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Do A Houdini

Posted by Admin on February 12, 2022

When you do a Houdini or pull a Houdini it means you have left the scene — you know, disappeared — or somehow managed to wiggle out of a bad situation. It’s obvious this is a reference to the great magician Hungarian-American illusionist, stunt performer, and mysteriarch Harry Houdini (24 March 1874 – 31 October 1925) who could break locks, escape from submerged boxes, get out of straightjackets, slip out of water torture cells, walk through brick walls, make elephants disappear, and more.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: Harry Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz, son of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecilia Steiner, who reworked the name of his idol, French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and anglicized his given name to be more American thereby becoming Harry Houdini. Although he was born in Budapest, he claimed he was born in Appleton (WI) where he was raised.

The question is whether the idiom came about after Harry Houdini’s passing or if it came about during his lifetime.

Imagine Idiomation’s surprise when the following was found in Volume 75 of Collier’s National Weekly magazine for 18 April 1925 in an article titled “When Magic Didn’t Work” written by Houdini! But before getting to the article, the publishers inserted a large announcement that began thusly:

“Stop payment on that check. It did a Houdini!” Mr. Houdini wired us recently from Pittsburgh. The wizard (he modestly says he isn’t one) had been robbed!

This begged the question: Did the expression exist prior to the publisher’s note in Collier’s National Weekly magazine? The answer to that question is YES.

In Boy’s Life: The Boy Scouts’ Magazine, a short story by New York City author and teacher Wilbur S. Boyer titled “Music Hath Charms” was published in the November 1918 edition. At the time, Woodrow Wilson was the Honorary President, and Theodore Roosevelt was an Honorary Vice-President of the Boy Scouts of America as were William H. Taft and Daniel Carter Beard. Daniel Carter Beard was also a member of the Editorial Board.

Placing one end of the long scantling under the edge of the roof, he grasped the lower end and lifted and pulled the scantling towards an upright position. He was delighted to find that with his leverage he was able to raise the roof away from the side walls until he had a space of over a foot clear.

“Oh, joy, oh, boy! Where do we go from here?” he chuckled. “Here’s where I do a Houdini. Hey, Caruso?”

Mention of the dog made him pause.

Years earlier, the general public and the media as well as the illusionist himself referred to Harry Houdini as the Handcuff King and Jail Breaker. In fact, in an article titled, “A Mechanical Wizard” published in Volume 8, Number 3 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine published in March 1906, the article described him in this way but with the additional of the word ‘international.’ The news story reported that Harry Houdini had performed an escape in two minutes from a jail cell at a United Stated jail in Washington, broken into a second jail where his clothes were locked up, dressed, then proceeded to release all the prisoners that had been moved to the ground floor to leave him to perform his escape in the first place. The warden was gobsmacked that in the space of twenty-one minutes, Harry Houdini had succeeded so spectacularly.

It was, without a doubt, a legendary feat to escape from such a cell even the warden believed was escape-proof.

We know from Houdini’s biography that he began performing magic tricks in public when he was 17 years old, back in 1891, along with his friend “Dash.” They called themselves “The Brothers Houdini.” A year later, Harry fell in love with a dancer named Bess, they married, and Harry and Bess established a new magic act together as “The Houdinis” with Beth acting as Harry’s assistant.

In 1899, Hungarian-American vaudeville impressario and theater manager Martin Beck (31 July 1868 – 16 November 1940) took Harry Houdini under his wing, and by 1904 Houdini earned the title of Handcuff King when, in an hour, he got out of an escape-proof set of handcuffs that had been fashioned by a blacksmith in England who had devoted five years to creating the unbreakable handcuffs.

It was two years after this that the Washington jail event happened.

On 5 Januay 1907, in the “Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Twelve Months Commencing 1 January 1906 and ending 5 January 1907” the term was used in what appears to be the first published version of the term.

Alderman Fred James Kneeland spoke eloquently about the report of the committee titled, “County of Suffok House of Correction, Deer Island” and had questions about the use of the word escape in the report. Within his statement, the following was spoken by Alderman Kneeland:

I remember quite distinctly that the County Commissioners went to the Suffolk County Jail sometime during the past summer and it was decided by the County Commissioners that the Committee on Prisons, when they made their report, would give all the information to the public that was necessary. On pages 5 and 6 of this report we find “Suffolk County Jail.” There is nothing said on either of those pages about escaped prisoners whatsoever. The returns are signed by Fred H. Seavey, Sheriff. So far as my memory serves me, the two gentlemen spoken of by Alderman Linehan were fetched back to the jail; but in the case of the man who walked out, who did the Houdini, as the Alderman says, so far as I know, that man has yet to come back to Mr. Seavey. If this is going to be a public document, is going down into history as a report of the Committee on Prisons, and is going to be the official statement of Mr. Fred H. Seavey, I at least would like to ask Alderman Baldwin why some note has not been taken of the escaped prisoners at Charles Street Jail, and whether or not all the prisoners who have escaped have been returned to the jail?

The Chairman whom Alderman Kneeland addressed was Tilton Stuart Bell. Alderman Baldwin was John Edward Baldwin, and Alderman Linehan was Frank J. Linehan.

Idiomation pegs the idiom to 1906 — after the Washington jail break and before the Boston City Council meeting of 5 January 1907 — although who to credit for the idiom is unknown. Idiomation knows it was an expression that was understood by the Boston (MA) City Council members at the time so the idiom was part of every day language at this point.

That being said, the idiom obviously it met with Harry Houdini’s blessing for him to use the idiom himself in 1925.

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