By Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva
Harry Houdini was one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. Mysterious and larger-than-life, he mesmerized audiences with spectacular acts that blended danger with a showman’s flair. Though little remembered today, Houdini had a long association with Niagara Falls that was just as mysterious as any of his celebrated performances.
Harry Houdini was born Erich Weiss to a poor Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1876. He took his immortal stage name in honour of his idol, the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. In time, however, he surpassed the achievements and renown of Houdin and indeed all other magicians of the day to become the greatest escape-artist and illusionist the world had ever seen.
Houdini’s life, like the acts he performed on stage, was full of drama and shrouded in mystery. Some claim, for example, that he was a spy in the employ of Scotland Yard. Others, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes and at one point a close friend of Houdini, claimed that he was a medium who used supernatural abilities to perform his magic acts. Certainly, the magician kept his stunts a closely guarded secret and often outwardly lied about his background to retain an air of the unknown about himself.
The great magician visited Niagara Falls several times with his beloved wife, Bess, and upon forming the Houdini Picture Corporation in 1919 made sure that the first film he made would feature the Falls. Filming of The Man From Beyond, which Houdini not only produced but also starred in, took place at Niagara Falls in May of 1921. One of the most celebrated scenes in the movie sees Houdini swimming through the raging rapids to rescue the heroine from certain death. It was a stunning and death-defying performance, the equal of any of his stagecraft stunts for sheer drama.
What the audiences didn’t realise was that Houdini’s audacious swim was nothing more than a Hollywood effect; Houdini was in no danger and the swim through the rapids certainly did not test his physical mettle since he strapped into a leather harness that slid on a cable and made the stunt effortless. Still, there was something fascinating about watching the undisputed master of magic onscreen with a location so shrouded in mystical allure.
Houdini died a mere five years later on October 31, 1926 at Grace Hospital in Detroit. Stories that his death was the result of a failed stage act or of being punched in the stomach are false; in truth, he died of peritonitis, internal poisoning resulting from a ruptured appendix. Many people find it oddly appropriate that the world’s greatest magician should die on Halloween.
In his last will and testament, Houdini bequeathed his magic paraphernalia to his brother Theodore, who had followed him into the industry and was known professionally as Hardeen. Theodore was free to make use of the items, but was left with strict instructions that they be burned upon his retirement so that no one would discover the secrets of their stagecraft. For reasons unknown, Theodore did not follow Houdini’s implicit instructions. Instead, the effects were put into storage and, for a while at least, forgotten. Then, in 1967, the collection of magic items were re-discovered and put up for sale. Houdini must have been rolling over in his grave. The secrets of his life’s work would be revealed, and the legacy of mystery and marvel that he had worked so hard to preserve would be dashed.
After learning of the sale from an article appearing in the Toronto Star, entrepreneur Henry Muller saw an opportunity to combine the timeless reputation of Houdini with the kitsch of Niagara Falls and make a fortune. Muller managed to acquire the collection and then purchased a former meat packing plant on Centre Street near Niagara’s tourist core at Clifton Hill to serve as their new home. After months of renovations on June 6, 1968, the doors to the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame were swung open to the eager public.
Muller and his investors were pleased with the reception, but it seems as though a long-dead Houdini was not. He let his displeasure be known early and frequently. During the first year of the museum’s operation, there were a series of six mysterious fires in the building, a robbery, as well as a freak accident in which one of the museum directors walked through a plate glass window and died an excruciating death. This string of inexplicable misfortune caused many to speculate that the museum was cursed, and if indeed it was, the logical choice for the offending spirit was Harry Houdini himself. For a man who had cheated death so many times and had developed an avowed interest in mysticism, voicing his anger from beyond the grave didn’t seem impossible or even extraordinary.
The curse seemed to follow the museum even after it moved to the 19th-century Victoria Park train station atop Clifton Hill in 1972. Nevertheless, the Houdini Magic Hall of Fame remained one of Niagara Falls’ most popular attractions.
In a spectacle worthy of Houdini, the museum came to a dramatic end on the night of April 30, 1995. A fire broke out within the building and began racing through the exhibit halls, spreading so fast that responding fire fighters were powerless to stop their relentless advance. Hundreds gathered to watch the inferno. By morning, the building had been gutted and most of its contents destroyed. It seemed that Houdini’s wishes had finally been carried out. The cause of the fire has never been determined, leading some to even blame the deceased magician himself.
Today, Ripley’s Four Dimensional Movie Theatre stands on the grounds of the former Houdini Magic Hall of Fame and Niagara Falls’ connection with the master magician has been largely forgotten.
For more dramatic history tales associated with Niagara Falls, please see Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva’s Niagara: Daredevil’s, Danger and Extraordinary Stories (Folklore Publishing).