When you think of magic, images of grand spectacle and illusions come to mind. However when you think of magicians only one name comes up and he stands alone. His death almost a century ago has done nothing to stop the legend of Harry Houdini. He said, “ No prison can hold me; no hand or leg Irons or steel locks can shackle me. No ropes or chains can keep me from my freedom.” This quote surprisingly enough isn’t found on the footsteps of the Statue of Liberty or at Angel Island. He was a man who represented the people of the era; his hair rising mind-blowing escapes all helped immigrants and the oppressed connect with him. Immigrants had to undergo massive obstacles everyday. They had to leave their homes to go in search of a dream in new lands and found nothing but prejudice and factory work. To really understand who Harry Houdini was we need to look past his rags to riches story and his escape from poverty, to find the reality of his identity. Why did this man identify so much with the people of his era? Were Houdini’s escapes just a metaphor for himself and immigrants? He was a son, husband, and a source of awe and entertainment to others. His tricks still, today, stretch the human imagination to its limits so much so that some magicians cannot till this day fully replicate his feats. Even though Harry Houdini came to this country as a poor immigrant, his relentless drive and devotion transformed him and his spectacle into something that surpassed the imagination and the realm of magic and vaudeville.
Earlier generations had a better connection to Houdini, for them he clearly stood for the American dream. He was one of the many astonishing immigrants who arrived in the masses from Europe. He arrived with nothing and out of nothing built himself up. Houdini fell under the same category as the many entertainers of his period like Charlie Chaplin. However Houdini was much more than a performer he was part magician part illusionist and part unknown. As an incoming immigrant to the U.S, Erich Weiss’s childhood was a difficult one. “Between 1880 and 1925, over 25 million people came to the United States. The Golden Land to escape poverty and persecution”(Lalicki). Houdini was part of these 25 million; born in Budapest, Houdini arrived in Appleton, Wisconsin after his father was hired as a Rabbi. As fate may have it his father lost his job for being too orthodox. This spiraled the family into poverty. His father never again was able to maintain a stable job. After moving from location to location in search of work, they finally settled in New York. He worked as a newsboy and in a necktie factory with his father. “ Erich still found time and energy to box in the 115 pound weight class, to swim in the east River, and to run distance races from the Pastime Athletic Club” (Lalicki). Author Alice Cary describes, Erich was slowly but inevitably finding his way in his new country. He longed to assimilate American values. He was happy to have left Europe an its oppression and poverty in search of freedom. He also wanted freedom from the worst sides of the New World he was entering. He desired to escape the factory assembly line, the long hours of sweatshops, poverty of tenements, and the escape from the slums. His father’s life itself was something that Houdini yearned to escape. His death defying acts represented many things and one was freedom from his father’s financial failure. Houdini’s father died in 1892 from cancer. This heightened his yearning of freedom. “Erich promised his father to always provide for his mother”(PBS). This promise to me became a shackle that Houdini, rather than liberate himself of became obsessed with.
“He was a symbol of the escape from the figurative shackles that immigrants sought to shed”(Rapaport). Like them, he had known poverty. This would influence and fuel his entire career. Harry’s work ethic and dedication proved to be the reason for his overall success as a magician and...
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