What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see the name Houdini? Unless you’ve researched his life, it’s probably his famous feats of escaping from seemingly impossible situations. Getting out of a straightjacket, handcuffs or a sealed box underwater is pretty memorable stuff, after all.
I was surprised to find that there was actually much more to Houdini’s life and career than this, which brought up an interesting point: not even one of the world’s greatest magicians could control what people thought of him, or how we remember him now.
So why do we think we can control what people think about us?
Houdini the magician
Just so we’re on the same page, let’s have a quick run-down of Houdini’s famous feats and what most of us remember him for.
From his debut with a circus at age nine, Houdini continued performing in magic, circus and vaudeville circuits until his death at age 52. He impressed people with magic tricks and getting out of handcuffs until someone wise suggested he focus exclusively on escape acts. He later moved on to escaping from jails, ropes, chains and straightjackets.
He eventually added an element of danger by escaping from tanks and bottles full of water, sealed caskets and even from being buried alive.
So that’s the Houdini we know. But what about the things that get glossed over in Houdini’s history?
The (not so) secret life of Houdini
Houdini actually did quite a few other notable things in his time. They’re not exactly secrets, but his magic and escape acts have certainly overshadowed most of these.
1. De-bunking spiritualists
Houdini spent a lot of time and effort pointing out people who were faking supernatural powers to dupe audience members. He lectured against bogus mediums, dragged them before courts and published pamphlets exposing their ‘powers’ as simply trickery.
He even conducted ‘séances’ of his own, with his wife (and assistant) acting as the medium. Houdini would listen to local gossip, examine family bibles, take notes at graveyards and collect information about people who regularly attended séances in towns nearby. Using a combination of clever trickery and information collecting, Mr and Mrs Houdini successfully convinced many people of their ‘powers,’ exposing the falseness of other mediums in the process.
Houdini was a keen aviator, and even attempted to be the first person to fly a plane in Australia, taking his own bi-plane with him for his Australian tour in 1910. He learned to fly in Germany, under the condition that he train German pilots after he was qualified. After realizing he had trained enemy pilots for World War I, he regretted the decision, and never flew again following his record attempt in Australia.
3. Silent film acting
Clearly, there was a lot more to Houdini than the great escape artist most of us know him as.
But this incomplete picture of his life seems even more disappointing when we realize it’s not how he wanted to be remembered.
Houdini the escape artist
I found a couple of examples of Houdini’s wishes about what people would think of him being thwarted, and no doubt there are plenty more.
Firstly, Houdini was not the first person to fly a plane in Australia, though he was mistakenly reported by some as having achieved the record of the first Australian flight. He was actually beaten by two others: Fred Custance, who flew in Adelaide the day before Houdini’s flight at Diggers Rest, and Colin Defries who flew for just five seconds in Sydney the year before.
Houdini reportedly told reporters before his flight that although people would forget his work as a magician and an escape artist, they would not forget his success as an aviator.
Well, we know how that turned out, don’t we? Not only did he not achieve his dream, he is remembered for his famous escapes today.
Secondly, even during his lifetime Houdini struggled to convince people to see him in a particular light.
Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, was utterly convinced that Houdini was using actual magic rather than simple trickery. Doyle believed he was “a medium who was using his psychic powers to make a fortune.” Houdini himself attempted to convince Doyle otherwise, but he would have none of it.
Considering Houdini’s work to call out fraud psychics, this must have been incredibly frustrating for him.
We have no control
What can we take away from this story? While it’s not the most positive of tales, there are definitely some lessons to be learned and frustration to be saved if we take notes.
1. You can’t control what people think
Even if they’re thinking thoughts about you. If Houdini couldn’t do it, why would we be able to?
People will think what they want, and it’s a waste of our time and energy to try to convince them otherwise. If you’re spending your time on important work instead, you’ll have a better chance of influencing others’ opinions of you.
2. Actions speak louder than words
Regardless of Houdini’s insistence that he was not using real magic, Arthur Conan Doyle made up his own mind based on his interpretation of Houdini’s actions.
And no matter what Houdini said people would remember him for, or the vast variety of things he did during his life, we continue to view his escapes as his most memorable actions.
So think about what actions you’re taking today, and how others will view you as a result. Are your actions telling a different story to your words?
3. Aim to help others
Houdini was a helper. He brought entertainment to the masses with his escape acts, helped audiences avoid being take advantage of by fraudulent psychics, and published books and pamphlets dedicated to exposing trickery used to dupe unsuspecting citizens.
If whatever you’re doing helps you focus on helping others, what people remember about you won’t matter much. The people you help will know what your contribution was, and you won’t need to waste your time convincing others to change their minds.