and Sloman, Houdini may have been snooping into
German weaponry secrets. During a three-week run of shows in Essen, in
the industrial Ruhr district, he was challenged by the Krupp company to
escape from some of its most fiendish handcuffs. Krupp didn’t just
make hand restraints: it was a big munitions manufacturer, and Houdini
was allowed to visit the factory.

A German newspaper claimed that criminals were lining up to meet the
great lock-breaker and learn his secrets. And it was in Germany that
Houdini became tangled up in the legal system. He was hypersensitive to
criticism, and when a newspaper, the Rheinische Zeitung, claimed he was
a fraud who had, among other things, attempted to bribe a policeman
into secretly giving him a key to help him escape some fetters at
police headquarters in Cologne, he hit the roof. He sued his accuser
and, in a highly theatrical turn of events, ended up performing escape
routines in the courtroom to clear his name – which he triumphantly
did.

Feted by the public, buttonholed by criminals and known to the police,
Houdini could hardly have had a higher profile in Germany at this
point. If the German authorities got wind of any involvement in
espionage, they appear not to have acted on it. In fact, the new
biography notes that they were strangely co-operative with him. He was
to return to Germany for further shows before the first world war, and
he was so popular there that he was rumoured to be a German spy.
Houdini later wrote about his involvement in an international exchange
of police information: he gave the German police details of top
criminals, published in a book by a Boston chief inspector who was a
member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the
American-based network founded in 1893 to foster co-operation between
cops across the globe. In return, the Germans gave him some similar
material from their files to pass on.

Houdini’s next great foreign adventure was in Russia. Arriving in
Moscow in 1903, he introduced himself in customary fashion to the
police and persuaded them to let him escape from a “carette”, a
jail-on-wheels in which prisoners were transported to Siberia. But the
Russian police treated him roughly – Houdini later hinted they had
even subjected him to an anal examination before the stunt.

The writer J C Cannell, in his 1926 book The Secrets of Houdini,
claimed that Houdini somehow tore into the metal floor of the vehicle
to effect his escape.

Russia and Harry did not seem to get on at all. He found the heavy
police presence depressing, complaining of surveillance by “spy
detectives”, and was shocked by the laws that meant Jews were barred
from entering Moscow’s theatres – it was apparently this kind of
east European anti-semitism that had driven his father, a rabbi, to
emigrate to the US in the first place. Nonetheless, Kalush and Sloman
have another big surprise for us. They claim that the carette escape
was Houdini’s passport to the Russian royal family, and that
overtures were made to encourage him to become an adviser to the tsar,
Nicholas II – a role similar to that filled shortly afterwards by
Grigori Rasputin. They also suggest that Houdini was on the lookout for
anarchist activity while he was in Russia, and was sending back
intelligence reports. Anarchist conspirators were the great
international menace of the period – only two years before, the
anarchist Leon Czolgosz had assassinated the American president William
McKinley.

If Houdini really was this international man of mystery, zipping around
the globe and oiling the wheels of history in the run-up to the first
world war and the Russian revolution, he would have relished the role.
In some ways he behaved like a spy, compulsively revising personal
details in a way that made him hard to pin down. “His indifference to
dates and facts encompassed virtually all but family anniversaries and
house receipts,” wrote Kenneth Silverman in his 1996 book, Houdini!!!
The Career of Ehrich Weiss. “Photographs of himself that he dated
1901, for example, can be shown to have been taken in 1908. On various
passport applications… he gave his height hit-or-miss as five-four,
five-five-and-a-quarter, five-six, or five-seven; his eyes diversely as
brown, blue, and gray; his complexion as dark or fair; his year of
birth as 1873 or 1874 (for the 1920 census he decided on 1876). Almost
no date he supplied in a letter or newspaper article can be trusted.”
Kalush and Sloman point to various gadgets developed by Houdini in his
spare time that have a suspiciously strong connection to the world of
spying, such as a form of invisible ink and steam-resistant envelopes.

In other ways, he was arguably too sensitive and emotional for serious
spy work. He worshipped the two main women in his life: his wife, Bess,
and his mother, Cecilia. In the notes and billets-doux he sent Bess, or
left for her to find around their New York home, he referred to her as
“My Dear little Popsy Wopsy” and “Honey-Baby-Pretty-Lamby”. And
he was a notorious braggart. He couldn’t achieve any feat, from a new
escape to a victory in a legal battle, without advertising and
exaggerating it. So if he truly worked as a secret agent, he would have
found it a tremendous frustration that he couldn’t trumpet his
espionage exploits to the world. But perhaps he did find a way of
trumpeting them and getting away with it: late in his career he became
the hero of a series of lightweight adventure movies, the last being
Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), a self-produced, self-directed
yarn in which “Heath Haldane” thwarts the bad guys using a talent
for escapology.

Do magicians make good spies? I put the question to John Bravo and
Dorothy Dietrich, two magicians who run the Houdini Museum in Scranton,
Pennsylvania. “Well, we certainly know a lot of techniques that are
not known to the general public,” says Dietrich, who performs
Houdiniesque stunts herself, such as escaping from a straitjacket while
hanging from a burning rope 150ft off the ground. Both Bravo and
Dietrich say the Agent Houdini revelations are news to them. “It’s
a possibility,” says Bravo.

“I know he did some experiments with the navy and underwater survival
techniques. And I know for certain that he worked with our soldiers
before they went to war, teaching them how to get out of German
restraints.”

“You know what,” says Dietrich, “the more you study Houdini, the
more you learn.”

It’s true: a lot of people don’t know, for example, that in 1910,
in his mid-thirties, he became a pioneer of the air, one of the first
people ever to fly an aeroplane in Australia. He bought a 60-horsepower
Voisin biplane, had some practice runs in Germany, where he was booked
for a series of escapology shows, and then set out on the long sea
journey. Previous accounts of his brief aerobatic displays down under
give the impression that he was a courageous and resourceful pilot.
What they don’t suggest, and what Kalush and Sloman do, is that this
was not just an attempt at making the record books: it was a secret
campaign to promote the use of aeroplanes for defence. Harry Houdini
was on yet another covert, world-changing mission.

Houdini frequently whined that escapology was a gruelling business and
that he needed to find something else to pay the bills; and he
harboured ambitions to leave a more profound legacy, saying he wished
that “what brain and gifts I have should benefit humanity in some
other way than merely entertaining the people”. If he really did
espionage work, that would have gone some way to satisfying those
desires. But by the time he had reached his late forties, having
amassed a substantial fortune, he had also found a new, very personal
crusade.

In the wake of the devastating first world war, spiritualism was on the
rise. Houdini had an intimate knowledge of the conjuring tricks that
“mediums” used to make ghosts of the departed appear to talk,
write, throw objects around and even manifest themselves during
seances. With the death of his adored mother as a possible catalyst, he
decided to expose the shameless fraudsters who were fleecing the
gullible and the bereaved. He visited seances, sometimes in disguise,
and used his vast knowledge of stage magic to establish what was really
going on when things went bump in the dark. He also employed a network
of trusted investigators to help him with his medium-busting – and he
invoked the language of covert intelligence when he described them as
“my own secret-service department”. One of his staunchest opponents
was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, despite having created the
super-rational Sherlock Holmes, was an ardent believer. Houdini’s
fellow magician Joseph Dunninger later recalled the spiritualists’
reaction: “Resentment was offered everywhere when he would attack
these individuals, who would often stand up at their seats in the
theatres, and attempt to denounce Houdini.” Spiritualists filed
lawsuits against him. “They could not have won the case,” says
Dorothy Dietrich, “because how do you get a ghost to come to court?
But they figured they could just tie up his money and keep him busy.”

An Indianapolis spiritualist “reverend” taunted that he knew how
Houdini did all his tricks, and would reveal all to the public. But
there were much worse threats. “I get letters from ardent believers
in spiritualism,” he told a Chicago newspaper near the end of his
life, “who prophesy I am going to meet a violent death soon as a
fitting punishment for my nefarious work.”

“He was getting a lot of threats on his life at the end,” says
Dietrich. “In fact, several of his letters that I’ve seen in
collections, from the last year of his life, say things like, ‘This
may be the last you hear from me – the threats are getting
stronger.'”

Houdini didn’t drown hanging upside down in his famous “water
torture cell”, as the 1953 Hollywood biopic starring Tony Curtis has
it. The apparent truth is that he developed appendicitis but went ahead
with a North American tour, and on October 22, 1926, in a dressing room
in Montreal, a student from McGill University asked if he could punch
him in the abdomen to test his strength. Three days later, Houdini was
hospitalised, in agony. He died of peritonitis – his ruptured
appendix having led to a severe internal infection – on Hallowe’en.
He was just 52.

Kalush and Sloman point to the spiritualists’ crusade against the
escapologist and suggest he was murdered. “I have a feeling that that
student could have been a believer in spiritualism who wanted to punish
Houdini, teach him a lesson, and maybe even do him in,” agrees
Dietrich. “In 1926, Houdini went to Washington and asked to have laws
passed against the spiritualists, and he did not win the case, because
they decided they would claim to be a religion. That was the year he
died – so he did not get a chance to go back and prove that they were
not really a religion.”

Because he was both an escapologist and an enigma, writers seem
compelled to unpick more secrets with each new biography they write. In
1993, in her powerfully analytical work The Life and Many Deaths of
Harry Houdini, the British writer Ruth Brandon suggested he was
impotent, to explain why there was no patter of tiny Houdinis in the
marital home (Kalush and Sloman disagree, saying it was Bess who was
unable to have children). Three years later, Kenneth Silverman revealed
Houdini hadn’t been as chaste as his sickly notes to Bess imply: he
had had an affair with Charmian London, widow of Jack London, the
novelist he had befriended in 1915; in her diaries, Charmian dubbed him
her “Magic Man” and “Magic Lover”. And now Kalush and Sloman
appear to have raked through every known Houdini archive to produce the
most comprehensive and controversial biography ever written about the
man, with its contention that he was a spy who may have been murdered
by a cult.

What next for the Houdini revisionism industry? Is it really so
unrealistic to predict an obscenely popular novel, The Houdini Code,
alleging that the great man is tenuously connected in tantalising ways
to the world’s greatest mysteries, from Lord Lucan to the tooth
fairy?

Houdini promised his wife that if he died before her, he would try to
contact her from “the other side”. The theory was that if anyone
could free himself from the bonds of death, he could. As far as we
know, Bess never heard from him. But that doesn’t stop the
biographies and the theories from multiplying, a whole century after
his heyday. While he may not have found an afterlife beyond the veil,
we may never be able to escape from Harry Houdini here on Earth.

{The Secret Life of Houdini is published in the US by Atria Books on
October 31, price $27.95. It is expected to be published around the
same time in the UK.}